Terry McMillen:  Privateer Sailing NHRA Waters

By Richard Kratz

Photos by Richard Kratz, Roger Richards, and courtesy of Terry McMillen Racing

In professional drag racing, like most motorsports, you have the big teams and you have the independent teams. In Formula1 racing, the smaller teams are known as privateers. “Privateer” though has a more ancient meaning from the age of sail: “An armed ship owned and officered by a private individual authorized for use in war.”


Privateers didn’t have ships as big or as heavily gunned as the big warships of major nations. They didn’t have access to as many ports or as many resources either. Yet, the mere sight of a ship closing in flying a Jolly Roger flag struck fear in the heart of sailors everywhere.


The concept of the privateer, punching well above their weight, making do with what they had on hand to capture victories unexpected -- this image embodies Terry McMillen and his NHRA Top Fuel crew and team.


Born in Chicago, IL, as the first of eight children, Terry grew up in tough times and places. Mom was only 5’ 5” but Terry says she could cut a path through trouble to get to Terry, assuming he wasn’t the source of the trouble to begin with.


Terry’s father was a truck driver and he worked on cars in the garage on weekends. The McMillens built a two-and-half car garage and Terry grew up working alongside his dad. Terry learned how to build an engine, paint a car, whatever was needed. Terry was mechanically inclined and loved cars, so the die was pretty much cast as to his future.


In an era pre-Internet people read newspapers. Terry’s first job was delivering newspapers. He got up early to get his papers and travel his route delivering them. There was this one customer that had a yellow ’32 Ford in his yard and Terry liked that car. It had a HEMI engine, twin carbs, old school slicks and it just appealed to Terry. Whenever possible, Terry would hand the newspaper to the gentleman who owned the car just so that they could talk about the car.


One day the owner called Terry into the house and said, “You want this car?” Terry replied that he did. So, the man told Terry, here’s the deal, I want this much money for the car and I’ll take this amount as monthly “lay away” payments. Terry said, it’s a deal.


At that time there were two major newspapers in Chicago, the Times and the Tribune. Terry picked up a second route and earned money twice as fast by working twice as hard. He wasn’t even 16 yet when he bought the car. Together, Terry and his dad got the car running. They took the car to US 30 Dragstrip in Gary, Indiana, and right away Terry knew that this was the life he wanted.

The Terry McMillen Racing Amalie Oil Gator Top Fuel car launching at the 2020 NHRA Winterationals.


While cars were a part of his growing up -- dad had a ’53 Mercury with a nice flathead with a cam and other upgrades, a ’60 wagon with a 283 in it, etc. -- no one in the family raced. Terry says they still don’t. This leap, this path, it was just for this one McMillen sibling.


Around 1972 Terry moved on to a front engine Super Comp dragster, then a 1968 Camaro. Bracket racing puts a premium on consistency over sheer speed, and that suited Terry just fine. Persistent consistency fitted Terry to a “T”. These days we’d have to say that flipping that around to “Consistently persistent” describes the modern Terry McMillen.


In 1978 Terry made a big decision and a big move: it was time for him to go Pro. He purchased a nitro Funny Car for racing in the IHRA. Terry ran a handful of races a year as he learned the ropes of nitro racing, showing big progress over two years. Before Terry got a chance at a third year, the IHRA suddenly dropped nitro Funny Cars as a class.


Terry converted his Funny Car to alcohol power and did a little racing over the next couple of years. But Terry had come to realize that the old racing adage, “The faster you go the more money you need,” was the truth. Terry needed more funding to continue his career.


Terry looked at successful drag racing stars, like Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and Don "the Snake" Prudhomme and thought, man, how do they get that money, those sponsors? Terry knew he had to up his skills if he wanted to level up. He set about working on his marketing skills while racing a few nitro races a year. He wrote proposals, researched potential sponsors, sent out his proposals -- usually never hearing anything back. He had no success for what seemed like a long time but he didn’t give up.


Eventually his hard work paid off and Terry landed his first major sponsor, Mitel, a company in the telecommunications business. Terry considered his options and decided to run IHRA full time in the Alcohol Funny Car class. Terry spent the next several years happily running his Mitel-sponsored race car in IHRA competition.


Life is full of surprises, some good, some bad. Life sprung a surprise on Terry in 1999 when Mitel was abruptly sold and he lost his sponsorship. But there’s another well-known adage, “When life closes one door, another door will open.”


One day during the 2000 season Terry ran into the folks from Amalie Oil at a track in Illinois. Amalie is one of the original oil companies, founded back in 1903. They pioneered something that we car enthusiasts take for granted today, multi-viscosity oil, when they introduced their 10W-30 motor oil. [Editor’s note: We love car related trivia, so here’s a tidbit for you, Amalie named their new oil, “Imperial 10W-30,” a very 1950’s sounding brand name don’t you think?]

Terry McMillen and Rob Wendland discussing the tune for the race car before Q1 of the 2020 Winternationals.


Terry and the Amalie folks got to talking and they gave Terry some cases of oil. If you’re a racer you know that free parts or supplies are as good as money because the cash you save can be used elsewhere in your budget.


Terry had a good impression of the people he’d met and their company. So, the next time Terry ran his car he paid to have a big custom-made Amalie decal on the side of the car. Amalie noticed that and the conversation that started at the track progressed, the phone started ringing, and upper management at Amalie took an interest. Terry and Amalie put together a program that has proved to be one of the longer lived and most successful in the sport. The Terry McMillen Racing (TMR) and Amalie association has been together for twenty years and Terry told us that it has been renewed for another four years.


If you know Terry you can see why this partnership has lasted so long. It’s because he puts his all into racing and into supporting his sponsors. We don’t mean just showing up at corporate events and shaking hands, or smiling for photos with fans with the sponsor’s name on his shirt. He does that very well of course. But, we know from our involvement with the automotive aftermarket, that Terry uses the vast network of people and goodwill that he has built over the decades to jump in and help his sponsors with their business. He makes introductions, he listens, and he thinks. When he hears about an opportunity that might benefit a sponsor he jumps on it and ropes it in. Beyond that, he creates opportunities when he can. Racing at the top level is more than just driving a car, it’s a business and Terry has a great acumen for business.


He’s one of the good guys, a straight shooter whose word is his bond, someone that inspires trust and confidence. Terry feels like he’s a part of Amalie and in turn he makes Amalie feel like they’re a part of TMR. Unlike most racers, Terry’s name doesn’t appear on his race car. He feels that, one, putting his name on the car would take up room that is put to better use for the unique ‘Gator graphics, and, two, it’s not about him -- it’s about the team, the race crew, the sponsors, and the fans.

Evolution of the Gator graphics for Terry McMillen. Here we see Terry’s IHRA Alcohol Funny Car in yellow with Amalie logo with a Gator. Terry’s first car, a ’32 Ford with a HEMI was yellow and Terry had a fondness for that color for a while.

The Gator grows. An early version of the Gator jaw graphic theme. The logo still has the Gator and now the front half of the car is what will become the iconic Gator design.

Enter the Gator. Finally, the Gator is full grown on the race car. We don’t know about you, but we miss drag cars with identity on the NHRA Pro circuit.


And speaking of that famous Gator theme on Terry’s dragster, where did it come from? Well, Amalie is headquartered in Tampa, Florida. In that area, the University of Florida Gators are a big deal. One day early in their relationship Terry was in Tampa and talking with the folks at Amalie. They talked about how to make their race car stand out. Terry was thinking about all of those famous drag race cars like “Snake” and “Mongoose.” Somehow, the idea of a Gator graphic came up and the rest is history. We wonder if the Little Richard song came up in the conversation, “You got to do the Alligator.”


Eventually, the IHRA dropped their alcohol classes and focused on Sportsman racing. Terry tested a few times in NHRA nitro just to see if they could compete at that level. He wasn’t sure; it seemed like a big step.


“You look around and you see Don Schumacher Racing, John Force Racing, Kalitta Motorsports,” Terry said. “And you go, wow, how are we going to compete?”


But TMR made the transition. They knew they were underdogs, but they started to build the program that grew into the success it is today.


Terry says he’ll never forget the day he went into the DSR shop for the first time. Terry points out that Don Schumacher has been very kind and helpful to him, giving him advice and pointing out things that he needed to do. But when Terry walked into Don’s shop and saw all that they have, a drag racing factory that makes its own parts, all of the parts and machines available to them, he says it felt defeating. Again, how are we going to compete with this?


But Terry persisted, the team learned to repair parts that the big teams could afford to replace instead of repair. Terry said, “We’re not going to fail. We’re going to do the best we can and make it work.”


TMR crew chief, Rob Wendland, plugged into the race car’s electronics. Terry credits Rob as a major factor in the team’s success. Note that in this photo taken on the first day of qualifying for the 2020 Winternationals Rob’s left arm is in a sling. Just three weeks before the season opener Rob had to have emergency shoulder surgery. Terry says even one-handed Rob’s the best there is. Put a hook on that hand and Rob fits right in with the pirate theme of our story.


Terry says things really turned around when Rob Wendland came onboard as crew chief. “Rob is very hands on,” says Terry. “He can do anything on the car, everything on the car.”


Part of the turnaround involved moving the team to Indianapolis. It was a scary move according to Terry. He had this shop he already owned and it was paid for, but now he’s paying rent in Indy. But Terry says it’s all really paid off; it was the right thing to do.


There was a point in Terry’s life when he was going to walk away from it all. That was when his son passed away. Jason McMillen had finished school, was working, and Terry was enjoying watching Jason making licensing passes in Terry’s old Funny Car, he was only two passes away from his license. But Jason had a growing issue with being short of breath. He went to see a doctor and was told that he had a bad aortic valve and surgery was needed.


“He had the surgery,” says Terry. “And the next day, just like you and I are talking right now, we’re talking and Jason went into full cardiac arrest.”


The tragic loss of his son made Terry want to walk away from everything. He was ready to give up racing, leave the life. But Terry’s friends and Jason’s friends said, no, you can’t do that, Jason wouldn’t want you to. Terry and Jason’s friends all came around to the shop, everyone pitched in to work on the car, and (we think) work on Terry as well. It’s not right when parents lose a child; it makes everything in the universe feel wrong, upended. How can this happen, how can such a good young man die when so many rotten people live into old age? It’s a question with no answer.


Pain and grief are like a backwards-running river. Right after a loss, the pain is the huge delta of a mighty river; you can’t see how you’re ever going to get over this massive flow of grief that is washing over you. But Terry’s and his son’s friends helped show the way. You have to get on with life, you’re not alone here, you have other people who need you. Slowly, you move upriver, and the flow of pain gets smaller, the banks of the river (relief) get closer. You never completely leave the water, the loss is with you forever, but eventually you get into shallow water and can move on.


Terry, Cori and their son Cameron at their wedding held in the spectacular Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas, Nevada. One week later Terry won his first NHRA national event race. Talk about your good luck charms.


Terry has had a couple of great years in NHRA lately. In 2017 he married his longtime girlfriend, Cori Wickler, with their son Cameron in attendance, in a beautiful ceremony in The Valley of Fire. Just one week later Terry won his first NHRA Top Fuel national race in the penultimate round at the Las Vegas race. In 2018, Terry won the biggest race of them all, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.


We asked Terry about resources, sort of the elephant in the room when you’re a smaller team. Terry isn’t worried about it. In fact, he thinks that having fewer resources is part of what makes his team so great. It’s the not the easy way and the victories are even sweeter because of that.


Terry says that he has a philosophy, one that he has preached all of his life. “There are many, many times I should have walked away,” he says. “At one point we were going through so many parts, I'd have new parts arrive at the track and before we even left they were destroyed; so many bills, so many parts. But my motto is, ‘Persistence outweighs resistance.’ You’re going to beat your head against a wall at times in life, you can’t see the way forward. Some people give up, others keep beating at that wall. If you persist, you’re going to one day notice that there are 50 doors suddenly available to you on the left and the right. You didn’t see them before, but you persisted long enough that they were revealed to you.”


What’s the future hold for Terry McMillen Racing? Terry told us that the team will be debuting a new race chassis. If things go according to plan, the new chassis will debut, appropriately, at the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, Florida.


Smaller team, taking on the big ships with fewer guns, but more esprit de corps, doing more with less, fighting with fewer resources but more fervor. We opened this story talking about privateers, can you see why? Terry McMillen, drag racing pirate. 



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