BRISTOL, Tenn. – From jumping out of airplanes to flying with the Thunderbirds, Clay Millican still hasn’t found anything that compares to driving his Parts Plus/Strutmasters.com Top Fuel dragster in excess of 300 miles per hour.
“There is no describing it. People talk about the speed all the time,” Millican said. “I have been 335 miles per hour and some change, which is actually the second fastest speed ever. Our car is still the current record holder for ET [elapsed time], but the speed is really only a little bit of the puzzle. The exciting part is the acceleration, how quickly these things get to the far end of the race track.”
Millican, who has been driving Top Fuel dragsters for 21 years, will get to experience that feeling once again beginning today when the Thunder Valley Nationals return to Bristol Dragway. There is no place he would rather race.
“This place just makes me smile. Obviously the most picturesque place we go to on the entire tour,” said Millican, a native of Drummonds, Tenn., during a press conference at a rainy track on Thursday morning. “I might be a bit of a homer. I am definitely a Tennessee boy, top to bottom. I have never lived anywhere else, never intend on living anywhere else.
“I love coming here. I drive to this race because there is not a more beautiful drive than coming through this state right here.”
He certainly has good memories, capturing his first NHRA race in Bristol on Father’s Day in 2017, two years after his son, Dalton, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“It took me 19 years, all the runner-ups, 250-some NHRA starts, everything worked out. There will never be in my lifetime a bigger win than what I had here in 2017,” said Millican, who has three wins and 11 runner-up finishes in 301 career NHRA starts. “It is by far my favorite place to go drag racing. I love this place, plain and simple.”
The 53-year-old Millican arrives in Bristol currently sixth in the NHRA top fuel standings, with everyone trying to catch Steve Torrence, who has won five straight races, needing one more to match his streak of six wins to end the 2018 season.
“What they are doing is unreal. I have been there, haven’t done it on the NHRA side, but it is really hard to get it going, and sometimes it is really hard to make it stop,” said Millican, who won six straight Top Fuel championships in the International Hot Rod Association from 2001-06. “They are an amazing team.
“For goodness sakes he raced his daddy in the race last week in Topeka. I was like ‘Steve, you didn’t let your daddy win.’ He was like, ‘No, I want to keep winning,’ and I get it. All of them can be beat. It happened to me in the IHRA side of things. Those streaks will come to an end, but it sure is fun while you are doing it.”
Millican, whose best finish this season is third at Charlotte, holds the record for elapsed time at Bristol, having driven from the start to finish line in a speedy 3.628 seconds. He also has a personal best mark of 335.23 miles per hour.
Yet, it is more than just speed that keeps Millican coming back for more.
“These things actually are quicker than the space shuttle being launched,” he said. “It is zero to 100 miles an hour in less than one second, zero to 200 in 2 seconds, and zero to 300 in barely over 3 seconds,” Millican said. “You think about that, that just makes no sense. How is that possible on a tire that is [17 ½ inches] wide. It is just insane.
“You hear these numbers. We talk about them all the time, but it is not correct. That should not be possible to go 100 miles an hour to the first orange cone out there. It is just not supposed to happen, but it sure is fun.”
Millican is looking for a return to his 2018 form, which included qualifying first 10 times, and finishing third in the points standings. He would certainly like to challenge Torrence, who is looking to repeat as an NHRA champion, and currently leads second place Doug Kalitta by a seemingly insurmountable 321 points
“It definitely inspires me to do it again. Having done it before, it is such an awesome feeling,” said Millican, whose team, led by crew chief Mike Kloeber, is looking for consistency on a weekly basis. “When you show up, you just know you are going to win and that is what everybody is trying to achieve. That feeling of showing up and knowing you are going to win.
“It is such a team sport. You guys want to talk to the driver, but when they are on a roll the way they are, it is every single person touching that race car and I don’t care what it is they are doing. Any one thing can stop that streak so to have a group in unison the way they are is pretty awesome.”
Perhaps a return to Bristol will be the spark that Millican needs. He will certainly never forget that first NHRA win, even borrowing a phase from NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr., to describe his feelings for Thunder Valley.
“It’s Bristol, baby. For me, I love this place. That is my tag line because I do love this place. It is just special to me,’ Millican said. “I have told the story thousands of times now about that Sunday here with a little rain falling and a little delay, all the things to think about, but getting my first win on Father’s Day with having lost a child, the way it worked out, there is nothing that will be any bigger than that for me, period.”