Thousands of hearts sank as fans and fellow racers watched local Funny Car hero Alex Miladinovich crash his Red Shirt Friday/Hot For Teacher Toyota during Saturday qualifying at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, banking the car off the opposite lane guardwall in a body-destroying, chassis-twisting shunt.
Miladinovich has earned legions of fans since his emotional debut at the 2020 Winternationals, where he qualified his homebuilt race car and gave a teary-eyed and touching interview that reached into the heart of the everyday fan who ever dreamed of being in his shoes. Although the team has struggled since that breakthrough moment, when it comes to the Pomona crowd, there’s probably not a more widespread admiration for a privateer than the support that Miladinovich enjoys, which made the crash that much tougher to watch.
Miladinovich knows that love is there, which is why he clambered, John Force-like, onto his wrecked machine to salute the fans, and also why he’s determined to come back.
“I felt about two inches tall when I crashed, so I figured I gotta do something because this idiot has gone and wrecked his car and wanted to give the crowd something to smile about," he said. "They bought their tickets, and I wanted to give them their money's worth.”
Deconstructing the run, Miladinovich was not in the show at the time and needed to run better than 4.24 to make the field. Early numbers and preseason testing had shown the team they had a 4-teen pass in the car if the clutch cooperated.
“We tested, and we got this clutch better, but there's still that that area where it just wants to either make a move and try to get up, smoke the tires, or go in to shake,” he said. “We’ve had other crew chiefs looking at it and can't figure this out, so that’s been frustrating.
“It left good but started to shake, and I was hoping it was going to drive through it, but one tire got out of the groove, and it just grabbed and made a hard right. At first glance it doesn’t appear that anything broke, like a drive hub or anything; it just caught, and whammo! I had the steering cranked hard left, but there was no stopping it. At the last minute, the car started to steer to the left, and I actually thought I was gonna roll at one point. When I hit that wall, I'm like, ‘Oh my God, that hurt.’ “
Miladinovich walked away with bruised knees and a sore back, but otherwise unscathed, a testament to the job that he and his brother, Robert, did building the car in their home shop.
“Everything did its job except for me,” he said. “When we first brought the car out, the [NHRA] Tech Department said, 'We're not gonna lie to you. We were a little scared that someone was building their own car in a garage,’ but after seeing how it did, it was a testament like, ‘OK, you did a nice job, and it works, so we're impressed,' so that was kind of a badge of honor for us with those guys. Between the hybrid system, my Dennis Taylor belts, and the rollbar padding we came out OK. I can’t say the same for the race car.
“We're considering the total loss right now. The way the car hit, the rear end was bent in the chassis, so I'm going to assume that the bottom frame rails took the energy of the load, but it did what it was supposed to do. My biggest fear is that the rear end’s toast. If we can replace the components, that'll be a big savings for us.”
The brothers already had a new chassis on the jig back in December and were already planning to switch to Mustang bodies they bought from the John Force Racing surplus, so they’re further down the road on that end than they normally would be.
"I don't know if we’ll be in Las Vegas [the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in April], because I don't have any obligations to be there, plus we want to go out and test," he assessed. "We're gonna go out, shake down the new car, and then show up at a race when we're really confident.
“The performance is there with the motor. I'm not worried about that. It's just getting through the clutch to the tires. The early numbers are there. We just have to get over the trouble spot. We also have some other ideas that we want to try this next car; maybe some padding on the sides of the legs. I'm not trying to make a rules change. I'm just trying to make a better car.”
Response from the drag racing community has, predictably, been amazing.
“My website blew up with T-shirt orders. My mom and I are gonna spend the next few weeks trying to fulfill these orders. A bunch of people were wanting to start a GoFundMe campaign for us, but I just said, ‘Save your money for your family and your friends. I'm good.’ There are a lot of good people helping me out, and I have to own this one. This is my job. I don’t want to be the pouty, bratty kid on the baseball field; I just want to try to learn from what happened again.
“They’re Funny Cars, and I know it can be dangerous. I knew that going into it. I'm not I'm not trying to take this lightly or like I'm invincible because, man, these cars command your respect and they let you know who's boss.”