Clay and Donna Millican

Strains of the Tennessee anthem “Rocky Top” had floated over the hills, and the crowd at Bristol Dragway had dissipated just as quickly.
NHRA Chaplain Craig Garland had brought Clay and Donna Millican plates of food – because, Millican said, “he knew that we had been nonstop.” He offered encouraging words, and probably shook his head that the Top Fuel racer was chomping on a bologna sandwich. (“He brought this wonderful food over and I was already eating a bologna sandwich, which is towards the top of the list for me, anyway. Tennessee boy likes him some bologna.”) Garland bid them goodnight.
Stars were twinkling overhead, like Dalton Millican was winking down at his dad on this bittersweet Fathers Day Clay Millican hadn’t wanted even to acknowledge in the first place.
And Clay and Donna Millican were alone in their small camper trailer there in the parking area at the NASCAR track at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But they really weren’t alone last June 18 following the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
In that still moment, they had the love of son Cale, who also missed his brother who lost his life at age 22 nearly two years before that in a motorcycle accident near their home at Drummonds, Tenn. They had the Wally trophy that represented 19 years of perseverance Clay Millican never had needed before through a record 51 IHRA Top Fuel victories and six straight series championships. It was a lasting memento of what he called “a win that will never be topped for me.”
Moreover, they had the love of hundreds of well-wishers who filled up their phone voicemail boxes and sent a surge of text and e-mail messages.

Clay Millican celebrates the "win that will never be topped for me" on Father's Day of 2017. Millican's emotional first NHRA Top Fuel victory came two years after losing 22-year-old son Dalton.

“I was amazed at how many messages I had. I had over 400 text messages. My voicemail filled up. What Donna and I did – she had a lot of messages – but we literally just started scrolling through, looking at all the wonderful things we got from people that we’ve known a long time, people maybe we haven’t heard from in forever,” Clay Millican said. “A lot of messages that I have no idea how these people even got my phone number. Extremely touching. Some of them were incredible. Friends of Dalton, they knew what it meant more so than just the average, because without a doubt it was a win that will never be topped for me.”
Pro Stock Motorcycle 2016 champion Jerry Savoie spoke for thousands, maybe a million or more, when he said, “If you don’t like Clay Millican, there’s something wrong with you.” So popular is Millican that fans and friends grieved with him when he and Donna and Cale lost Dalton. They shared his disappointment when he reached eight NHRA final rounds without a victory. And they cried along with him that day last June when a flash of favor flooded over the Stringer Performance driver, just like “Mama Martha” Millican had preached it would “when the time was right.”
So there they sat, Clay and Donna Millican, soaking in the emotions of the day: annoyance that Fathers Day had dared to come, drama of going rounds on the racetrack, joy of finally winning for the first time in 254 NHRA chances, relief that his first NHRA victory really would come, melancholy because Monster Truck-driving racer Dalton wasn’t physically there to share the moment, wonderment that this achievement would happen in his home state when his mind was on so much more than going though his paces in the Parts Plus/Great Clips Dragster, and uninhibited reaction to it all.

Dalton and Clay Millican

Somehow, in all the commotion, Millican had the presence to interact with fans through Facebook.
“I actually did a Facebook live. We had a blast. I was helmet hair, late, but man, just unbelievable some of the things that were sent,” he said. “And it didn’t stop. We left Bristol and drove straight to Norwalk. I told everybody that asked me about it, I was like, ‘Man I wish we had a weekend off,’ because it was almost impossible to absorb everything that we were feeling. And the majority of this was obviously tied to Dalton. But strictly from mine and Donna’s side of it, we had such a run in the IHRA and it was 19 years of trying in the NHRA – not fulltime, but I ran quite a few races and had all those runner ups and just to finally get it done was awesome and I’ve told you this, it was supposed to take that long. It was all part of the plan.”
It was classic storytelling playing out in the hills of East Tennessee. If Hollywood were to capture the scene, of Clay and Donna Millican and their private moment, Elton John would be singing in the background “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”
It was as if the moment were ordained.
“Yeah, I think that’s a good word for it. It was supposed to be that way. You know, The Man Upstairs knew what was going to happen and we didn’t,” Millican said.

Dalton Millican

“For a long time it’s like ‘Man, maybe I’m never going to win one of these things, but we’re not going to quit trying.’ I’m not a quitter but the plan was the way it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be on Father’s Day. It was supposed to be in Tennessee. And that gentleman was supposed to give me that motocross chest protector with Dalton’s autograph. There is nothing for the two of us that will ever compare to that. It was crazy,” Millican said.

“Bristol, there’ll be an emotion there for Donna and I until we’re no longer here. It was special,” he said. “It was meant to be. But that night was pretty cool . . . just me and her.”
He said, “Racing is what I do. It’s how I pay my bills. But it is– and I wouldn’t have said this probably at one time – but it is not the most important thing in life. Winning and losing, winning, losing, we get consumed with that. But it is by far not the most important thing.”
Just the same, when it happened again at Topeka and again at Chicago this season, they appreciated that. Immediately after the Topeka victory (against longtime buddy Terry McMillen), “Donna and I both said, ‘Wow, that was cool. We’re not a one hit wonder. We’ve now won two of these things.’ While very exciting, and awesome,” he said, “you know the feeling wasn’t the same. It was more like when we won in the IHRA.” [Ironically, in both the 2017 Bristol victory and the one at Chicago earlier this month, his final-round opponent was Leah Pritchett.]
So with a dedicated crew and tuner Dave Grubnic, Millican has settled into a comfort zone in the NHRA. But he never will be at ease, at peace, with the loss of Dalton.

The beat goes on in 2018 as Clay has already gone to the winners circle twice in just 10 races. But despite the fact that he has settled into a comfort zone in the NHRA, he never will be at ease, at peace, with the loss of Dalton.

“No, no, I don’t think that will ever go away,” he said.

“No, no, I don’t think that will ever go away,” he said.

But the timing gives him what he described as “a sense of comfort.” Millican said, “You know, I think it certainly just gave me a sense of comfort that it happened on that day. That day’s not as hard for me anymore.
“You know, that’s one of those things that it’s always there. It is easier to deal with every day but it’s always there. Certain things can bring it up to the surface, whether it be a movie, a song, whatever, but those things happen from time to time,” he said.
His response to life’s daily course is “I just smile. Just smile. It’s all good. All good. You know, you just smile. You’ve got to smile, because it just means he’s just worried about me. It just means that his work here was done and ours is not. That’s one thing that I know.
“Doug Herbert [the Top Fuel racer who lost sons Jon and James together in an auto accident] told me this – and it actually was told to him by Bobby Allison [who lost his son Davey in a 1993 helicopter crash and a son, Clifford, who died 11 months earlier in a racing practice crash]: ‘You have a million great memories and only one bad.’ What I have found [is] even things that were bad now you smile about, whether it was something Dalton did wrong and got in trouble, whatever that I was mad about, and maybe disciplined him for it, now you just smile and laugh about those things,” Millican said.
“You know, you talk to his buddies and whatever. You certainly find out what else your kid’s done that you’re like, ‘I cannot believe he did that and he didn’t get caught.’ Those things are fun. I get together with a bunch of his buddies from time to time and more and more stories always come out,” he said.
“Rose Kennedy said, and I won’t get his quote exactly right . . . She obviously lost a few children. She said, ‘Time heals all wounds, but I find that not to be true. What happens is the heart grows scar tissue around it, and you learn to deal with it.’ So that’s kind of a good way to think about it.”
As the NHRA returns this weekend to Bristol, Tenn., for the Fitzgerald USA Thunder Valley Nationals, Millican, too, has given everyone a good way to think about life’s mysterious lessons