Clay Millican’s favorite thing about racing at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the overhead rumble from B-52 bombers, F-16 and F-22 fighter jets, and a variety of other approaching and departing military aircraft from nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
The constant flow of air traffic provides a nice brief diversion from time to time for the popular Tennessee driver as he is intently focused on powering his 8,000-horsepower Parts Plus Top Fuel dragster to the No. 1 qualifying position and ultimately a race victory at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event at Bruton Smith’s state-of-the-art multipurpose motorsports facility that sits just north of the bright lights of Sin City’s main drag.
Millican, who is off to a great start this season, hopes to keep the momentum going at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, April 5-7 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) are the defending winners at the fourth of 24 events that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
While Millican craves the sensory rush he gets from handling the controls of his 320-mph dragster, he says he often daydreams about sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet, flying solo.
“I love the free air show we get when we are there,” Millican said. “I love airplanes, and I had a chance to ride with the [U.S. Air Force] Thunderbirds a few years ago, and man, it’s just a ton of fun to see all the different types of planes that are going in and out of Nellis all weekend long. But Bruton Smith has a great racetrack over there in Vegas, and that certainly helps you like going out there to race a whole lot, too.”
And lately, Millican has been doing a lot of great racing as the driver of a second team car for Bob Vandergriff Motorsports. His team, which is led by crew chief Kurt Elliott, has emerged this season as a top challenger right out of the gate. After losing very close first-round races in Pomona and Phoenix, Millican qualified fourth and advanced to the title round in Gainesville, ultimately losing a close side-by-side final to Antron Brown.
“After what we’ve done the first three races, I feel like that first win is so close,” said Millican, who posted his career-best time and speed on his first qualifying attempt of the season at the Winternationals. “My confidence as a driver is way up there because I have a great team behind me, and I am enjoying this opportunity.”
With five runner-up finishes on his NHRA resume, Millican is anxious to get that first victory. He has been a regular on the circuit since 2003 and competed at 150 events.
“I really don’t let the fact that we haven’t won an NHRA race yet eat me up,” Millican said. “That’s not my style. It is the one question that I get all the time, so I hope we can win pretty soon so that question will finally go away.”
Despite the questions, he says he doesn’t feel any added pressure to win.
“When I get in that race car, I realize I am very fortunate to get to do what I do for a living, and I have a very nice deal with Parts Plus,” Millican said. “I drove a forklift for many years. I am just enjoying everything here and enjoying being a part of Bob’s team.”
One thing is for sure, when Millican does win that first race, everyone will need to brace for what will certainly be a wild and crazy winner’s circle.
“I am not good working off of a script,” Millican said with a laugh. “I can tell you the one thing I won’t do is take off and run from the top end back to the starting line. I will leave that up to Bob because he’s in better shape than I am. But I am ready to find out what I am going to do. I am a spur-of-the-moment-type guy, so who knows what will happen, but I can’t wait for it to happen.”
He knows that to win, he’s going to have to do it during a season that follows what many have called the most competitive ever in the history of NHRA Top Fuel racing. All of those drivers have returned to once again battle it out, including defending world champ Brown, seven-time champ Tony Schumacher, Massey, Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta, Brandon Bernstein, and Morgan Lucas.
“Top Fuel is turning into Pro Stock; the competition is so close,” Millican said. “It’s just unbelievable. But as a driver, it’s nice to know when you stage the car you can make a difference in the outcome of the race. That’s how close it is now, that the driver is playing more of a role in each race, and that’s exciting to me.”
While the excitement of Las Vegas’ massive casinos and spectacular nightlife scene provides a great stress reliever for many on the circuit away from the track, Millican says he and his wife might take in a show and hit a few nice restaurants, but he prefers to save most of his energy for race day.
“I go there all business,” Millican said. “I don’t drink, and I don’t gamble, so Vegas doesn’t distract me too much. There’s nothing wrong with anyone who likes to enjoy all that the city offers, but it’s just not me. However, it’s still fun to go there because they have a great racetrack, and I get to do my job. That is all the fun I need.”
The competition is just as tough in the Funny Car category. Auto Club Ford Mustang driver Hight hopes to defend his title, but teammate Courtney Force and her Traxxas Ford Mustang crew are on the hunt for win No. 2 in 2013. High-profile drivers Ron Capps, 2012 Funny Car world champion “Fast Jack” Beckman, Gatornationals winner Johnny Gray, Matt Hagan, and Alexis DeJoria are also hungry for a win at The Strip.
In Pro Stock, Mike Edwards leads the points standings based on his great performances during qualifying, which include taking the No. 1 spot at the first three races behind the wheel of his I Am Second Chevy Camaro. Edwards has yet to win a race this season, but the two-time winner of this event hopes to change that trend during the weekend. Defending world champ Johnson won the most recent event, in Gainesville, and comes into this event looking for his second title in a row here. Other winners this season in the 200-mph factory hot rod category are Vincent Nobile and Erica Enders-Stevens.
Fans will have the opportunity to meet many of the sport’s superstars at the NHRA Fan Fest Thursday, April 4, at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Schumacher, Brown, Capps, Beckman, Anderson, and Line, along with several other drivers, will be on hand for autographs and a question-and-answer session at the Staten Island Room near the Sporting House Bar & Grill from 6 to 8 p.m.
As always, fans also will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service the race cars between rounds. While visiting the pits, the interactive NHRA Nitro Alley and the NHRA Manufacturers Midway are two popular areas fans won’t want to miss. Children 12 and younger will receive free general-admission tickets with a paid adult.
To kick off Championship Sunday’s pre-race festivities, fans will have the chance to see their favorite drivers during driver introductions. The Jersey Boys cast member Graham Fenton, who plays Frankie Valli (now playing at the Paris Las Vegas), will perform the national anthem.
• SCHEDULE: NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:30 and 5 p.m. on Friday, April 5, and continue on Saturday, April 6, at 12:40 and 2:20 p.m. K&N Horsepower Challenge rounds are set for Saturday, April 6, at 12:30, 2:15, and 3:25 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 7.
• TICKETS: For tickets for the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, log on to www.lvms.com or call The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 800-644-4444.
• TELEVISION: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 6, and three hours of eliminations coverage at 11 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 7.