The extended layoff caused by the COVID-19 pandemic significantly has impacted NHRA drag racing, particularly many of the smaller teams in the sport.
Not having raced since late February, Top Fuel driver Terry McMillen has been doing what he can to keep himself and his seven-person team busy.
“Basically, our life revolves around racing,” McMillen told NBC Sports. “I’m just making money, just doing whatever I can do to keep funds coming in.
“I have a great partner in Amalie (Motor Oil), and they’ve done everything they can to not let this fail. We’re just weathering the storm, and we’re just going to keep working hard.”
Among things the Elkhart, Indiana, resident has been doing to keep busy or bring in revenue is working on custom cars and manufacturing parts for other teams – and even fostering puppies.
“We have had about 15 puppies since we started this (in mid-March),” said McMillen’s wife, Cori. The couple already has three dogs and one cat, so the more, the merrier.
But with the NHRA expected to release its updated schedule for the remainder of the season as early as Wednesday, McMillen is ready to get back to racing.
After more than four months off, the NHRA is slated to return to competition with two races in mid-July on consecutive weekends at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.
“We’re all ready to go race,” McMillen told NBC Sports. “None of us have been used to being in the office or shop this much for this long a period of time.
“We’ve been (down) an awful long time now. But we’re forging forward. The team has been working on projects, servicing our trucks and doing a lot of things that we’ve always wanted to fix but really haven’t had the time up to now, or doing things that weren’t a priority.
“Now, we’ve gotten all those little things done. So mentally, everybody is sound, but certainly, we’re ready to get back to the racetrack.”
And with fans in attendance, though NHRA is still working on how many will be at-track.
Unlike NASCAR, which for now is racing without fans, NHRA must pay for its own TV production costs and needs paying fans to help with those costs as well as to pay expenses related to putting races on.
“We need the gate,” McMillen said. “Would I race without fans? Absolutely. But it does us no good if we can’t get some kind of TV exposure for the marketing partners, so we’re going to be predicated on race fans attending.
“If they’re able to come together, that would be great and exciting. I know we’re ready for it. We have a brand new car that we haven’t even ran yet down the track. We can’t wait to debut it, so yes, we’re extremely looking forward to it.”
Ironically, the NHRA originally announced in late April that it would return to racing this weekend in Gainesville, Florida. But because of governmental pandemic restrictions at the time, the schedule was abruptly pushed back just five days after it was originally announced.
But now, it appears NHRA is indeed ready to go forward next month – albeit with some changes.
One of the most significant is NHRA plans to cut many race weekends from three to two days, with one day of qualifying (typically on Saturday) and one day of eliminations (typically Sunday).
Doing so is kind of a dual-edged sword for smaller teams such as McMillen’s. On the one hand, instead of four qualifying rounds across the first two days of a race weekend, NHRA will reduce qualifying to only two runs in just one day. If a team struggles in those two runs, it won’t have two additional runs to improve speed and elapsed time – or potentially runs the risk of not qualifying at all.
But on the flip side, that also means a significant financial savings when it comes to travel expenses, with fewer days on the road, as well as less wear and tear – invariably slowing down replacement – on costly parts for McMillen’s 330-mph dragster.
“(The pandemic hiatus has) certainly put a strain on everything in the entire motorsports industry,” McMillen said. “But then when you start breaking it down, we’re probably more fortunate than maybe Don Schumacher, John Force and the Kalittas who have multiple employees, while we just have a small core group.
“The biggest concern that you have with the program is that you really can’t afford to lose your team. Rob (crew chief Rob Wendland) and I built a team and created this foundation that we want to keep at whatever cost.
“It’s been apparent that we have to take care of that, make sure that they’re not being laid off and when it comes time to go, we’re going to have a team to go out there and do battle with. So that’s probably been the biggest thing, keeping cash flow moving and keeping the team together.”
Because NHRA has eliminated its six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs this year, every driver is eligible for the championship in their respective class, be it Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle.
“Going without a countdown, I kind of like that,” McMillen said. “I think it’s going to make it interesting and maybe we’re going to learn something there – or maybe not. It’s part of the unknown.”
At the same time, some teams – particularly smaller teams – may try to skip a race here or there if they can still be in contention for the championship but also save money as well.
Not McMillen and his team. They’re in it to win it, all the way.
“You can’t afford to miss a race, but you can only run with what you have,” McMillen said. “Our intention is to go out and run all the races and with the schedule being reduced to one qualifying day, we might pick up some savings in other areas. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Then the 65-year-old McMillen added with a laugh, “I’m super excited to go back racing. I’ve been doing wheel stands on my lawnmower.
“I even had to get in the motorhome just to start it just to hear it run. I’m doing all these crazy things. I’m stressing out. I’m ready to race.”