“Am I surprised? Yes and no,” Clay Millican answers sheepishly, knowing it’s a cop out. In fairness, the question didn’t leave him much room. What’s he supposed to say when asked about the recent performance of his Parts Plus / Laris Motorsports Insurance Top Fuel Dragster? He does couch his first answer with some nuance.
“I know what the car is capable of right now,” he continues. “Jim Oberhofer and Mike Kloeber have done a really good job with this. So, I’m not surprised that we’re running well, but I am surprised that we’ve come together so quickly. I know it’s the 15th race of the season, but we really started from a blank slate this year.”
We’ve covered that ad nauseum. But let this sink in: Millican’s NHRA Power Ranking is now on par with his mark from 2018, when he contended for the championship against Steve Torrence. That car, tuned by David Grubnic at the time, was the talk of the category because it offered the best threat to take down the prohibitive favorite.
Mike Salinas and the Alan Johnson-tuned Scrappers Racing machine likely stands as The Challenger in 2019. First impressions mean everything to Human brains, and we won’t forget the first six races of the season, where Millican, Kloeber and Oberhofer got their start with a new crew. But those six races were the foundation of what is now a very good race team. The team is not good relative to its budget, its good relative to the Top Fuel category.
Millican ranks fifth in NHRA Power Ranking over the last six races, behind only Steve Torrence, Billy Torrence, Jordan Vandergriff and Mike Salinas. He will only battle two of them for his first championship. He is averaging an elapsed time of 3.808 seconds, a Success Rate of 60.5 percent and a reaction time of .072-second. His consistency is his biggest weakness, exemplified in the Mopar NHRA Mile-High Nationals final round when he smoked the tires against Torrence.
“We just went up there and pushed it a little too hard,” said Millican. “I don’t think we did anything wrong in that situation as far as process goes, though. You can’t go up against Torrence and try to slide it down the track. You have to be aggressive, so I have no regrets. We just tried to be a little too aggressive in that situation.”
Oberhofer joined the Straightline Strategy Group following a long stint as the crew chief for Doug Kalitta. He is primarily the crew chief for Paul Lee’s Funny Car, but Lee does not run a full-time schedule. That means Oberhofer assists Kloeber on Millican’s Top Fuel dragster when Lee is not on the road. The veteran crew chief has proved invaluable to the team in 2019.
“I think we’ve established a tuning box,” said Oberhofer. “When we want to run quick, we kind of push into this corner of the box and when we need to slow things down for a place like Denver, we can kind of back it down to this corner of the box. We’ve done a better job of establishing what the box is for us and tuning inside of it.”
That box is not as large as it was when Oberhofer worked at Kalitta Motorsports. No race team will turn down the opportunity to compete with a bigger budget, but Oberhofer agreed to the idea that starting out with a smaller budget can make a team more detail oriented.
“When you hurt a piston, you’ll go in and really take a close look at it instead of just throwing in a new piston,” said Oberhofer. “It really forces us to be detail oriented, you know? At the same time, we weren’t running wild at Kalitta. I always say, Connie Kalitta has forgotten more about nitro racing than I’ll ever know. If we were constantly hurting parts, he’d come over and remind us that these things cost money and have us take a closer look at what we’re doing wrong. So, it’s not like we were going to pull one over on him.”
Millican enters the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in fifth place, which is right where he wants to be entering the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. The performance of the team over the last six races is even better, suggesting the team could climb past the cars ahead of them before the field locks. 40 points separate Brittany Force (second place) and Millican.
“I think we're real close,” said Oberhofer. “I think this car shows a lot of signs. I think in Denver in Q4 we were going to run a 3.77 but Clay felt something and shut the car off. We got enough information from that run and we ended up going out and running low e.t. of race day in the first round. I feel the same way about Friday in Sonoma. I think things are going very well.”