Clay Millican grew up in Drummonds, Tenn., in his words, "squealin' tires" around the area and aggravating the neighbors but was relatively harmless.
Bob Vandergriff has, he said, "a pretty highly competitive background." He was an all-state football and basketball in Southern California, and he wasn't afraid to snarl a little and throw his sturdy six-foot, 200-pound frame around, maybe even do a little trash-talking for the team.
As the two prepare to wage the final battle for the final Top Fuel berth in the National Hot Rod Association's Countdown to the championship, both are a little bit amped up. It's no wonder -- they're just three points apart in the standings. Next week's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis will spread the drama out through Labor Day, but neither has a day to waste.
"I take it pretty dang seriously," No. 11-ranked Millican, driver of the Parts Plus Dragster, said during a NHRA-sponsored teleconference Thursday. "I want to be the best out there and I want our team to be the best out there. That's how I look at it. If we were going around and around, I could go over there and maybe draft on Bob a little bit and maybe spin him out and put him in the wall. But we can't do that. We have to depend on our team to get the job done. I look at it as, I have got a pretty cool job and I love what I get to do and I take it pretty serious when I put my helmet on."
Vandergriff, who needs to hold onto his No. 10 spot in the C&J Energy Services Dragster, was even more blunt.
"My mentality has always been, once the game starts, I actually hate the other guy. I don't want to talk to him, I don't want to look at him, and I actually kind of want to rip his head off. For me, it's hard to change that mentality coming into this from the racing side of it. I still have that same mentality, and it's hard for me to turn that off sometimes and look at the other guy over there and pretend he's a friend or be nice to him.
"You know, with Clay, it's hard not to, because he's so nice all the time and so happy," Vandergriff said. "But I found out the secret. He drinks like 10 Mountain Dews a day. It's hard not to be happy and smiling and have all that energy if you drink 12 Mountain Dews. Last year when I raced Tony Schumacher the first round, I didn't like his team, I didn't like his car, I didn't like anything about that group, and I just wanted to rip his heart out. And that's the same way I'm going into this race."
Hearing that, Millican might have gulped -- but it probably was just another swig of Mountain Dew.
"I do drink a lot of highly caffeinated drinks a day. Yes, I do. That's true. But you know what? I go into this whole thing looking at it as I get to drive one of the fastest accelerating cars on the planet. I love what I get to do. I love my job."
He also has a healthy respect for Vandergriff.
"There's certainly not a more fierce competitor out there, believe me, than Bob is. He and I have fun off the racetrack, and we are both pretty dang serious about it when we put our helmet on," Millican said. "He's fun to race with. He does not mess around up there. It's kind of in our own hands. If Bob goes rounds, we have no choice but to go rounds. Bob, I don't want to speak for you, but how cool would it be to race each other in the finals at Indy?"
Said Vandergriff, "I guess that would be a good way to go out."
Because he deadpans his answers so skillfully, it wasn't clear if he meant a good way for Millican to go out or it wouldn't be a bad way to bow out himself.
No matter. Neither one of them is going to fall short of the Countdown to the Championship field of 10 without a fight.
Vandergriff, with one semifinal finish and five quarterfinal finishes this year, came to Indianapolis last year, trying to grab that last spot, along with Dave Grubnic and Terry McMillen. He missed the cut, but he broke out during the playoffs (though he wasn't a contender) with his first victory at Dallas after 13 disappointing final rounds.
He said he learned from that experience that "we have to stop doing this to our team and ourselves. Last year I lost in the second round in a close race. If I would have won that round, I would have made it into the Countdown. I think we just draw on the same experience. Last year we knew when we came here, we knew we had to run good and we had to make our own way in there. And we did that, and we just got beat in a close race. We are going to take that same mind set into this race."
Vandergriff, who also qualified for the inaugural Countdown in 2007, said he's just as frustrated as he was last season.
"We have struggled and we tried things, changed things," he said. "I almost feel like right now that guy running the marathon, trying to run the last mile with a pulled hamstring, just struggling to get the to finish line.
"We have not got it done, and it's been right there in front of us. If we would have just run what we are capable of doing, we would not even be on the phone call today. But we have put ourselves in this place," Vandergriff said. "But . . . we feel like we are driving the train. We are making our own breaks here. Clay can't catch us if we win rounds, and that's a good position for us to be in. Once we get in this Countdown, we get a second life for our season, and that's kind of what we are hoping for."
Without a first NHRA victory yet, the six-time IHRA Top Fuel champion Millican naturally is frustrated. He's even more frustrated, considering he blames himself for much of the botched opportunities.
"I feel like I've been stuck in oil, to be honest with you," he said. "Like Bob, we put ourselves in this position, and I wouldn't be on this phone call if it wasn't for that oil thing. We went through that stretch where we were having motor problems and we were putting oil all over the racetrack. I mean, that's bad for us, bad for our bank account, and it was a big hit to our points. It's also bad for the fans, because we slowed down the show. But since then, the last few races, we kind of got that fixed -- but at the same time, we somewhat lost our performance. We were racking off some of those semifinal finishes and then we went to chasing the motor problem and seemed to have put ourselves behind as far as how the car runs."
Although some fans might not know it, Millican was nearly unbeatable in his earlier days, in the IHRA. So he knows what it's like to be top dog in Top Fuel, and he wants some of that magic to rub off on his NHRA career. He qualified for the Countdown in 2009, but he said both he and Vandergriff should be extremely proud of their accomplishments, considering "Bob['s] is a single car team and we are a single car team, and we are holding our own with the multi-car teams. It makes it tough. They get three or four times the data out of the cars, and we don't have that opportunity. So I'm pretty proud of our team and Bob's team. We have held our own pretty well against those guys.
"I've been a Top Fuel racer for a long, long time, and I've run different series and done different things. I mean, that was our goal at the start of the season to try to get ourselves into this Countdown and maybe have a shot at some of these big multi-car teams. It's kind of the theme that's going on."
Millican said he's not feeling too big for his britches, knowing that he's three points behind Vandergriff and exerting pressure on him.
Those three points, he said, "might as well be 3,000 at the moment. We made up a whopping one point last weekend. I think that was just pure luck, one of those things. I don't think that Bob is happy with his results last weekend and we were not happy with ours."
Vandergriff said he thinks Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis owes him a break, for this race which is celebrating its 58th edition "has been one of those weird races for me my whole career. We've had some highlights there and some serious lowlights. Been to the final round where I was ahead in the race and had a parachute fall out, and I've been to another final round there where I just got outrun. It's kind of been the highs and the lows here, and I guess it's what you would expect out of our biggest race of the season.
"I feel like this place owes us one," he said during a break from testing there Thursday. "We need to get our car straightened out and get it running, and that's why we are here at Indy testing before we can even consider winning this race. We are trying to make some progress here so we can go into this race and feel like we have a shot to win the race. But yeah, Indy, you go in here battling for 10th place and you walk out winning the race, that would be quite a setting."
Millican knows the feeling.
"To win that race to be my first win would be just fantastic. I can tell you this for sure: I'm not running from the far end of the racetrack back to the starting line," Millican said, referring to Vandergriff's stunning, exciting, and at the same time comically plodding run up the track at Dallas in the blistering sun last September.
"I don't know what I would do if I won it, but that would certainly be a good way to get my first NHRA win would be the U.S. Nationals," Millican said. "It's such a big race, and there's so many days, there's so many things that can happen. You get an extra qualifying run. There's the Traxxas Shootouts. And there's a lot of distractions going on and we are in this battle with Bob for the 10th spot.
Vandergriff said in a battle of qualifying bonus points, the advantage likely would go to Millican.
"Right now, Clay['s] and our car are not performing to the level they are capable of. So as far as stealing those qualifying points from some of the other cars that typically run fast in qualifying, if we are able to do that, that's going to be a great accomplishment for our team. Certainly, you can do that, maybe in the warmer sessions during the day, and that's kind of what we are going to point towards -- because the night runs, the guys go out there and run 3.75 (seconds), we don't have a car capable of doing that right now. We are going to point more towards the day runs. We got a few qualifying points in Denver and Sonoma during the day on runs like that where our car runs pretty good during the day. We'll take advantage of that.
"But we can't stretch it enough in qualifying," he said. "The only benefit for the points would be for Clay, because I can't get 17 more points during qualifying to put a round on him, and he could certainly steal three points or four points during qualifying and get ahead of us. So I think that's more of an advantage towards Clay than our team."
Said Millican, "I have to agree with Bob. We can't run the upper 3.70s, during the night sessions and we got close to making a few extra points in the daytime runs this past race, but we ended up fourth quick, not third quick. So it was one of those things where we have got to do our best when it is warm outside, exactly what Bob said. I mean, I can't add to that any more, because our car at the moment is not capable of those 3.70s and we can hopefully go out there and one some low 3.80s when it's warm outside and maybe we can make up some of those three points. That would be awesome. But it's still going to come down to eliminations; hopefully. That means we both qualified and that would be, like I said, a really cool way for everybody to quit talk about the Top 10 thing and Bob and I run in the final. That would be awesome."
Both said the implementation of the Countdown only enhances the U.S. Nationals, the NHRA's oldest and most revered race.
"I think it just adds to the drama of the biggest race of the season. I think that's why the program was put in place, is to take advantage of the timing of it, where the points stop right now. I think it's just created an even bigger event than it could have already been," Vandergriff said. "For the U.S. Nationals, to make that even bigger and put more pressure on you and more emphasis, you're already trying to win the race. It's so big you just throw that on top of it, I think it's just added to the whole race."
Millican said the six-race Countdown that starts Sept. 14 at Charlotte and hits Dallas, Reading (Pa.), St. Louis, and Las Vegas before winding up at Pomona, Calif., where the season began, "is doing exactly what I think NHRA wanted it to do. It's got the media talking to two guys battling for the 10th spot.
"In the old system," he said. "you would not be talking to us, and there would not be this story of two guys battling to get into the Countdown. And I know our team and Bob's team is working our tail off to make our cars run with those multi-car teams, and we may have got the championship. That's part of the deal. You can't really overshadow the U.S. Nationals. The only thing you can do is add to it, and I certainly think this story is adding to it."
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