MILLICAN'S TOP FUEL DEBUT WAS WONDERFUL YET UGLY
A lot can happen at a drag strip in 30 minutes. In this half-hour span at the inaugural Route 66 Nationals hosted by the brand new Route 66 Raceway, Clay Millican not only made his Top Fuel driving debut but also performed an embarrassing reverse burnout, second-guessed his plan to drag race professionally, and drew the ire of the legendary Buster Couch in one fell swoop.
Just 19 days earlier, the former Kroger forklift operator was on top of the world and ready to chase his lifelong dream of being a Top Fuel driver. The term former certainly applied as he had quit his job.
At 32 years old, Millican certainly was no spring chicken in the workforce and indeed even less of one in the drag racing world.
"Quitting my job... probably not the smartest thing I ever did," Millican said of his 1998 decision. "[Wife] Donna said, 'If you're ever going to do this, that's all you've ever thought about; you better just do it."
And with the help of businessman/drag racing fan Peter Lehman, Millican did exactly that.
"Looking back 25 years later, I would now have been 36 years at Kroger, tucked away and ready for retirement."
Instead, Millican embarked on a career that yielded six IHRA championships and 51 national wins on that tour and added another three in NHRA competition after reaching the finals 19 times.
"I live my retirement every day. I may have to work until the man upstairs comes and gets me, but that's okay," Millican said. "We're put here to work anyway."
If Millican didn't have unwavering support around him back on that first day in 1998, his designation as the first Top Fuel car down the newly poured racing surface might have been his only claim to fame these days.
So, about that reverse burnout?
I was the first Top Fuel dragster to pull out there because I had just got my license," Millican said. "They sent me out on a single, and I promptly blipped the throttle, backing up after the burnout.
"I Scared the crap out of Richard Hartman, who was standing there. And probably scared the crap out of Bruce Litton and his entire team who was there running the car that weekend."
Hartman and everyone else on the starting line might have been scared to death, but it paled in comparison to the fear Millican experienced when being summoned to Buster Couch's office in the tower. He readily admits it was the longest walk of his career.
"It was a hundred percent embarrassment as much as it was fear," Millican said. "I thought I knew more about what was going on than I really did. In my brain, my little pee brain, I thought the car was idling too fast. And also, being a whopping 142 pounds than I am, I was pulling up on the throttle to try to slow the idle speed down. And what I did was actually pull on it hard enough that I bent the throttle under, which made it give it a little throttle blip.
"Then I got to go see Buster Couch in the tower because by then, he had moved from the starting line up to race control. I was told in no uncertain terms, 'Boy, I don't know where you come from, but I know where you're going if you do that on my racetrack one more time."
"And all I could do was hold my head down and just say, "Yes sir, you're correct."
Couch saw Millican many times after the incident, and it was never mentioned again.
"He would squeeze my head when he saw me, but he never did mention this again, thank goodness," Millican revealed.
The saving grace for Millican in the incident was that he broke the reverser. There's losing your confidence, and then there's what Millican experienced.
"I went back to the trailer and was contemplating if I called Kroger, could I get my job back, because I was so embarrassed about what I did," Millican admitted. "I thought maybe I could go back and get my forklift job and make that embarrassment of what I just did go away.
"But thank goodness, somehow I made my way out there again on Friday night, made my first four-second quarter-mile run, which was a big deal 25 years ago."
While Millican has performed a burnout down many a drag strip and even Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tenn., from that first day on the job, they have been all in forward gear.
"I guess at this point, 25 years later, I've made a pretty good run at it of the opportunity that [Peter Lehman] gave me. Somehow, some way, we've made our living racing cars," Millican said of his career, which started as a bracket racer.
Lehman paved the way for Millican to launch his career while driving a dragster adorned in Major League Baseball's Chicago White Sox livery as an answer to the New York Yankees dragster campaigned by Darrell Gwynn and driven by Mike Dunn.
Later, Lehman provided an impressive example of business-to-business sponsorship with major backing from Werner Enterprises, a nationwide trucking firm.
In drag racing, it's not how you start but how you finish that counts. Twenty years after the forgettable yet unforgettable 1998 Route 66 Nationals, Millican returned to the facility to post the Top Fuel victory at the 20th-anniversary event.
"Now that was pretty dang cool," Millican said with his Drummonds, Tenn., drawl rolling eloquently off his tongue.
Millican has always been a fighter, the underdog, even as a big dog that fans loved. Two years later, he battled back to come within one round of beating Paul Romine for the IHRA championship and went on a tear that eventually left him as the winningest Top Fuel driver in the series' history.
Millican won his first NHRA national event on Father's Day in 2017, and a year later won his last one at Route 66, which has remained dormant since shutting down temporarily ahead of the 2020 season.
As Millican rolls through the gates for the NHRA's return this weekend, he'll undoubtedly have a few memories of his first race.
"It was certainly one of the most memorable weekends for me," Millican said. "I still smile when I think back about it. And then to fast forward a little bit, 20 years later, on the anniversary of the racetrack being open, same as my 20th year anniversary, I won that race, which was pretty dang cool."
And just like 30 minutes did for Millican, a lot can happen in 25 years.