By Shawn Brereton
I made a mad dash home from a trip to Bowling Green for the Hot Rod Reunion because a storm was coming in. It was a grueling weekend with heat and humidity at Beech Bend Raceway Park. You never know what it’s going to be like there, but I had a great time being able to visit with friends and making new ones.
Unfortunately, I was only able to see my dad for about an hour on Thursday, as he had a case of food poisoning and ended up having to go home early Saturday morning after spending all day Friday in his hotel room (I’m happy to report he made it home okay and is recovering). I wanted to stop in Jackson to check on him, but the shaky weather necessitate that I had to get my car home to the safety of the garage.
My earlier than expected exit from Bowling Green allowed me to watch the final round of eliminations of the NHRA at Bristol. I’ll admit, I haven’t watched the NHRA as much as I used to, but since I met Clay Millican, who writes a column for Drag Racing Scene, I have started at least DVR’ing the FS1 coverage to see how he is doing
Clay has been so generous with his time. I got to see how busy he is first hand at the World Series of Drag Racing event at Memphis International Raceway last year. He helped Doug Herbert with the B.R.A.K.E.S. program (a worthy cause near and dear to his heart after losing his son Dalton to an motorcycle accident). Immediately after helping with the B.R.A.K.E.S. classes, Millican was at the track inundated with friends, family, and local fans. All I can say is the man is non-stop!
I knew he was a 6-time champion in IHRA, but I had no idea he had never won in NHRA. He’s knocked on the door so many times, especially when he decided to run double-duty back in the early days, but he’s never lifted a Wally in the 16 years he has been a NHRA regular. You wouldn’t think someone would last that long in a competitive environment that demands wins at the highest level, but if you’ve ever seen Millican’s energy and got a chance to know the man personally, you can easily understand why people have given him a chance. He is a certified winner in every way, he just needed the right ride.
I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk to Clay a few times since last year when he started writing the column for Drag Racing Scene, and every time we talk it is like I am talking to my best friend. He has never wavered in his belief in the Stringer team – he knows the one-car team was always going to be an uphill battle – but this year his voice seemed different when I talked to him. He’s been extra confident in the young team, and especially the addition of David “Grubby” Grubnic as crew chief.
Every time we’ve talked I told him, I think this is your year. The team started off great too, he’s been top qualifier a few times this year, but despite their hard work, they just couldn’t string (no pun intended) it all together in one weekend. Then came this weekend in Bristol – on Father’s Day – just two years after losing his son, Clay was asked what it would mean to him to win on Father’s Day. He immediately displayed #25 necklace he always wears in memory of Dalton, saying he didn’t know what he would do if he won, but he knew who the co-pilot would be.
It was a tricky day on the greasy track for all the pros, but Clay showed experience peddling the car and doing what it took to get the Great Clips/Parts Plus Top Fuel Dragster to the finish line first. When I saw he made it to the semis, I couldn’t help but think that there was a story in the making – some divine intervention possibly.
He lined up against Leah Pritchett in the finals, I prayed they had the setup right. Pritchett was on her game and it appeared the Papa John’s car was going to get the win as she led at half-track. Top Fuel races are over in less than four seconds, but time seemed to slow down as I watched the race. Pritchett’s dragster lost a cylinder as clutch discs in the Great Clips car hit high gear propelling Millican forward. Everything moved so slowly as I watched it that they might as well have been in a foot race. I screamed at the TV “come on Clay, you got it!” From the side shot at the finish line, I couldn’t tell who had it.
When they announced Clay as the winner, I literally leapt out of my recliner and continued screaming (much to my wife’s eye-rolling). I knew what it meant to Clay, I knew he had to be sick of everyone asking him when he was going to win, and I know that Father’s Day probably meant a little more to him than just a stupid Hallmark holiday. I don’t have kids, so I will never know what it is like to lose one, but I know that I have taken time with my own father for granted. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but we have also had a lot of memorable moments together.
I know that Clay’s first thoughts across the finish line were of Dalton, and his emotion flowed sincerely in his post-race interview. If you know his story and his interview didn’t at least cause a lump in your throat, you might not be human. As for me, I was balling like a baby as I’m sure most everyone who knows him was.
Last year I kept crossing paths with Clay at the World Series of Drag Racing event at Memphis International Raceway. Editor Todd Silvey had asked me to do a shoot with Clay showing the different parts of the Top Fuel dragster, so Todd could do a story on how much it costs to run one. Despite how busy he was, Clay always found the time to talk to people, sign autographs and do interview questions. He was everywhere and I gained a lot of respect for what he does that day!
As for Clay, he is a professional and will be happy winning any race, but coming from the media side of things, I truly enjoyed the story of him winning on Father’s Day. Even though it was bitter-sweet because Dalton is no longer with us, you can’t help but think that he definitely had a hand in Clay getting that first win. Congratulations Clay, may this be the first of many!