Life’s greatest rewards are the result of hard work, personal sacrifice, and often, hardship.
For diesel drag racing pioneer Ryan Milliken, his shimmering new 1969 Chevrolet Nova is the culmination of more than a decade of tireless efforts serving his country, building a successful business, and continually striving to overachieve in all that he does. And, from the experience of watching it all seemingly come crashing down.
Florida native Milliken, who today uses up every hour in a day and then some running his business, operating a dragstrip, raising a young family, and campaigning his Nova, entered the military out of high school, enlisting in the United States Air Force. Ryan served for 10 years at nearby Hurlburt Field and abroad, and it was there that he was conditioned for pressure situations and the hectic life he lives in one of the most dangerous careers in the world: explosive ordnance disposal technician. In other words, he disarmed bombs.
“People have always kind of known me to be not all the way sane…to venture outside the box and do whatever the [expletive] I want,” Ryan says. “Most people find out I was EOD and tell their kids, ‘stay away from that guy, he’s crazy.’ But I’ve got all 10 fingers and toes, I’m normal.”
Ryan had grown up competing in motocross and watched his father partake in circle track and drag racing; he later got into jet-ski racing, of all things, along with competitive swimming and track in school, so the groundwork was certainly laid for working with cars and in a competitive setting. After a brief time investing in other hobbies — “mostly girls” he tells — Ryan got back into racing. While deployed in Iraq, he purchased a brand new truck to pull his rock-crawler when back in the states.
He quickly became obsessed with “the tuners and the ability to make so much power with those diesel trucks…I’d stay up and watch YouTube videos all night long,” he says. “I just thought it was the coolest thing ever that these trucks had so much potential.”
Ryan became what he calls the “local subject matter expert” on basic bolt-on modifications to diesel vehicles and, eventually in custom tuning and performance. Initially just tinkering with his own truck, his talents caught the attention of those in Florida and beyond.
“Before I knew it, I was tuning trucks for 20 people. At first I was just being a good buddy, but before I knew it, it was becoming really time consuming, so I knew I couldn’t keep doing it for free. So I’d ask friends to slide me $100 — well then everybody was sliding me $100 to tune their truck. It grew and grew from there to the point that I was making more money in my PayPal account doing projects on the side than I was making being active duty military. I was doing injection pump upgrades and transmission replacements and everything right in my driveway,” he shares.
This led to a position at a performance shop as a calibration engineer — a title he took with pride, as he was by no means a scholarly engineer in the traditional sense — where he only expanded his in-depth expertise of the Cummins engine platform. In 2013, he went on his own and founded Hardway Performance, and the rest, as they say, is history. “We do calibration and tuning….problem solving is my speciality,” he says.
In unison with his entrepreneurship in the diesel industry, Ryan’s racing career also took off.
He first campaigned a four-door street truck known as “Aunt Jemima” that ran 7.20s in the 1/8-mile on street tires, thanks to the lofty 700 horsepower it produced. The people at the track he now operates — Emerald Coast Dragway in Holt, Florida — told him he needed a roll cage, and rather than cut up his daily, he bought a single cab pickup and swapped the drivetrain over. With that truck, he raced in the 11.90 index Super Diesel class with the National Hot Rod Diesel Association (NHRDA), winning several races and ultimately a championship. He then moved up to the 6,000-pound, heads-up Super Street class and eventually won that season championship, as well. That was followed by another title in the Pro Street (4,500-pound) division in 2016.
That fall, at the Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis, Milliken struck a deal with chassis builder and racer Mickey Tessneer to purchase the ’66 Nova that put him on the sport’s mainstream map. Ryan says he was “bored of racing the same people over and over” in the diesel arena, and after a one-time appearance with his diesel truck on “Street Outlaws: New Orleans,” he knew a more suitable chariot would be necessary if he wanted to compete with gas-burning vehicles.
“I bought the Nova and decided I wanted to go X275 racing, purely because there was a weight break for six cylinders at the time, and there was a dual power-adder rule for six cylinders,” Ryan explains. “I don’t think that rule was ever intended to be used by a Cummins, but John Sears [X275 co-founder] couldn’t tell me no because the car fit the rules as they were written,” he explains.
Milliken quickly found that his car was “grossly overweight” with its iron engine block; he switched to an aluminum block and then began working to sort out weight balance issues. “I just had no idea what I was doing, with a leaf spring car on radials with a Cummins in it…so it took us a while to figure out,” he says.
“The first 12-18 months, everybody was looking at us like ‘look at these [expletive] clowns, there’s no way they’re going to make this work or go fast,’ ”he adds.
But at Lights Out 10 in 2019, Milliken clicked off five passes between 4.41 and 4.42 in succession…it was at that point he knew — and the rest of the class knew — he had this deal just about figured out.
At Sweet 16 just a few weeks later, Ryan went 4.42 right off the trailer, as if he’d never left Lights Out. After poring over the data, the determination was straightforward: the car wanted more horsepower. And so obligingly gave it what it wanted.
In a span of four runs, X275’s only coal-roller went from a deadly-consistent 4.42 to a 4.28, that qualified him for what was, at the time, the quickest X275 field in history, and positioned him in race-winning performance territory. If anyone in radial racing was still laughing at the Cummins, they were no doubt silenced at that point.
Milliken points to a few key findings and components that took him from the out-house to the penthouse. First was a switch to Menscer shocks; the billet block got the weight off the nose so the weight bias could be corrected; he also began locking up the converter in second gear; lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it was discovered that the anti-roll bar links were too short, so when the car would go into extension, it would pull the ARB links flat and attempt to pull the rear end off the ground (effectively trying to bunny-hop) — with that list item corrected, Ryan found he could throw all the power he had at it and it would stick.
A seized-up engine in Orlando the fall prior had highlighted one of the key shortcomings of the Nova: there was so little room in the car that he couldn’t get the engine out with the crank locked up tight, because he couldn’t get the converter bolts loose, and therefore the transmission couldn’t be removed. What ensued was a two-day-long, physical battle in unbolting the front end and from the chassis to get the torque converter and transmission out, so that the engine could be serviced. After that ordeal, Ryan no doubt was ready to make some changes to ease the maintenance process, although there was no intent to build a new car.
But that’s when fate stepped in.
As other performance shops have encountered in recent years, Millken and Hardway Performance fell into legal trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency over vehicle tuning, leaving him with a “large fine that had to be paid immediately.”
“The EPA came knocking on my door and said I wasn’t supposed to be doing what I was doing.,” he explains. “They had records of everything. They cleaned me out. The money had to come from somewhere, and after three years of litigation, I owed a lot of money and if it wasn’t bolted down, it got sold.”
After years of fighting tooth and nail with his Nova, no sooner than he had the combination sorted out, it was all over with. The car was sold to friend Daniel Pierce, who himself entered it into X275, and Ryan was sidelined when he should have, at long last, been competing for victories.
As Ryan rebounded, financially and otherwise, from a difficult situation that may have ruined lesser men, he began plotting a new course.
A 1969 Nova, already in process for X275 or Ultra Street competition, was acquired while at Tin Soldier Race Cars a little over a year ago. Ryan had the car upgraded to a double framerail and tweaked it to his liking — and to accommodate the length and size of the Cummins engine. Over the course of the year that ensued, Ryan wired, plumbed, and finished the 25.3 chassis just in time to make its debut at Lights Out 12 in South Georgia in February.
Curing some of his prior ills, this car was built such that the oil pan could be dropped as quickly as he can get the oil out of it, and pull the rods or drop the crank, without ever fighting with the engine, transmission, or converter on his back in the pit area.
Freedom Racing Engines built the 5.9-liter Cummins powerplant, using a dry, filled stock block (that weighs 440-pounds) and ported and polished cylinder head combo. To take advantage of cubic-inch rules in X275, displacement was reduced to 360-inches, using Wagler biller rods, stock cummins crankshaft, and Diamond pistons; a custom-grind cam was sourced from Hamilton Cams. A custom billet intake accepts boosted air from a Garrett GTX5533R 85mm turbo; S&S Diesel dual 14mm reverse rotation CP3 fuel pumps and 400-percent over 6.7-based injectors provide the staggering fuel pressure (32,000 psi) to the engine, and a Peterson dry sump oiling system keeps everything lubricated. A MoTec ECU serves as the brains of the operation.
A Suncoast Turbo 400 transmission and “zero drag” lock-up converter transfer the torque and power through a PST carbon-fiber driveshaft to a Lyons Custom Motorsports Fab9 housing and Strange Engineering 9.5-inch center section, outfitted with 2.73 Pro gears and 40-spline semi-floater axles.
The chassis features Menscer shocks and coilovers up front, and Calvert split mono leaf springs with Menscer shocks and Smith Racecraft perches in the rear. Ryan chose TBM brakes at all four corners, with shimmering chrome RC Components wheels. The Nova weighs in 3,335-pounds as it sits — 285-pounds overweight for X275 — but the coming addition of a billet block (at 187-pounds) will bring him within 35-pounds of the adjusted minimum for billet blocks. At 58-percent nose weight at current, this weight reduction will also have a very positive effect on the overall balance.
Glacier Blue, an original 1969-era GM color (albeit not on the Nova) was selected by Ryan’s wife — “she said it was a pretty color so I bought it; she had no idea that she had just given me permission to buy a new racecar. I’m still alive thankfully…for now,” he quips.
“It’s still a leaf spring car, which is pretty cool,” Ryan shares of his favorite elements of this new beast. “But I love that it’s a car that hasn’t been raced yet — the build went through a couple (of?) hands before it got to me, but this has only been my car on the track. This car is mine, and that’s a big deal.”
He’s also quick to show off the factory headliner and dome light he put back in the car, along with the factory door panels and roll-up windows.
Ryan rolled into Lights Out 12 ready to make a splash; that the car was so significantly overweight was certainly a setback, but the weekend started on a bad note and only got worse. On the very first pass on the fresh, shiny new ’69, Ryan nearly lost control of the car as a suspension failure occurred at speed.
As it was later determined, the powder-coat on the leaf spring perches and the rear end housing, in his words, “made clearance where there didn’t need to be clearance”; as a result, when the converter went into lock-up, the passenger-side leaf spring locating pin sheared off, causing the rear wheel to kick forward 4-inches, putting a dent in the original GM quarter-panel and making for a frightening couple of seconds. The carnage only got worse, as two driveshafts were broken in half, a set of Smith Racecraft “Assassin” traction bars were mangled, and a carbon-fiber wheel tub was shifted in place during the course of a weekend in which the car never made a single representative run. “Mostly pride,” Ryan adds as he recounts the damage.
“When it broke the first time, I should have just loaded it up and gone home,” Ryan says of his less-than-stellar debut.
In the weeks since, he’s gone over the chassis to right the previous wrongs, and his body-man will soon have the quarter panel looking new again. Now, it’s about racing locally to iron out the very unique combination in preparation for running at the front — something he’s sure this car can do — at the big drag-radial races in the fall.
“I’m going to dual-purpose this car — my friend Johnny Montesino is going to race it in our Outlaw Diesel Super Series in the Outlaw 5.90 Index class. This will allow me to stand behind it with someone else driving and get all the little things situated, so we don’t have to deal with it at big races. We’re going to slow it down and run it there all season. There’s also another class down here, 28X, which is a no-time class, that I can run in for now, since I haven’t lit the boards yet. We’ll run those classes, get some passes on it, and we want to come out at No Mercy, put the big tunes in it, and go play.”