Posts tagged ‘clay millican’

July 18, 2008



by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from the collection TOP FUEL WORMHOLE)

It is Friday, day three of the Winter– nationals, around noon. Me and my pal Catfish are having breakfast burritos at a taqueria behind the timing tower. My acquaintance has never been to the drag races, but he is curious about the Top Fuel cars.

We are talking when his cell phone rings. In an act of decorum, he excuses himself and walks outside the restaurant to take his call. The door closes behind him and a pair of A/Fuel Dragsters blubber off the start line and then roar down the dragstrip.


The restaurant door reopens just as soon as the run climaxes.

“My cell phone was cut off right when those guys stepped on the gas,” Catfish says, a weird look on his face. “Not that I could hear what was being said anyway.”

“It is probably all those electromagnetic frequencies due to the tremendous amperage in the magnetos,” I explain.


“Nitro is hard to light It is a cool fuel that doesn’t produce any vapors – and you can’t burn liquid. So the tuners throw enough electricity at the spark plugs to kill an elephant.”

Another pair of A/Fuel cars weep and wail down the track and rattle the taqueria’s windows, serving as a sort of punctuation. Catfish looks like he sort of understands, so I tell him that the weird thing about nitromethane is its hypergolic nature.

“See this bowl of salsa? If it were gasoline and I dropped a lit match into it, the vapors would catch on fire. If it were nitromethane, it would extinguish the match. But if I hit it with a hammer, it would detonate and explode. BOOM.”

“Why is that?”

“Nitromethane is a kind of monopropellant. It carries its own oxygen – like the rocket fuels that the Luftwaffe used during WW2. It can kind of explode on contact.” “Like these breakfast burritos.”

I nod. He’s beginning to understand.

We pay our bill, make our way into the Pomona Fairplex, and cruise the fuel pits. Our timing could not be better. Nitro Alley, drag racing’s corollary to Tin Pan Alley, is in full song.

With every step we take, nitro motors are lighting off as if they are the orchestra and we are the conductor’s baton.

Crewmembers look for leaks and seat the clutch and WWHHHAAAMMPPP!!! Twist the throttle linkage and my companion almost lumps out of his socks.

We seek shelter in Dean Skuza’s pit area. Skuza and tuner Lance Larsen put on their masks and prepare to light off their Funny Car. At the first sound of spinning the blower, a thousand nitromaniacs gather around the Skuza pit, like moths to a flame or lemmings to a gorge.

Gack-Back-Back-Back-Back-gack-gack– gack-gack-WWHOOOMMPPPP!!! Gack-Back-Back-gack-Back-gack-Back-gack– gack-WWHHHOOOMMPPPP!!!

Nitro clouds waft through the compound, getting into our clothes, hair, eyes, and quintessential being.

“I feel like I’m in the eye of an atomic bomb,” Catfish yells in my ear between whacks of the throttle linkage.

Larsen then staffs a towel in the injector hat, they unhook the fuel supply, and everybody applauds.

That night, I get an e-mail from Catfish. It reads:

Hi Cole …Thank you so much for my first time at the “Real” drag races.After returning to Hollywood, I wanted to get rid of some of the smell from Skuza’s pit. I took a shower, came out, and realized most of the smell was still in my clothes. I decided the best thing to do was burn them. I tried igniting them with my butane barbecue igniter with no success. This pissed me off so much I threw the clothes down on the patio pavement, where they exploded upon impact.I now understand the principle of nitromethane as a fuel in drag racing.


The next day, after qualifying has ended, I go into the pressroom. I run into Andrew Cowin’s publicist. Cowin, who scored a ride with the Carrier Boyz two weeks before the Winternationals, has DNQ’d. The publicist is scratching her noggin with a pencil and looking at a blank piece of paper.

“Why the bemused look?” I ask.

“I can’t find an angle for my story.”

“Why not?”

“Well, we didn’t qualify.”

So, in an act of chivalry, I begin to write a lead for a story on Andrew Cowin. Extemporaneously. Out loud.

“DATELINE: POMONA – There is a saying in drag racing: ‘If you can’t be fast, at least be spectacular.’ At the 43rd running of the Winternationals, Andrew Cow-in, driver of the Carrier Boyz Top Fuel car, managed to be both.

“After a timing malfunction prevented the Carrier Boyz machine from recording an elapsed time, the Carrier Boyz were forced to turn up the wick…

“Unfortunately, that resulted in an apocalyptic top-end explosion on Friday as the tremendous fuel volume pushed out a head gasket and oil and nitromethane oxidized and combusted, creating a pyrotechnic display worthy of Dodger Stadium on the Fourth of July.

“With two qualifying passes left, including the first round of the Budweiser Shootout, the pressure was higher than Bernoulli hisself having an aneurysm.

“Unfortunately, during the staging procedure of the first round of the Shootout, crewmembers noticed a gusher effect out of the left cylinder heads. The culprit? Loose bolts on the valve cover. The result? NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart running his left forefinger across his throat to and fro, signaling Cowin to kill the fuel supply.

“So there they are: First-round loser of the Shootout and not qualified for eliminations going into the final qualifying session for Sunday’s prestigious eliminator. Unfortunately, that pass led to another photo opportunity, but not the desired result.

“Yes, drag racing is a sport of ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda The timing system shoulda worked, the motor woulda stayed together, and the Carrier Boyz coulda gone racing on Sunday. But for now it’s on to Phoenix…”


She looks more confused now than before I started riffing.

It’s one thing to write somebody else’s story for them, but I had promised ND’s editor 1,500 or so words of my own, and I spent four days wandering the pits, the staging lanes, the bleachers, and the pressroom looking for an angle.

What’s going to be the back story here?

I think back to Thursday. There was Robert Reehl in his fire boots with his suit zipped up only to his waistline. The Harry’s Gava King entry has the name “Yuichi Oyama” stenciled into the side of the race car, but Yuichi, after a runner-up finish at the Finals here in November, is sayonara, mama san. Is there a story here? Does Oyama’s involvement with Top Fuel represent the broadening of drag racing’s appeal into more multicultural demographics? Why is he MIA? Rheel is noncommittal about Oyama being conspicuous by his absence, saying only that this isn’t his car but he is out to “play with it”

“We hope to put a number up (during Thursday’s qualifier) and then park it until Sunday.” And they did.

Other surprises in the staging lanes included the presence of Melanie Troxel (in the Frahm Dodge fueler) and Jim Head, who has been in absentia from this circuit for a couple of years. Why is he back, I asked. “Because I miss this bunch,” he says. Troxel and Head’s participation here is cool, but it isn’t key. It isn’t THE story.

Meanwhile, I notice Dale Funk, of English, Frakes & Funk fame (infamy), tightening Dzus fittings and wiping the magnesium body panels on John Mitchell’s CARQUEST fueler. We strike up a conversation, he laughs and tells me he is “the oil pan cleaner for Mitchell,” and we talk about old front-motored Top Fuel cars of yesteryear. Funk’s old fueler, dubbed the “Kentucky Moonshiner,” was a serious East Coast and Midwestern hitter that came out west to compete at the Winternationals and the old Supernationals in Ontario. Funk confirms the legend that this team never left the shop for the West Coast races without a jug of moonshine.

Speaking of back east, I figure the most noteworthy angle at the Wintemationals was the presence of Clay Millican and the Werner Enterprises fueler.

They went UNDEFEATED in the IHRA circuit last year, and here they were, trying to get some respect on the NHRA circuit, where the competition is much stiffer.

On Thursday, before the fuelers run for the first time, I ask Clay about the fiscal realities of competing in both circuits, the IHRA full time and NHRA part time.

He responds, “I love what I do. If it were up to me, we’d run everything and be broke all the time.”

Then he explains they have to be businesslike, that there has to be a method to the madness in order to sustain this whole deal. He doesn’t want to quit because of running out of money, he explains. “I want to retire from this at an old, old age. I want to race until I draw Social Security.”

On Friday, after they posted that jaw– dropping 4.52, he rebel-yells, “Not bad for a buncha hillbillies!” This guy Millican is the real deal, I say to myself.

On Sunday, after a semifinal loss to Larry Dixon, I ask Millican to name his favorite Clampett from the old Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

His answer surprises me: “My favorite Clampett is Milburn Drysdale because he controlled the money. He is the one who is gonna let the hillbillies go drag racing.”

I figure my story should end here, but after that quote, I make my way into tuner Mike Kloeber’s way and chat him up about the team’s modus operandi.

He tells me that despite sweeping every round at the IHRA meets last year, the team -has reinvented its approach, which it unveiled here.

“We changed everything,” Kloeber reveals. “The car, the engine location, the driver location, fuel-management system, timing. We went from the old mags to a crank-trigger ignition.”

I tell him the crowd was stunned by his car’s 4.52. Professional pundits haven’t been this disturbed since the New York Jets won the Super Bowl in 1969.

“This old girl will run,” Kloeber confirms. This car will run better on seven cylinders than our old car would run on eight That’s the difference in an NHRA tune-up.”

It is fitting that the. tuner for these North Carolina hillbillies ends our conversation by paraphrasing Civil War savant Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Southern General whose methods were rumored to have been studied by Rommel and informed his concept of blitzkrieg: “Last year, we came to these races with a very sharp knife,” Kloeber says. “Over the winter, we bought a gun.” –30-