After more than 60 years in Illinois, the World Series of Drag Racing has found a new home at Memphis International Raceway in Millington. The two-day event (this Friday and Saturday) will feature the fastest, loudest, and most-rubber-burning vehicles on the planet. Among the men behind the wheel of these land-rockets will be Clay Millican from Drummonds, Tennessee. Over his 18-year career, Millican, now 50, has won six International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Top Fuel world championships.
Lots of people enjoy driving fast cars, but very few get to make a living at it. What’s the secret to your success?
Driving cars is something I’ve loved for as long as I can possibly remember, even before I could drive. I was consumed with cars. The first Top Fuel dragster I can remember was at Lakeland Dragway. I saw “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a match race [in the mid-Seventies]. When I saw that . . . that’s what I wanted to do. The speed. The sounds. How excited people got.
The chances of me ever getting to this level was like winning the lottery. My parents didn’t have money. I grew up in a small grocery store, one my grandfather started. But driving a Top Fuel car was my dream. My parents did everything they possibly could do, but there was a catch: as long as I didn’t do it on the streets. They did all they could do to get me to the racetrack.
You’ve reached 333 mph in 1,000 feet. What does that feel like? Is it possible to describe?
It is, by far, the ultimate roller-coaster ride. I don’t think it’s the speed you feel so much as the acceleration. There’s nothing quicker on the planet. We’re talking 4.5 G’s when you step on the throttle. You become really strong when you’re strapped into one of those cars. Fight or flight kicks in. It’s your brain taking care of your butt. Your brain takes over and slows things down. The more you do it, obviously, the better you become.
You’ve won six championships in a sport that separates winners and losers by fractions of a second. What are the skills you’ve developed that distinguish you from your competitors?
This far into my career, it’s just being a veteran. Knowing what the car’s about to do. The most important thing in winning championships is “want-to.” My mama has always said I had the “want-to.” I was going to do this, no matter what. I was fortunate, in the right place at the right time.
Was there a breakthrough moment when you knew you could make a career out of drag racing?
That happened when I became friends with a young man named Peter Lehman, and he bought into my dream. He ended up buying some equipment and we went Top Fuel racing together. That was the start of all the championships. The first year we raced full time in Top Fuel (2000) we finished second in points. The following year was the first of six straight championships.
What’s the most important element to a car when it comes to winning a drag race? What do you and your team focus most upon?
The most important part of a race team is the people. No matter how good your crew chief is, no matter the parts and pieces you have . . . if the people assembling them aren’t 100-percent in tune, you have no chance. [A nine-member team supports Millican, with specialists for, among other areas, cylinder heads, tires, and the clutch.] These are full-time, dedicated racecar people.
You're a small guy (140 pounds), is that an advantage?
Absolutely. I actually get lighter when we’re traveling nonstop. By rule, the car has a weight minimum of 2,325 lbs. after a run. You can weigh as much as you want above that. We don’t have to buy exotic [lighter] materials to make sure the car meets minimum weight. And if we’re underweight, we can put parts in strategic places that make the car work better.
You must have suffered some mishaps. How has safety in drag racing evolved?
There are thousands and thousands of drivers who make runs at over 100 mph, which is crazy-fast on the highway, and you shouldn’t be doing. In general, yes, bad things happen and people get hurt. But if you look at the amount of people who do it and the amount who get hurt, drag racing is very safe. The sanctioning bodies require certain safety aspects. At my level, these rules are at their highest. Every year, the cars are actually sonic tested to check thickness of the tubing. And they’re safety-inspected every weekend. General things like seat belts (and these aren’t ordinary seat belts). We wear a super thick fire suit. I wear two pairs of flame-retardant socks. The interior of the car is built around me; it molds around my body. The cars are continually evolving.
You and your wife lost a son, Dalton, in a single-person motorcycle accident. Tell us about the BRAKES program, which will honor Dalton’s memory this weekend. [A driving school for teens, BRAKES stands for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe.]
BRAKES was started by a driver named Doug Herbert, a fierce rival of mine. [Check out Doug Herbert-Clay Millican on YouTube.] He lost two sons in a car accident. I got over being mad at him at that point. I was already helping with the BRAKES program. I’ve visited a lot of local schools, starting with Munford High School, where I graduated. The response has been really good.
It’s for teens age 15 to 19, and it’s free. Ninety percent of all teenage drivers are going to have an accident. UNC-Charlotte has done a study on students who have been through the BRAKES program, and they are 64-percent less likely to have an accident. It’s incredible. Kids are put in real-world situations, with professional drivers. What happens when a car hydroplanes? What should you do? It’s going to happen at some point. [144 students will attend BRAKES classes this weekend at Memphis International Raceway. For information, go to putonthebrakes.org.]
Any career-building tips for aspiring young drivers?
Going back to what Mama says: If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. I worked at the Kroger food warehouse on Airways for 11 years, racing locally every weekend. But I had the “want-to” bad enough that I made a career that’s almost 20 years now. Treat every single person you meet as if they may be the person that gives you the opportunity to become a professional racer. That’s what happened to me.