WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DECADE MAKES FOR MILLICAN/KLOEBER
When Clay Millican won his first national event in 2000 while racing IHRA, he was as wet behind the ears as any rookie could be.
Millican won his first-ever Top Fuel event in 2000, beating veteran Shirley Muldowney to win the IHRA Canadian Nationals in Grand Bend, Ont. The sophomore driver was under the tutelage of tuner Mike Kloeber, a wrench-turner who came up on the rough side of the tracks in nitro racing.
"Mike was my teacher," Millican said. "Through all of my IHRA racing, a lot of NHRA racing, I had Mike. So essentially he taught me everything and I’ve heard him say this a thousand times, "The only thing I’ve ever staged is my foot."
Kloeber had grown up around nitro racing, and his teacher was not the coddling type. He learned the ropes under the legendary Jerry "The King" Ruth. Kloeber would later gain his crew chief credentials under another tough customer, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.
Together, Millican and Kloeber amassed 51 wins from 2000 - 2006, and six consecutive Top Fuel championships in their reign of dominance in IHRA.
At the end of the 2006 season, then team owner Evan Knoll, who purchased the team from Peter Lehman in 2005, fired Kloeber. Kloeber found a few gigs afterward, but none really turned into a program comparable with what he'd had for the previous decade.
Almost thirteen years later, the brothers in spirit found themselves together when tuner David Grubnic departed at the end of 2018. Millican describes the reunion as magical.
"Mike was out of racing for eight years, and we were in need of a crew chief," Millican said. "The moment we went to the race track in Phoenix and he rolled me forward into the beams for the very first time for him in eight years, it was kind of cool. They put that photo on the front of the National Dragster of him pulling me in the beams, there was a grin on my face from ear to ear, because it’s like seeing your brother you hadn’t seen in a long time.
"To have that helmet on and for him to be the one pulling me forward, it just made me feel good. It made me smile. I didn’t care what the car did."
After losing in the first round at the first two events, Millican and Kloeber have managed two final round finishes plus a couple of final-four appearances in the four-wide events.
'As the year went it was like we picked up exactly where we were," Millican said.
However, the Millican Kloeber tuned for this time was not the same one he left.
"I was like the little brother that had always 100% did whatever the big brother said, I did," Millican explained. "Well, with that little break we took, it was like the little brother – being me – went off to college and I got many more years of driving without Mike being there.
"When he came back and once we started getting a few runs under our belt, he said, “Hey, I like how you’re doing that. Why are you doing this when we used to do it like this?”
Seeing his "little brother" develop into a tuner's driver is something Kloeber feels was incredibly important to helping them to advance to the next level.
"He's more dedicated; If that’s possible," Kloeber said. "He’s more dedicated today to be the best driver he can be than he was when we were together the first time. Clay’s clearly a better driver today. Better on the starting line than he ever has been in years past, so all that work he’s doing off the track is paying off.
"I’d really like to think that all of those things that I shared with him about how other drivers that I’d worked for were successful in their racing careers. He’s largely adopted all those best practices. It’s great to see him having grown, matured and a much more capable person today than when we were first together in 1999."
Millican isn't the only one who changed. Kloeber did a bit of adjusting of his own. Sitting on the sidelines for nearly a decade because of the opinion he was too tough to work for, Millican believes perception isn't always reality.
"Mike 100% should have never been out of racing," Millican explained. "He’s one of the greatest minds out here. His knock out here was he was rough on people and probably was a little bit, but he came from the old school of racing.
"Mike and I continued to communicate even though he wasn’t my crew chief. He essentially got pushed out of the business because people were scared that he was rough on people I guess, for whatever reason. He had told me after he had had a job in the corporate world for a few years, he called me and said, "You probably knew something that I never knew. In the corporate world, they have what’s called the Human Resources Department. And apparently, I can’t treat people the way I had been treating ya’ll sometimes.”
"He’s definitely a changed person now. He’s not nearly as rough on doing things. He’s still absolutely one-hundred-percent as thorough, and he has a different approach on how he shows people how he wants things done. As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the greatest minds in drag racing."
Though they haven't amassed the same level of success they achieved the first time around, Millican believes they are as dangerous as they have ever been.
"I’d say absolutely we are," Millican said. "I think working within our means makes us a little more dangerous because we have no choice but to pay more attention to the small details and I think that makes a big difference."