The neighbors of Top Fuel driver/owner Terry McMillen must think that he missed the memo that the 2012 NHRA season ended more than a month ago. McMillen hasn’t spent much time in his Elkhart, Ind., home since he made his most recent pass down the dragstrip at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona on Nov. 11. Rather, he has been racking up air miles to go to meetings and presentations across the country in order to increase sponsorship support of his Amalie Oil/UNOH team.
“Man, I’ll tell you what, since Pomona I’ve been home for three days,” said McMillen. “I got home one night from California after a meeting with sponsors and got on another plane two days later to go back to Tampa [Fla.] to see Amalie. I have a boat that I take out to Lake Michigan that I only used once this year and twice the year before. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been great.”
To McMillen, being a privateer means having to work a little harder. Until he grows his team large enough to have the financial depth to have full-time marketing personnel to forge new sponsor relationships, he is personally responsible for knocking on doors and selling his team as a viable marketing option.
“You do everything yourself,” said McMillen. “Like I’ve said from Day 1 in racing, I know how to work on these cars. I’ve done it all. No one’s going to BS me in it. It’s certainly nice to get some relief and a breath of fresh air. Sometimes you wonder if you don’t screw up more by running so hard and trying to get so many things done. It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t change it, though. I love it.”
It may not be an ideal scenario for most, but McMillen certainly has the profile of someone who thrives in such conditions. It doesn’t take much time to identify him as a positive, highly energetic individual who possesses the gift of gab. He has endeared himself to fans who have heard his fast-paced top-end interviews reminiscent of vintage John Force.
“People come up to me and say, ‘Man, I love your interviews on the top end,’ and that’s fine so long as they don’t ask me to repeat it because I can never remember what I said,” McMillen joked. “We’ve had a lot of good days and bad days at the racetrack, and I’ve noticed at the end of the day that race fans just want to talk to you and hang out and get their pictures. NHRA has the best fans out there. I’ve realized that no matter how bad it was for me, they still came to see you and talk to you.
“I sign about 2,500 hero cards per weekend. After we’re done qualifying or running eliminations, we probably put 25 or 50 people a night in the car to get their picture taken. I don’t have any ropes around our pits that say ‘Don’t come in.’ Those are the type of things that elevate us as a sport. If there are no fans, there’s no reason to hold the race. I’ve always felt that it’s very vital to grow our sport, grow our fan base, and make it more viable for our marketing partners. One thing about our fans is that they are extremely loyal. They are always calling and looking to buy Amalie Oil, Genius Tools, or Flatout Gaskets.”
McMillen is entering his fourth full season of racing on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, and it will be his 13th season of racing with sponsorship form Amalie Oil. He prides himself in the fact that he’s been able to consistently offer enough return on investment that every sponsor he has brought into the sport has remained a loyal supporter.
“If they give us a dollar, I make sure they get two dollars back in return,” said McMillen. “That’s why, out of all the years I’ve raced, the only marketing partner I’ve lost was a business that was sold and stripped. Everybody else that I’ve ever signed on my car has been there the whole time. That’s how hard and dedicated we are to making sure that we make it work for them. If we can continue to do that, we’re going to get to that [top] level at some point in time whether I’m in the driver’s seat or becoming just a team owner.”
For the time being, crew chief Richard Hartman is in a similar situation to McMillen in that he is responsible for the performance of the car without resources such as an assistant crew chief or a team car to draw data from. He still managed to tune McMillen to a career-best 3.82 last season and made him part of the quickest field in Top Fuel history at the season-ending event in Pomona. McMillen qualified as high as No. 3 in Bristol and No. 4 in Denver.
“As a single-car team, the dilemma that we fight is that Richard has nobody to bounce anything off of,” said McMillen. “He has to make the decision and live with the decision. I try to go in the trailer and hang out with him. A lot of days, I probably annoy him, but I suppose that’s the relationship that crew chiefs and drivers have [laughed].
“At the end of the day, he does it all on his own. We’re gaining. We’re running better. We have to get enough funding to get him an assistant, someone to work through things with him. The most important thing is having data. You look at [Don] Schumacher’s cars, and if they each only get down the track one time, they still have four pieces of data to look at. Our goal is still to be able to fund that second car. That’s kind of what I’ve been on the road for. We want to make that happen so we can give Richard those same tools. It’s all a building process.”
The level of competition noticeably increased last season in the class with 12 drivers recording 3.7-second runs and 10 scoring national event wins. McMillen came within one round-win of securing a spot in the Countdown to the Championship in 2011 but wasn’t in the hunt with one race remaining in 2012. Upgrades in the cylinder head and supercharger programs have McMillen excited to test his dragster in south Florida this January and bridge the gap between him and the top competitors.
“3.70s are commonplace now, and we have to learn how to run that,” said McMillen. “It’s awesome for the sport. The numbers from No. 1 to No. 16 are like Pro Stock; it’s within a tenth sometimes. If you can’t run .80s, it’s hard to get in the show anymore. It’s exciting. We’re getting close, we’re knocking on doors, but we’re not there. Richard’s going to get us in that direction where we’re going to be one of these players.”
McMillen recognizes the internal battle between his sensible side that preaches patience and his competitive side that hopes the next run or the next meeting will be the catalyst that brings his aspirations to reality.
“We pretty much start each day at 6:30 in the morning and go until 1 o’clock in the morning at least six days a week when we’re not at the track and then do whatever it takes at the track,” said McMillen. “It’s about continually never leaving a stone unturned and trying to find the support. I think companies are coming back with a little bit of money. The floodgates aren’t opening by any means, but it’s getting better. It’s exciting to see that happening, but we’re not very patient people. You want it all now and want to go out there and bring your A-game and kick everybody’s butt.”
So long as Corporate America is answering his phone calls and he has nitro in the tank, McMillen is content with his fast-paced lifestyle — even if it means that his boat stays landlocked for the foreseeable future.
“I have this motto that persistence outweighs resistance; if you’re persistent enough, you can get anything done,” said McMillen. “At the end of the day, we’re thankful for NHRA for providing great places for us to race, the fans who support not just our race team but racing in general, and all of our marketing partners. We’re fortunate to be able to get to do what we do.”