Bob Vandergriff Jr.
Bob Vandergriff Jr. and Clay Millican are separated by only three points in the battle for the 10th and final Top Fuel playoff spot in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship. Both drivers chatted with the media about what is certainly one of the closest points battles to earn a berth into the Countdown in recent history.
Vandergriff, driver of the C&J Energy Services dragster, has one semifinal finish and five quarterfinal finishes this year. Millican, who drives the Parts Plus dragster, has three semifinal finishes and four quarterfinal showings this season.
Q: Bob, last year, you came to Indy in a similar position, on the bubble with David Grubnic and Terry McMillen. Anything you learned from that experience that you can put into play this time around?
Vandergriff: Yeah, 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.
Q: And you qualified one time for the Countdown, in 2007. Last year, you actually hit your stride in the playoffs, even though you were not actually one of the championship contenders. You won a playoff race in Dallas, and I know you want to go back there and defend your title as a playoff participant. Is there any extra pressure going into Indy knowing that you're in the 10th spot and that you just have to defend your turf?
Vandergriff: It's a little disappointing like you mentioned, how well we finished last year and winning a race. Pretty much winning rounds at every race all the way through the beginning of this season. Then we have struggled, and we tried things, changed things, and almost feel like right now that guy running the marathon, trying to run the last mile with a pulled hamstring, just struggling to get to the 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. Disappointing for our team. But, like I said, 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 so I mean, 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.
Q: Clay, ever since Houston, you have been floating around 10th or 11th in the standings. Do you feel like you've been stuck in quicksand during that stretch?
Millican: I feel like I've been stuck in oil, to be honest with you. Like Bob, we put ourselves in this position, and for us, 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, and you know, 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, that's for sure. 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?
Vandergriff: I guess that would be a good way to go out.
Q: Clay, the only time you've qualified for the Countdown was 2009. How important is it for you to get into the playoffs and give yourself a shot at a title?
Millican: That would be awesome. I would like to expand on that statement a little bit. That was the only time I had the opportunity to qualify for the Countdown. I've been a Top Fuel racer for a long, long time, and I've run different series and did 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 multicar teams. It's kind of the theme that's going on. Bob is a single-car team, and we are a single-car team, and we are holding our own with the multicar 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.
Q: Does three points seem like 300 points?
Millican: Oh, it 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 that I don't think that Bob is happy with his results last weekend [in Brainerd], and we were not happy with ours. That's the way it goes, and that's why we are on this phone call.
Q: How big would it be for each of your teams to win Indy and secure that final berth in the playoffs?
Vandergriff: Indy 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. 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: 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 [laughter]. He was talking about a pulled hamstring, maybe that's what it was. 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. 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. It's a big weekend coming up, that's for sure.
Q: Do you feel like because it's so close between the two of you, are the qualifying points more important than ever before for you guys? Do you feel like you can't waste a single round; every time out there, you've got to get everything you can get in qualifying because the points between you are so close?
Vandergriff: Well, yes and no. I mean, right now, Clay 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; and 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, 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. 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.
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 any more to that because our car at the moment is not capable of those 3.70s, and we can hopefully go out there and run 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.
Q: All of the talk today has been about the Countdown and the playoffs; do either of you think that the Countdown has overshadowed the U.S. Nationals as a media topic?
Vandergriff: Well, I don't think so. 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. 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: The Countdown 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, 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 multicar 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.
Q: Obviously, we are talking about the U.S. Nationals and the pressure of the playoffs. Can you compare the pressure and this excitement? Both of you have vast experience in this sport. Can you compare that to anything in your past?
Vandergriff: Well, for me, I have to compare it to my previous life in athletics. I come from a pretty highly competitive background, and 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; it's not the same as football or basketball or whatever. 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. 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.
Millican: As for me, do I 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. And when I put my helmet on, I take it pretty dang seriously, and 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.
The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus will take place at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis Aug. 29-Sept. 3. For tickets, log on to NHRATix.com.