Former IHRA Top Fuel titan Clay Millican appeared on the cover of DRAG ILLUSTRATEDin May of 2017, just weeks before he would go on to win his first-ever NHRA Top Fuel race. It was a feat nearly 20 years in the making, and it happened at his home track, Tennessee’s Bristol Dragway, over Father’s Day weekend. No longer would the fan-favorite driver have to answer the question, “So when are you going to win an NHRA race?”, something Millican answered nearly every time he signed autographs at the ropes. Instead, he would answer a new question: When are you going to win another one?
Millican and his fans only had to wait until mid-May of this year, when he drove the Strutmasters/Parts Plus/Great Clips Top Fuel dragster to the final-round win over former IHRA rival Terry McMillen at the rain-delayed NHRA Heartland Nationals in Topeka, Kansas. Then, Millican and his David “Grubby” Grubnic-led Stringer Performance team went back-to-back, winning the Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Joliet, Illinois, just two weeks later.
“It’s still pretty dang crazy that we went back-to-back,” Millican says. “Nineteen years to win my first one, less than a year to win my second, then the third comes the following week. That’s just nuts.”
Calling from his trip to Virginia Motorsports Park for the Virginia NHRA Nationals in June, Millican spoke with DRAG ILLUSTRATED about the whirlwind season he’s experiencing so far.
Exactly 20 years after you made your NHRA Top Fuel debut at Route 66 Raceway, how special was it to get your third win in NHRA Top Fuel at that track, on that weekend?
One of the most special things for me personally was having Peter Lehman there on Sunday. Peter is who gave me my start. That’s who did everything to get my career started. He put that Chicago White Sox deal together for that first car I drove. He’s seen me win a lot of IHRA races as a team owner, and we attempted to win a lot in NHRA. He was there on Sunday, and that was pretty dang awesome. Raymond King was there, too. They both played a big part in me becoming a Top Fuel driver, and it was awfully special to me to get that win with them at the race.
After winning Topeka, you talked about how no one can call you a one-hit wonder now. Did you think you could go out and win your third race just a couple weeks after winning your second?
I have to be really honest: I said it to a lot of people that I was very confident that we could go out and do it again at Chicago. The confidence level is extremely high within this group of people right now. It didn’t surprise me. I don’t want to say I expected it, but I did. I just knew our car was running well enough to get the job done. We did it. Man, it’s crazy, but I really felt like we could go back-to-back.
Some people didn’t take you and team owner Doug Stringer seriously when you launched this Stringer Performance team in 2015 and said you wanted to build a championship-caliber team. Yet here you are leaving Chicago sitting No. 2 in the points. How does that feel?
It’s totally amazing. It’s an incredible feeling being No. 2 in points, especially as far along into the season as we are. The goal is to be in the Top 5 when NHRA resets the points after Indy. We’re in a good position to do that. But I’d love to leave Richmond with the points lead. I’ve never led the points in the NHRA, so that would be fantastic, but not nearly as important as leading the points after Pomona at the end of the year.
You’ve now won three races, qualified No. 1 on multiple occasions and you’re the current elapsed time world record holder. Aside from that world championship goal, what’s the next goal on your list? Maybe a certain race you want to win?
I don’t honestly have specific tracks I would like to win at at the moment. That was checked off the list with my first win. Winning in Tennessee, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
The normal answer would be that I want to win the U.S. Nationals. We won on Monday at Topeka. There is a lot of talk going on that the next time we win on Monday will be at Indy. Hopefully we have no more rain delays and the next time we do race on a Monday is Indy.
Things are just going so well. Right now, I just want to continue this momentum, get more Wallys and stay in that Top 5 until after Indy, then, to quote Grubby, “cut it loose” in those last six races. That’s what we want to do. I would be OK if we didn’t win another race until the Countdown started, then we win six in a row. I’d be OK with that (laughs).
When you brought on Grubby as the crew chief on the Parts Plus car, he wasn’t really proven as a crew chief. There were definitely signs on brilliance at first when the team started up, but now he’s come full circle as a crew chief capable of qualifying at the top and winning races consistently. How cool is it to see that transformation?
The credit for that goes to my wife, Donna. When Doug (Stringer) made the decision that he was going to start the race team and we were talking crew chiefs, Donna did not hesitate to suggest David Grubnic. “That David Grubnic guy is a bad dude and that’s who we should get.” I’m glad we listened to her because she was right – he is a bad dude. He continues to come into his own. I have a blast working with him. He’s the first crew chief I’ve ever had that was also a driver. No matter what I do, he’s pretty much been there, done that. It’s fun for me because he understands exactly what I’m going through and what I’m feeling. He’s a fantastic guy and a fantastic crew chief.
This story originally appeared in DI #134, the Interview Issue, in July of 2018.