JOLIET, Illinois – Clay Millican not only holds the elapsed time record for a Top Fuel dragster in NHRA competition – 3.62 seconds down a 1,000-foot drag strip – he also holds the unique distinction of being the quickest and fastest forklift driver ever in the sport.
Okay, a bit of clarification about that.
It was back in 1998 and Millican was working as a forklift driver at a Kroger Foods warehouse near his Drummonds, Tennessee home. He had long sought to make his passion of drag racing his full-time job. Within one week’s time, he saw that dream become a reality. He earned his Top Fuel competitors license, quit his job at Kroger and competed in his first-ever NHRA race at what was then the brand new Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.
And he’s never looked back – or had to worry about going back to driving a forklift – again.
Over the next 21 seasons, Millican earned six Top Fuel championships and 50 national event victories in the rival International Hot Rod Association. Now, the 53-year-old Millican is going for his first NHRA championship, and enters this weekend’s Route 66 Nationals fourth in the Top Fuel points, having reached the final round in three of the season’s first eight races.
Oh yes, and he’s also defending winner of this race, having captured his second career NHRA national event win at Route 66 last year.
“This place is so special for me, I love this place,” Millican said of Route 66, which when he and the track both debuted 21 years ago, it was called the “first stadium of drag racing.”
This weekend, it’ll be kind of deja vu for Millican, as his dragster will carry the same sponsor it had when he made his debut 21 years ago: backing from Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox.
Millican threw out the first pitch Thursday night at the White Sox game at their Guaranteed Rate Field home.
“I’m more nervous doing that than going 330 mph,” Millican told NBC Sports a few hours before the game.
But as it turns out, he didn’t have to worry. He tossed a perfect strike.
Now, starting with the first two rounds of qualifying today and going through the weekend, Millican is looking to hit drag racing’s version of a home run with his second consecutive win at Route 66.
“We’re calling this the unfinished business tour,” Millican said. “(Crew chief Mike Kloeber) and I never won an NHRA event together, although we won 50 IHRA events and six championships together.
“We just never had the opportunity to chase NHRA full-time. Now, I feel we’re in a great position, I’m having fun and it’s great to have early success actually quicker than I thought I would.”
In addition to Kloeber, Millican also has former Kalitta Racing vice president Jim Oberhofer working with his team as a consultant.
Millican finished third last season in the NHRA standings. Ironically, he did so well that legendary Funny Car driver John Force hired away Millican’s entire team during the off-season to come to work for John Force Racing.
“That shows the people we had were awesome,” Millican said.
Millican had to rebuild his team from the ground up, and the first guy he called was Kloeber, who had been out of drag racing for seven seasons. Together, they formed a new team and the results so far have not only been encouraging, Millican feels he can reach the winner’s circle come the conclusion of this weekend’s race on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s all about the right time and the right people,” Millican said. “People are everything. A driver is a small part of how these cars operate. So it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people.”
But he knows it won’t be an easy thing to do.
“The competition in Top Fuel the last two or three years has probably been the most competitive in history,” Millican said. “As far as where we fit in, we’re certainly more towards the underdog side of things, in that we’re a single-car team, we have no way of gathering extra data the other big teams do.
“We’re the White Sox vs. the Yankees out there. We’re out there kind of by ourselves and don’t have the unlimited parts and pieces that those big teams do, but we do it with ‘want-to.’ That’s a line my momma has always said about me, that if I wanted to do this so badly, I’d figure out a way to make this happen – and we want to. We want to win and do well and that’s just digging deep and doing it with the parts and pieces you have.”
Millican hopes to relive some of his past success with Kloeber from their IHRA days this Sunday. The pair literally picked up where they left off, even though they had been apart for the better part of a decade until Millican called his old buddy and asked him to help him out.
Or, as Millican put it so astutely:
“This year is kind of a refresher for me,” he said. “When you run off into the ditch, you call your friend. That’s what he did, I called Mike Kloeber. I was in a ditch and he pulled me out. When you’re in trouble, you call your buddies.”