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Behind the Visor: How Terry McMillen evolved into a championship contender

Terry McMillen took the long and difficult road to become a championship contender. He tells us in his own words the how and the why.
31 Mar 2019
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
Behind the Visor
Terry McMillen

The struggles that Terry McMillen has gone through to become a championship contender in Top Fuel are well documented. Frustrating DNQs. Broken parts. Broken dreams, but never a broken spirit. If you’re looking for someone who’s up for a fight to the finish, McMillen is your man. His quest to win a national event was fulfilled when he won in Las Vegas in 2017, and he validated that win by taking his second title at last year’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. McMillen recently discussed the long and winding road that he has taken to become a championship contender in Top Fuel.

Back in 2013 and 2014, we really struggled and didn’t qualify for this [Gainesville] race. To be clear, Amalie has never put pressure on me as far as any performance standards, but we put that pressure on ourselves. I came here, and it’s their race, and it’s all about their customers and employees, and at the end of the day, we let them down. We let them down because we weren’t able to participate on Sunday; that’s a hard pill to swallow. Over time, we’ve made some adjustments, and a big key to improvement has been our crew chief, Rob Wendland. His ability to tune the car and organize the team and structure things has basically been the turning point of the whole program. 

Looking back, in Charlotte in 2014, we had another major explosion, and I made the comment that I didn’t know if I could do this anymore. When that happened, I didn’t have the money. Every penny we get goes back into this car, and we just couldn’t take a hit like that. By the time I got back to the trailer and saw the crowd, it changed my attitude. That’s when we started the process of looking at things, and we made some changes to figure out how we could stay out here. I was able to find Rob, and it took a year or so to get everything weeded out parts-wise. He has been in full swing since then, and he continues to uplift our program. 

Rob can make a lot of things happen. A lot of Crew Chiefs are good at tuning the car, but they don’t work on the car. There is not a part on this car that Rob doesn’t touch. His strong point is attention to detail. We have great people, but he finds little things that need attention, and those are the things that keep us from exploding a motor. So, his talent is not as a tuner or organizer. His true talent is having a vision of what he can build and how to make things better.

Today, we have great parts. Do we have many great parts? No, but we have what we need. The thing is, when you blow up a motor and lose $160,000, you have to come up with that instantly. That’s difficult to do in today’s environment. Now, we’re in the process of cycling our parts out. That’s what stops all those bad things from happening. Religiously, Rob looks at everything, and if he finds something that’s not up to his standards, we replace it. He also takes each individual on our crew and shows them how to monitor each part. They each have a notebook, so Rob knows when he gets information, it’s the right information. He can now spend a little more time on the computer looking at runs. I also don’t second-guess his decisions. I let him handle the whole crew. I told Rob from day one that this is his program, run it how you want it.

Obviously, it all came together in Las Vegas two years ago. That was amazing. At that point, our car was running good numbers, but we were slow in the first 60 feet, and we worked on that. We got a handle on it in Dallas, so when we got to the next race in Vegas and won, it wasn’t a surprise. We knew we had a good car. At that point, we still couldn’t run 3.60s, but I knew we could put ourselves in a good position to finally win a race.

Today, we’ve got our chassis right, and the car now runs in the 60s, and the blessing of all of it is that parts are coming back brand-new looking. It’s also brought my lights back to where they should be. Now, I’ve got total confidence, not just in myself but in everyone else on this team. This is the first time the car responds to small moves. Before, we had to make big moves, and those don’t work. I’m very excited now. We went to the semi’s in Pomona, and I had a .056, and Doug Kalitta had a .043; we got beat on a holeshot, that’s going to happen. Then, we went to Phoenix and qualified No. 2, which is the highest we’ve ever qualified.

We’ve also signed with Amalie through 2023. I’ve been with them 19 years, and now, we will go to 24. I think I have four more years left in me, and if I don’t, we’ll put someone in the car. We’re already planning to get Rob a license just in case something happens. If I start doing really dumb things, I’ll make that decision, but right now, I feel like I can still do this. We’re really excited to see what the rest of the year has in store. — As told to Kevin McKenna