When trying to figure out the magnitude of his first career Top Fuel win and what it meant to his legion of fans, Terry McMillen simply had to look at his phone. Or, rather, listen for the buzz that signified a new message. By the time he wrapped up his first Top Fuel victory by beating Brittany Force in the final round in Las Vegas, he had 221 text messages that night.
The next morning, he had 340 new – yes, new – text messages congratulating the veteran. In all, it took him four days to get through all the text messages, and the e-mail messages continue to come in. McMillen estimated he still had more than 120 to respond to more than two weeks after the victory. As surreal as standing in the winner’s circle was for McMillen, seeing the immense amount of support and appreciation made it even more special.
“It’s just amazing and it’s just really, really cool how much the fans appreciate what we do,” McMillen says. “It’s all been overwhelming and I’ve been appreciative of all of it. Our fans rode the same roller coaster we have and all those emotions you go through, they are attached to you feeling the same thing. It’s just been incredible.”
In becoming the 104th different Top Fuel winner, McMillen also became the oldest Top Fuel winner in NHRA history at 63 years and nearly 4 months old. That makes it a classic tale of the win being a long time coming for McMillen, who has always continued to battle big-budget teams with an infectious energy, becoming a fan favorite in the process.
McMillen chuckled when the stat about the age was repeated, noting he doesn’t feel all that old. It’s hard to question him, either, as his ebullient nature can’t help but give others around him a jolt. That includes his young team, his crew chief, Rob Wendland, and a fanbase that shares the same passion for the sport as he does.
“It’s just all passion and desire,” McMillen says. “The passion I have and the challenge to be successful, that’s my carrot. It’s all about positive energy, and persistence outweighs any resistance I run into. I just don’t want to fail. While we may have setbacks, we don’t fail.”
That mindset has been a constant for McMillen because things have certainly been tough at times. He had come close in recent years, advancing to two final rounds leading up to Vegas. There have been plenty of growing pains in that process, including developing a young team, but McMillen saw something impressive from them all this year.
“Rob has done a masterful job with the young kids,” acknowledges McMillen, who finished a career-best ninth in points this year. “Rob has done a great job pushing them to their limit, making them the best they can be.”
The win, which was also the first for Wendland as a crew chief, culminated a dream season that also included McMillen qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in his year. That means there’s as much momentum as there’s ever been for McMillen, who said the only remaining goals are to win multiple races in a season and win a championship.
After the season they had, it’s an idea that is not so far-fetched. McMillen already sees a different energy in his team, all from a life-changing moment for everyone in Las Vegas.
“It’s truly been an amazing year and we’ll have memories that are never going to be taken away,” McMillen says. “Sometimes you get into a slump and it’s how do you get out of it. (Now) we’re riding a real good high from our career-best season. We’re all enjoying and embracing what comes next. We’re going to do it with a bounce in our step.”
This story originally appeared in DI #127, the 30 Under 30 Issue, in December of 2017.