They took a long walk around Heartland Park Topeka, Top Fuel owner-driver Terry McMillen and protégé Austin Lambright, and the awkward silence was deafening.
In the past six years they didn't always chatter, because Lambright, the precocious car chief who started out as a teenager with Hoosier Thunder Motorsports, automatically knew what needed to be done and did it. But this time was different.
Their mentor-student relationship had run its course, victim to Lambright's youthful restlessness. And they didn't need crooner Neil Sedaka to remind them that "breaking up is hard to do." It was like a divorce, one in which quality individuals simply have different agendas.
Lambright, 24, landed a job last week with John Force Racing, working on Courtney Force's Traxxas Ford Mustang. But the split from McMillen was a double-edged example of drag racing's crazy-quilt of driver and crew chief development.
On one hand, Lambright was spreading his wings, much like Amalie Oil/UNOH Dragster crew mate Marla Weidenaar did when she moved to Alexis DeJoria's Funny Car team a year ago. She had learned about McMillen's operation as a student at the University of Northwestern Ohio and said she "saw that Terry's team was growing and that it's a place I'd be able to learn quickly but learn right."
But while Lambright's loss didn't paralyze McMillen's team, it did blur McMillen's vision for training, enabling, and encouraging the next generation of crew chiefs and aspiring drivers -- something that in 61 years simply never evolved in the National Hot Rod Association arena.
McMillen never claimed to spearhead the movement single-handedly, but he was one of the rare team owners who, even with his own struggle to attract marketing partners, had voiced thought to the future of the sport. Through his UNOH association, he was offering opportunity to well-trained young mechanics. Although Lambright came to him on his own as a self-motivated 18-year-old and didn't go the UNOH route, McMillen still represented the effort to ensure drag racing's longevity and improve its quality.
Lambright's departure won't stop that. It rather simply points out a missing piece in the sport's intriguingly colorful puzzle.
Regardless of social implications, this break-up was, in McMillen's word choice, a "bittersweet" moment for both teacher and pupil.
"It was a quiet walk. Both of us didn't know what to say. We were both probably trying to not believe what really just happened," Lambright said. "I told him I decided I was going to make a change. It was really hard, but you can't look back now. He just told me good luck and if I ever need anything, if he can help, call him. That was about the end of the conversation."
It actually was the end of a story about a hard-working kid from Middlebury, Ind., with a dream in his heart and the chutzpah to ask for a job with McMillen at age 18 because he didn't want to sit in front of a CAD/CAM monitor in school one more day.
It was the end of an almost father-son understanding in which Lambright, who had competed in McMillen's Alcohol Funny Car, was being groomed to drive a second Hoosier Thunder Motorsports dragster. When the funding was finalized, Lambright would be the face of a patriotic and practical program aimed at finding jobs for unemployed military veterans. This team, on both the racing and marketing-program side of the equation, was designed to be where the rubber meet the road -- America's youth applying what it learned in the classroom and America's heroes going back to work.
It was the end of McMillen's plan to have Lambright, who's Mike Neff-like in his mechanical and driving skills, succeed him in the cockpit.
McMillen, who said at Englishtown that his team instinctively collected themselves and focused even more on task with Lambright's departure, said of the aspiring driver, "I think we've just grown apart. Over the years we've done a lot of things together. As young as he is, he's very talented. It was a mutual agreement that we separated. It was nothing harsh. We email each other. We text. I respect him.
"I think he's got a lot of opportunity ahead of him. Right now I just think that it just didn't fit in with what we were trying to do or what he wants to do. We just agreed that we should go our separate ways. It's a tough thing. It's bittersweet," he said. "I invested a lot of money in him to drive a car and things like that. It's just tough that it went that way."
Lambright said, "It was coming for awhile. I decided to walk away and further my career with a different team and see where it all ends up. I think we both need some time to venture out and try and figure out where he's going to take his team and where I'm going to go.
"I wasn't going to learn very much more over there at Terry's," he said during the recent Toyota SuperNationals at Englsihtown, where he advertised his skills in a pit-to-pit campaign and enjoyed watching racing as a fan. "I felt I was at the end of it. We talked and talked, and at the end of the day, I had to make the decision. He told me, 'It's not worth being here if you're not happy.'
"It was my decision. I had to step back and look at the big picture, where I want to be 10 years from now," Lambright said. "I had to make the decision to make the move."
McMillen, who had a flashback to his own young, impulsive self, said, "He's young and he's got a lot of desire, a lot of passion for this sport. But he's young. I think sometimes you want it so bad that you lose sight of that. There's nothing wrong with that. If someone told me when I stated out that I couldn't do it, I was darn sure I was going to figure out a way to do it. I know myself -- if I want something bad enough, it's never fast enough."
Patience, though, is a commodity tougher to come by than nitromethane.
"It takes a minimum of five to seven years to be out here to be a crew chief, to physically have the knowledge of a car," McMillen said. He said Lambright "understands the day-to-day things. I think he excelled at that. It's going to take him some time to be a crew chief, to understand flows and things like that. Nobody jumps in and in two years and never has touched a car and wants to be a crew chief. First of all, these things cost so much money to run down the track that you can't make mistakes. You can't afford them.
"So can he be a crew chief? I think so. He needs to be taken underneath someone's wing, and he needs to ask questions when there are changes made. But he's a bright kid. And more than anything he's got passion. As long as he has passion and stays focused on what to do, he can make it. It's just going to take some time," McMillen said. "It's not going to happen overnight.
"And I wish the best for him. He's a great guy and good friend. He's done a lot for our team. And I feel we've done a lot for him," he said. "All I can do is wish him the best and hope that whatever his path takes it's the right one for him and works out for him."
McMillen had invested not only a lot of capital in Lambright but also a lot of emotion in him, believing in him as his replacement in the car someday.
"I'm 58 years old, and the day's coming that I'm going to stop driving and be [solely] a team owner," McMillen said. "My goal was certainly to put him in there."
Said Lambright, "We left on good terms. Maybe some day I can drive for him or work for him again."
McMillen was amenable to that: "Would I have him back on my team? Absolutely. Sure - why not?"
The Amalie Oil/UNOH Dragster team is moving forward under crew chief Richard Hartman, with some tuning help from Lee Beard.
As for Lambright's absence, McMillen said, "Is it tough without him here? Sure. Is it going to stop us from racing? Absolutely not. Have we rallied around? Yeah. I think everyone has paid more attention to detail, double-checking everything, because that security blanket of having him there is gone. Sometimes change is good, because it makes everybody realize something.
"It made everybody else step up their game in a good way. Nothing negative -- these guys pride themselves in that car going down the track. I've always said that you can be the best driver in the world, but you're nothing without a team. Drag racing is a team sport. No one person is too big for this sport. That's reality. There are 12 guys on my team. And it takes all 12 of us to perform flawlessly to be good. And right now, with everybody stepping up their game, we're kind of heading that direction."
So, McMillen asked rhetorically, "Is change a good thing? I don't know. I've never been a person who likes change. On the other side of the coin, after seeing everybody else do as well as they have done, I'm wondering. Maybe it's not a bad thing."
Maybe it's drag racing's no-fault-divorce law in effect.
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