Taming ‘Golden Kong’: Kallee Mills and the Opportunity of a Lifetime
Kallee Mills closes her laptop and sets it back on the kitchen table, her new workspace in her parents’ Tulsa, Oklahoma-area home. She would normally spend this Friday afternoon in the office at her father’s construction business, Mills Truck & Tractor Services Inc., but like most of the country, Mills has relocated her work to the confines of her home to comply with COVID-19 social distancing practices.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #155, the Women of Power Issue, in April of 2020.]
“I really don’t know how this is going to affect our racing schedule this season,” Mills says, referring to the novel coronavirus and the shutdowns that it’s caused throughout the racing industry. “We are so very last minute as it is. We don’t really have a set schedule. It’s usually like two weeks before a race we’re like, ‘OK, there’s a race next weekend. Let’s go.’ Our plans change quite a bit.”
But don’t mistake Mills’ nonchalance for indifference. The pandemic has thrown an industrial-sized wrench into the works for Mills, who is destined to take over the driver’s seat of the “Golden Kong” ’68 Camaro usually driven by her father, “Big Daddy” DeWayne Mills, at some of the biggest no-prep races in the country, including stops on the Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings tour.
Mills’ no-prep debut, on hold for who knows how long, was first announced at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Show held in Indianapolis last December. The announcement was one of the biggest drag racing-related happenings at the show, and for obvious reasons. The 22-year-old was stepping into the red-hot no-prep scene in what has been described as one of the most competitive no-prep cars in the country. It won six out of nine events in the Future Street Outlaws class on the No Prep Kings tour in 2019, more than earning a slot on the Discovery show. Still, Mills was surprised by the reaction to her announcement.
“I really didn’t think it would be that big of a deal,” Mills starts, “but everyone was talking about it. My dad just started putting my name stickers on the window and people would stop and talk about it. Then I posted it on my Instagram and it immediately started blowing up.”
Before diving into the subject of how Mills ended up moving into the “Golden Kong,” it’s important to first get an idea of her background in racing. Her father’s résumé is well-known – No Mercy 7 Radial vs. the World champion, 2016 NMCA Radial Wars world champion, first Radial vs. the World driver in the 3.60s, etc. – but what are Kallee’s credentials?
Like most drag racers in her age bracket, Mills started out in Jr. Dragsters, but it almost didn’t go that way. She raced four-wheelers for a year when she was young, but her mother, Tara, wasn’t a fan of her daughter racing around without a cage surrounding her. DeWayne was deep into the sprint car racing scene at the time, and he almost started Kallee down that path before she objected.
“My dad actually tried to get me to run sprint cars because I had a little go-kart that I would ride around on the big piece of property we had,” Mills says. “And so he’s like, ‘Man, she sets up the corners good. We need to get her in the sprint car.’ And I was like, ‘No. I ain’t racing that. I don’t like dirt. I like to keep myself clean and nice.’ And so he bought me a Jr. Dragster and it all started from there.”
It was the perfect balance for Mills, who says she was a mix between a tomboy and a girly girl growing up. Her other hobbies included competitive dance, cheerleading and showing pigs through the local FFA chapter. “I was like the dream child,” Mills laughs. “I was the only child. So my dad and my mom got the best of both worlds.”
A fair amount of success followed in Jr. Dragsters, as Mills racked up multiple track championships at Tulsa Raceway Park, two Wallys and late-round finishes at the NHRA Western Conference Finals in Denver. As she grew closer to aging out of Jr. Dragsters, her attention switched to the next step.
“My dad asked me what I wanted for a car, a street car,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Dad, I don’t want a new car. I just want you to build me a race car.’ So he put together what we now call the ‘Golden Panda.’”
By the time the car was fully prepped for X275 competition by Matheis Race Cars, complete with a 427ci Pro Line engine and an 85mm Precision turbo, Mills was ready to head off to college.
“My dad wanted me to concentrate on school because that’s something that I hold really important, education, and making sure that I have what I need to make it in life and be successful,” Mills says. “So I didn’t really race much right when they got the car done.”
Mills stayed involved in racing, though, flying into races to crew on her father’s “Golden Gorilla” Radial vs. the World entry. She then started racing the “Golden Panda” in X275 races during the summers, but once school started back up in the fall, school activities got her full focus.
Four years as an A student paid off last May when Mills earned her bachelor’s degree in strategic communication from the University of Central Oklahoma, opening up her schedule for even more racing.
She plans to continue racing in X275 this season, chasing her first victory in the class at events like Duck X Productions’ South Georgia Motorsports Park races, as well as Mid-West Pro Mod Series races. She’s looking to improve on three runner-up finishes in MWPMS X275 competition.
In fact, Mills considers her first runner-up finish to be the highlight of her young racing career so far, but not for the obvious reason. She lost in the final round of the PSCA’s 2018 Heads-Up Hootenanny at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis, but so did her father, who fell in the Radial vs. the World final. They didn’t return home to Tulsa with a trophy, but since they were able to share the final-round experience in two highly competitive classes, Mills chalked it up as a victory.
“I want to win – I’m a winner and I’m very competitive, but most of the highs of my racing career aren’t winning,” Mills begins. “And it’s crazy because we win a lot. I mean, my dad wins a lot and I’ve been to multiple finals, but it’s just that I like the camaraderie and the family aspect of racing, and going and hanging out with our family friends that we don’t get to see as often as we’d like because they live halfway across the country.”
The Mills Racing crew was testing at Orlando Speed World Dragway in February last year, preparing for Lights Out 10 at South Georgia, when Kallee dropped the big question: “What’s it going to take for me to drive ‘Kong’?” she asked DeWayne.
“I was joking around, but kind of not joking around at the same time because that’s just my personality,” Mills recalls. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I was just joking,’ but I wasn’t really joking. So I asked my dad, and he was like, ‘Well, you need to figure out how to do a burnout without the burnout switch.’”
It was a fair request, Kallee admits. She was used to using the burnout switch in her X275 car, and as its name suggests, the “Golden Panda” is considerably tamer than the twin-turbocharged, 572ci Pro Line 481x-powered “Golden Kong” no-prep car.
“I’d never even thrown the ‘chutes or done anything like that in the X car because we run eighth mile and I’m only going around 165 mph,” Mills says. “That’s pretty fast, but to me it’s not that fast because I see my dad’s going 200 mph.”
So Mills complied with her father’s request, turning off the burnout switch and learning to do burnouts manually. She didn’t push the subject again all summer until the tail end of the No Prep Kings schedule, by which point “Golden Kong” had won six races in nine final rounds in the Future Street Outlaws class. DeWayne gave in and offered to let Kallee start testing in Kong when the team went testing in Florida over the winter.
“We decided I was just going to test the car and get comfortable in the seat and not take over until I felt comfortable in the car,” Mills says. “After that, I didn’t really think anything of it. And then we got a call from Goodridge and they asked if we wanted to put the car on display in their booth at the PRI Show. We said yeah.”
Two weeks before the Mills family left Tulsa to head to Indy for the PRI Show, DeWayne received a concerning call from his doctors.
“He didn’t really say anything to me about it, but his doctors had been watching his PSA levels because he had thyroid cancer before, so he had to take radiation and stuff for it,” Mills says. “So they always have made sure they stayed on top of his health.”
The doctor was calling to notify him that he had prostate cancer. They would need to give him radiation treatment or surgery to remove the cancer cells. After the surgery, he would need to stay out of the car for at least eight months. “So that’s when I was like, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll get in it. I’ll drive,” Kallee remembers.
That quickly changed the nature of the family’s trip to Indy. They decided to take advantage of the large captive audience to break the news.
“The original plan was to roll the car into PRI with the stickers that had my name on it,” Mills says. “What’s a better time to reveal that I’m running the car than PRI when everyone is there? Everyone who is big in drag racing is at PRI.”
Mills forgot to order the name stickers until a couple days before leaving for Indy – remember the whole “last minute” thing? – so the car was already in place in the Goodridge Hoses booth in the Indiana Convention Center by the time the Stav Ink Designs decals came in. That led to an impromptu sticker ceremony during the show, after which Mills posted a photo of Kong’s new window vinyl on the Mills Racing social media pages, as well as her own accounts. The posts quickly spread online.
“I was walking down the street and people were like, ‘Hey, are you excited?’ And I’m like, ‘For what?’” Mills laughs. “Then I realized what they were talking about, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m really excited.’ But you don’t really think about how much support you have until something like this. I know my dad has people that follow him, but I really never thought, Oh, I have these followers.”
To Mills’ relief, the news was received pretty positively across the board. Fans, fellow racers and other supporters made comments offering prayers for DeWayne in his cancer bout and good luck to Kallee as she made the step up.
“It made it a little bit more refreshing because I was really, really worried about what people would say,” she admits. “People are always going to have negative things to say about you when you’re doing good and you’re doing good things. There’s always one group of people that you can’t ever please. And I was really worried that people were going to be like, ‘Oh, she’s just getting into it because her dad blah, blah, blah. But I don’t race because my dad lets me race. I race because I like to race and we do it as a family, and he doesn’t make me do anything that I don’t want to do. So if I don’t take the initiative to want to be there, he’s not going to put in money and time and effort.”
Kallee Mills’ first passes in the purpose-built no-prep car happened during a secretive test session at Emerald Coast Dragway, just northeast of Pensacola in the Florida panhandle. It was secluded by design.
“I told my dad I want to go somewhere where no one knows where we’re at,” Mills says. “I didn’t want to post on anything. I didn’t want to go to a really well-known track. I wanted to go somewhere where no one’s going to be because I have never driven a big-tire car. A big-tire car and a small-tire car are two totally different things.”
“I was extremely nervous, I can’t even explain,” Mills says. “That was as nervous as I’d ever been. The first time I just did a burnout. I did good. I never stuck the tire or anything. I was just a little long shifting in the burnout because I’d never had to shift a car in the burnout, and I did good. I backed up. I was so shaky; my legs were so shaky.”
Kallee wasn’t the only one who was nervous. DeWayne was just as nervous outside the car, if not more nervous, as he pulled his daughter into the beams for her first launch in “Golden Kong.”
“My dad pulls me into the lights and he was like, ‘I was holding my breath the entire time and as soon as you left I thought I was going to pass out,’” Mills recalls. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I felt the same exact way.’”
Mills’ nerves quickly calmed down. With guidance from DeWayne and help from tuner Jamie Miller and crewman Johnny “Drama” Maguda, Kallee made a series of clean, straight passes at Emerald Coast, as well as Orlando a couple weeks later. She even nailed a .005 reaction time on one lap.
“As soon as I started making passes down the track and getting more comfortable in the car, the pressure was off,” she says. “But I still think there’s a huge, huge X on my back with all these people, you know? ‘Oh, well her dad ran it. He did good, but see if she can…blah, blah, blah.’”
“But I think it’ll be fine,” she continues. “I’m not really pressured a lot now. I was just nervous more about me getting in the car and being comfortable and being able to handle it than what others would say if I couldn’t, you know what I’m saying? I just think I wanted to make everyone proud of me, like my parents and my family and my friends mainly. But as far as other people adding pressure? I don’t feel like I’m super pressured.”
The next step for Mills is to start racing. She planned on attending the No Prep Kings season opener at Tucson Dragway in March before it was postponed to late July due to the coronavirus. As for whether or not Mills will appear on the actual TV show, that’s to be determined.
“Well, right now we’re not really sure,” she says. “[The producers] want to see my abilities, which I do not blame them at all because it’s a TV show before it’s a drag race. I’m not really sure if I’ll be on the TV show yet. For right now, no, we’re not on the show. We’ve not gotten an invite. That’s all I can say.”
Mills hopes she’ll make it on the show in the near future as a part of the next wave of new no-prep stars, some of which are bringing in new audiences to the series and the sport.
“I think that I bring a lot of different people into racing,” Mills says. “We’ve also got Justin Swanstrom making a big push in No Prep Kings. Me and him are really good friends and I think he brings a good side, and I also bring a different side. We’re both really young. I’m a girl, he’s kind of crazy. That would add to the show.”
Mills grew up watching NHRA professional drag racing on TV, cheering for and idolizing drivers like now three-time Pro Stock world champion Erica Enders. Mills hopes she can similarly inspire young fans watching No Prep Kings to get involved in the sport.
“I think that younger generations need to be out there, and bringing in more young people, like me when I was young and wanting to get involved, is important,” she believes. “We need to bring those people to our sport because that’s the future of our sport. If we don’t have a future to our sport, it’s not going to be here much longer.”
As for Mills’ own future in the sport, she’s eagerly waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to release its grip on the country so racing can resume. However, the break in action has given DeWayne plenty of time to heal up.
“He actually got released by his doctor,” Kallee says. “He called me as soon as he got released and I was like, ‘Hey, how was
your doctor’s appointment?’ He was like, ‘Oh good. I’m taking back over the car.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think so!’
“But he’s a really good, he got the all-clear,” Mills adds. “It was all contained in the prostate and he’s good to go. He tends to overdo himself. That’s the only issue we have.”
Like his daughter, “Big Daddy” DeWayne is ready to get back to racing. He may have been joking when he said he’s taking back over “Golden Kong,” but there’s no doubt he’ll be back in a car as soon as possible. Until then, he’ll test his limits in small steps – or with small wheels.
“We went to Oklahoma City a couple weeks ago,” Kallee begins to explain, “and he’s like, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can do this, I can do that.’ So he gets on one of those Lime scooters and we’re riding down this brick road, and he’s like, ‘OK, no, I’m not good.’ So he’s not good to get in a race car yet, but his time will come soon and we have a lot of big things coming for 2020 if all this stuff will allow it.”
Photographs by Rick Belden, James Sisk, Chris Sears and Jim Dyas.