McMILLEN FINALLY RECORDS FIRST TOP FUEL VICTORY IN 195TH TRY
Terry McMillen left Las Vegas this weekend with a wife, a Wally, and a wonderful antidote to a wicked case of Valley Fever.
McMillen, the popular underdog who’s starting to bite, scored his first NHRA Top Fuel victory Sunday at the Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He finally earned the $50,000 winner’s share of the purse for the first time in 195 events.
The Amalie Oil Dragster owner-driver, who’s competing in his first Countdown to the Championship, scored a 3.870-second, 253.99-mph victory on the 1,000-foot course as Brittany Force fouled out. But McMillen, determined to cash in on his second final-round appearance of the season and third overall, stayed on the gas even though he saw her red light.
“I paid for 3.7 seconds. I’m going to stomp it all the way down there until I get my 3.7 seconds, and anything after that’s extra,” he said with a well-deserved laugh. He said he saw the light and hoped it wasn’t a malfunction.
“They say after the first one it gets easier. I’m going to put that to the test, because I want to find out,” McMillen said. “It’s pretty cool.”
He and longtime fiancée Cori Wickler were married the previous Sunday at the scenic Valley of Fire setting near Las Vegas. But the bride and groom and the team members who attended the wedding contracted what’s commonly known as Valley Fever or some strain of the fungus that produces flu-like symptoms and can last as long as six weeks.
“Since Tuesday we’ve had a fever, almost everybody on the team,” McMillen said. “But every time you won a round, it just gave you more energy. I can’t tell you that in 10 minutes we won’t fall over. It’ll probably happen. But we had a job to do.”
His so-called “Extermigator” Dragster, he said, “was great on the starting line. The lights were good. It all fell in place. We just never missed a beat. Hat’s off to my crew, because they’ve never been this deep [into a race] in a long time. They turned around that car flawlessly. We just went up there [to the starting line] and did our thing. I’ve always said this car would go down a dirt road, and it lived up to that today. We’re really blessed. It’s been a blessed day.
“This is the stuff you dream of as a young kid, to have the opportunity to go out and win a race against the teams that are the best in the world,” McMillen said. “To get that opportunity to get that win was just an amazing feat.
“I wouldn’t be here without all the people who have supported me over the years, even the fans. The fans keep me going every day, because they come by and don’t want me to quit when I was going to walk away after all those [costly and disheartening engine] explosions. Man, I’m so glad I stuck it out,” the Elkhart, Ind., resident said.
“It seemed like I was never going to get a break. I’m not complaining, because I’m a person who believes you make your own breaks. But as our car started to turn around and the team started performing and everything started to go together, we started creating our own breaks. And I think that’s what put us in this position today,” he said.
McMillen, who’s competing in his first Countdown to the Championship and is ranked No. 9, reached the finals of the 2016 Amalie Oil Gatornationals. But he had a dry period until this August at Seattle, where he gave Antron Brown a scare in the Northwest Nationals final round.
“Until we started to have success this year, it was a very distant light out there. It seems like you could see it but you could never reach it,” he said. With the team gelling and the car behaving, McMillen said, “I really knew then we had the opportunity. I’m not going to lie: I felt pretty comfortable coming into the Las Vegas race. Whether our car was going to run like it did, I couldn’t tell you. Our team was motivated after leaving Dallas, knowing that we had put ourselves in the position that we could go out there and win a race.”
Crew chief Rob Wendland, he said, has “done a great job with the car all year long. The best thing that happened is getting Rob Wendland on this team and turning this team around. Rob did an amazing job calling tune-up shots. And the team’s come so far to get us to this level.
“We’re a really small team with a large heart and passion,” McMillen said. “We have a lot of passion to go out there and be successful. Sometimes we don’t have the necessary resources – to be able to test and all that.”
But that didn’t matter as he plowed past Richie Crampton, Clay Millican, and Shawn Langdon on his way to the final.
He won’t be in the down-to-the-wire race for the Top Fuel championship at the season finale in two weeks at Pomona, Calif. But he affected No. 2-seeded Force’s status. Had she won the final, she would have tied Torrence for the lead.
The standings actually started shifting in the quarterfinals. Points leader Steve Torrence opened the round with a tire-smoking, engine-popping loss to Shawn Langdon, who already had eliminated No. 4-ranked Antron Brown.
“That was big,” Langdon said. “Glad to get past those Capco guys with their big guns. So bang-bang.
“Our main focus is to get Doug Kalitta a championship,” he said. “Guy’s a hell of a driver. He deserves it.”
But Kalitta didn’t move any closer to a title when the round ended with his showdown against chief nemesis Force. His Mac Tools Dragster sat still on the starting line with a mechanical problem, while Force benefited despite a .084-second reaction time and a 4.343-second elapsed time. He nudged his car to a .657-second reaction time and 22.684-second E.T.
Also in the quarterfinals, McMillen forced Clay Millican to work even harder at the NHRA Finals if he wants to score his targeted top-five finish. Leah Pritchett used low E.T. of the round (3.754 seconds) to smash Tony Schumacher’s optimism about mounting a miracle comeback.
Torrence retained his points lead. However, he said he hadn’t expected his dragster to lose traction: “We haven’t done that very much this year. It’s just a situation you go through with a new car. You can set them up the same, but there always are going to be little differences. The thing is, I know I’m taking a good hot rod to Pomona. We’ll be ready to rock and roll at Pomona.”
And so will Terry McMillen.