A few years ago, Terry McMillen didn’t even know if he wanted to keep racing. Heading into 2019, he’s wondering what he can do for an encore.
McMillen had just come off a disastrous 2015 season filled with more fireballs and broken parts than win lights. He had come frustratingly close to qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship for six straight years. He was down, almost out.
In 2016, he and crew chief Rob Wendland got the Amalie Motor Oil dragster right and reached his first career final round, finishing second behind Brittany Force in Gainesville. He missed the Countdown by one spot.
In 2017, he finally won his first national event, at the fall Las Vegas event — interestingly, he bet Force in that final — and qualified for the Countdown for the first time.
Last year, he not only qualified for the Countdown again, but he achieved what had to seem like an impossible dream, winning the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
What’s left now but the championship, right?
“Oh yeah, we want to make a good run at the championship, but we know it’s a tough, tough thing to accomplish,” he admitted. “We had so much success last year, from winning Indy and making it to four other finals, which we think was a great accomplishment for a single-car team like ours, but it also showed us our weaknesses.
“We had a great year, and were on such a high from winning Indy. We had been sixth of seventh in points most of the season, but then it all fell apart in the Countdown.
“We were having clutch-disc issues because we ran out of discs. We were putting in one or two new discs every run. If you can run the same clutch pack every run, from the same batch of discs — because they’re all different — you know what it will do. Sometimes you just change one disc and it gets real angry. By the end of last year, our discs were so mixed up that if we had any heat on the clutch at all it would smoke the tires.”
So McMillen and Wendland spent the winter gathering enough clutch discs — 400 or so in all — of the same batches to improve the consistency they think was the only thing that held them back.
“We should have finished in the top five; that was the goal,” he said. “To miss it that much with a car that was running good enough to do it. It wasn’t anything anyone was doing wrong; it was just the clutch discs.
“It was either feast or famine for us. If we could get past the first round, we could get to the final, but that was a struggle sometimes, and then when we did get to the final, we’d run into those clutch problems.
“We were runner-ups four times, and in three of them, we smoked the tires,” he recalled. “We were well ahead of Blake [Alexander] in Norwalk and definitely would have won that race. The only person who outran us in a final was Steve Torrence [in Dallas], but then again, he outran everyone in the Countdown.”
Torrence’s final-round victory over McMillen came in the midst of a 24-round win streak that began after Torrence was defeated in the second round in Indy — by McMillen.
“Oh yeah,” he said with relish. “I remember that we were the last guys to beat him last year, and I hope that if we race him this year, we can be the first one to beat him this year.”
McMillen’s Amalie dragster was front-halved over the winter in-house by Wendland — another cost-saving move implemented by the team — but he’s also breaking in four new crewmembers.
“I lost my cylinder-head guy, who went to work on A.J. Foyt’s IndyCar team. I lost my supercharger guy, who went to Vance & Hines to work on their flat-track team, my clutch and tire guy had to go be with his father and grandfather, who are having health problems, and we let another guy go last year after Dallas. We have some guys who were on Cruz’s team last year, and we brought in Chris [McNicol, an experienced crewmember from the Bob Vandergriff team, not in competition this weekend], so we’ve got to get all of that working.
“I think if we find some consistency and get it dialed in, we should be able to run with anyone any time,” he said. “The next agenda is to come up with a second car for the extra data. I don’t want to do it for 24 races — 16 races would be cool, 10 might be more realistic — because look at all of the guys who are winning. With the track prep being cut back — which I think is the right thing to do — it helps to have that extra information.
“We’ve got a plan. We’ve been with Amalie for 19 years and will be with them for the foreseeable future — we’ll have an announcement in Gainesville — but it’s nice to have that confidence of a longtime partner like Amalie behind you.
“I put every ounce of energy I have into this car, and ultimately, the plan is to try to grow,” he said. “I’m really fired up and excited for what the future holds.”