As people who simply love cars, race cars or otherwise, we see what others term a mere ‘vehicle’ as much, much more than that: something made unique by the particular spirit of those who bring it to life. And this applies just as much to a garage-built restoration destined for local cruise-in’s as it does to a world-beating monster of a race car. That is, it applies even to the Golden Gorilla itself.
If you weren’t already aware, the Golden Gorilla is a very particular 1968 Chevrolet Camaro. This is a car that has long been a force in the ranks of Radial vs. The World, the final-level radial class pioneered and perpetually championed by Donald “Duck” Long, as well as in the Radial Wars class run regularly by the NMCA (National Muscle Car Association).
In both arenas its record speaks for itself: 2016 NMCA Radial Wars Champion, back-to-back RvW champion at Donald Long’s No Mercy 7 (2016) and No Mercy 8 (2017), and the notoriety of being the first radial car to break into the 3.60’s in the eighth-mile, with a 3.696-second, 212.69 mph pass at the inaugural Sweet 16 event. And with continual improvements to the chassis underneath and powerplant inside — most recently a Pro Line Racing-built 526-inch Hemi fed by twin Precision Turbo’s — the Golden Gorilla and team are poised to continue this trend.
I’ve owned that car for about… I’m going to say 19 years. I still got the title to it, the whole nine yards. Me and my wife and daughter would cruise around town, go to Sonic in that thing.
And, perhaps, you know that “Big Daddy” DeWayne Mills is its owner and driver. But just as much as the powerplant inside or the driver in the seat, it takes the continued support and sweat of those around the car to create success such as this. And for this particular car, it’s not just a team. As DeWayne himself says, “We do it as a family.”
And the car isn’t just a recent addition to the Mills family, either. “I’ve owned that car for about… I’m going to say 19 years. I still got the title to it, the whole nine yards,” he explains. It’s grown with the family, too, from its very early days as a street/strip car, driven in and around their hometown near Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Me and my wife and daughter would cruise around town, go to Sonic in that thing,” DeWayne recalls fondly.
Even back then, when not in service as a weekend cruiser for the family, the car now known as the Golden Gorilla saw duty at the track. “Back in the day it only had a 10-point cage, and there wasn’t very much chassis underneath it at all,” as he explains, but with three stages of nitrous assisting its 598 cubic-inch Chevrolet motor, the car came to be a serious contender in local small-tire series.
As DeWayne remembers it, “I started off racing in a little series in Tulsa called MAKO 10.5 [Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma], and we also ran some True 10.5 races,” including Clash of the Titans. Along the way the motor was upgraded with two 4-barrel carburetors and some additional nitrous, for good measure. Eventually the Golden Gorilla progressed to a ProCharger set-up, and remained with that combination for about three years.
Still on 10.5-inch tires, it was with this ProCharger that the golden ’68 Camaro out of Oklahoma made an eye-opening trip east, to Georgia, in February 2010. The destination was South Georgia Motorsports Park for an event called “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, a first-of-its-kind happening put on by a certain Donald Long and his Outlaw Radial Tire Championship. The draw for Mills, and many other outlaw small-tire racers from around the country, was a guaranteed $20,000-to-win pot (unheard-of at the time) in a new class called Radial vs. The World. That experience showed DeWayne and the Golden Gorilla camp a new way of racing. In his words, “I went down there to test and I had true 10.5 slicks on, and all we did was shake the tires all the time. I thought ‘Man, I’m gonna’ try these drag radials.’ And I put those on, and never have looked back since.”
Not that the road in Radial vs. The World has been entirely smooth since then. DeWayne admits, “The Radial vs. The World car, that thing’s been nine years in the works … we struggled with it, we worked with it, and we figured some stuff out and got it going.” That is, the team had a lot of learning to do to become competitive, even after the switch from centrifugal supercharger to twin turbochargers around six years ago.
DeWayne emphasizes that without a select group of close friends and family, that learning curve would have been impossible to overcome. He cites Tim Davis in particular, who’s been working on the car for about nine years.
“He’s my crew guy,” he says. “I mean, crew guy and one of my best friends … I don’t really see racing without his help, with the time and effort he puts in. I owe him a lot of credit.” There for Mills when he first ventured from 10.5 classes into the top tier of radial cars, Davis was perhaps the most critical component to the team’s foothold in this new arena.
Of course a few close partnerships with outside experts were also critical to that transition from drag radial newcomer to perennial class contender. Mark Menscer, the suspension guru behind Menscer Motorsports, was one such ally. With his shocks and four-link set-up on the car, and with his help on their tuning, “We beat on those guys for a year, year-and-a-half before everybody figured out what we were doing,” DeWayne says with pride.
Another key asset to the Golden Gorilla crew has been Jamie Miller, of Pro Line Racing — “Back in the day I was burning pistons up, when I was tuning it myself, and I brought Jamie Miller in to babysit us, so me and Tim wouldn’t tear the motor up anymore,” DeWayne explains. “Every race that we go to, we call Jamie and he’s went with us [or] helped us over the phone. He’s always welcome with us.”
If you beat us, you beat us, but we’re not going to get outran. I just want everybody to remember me like that. I’d rather spin or win, one of the two.
Nevertheless, the core group around the Golden Gorilla remains relatively small. “We do more with less than most people think,” DeWayne assures, and continues, “It’s usually just me and Tim out there. And my wife, Tara, she’s not afraid to get in there and get her hands dirty — we’ve had to put pistons in between rounds, and she’s made it happen.” Other help comes from Kallee Mills, his daughter and NMCA Street Outlaw standout, as well as Daniel Pharris, when he’s not attending to his own race car.
To illustrate the fact that the Golden Gorilla camp gets the job done with family and camaraderie, rather than legions of hired crew, DeWayne cites the recent all-hands-on-deck rebuild at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis, for Street Car Super Nationals 5. “We tore the car up pretty bad — we broke a third member and turned the motor around 11,000 [rpm], tore the tranny up,” he states and then emphasis, “We had Mark Woodruff over there, putting a rear end in. Mark Micke helping us, doing the transmission.” And in no small measure, this camaraderie in the pits helps keep DeWayne committed to radial racing.
“I could have went Pro Mod racing years ago, but the drag radial deal’s just kinda ‘me’,” he explains. Part of that, certainly, is the ability to race real, stock-bodied cars. As he notes, “People come out, they can relate to this car,” in contrast to the stretched-wheelbase composite bodies of the Pro Mod ranks. But another part is the sportsmanship between the drivers. Referring to the collaborative repairs, DeWayne notes, “In the Pro Mod world, I don’t know if you’d see two other drivers helping somebody else put their car back together, to try to outrun them.”
But perhaps it’s not surprising that in racing, just as in any other venture, the personalities involved are critical. His own enthusiasm for the radial community is obvious: “I just love it. I’ve met a lot of good people drag racing, and you know, I don’t ever want to be racing in anything where people aren’t friendly.”
But keep in mind that, whether friend or foe, DeWayne insists that the Golden Gorilla is and will forever be loaded for bear on every pass. “If you beat us, you beat us, but we’re not going to get outran,” he states flatly. And that’s essential to his character, and that of his family and crew — they will relentlessly push to move forward and be faster, occasional stumbles be damned. In DeWayne’s words, “I just want everybody to remember me like that. I’d rather spin or win, one of the two. That’s been my motto for 20 years.”