No matter how old we get, no matter how much the stress of being an adult gets to us, we all have that one thing that immediately transports us back to our childhood.

Maybe it is a trip to the local park. Perhaps it is the smell of a campfire, or the taste of your favorite ice cream, or the cool breeze against your face on a hot summer day.

Or, just maybe, it is the smell of nitro. The rush of adrenaline when 10,000 horses roar to life. The unmistakable earth-shake at the hit of a nitro-powered engine leaving the starting line.

Clay Millican knows that feeling. And he knows it well.

He can still remember the days watching his heroes spin tires on dragstrips across North America. He still recalls the excitement, the drama, the personalities and the speed. Oh yes, the speed.

And with the turning of the calendar, Millican prepares for a milestone season that seemed unfathomable when he was just a boy as he prepares for his 20th year behind the wheel of the very car that Millican still looks at with child-like wonder.

20 years as driver of a Top Fuel dragster.

“I still love it,” said Millican from his home in Tennessee. “I’m going on 20 years stomping on that loud pedal and, for me, it still gets me excited, and I still love my job as much as when I started.”

Millican is gearing up for his 20th season at the highest level of the sport, coming off of a season he could only have dreamed of when the year began. Staring at a disheartening 0-for-254 mark in his career with the National Hot Rod Association at the midway point of the season, Millican final broke through with his very first NHRA victory at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol in June. That win propelled Millican into the Countdown to the Championship and an eventual sixth place finish in the Top Fuel championship standings.

Not only that, Millican was No. 1 qualifier five times in 2017 and set the national elapsed time record in the class at 3.631 seconds at Chicago in September.

Coming off of a career year, and with his entire team and sponsorship situation unchanged, Millican enters the upcoming season with great optimism as he gets ready for testing in the coming weeks.

“Everything is good and we are all settled and ready to go. It’s just so exciting right now. The vinyl is going on the trailers, they will have a new look, the car is getting new vinyl, and we are getting ready to go,” Millican said. “I hate the offseason. I hate the cold weather. But this upcoming week, everything is going to be abuzz. Everybody is in the shop working and getting everything ready to go and head out west where it is warmer.

“That’s an exciting time for me. When we finally get it all buttoned up, and the trucks are headed down the driveway, and we are ready for testing. I love testing. A lot of people, they’re like, ‘ah man, I have to stay and test.’ Well, I love it. Because, for me, I got into this because I wanted to drive a Top Fuel car. When I first started, it was just let me drive one of these things. And so when we go testing, that’s what I get to do. I get to drive. It’s so fun to put that helmet on, pull that fuel lever and that thing starts running on nitro. There is just nothing on the planet like it.”

While much of Millican’s operation will remain unchanged entering the upcoming season, there is one thing that will be a bit different. Driving most of his career in Brad Hadman-built cars, Millican and the Stringer Performance team will be switching to a brand new Schumacher chassis for the Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster.

The team will test the new car for the first time at the winter warm-up here in a few weeks in Phoenix.

“We are very excited to go test out our new Schumacher chassis. That will be something quite a bit different for me. I have no doubt that the car is going to be wonderful and work fine, but the majority of my career has been spent in a Brad Hadman car,” Millican said. “With Brad retiring this past year, we had to find ourselves a different chassis to run and (crew chief) David Grubnic and Mac Savage, they went to a couple of different places and made the decision to get a Schumacher car, so that is what we’re doing.

“Now, before anybody asks, it is not a canopy car. It will be a traditional-style dragster with just the tall windshield. So that is essentially the only change. All of the people are coming back, so we should be a pretty cohesive unit just like last year which is pretty exciting.

“We ran so well last year for a small team. And it is encouraging and exciting to know that we’re going to come into this season with a car that should come right off the trailer ready to win races.”

So the question remains, for a smaller team with a fraction of the budget of some of the super teams in the sport, what is the biggest driving force behind Millican’s success? That is easy – the tuning prowess of crew chief David Grubnic.

Grubnic has long been coveted for his tuning abilities, and that is evident in the wins, No. 1 spots and national records taken from the Schumacher’s and Force’s of the world. He is Millican’s ace in the hole, and he couldn’t imagine starting the year with a better person in his corner.

“That man does not get enough credit. Everything we do, as far as how we run our car, is David Grubnic,” Millican said. “There is no model, so to speak, or remnants of somebody else’s tune-up. Grubby runs our car differently than everybody else. I’m going to give you one of his lines, he says, ’90 percent follow the 10 percent.’ And from day one he has said we’re going to be the 10 percent.

“It is pretty much the standard out there; everybody runs an AJ clone setup. That’s the thing. That is the 90 percent. Everybody kind of runs their car similarly and they follow a group or a combination. Well, our car is definitely not part of that 90 percent.”

While that different way of thinking gives Millican a discernible advantage over the competition, it also has him looking over his shoulder at some of the bigger teams envious of that success. But that, he says, is out of his control. All he can do is concern himself with the here and now – and that means entering the year with one of the best crew chiefs in the business in his corner.

“There is no question that our car, at the moment, is the quickest car in the world. And with all of the big teams and with the big dollars out there, yeah, it’s a scary feeling thinking that somebody might come grab your people,” Millican said. “But we’ve got a unique situation in that everybody is rowing this boat in the same direction. We’ve all got a common goal to be that team that doesn’t have that mega-budget that still goes out and wins races and wins a championship. I mean, we got that elusive race win this year, and we finished number six in the points. I think that is pretty impressive for a team of our size.”

But end-of-season goals are still 11 months away. Right now Millican is focused on getting ready for the season-opener at Pomona in February and learning to walk before he runs in his new chassis.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t have a little fun. After all, it seems like only yesterday when Millican got
behind the wheel for the very first time in May of 1998. Who knew all those years ago just how far this crazy ride would take him.

“I actually take what Grubby asks me to do in testing as a challenge. He is 100 percent serious working on whatever it is we are testing. If he tells me to go 330 feet, I want to look at that computer screen and see exactly where I shut the throttle off at. How close to 330 did I get,” Millican said. “When he says take it to half-track, did I shut it off at 660? As many runs as I have made, I try to perfect whatever it is that I’m doing, even if it is something as simple as getting to 330.

“Whatever it is that needs to be done, I’m going to get it done. I just love this ride, and I still love the challenge of doing the best job that I possibly can when I’m in that car. I love it."