Clay Millican has experienced disappointments both un-disturbing and unspeakable since he capped a monumental International Hot Rod Association career in 2006 with his record sixth consecutive Top Fuel championship.
He had gone to eight final NHRA rounds without a Wally statue to complement his 51 IHRA Ironman trophies. Losing a final round, or even eight of them, paled in comparison to the August 2015 night he and wife Donna lost their 22-year-old son Dalton in a road accident.
So it was undeniably fitting – and, Millican indicated, so undeniably Dalton-inspired – that the Tennessee dragster driver finally would score his long-sought first NHRA triumph on Fathers Day, in the Thunder Valley Nationals, in his beloved home state of Tennessee, at Bristol Dragway, where he raced for many years under the IHRA banner when the actual racing surface was 20 feet below where it is today and where sons Dalton and Cale splashed in the creek nearby as little boys.
And it was apt that it would come on the weekend that fellow Top Fuel racer Doug Herbert was inducted into the Thunder Valley Hall of Fame. Millican and Herbert, principles in an infamous 2002 burndown at the Reading, Pa., starting line, shed their rivalry years ago and joined forces for the B.R.A.K.E.S. teen driving initiative after Herbert lost his two sons in an auto accident.
Moreover, Millican always carried with him the words of John Medlen, another father with a sadly similar story. Medlen, whose son Eric passed away from injuries incurred in a drag-racing crash, had told Millican, “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.”
That’s what Millican held in his heart as he held his first Wally trophy Sunday. He said he knew Dalton had his hand in this gift for Fathers Day.
There’s been so many things that I know was Dalton. He was riding [with us], and he got us four win lights. -Clay Millican
“That little man rides with me everywhere I go,” Millican said immediately after beating red-hot Leah Pritchett in the final round. “There’s been so many things that I know was Dalton. He was riding [with us], and he got us four win lights.”“I didn’t want people telling me ‘Happy Fathers Day.’ I didn’t even want to hear about it this morning,” Millican said. “It’s a tough day for anybody who’s lost a child. It just is.”
But the victory eased the pain, at least a little, at least for one day.
Clay and Donna Millican had decided they might have to live with the fact that he might never win an NHRA race. Even so, Martha Millican – Clay’s calm and patient mother who displayed incredible strength and humor years ago when she was shot in the head in 2003 at the family’s Drummonds, Tenn., grocery store – always encouraged them. “When the time is right, it’ll happen,” she said over and over.
And Mama was right. Sunday simply was Millican’s day, 254 races into his NHRA career and 13 years after he made it to his first NHRA final round.
“I couldn’t do anything wrong,” the Parts Plus/Great Clips/UNOH Dragster driver for Stringer Performance said. “My lights sucked, but it didn’t matter. When it’s your day, it’s going to happen. It’s no coincidence. This was supposed to happen. Today that time was right. I really mean that.” He said, “I’ve won so many IHRA races. I knew what it was like to win. I’ve won a bunch of races. But it’s been such a long stretch since I raced in IHRA. I never questioned myself,” Millican said. “I just started to work harder. I’ve been working harder than I ever worked.”
The No. 4 qualifier advanced past Kyle Wurtzel and his broken dragster in the opening round, edged Brittany Force, and eliminated top qualifier Steve Torrence – whose dad Billy Torrence, ironically, had sold him his dragster. Then he powered past Pritchett in the final (3.825-second elapsed time at 316.38 mph on the 1,000-foot course to her 3.881, 307.09).
For team owner Doug Stringer, the independent racing out of tiny McLeansboro, Ill., the victory was memorable for an additional reason.
The former NASCAR team boss said, “The last time my wife and I were here in Bristol, Kasey Kahne won his last Great Clips Cup race, and we went to victory lane. To come back here and win with Clay and fulfilling the dreams of all these kids [crew members, most of whom never had any NHRA experience and one who never had been to a drag race at all before this venture], it’s an awesome feeling.”
Millican lauded crew chief Dave Grubnic, the former Top Fuel driver who has served as his earnest, nose-to-the-grindstone tuner (at wife Donna’s suggestion) ever since this team was assembled. And he thanks Stringer and the crew.
“Doug’s the one who has spent a lot of money and sacrificed a lot,” he said, before thanking Grubnic “and all the boys who work on this car. I mean that 100 percent. They bust their butts.” He said Grubnic “had an easiness about him all weekend. When that dude’s smiling, the results show.”
When Texan Torrence qualified No. 1 Saturday night, he said he wasn’t familiar with the song “Rocky Top.” Well, it’s probably haunting him now, because the locally popular song blasted loud and long less than 24 hours later to celebrate Tennessee’s favorite racing son.
Torrence said, “I want to take a minute to say congratulations to Clay for his first NHRA win – and to win it in his home state, too. I know how much I want to win the races in Texas, so I know he and Grubnic and their guys will have a lot to celebrate.”