Clay Millican Wins! Such a simple statement that most of those who are involved with drag racing have been waiting to hear again for quite some time.
Just a heads up that this recap is a little different than what you might be used to from Racing Pro Media, but if you have a few extra minutes, after the normal recap, use them to enjoy a few extra words.
To kick things off, let me share the words of Kelly Wade (nhra.com) as she recapped Clay's day at the track.......
Millican's Parts Plus/Rick Ware Racing Top Fuel dragster made massive progress in Chicago after a tought start to the season. Prior to winning the event, he hadn't won a single round of racing in the 2023 season of NHRA's Camping World Drag Racing Series, but on Sunday at Route 66 Raceway, his tuner, team, car, and driver were all in sync.
In the first round of eliminations where many struggled on the warming, sun-drenched racetrack, Millican made haste to the finish line stripe with the third-quickest run of the round, a 3.732, to claim his first round win of the season and get the ball rolling. Opponent Shawn Langdon launched with a tidy .029-second reaction time, but his day ended in a rash of tire smoke.
Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools dragster had come to the event quick and fast, but Millican was better at the tree and smoother down the racetrack while Kalitta was up in smoke before reaching the 330-foot timer. His efficient pass against Kalitta gave him lane choice over Brittany Force in the semifinals, and with the powerful blows Force's crew chief, David Grubnic, is known to throw, Millican and crew chief Jim Oberfhofer knew they had to be on their game in every way.
Millican did his part and left the starting line first, .057 to a .082, and Oberhofer tuned the Parts Plus rail to a 3.778 at 329.58 mph to defeat a 3.881, 319.82. The victory gave him a ticket to the 19th final round of his NHRA career.
On the other side of the ladder, third-year competitor Josh Hart was eager to make more progress in the traditional two-wide format after going rounds at each of the last two races, both of which were four-wide. He survived a tire-smoking battle with Antron Brown in round one, then defeated Jacob McNeal in his Top Fuel debut, 3.793, 328.78 to 3.870, 317.27.
In the semifinals, Hart took on the role of heartbreaker as he claimed the win over hometown hero T.J. Zizzo. Hart's .043 reaction time was just .006 ahead of the Chicago-area native, but Zizzo's tire-smoking 11.446 was easy to beat with a 3.910 to earn a trip to the fifth final of his career.
The two closed out eliminations with a great side-by-side race. Millican left first, .049 to .052, and kept the lead for a 3.801 to 3.808 win.
"We've had so many changes," said Millican, now a four-time NHRA Top Fuel winner. "I'm so thankful for Doug and Whitney Stringer keeping us out there. Rick Ware wanted to go racing and bought our team and took over at the U.S. Nationals last year, and the next thing you know, it's new trailers, new racecars, new parts. You would think it would have been much easier, but it wasn't. We really struggled.
For Millican, the long-awaited win was particularly poignant. His most recent victory had been five years prior, and it happened at Route 66 Raceway, precisely 20 years after his very first race – which happened to be at the Chicago facility.
"Here we are, 25 years later, in the same place," said Millican. "That number 25 means something to me, and I almost lost it at the top end. I held it together, but what a day.
"But this is an awesome, unbelievable team, and I cannot wait to hand Rick and Lisa Ware that Wally. They've done so much to keep us out there. Jim O is a bad dude. He proved that today."
So while many of you got what you came looking for, feel free to stick around for an additional nugget or two.
Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure to spend more time around the NHRA than I did in previous years. Over that time I have continued to get to know the drivers and Clay Millican is always one to greet me with a smile, a handshake, and to simply ask how I am doing. Its quite normal to see Clay working the rope with his fans, grinning from ear to ear and listening to everything they have to say.
I always look forward to seeing Clay, he is like a one-man welcome committee for the NHRA and I have spent plenty of time just standing back, watching him interact with the fans as I snap a few pictures for the weekends photo album.
In preparing to head out to Joliet for the Route 66 Nationals, I was doing a little research on the history of the event and the participants after a multiple year hiatus from racing at the great facility.
One of the things I enjoy doing, as a way to give back to the drivers is to hand out replica championship rings that have some sort of significance to a date, an event, or something significant that is relevant to the sports market that the race is taking place in.
Each event I take a small handful to distribute. The drivers are constantly being asked for autographs, a random car part, or even getting begged for their personal hat. Sometimes its nice to catch a driver off guard by handing them something to keep rather than asking them for something you can take.
Its a small gesture, but the appreciation by most is quickly noticed. In a sport where the Wally is the ultimate prize, where the chase for the hardware is always a priority, something small and insignificant causes some interesting reactions, and sometimes its more significant than you planned for.
For the weekend in Joliet, I packed away a 2016 Cubs championship ring for Ron Capps, the significance being that was one of his championship season's and I wanted to remind him of that winning feeling, since we were near to Chicago and with Ron still searching for his first win of 2023.
Greg Anderson received 2 Chicago Bulls championship rings from 1992 and 1993. In those years, Greg was wrenching for Warren Johnson and they captured the first two of their three championships together. With Greg searching for Wally #102, it was a simple way to remind him that he still has it, and just like the name on the side of the rings, he is a GOAT just like Jordan.
Sometimes I pack a few just to make someone smile or even to give to a fan. This time I packed a Dodgers ring for Robert Hight's boy, Brant. After seeing him on socials at a Chicago White Sox game, I was surprised not to see him in his Dodgers blue and wearing a White Sox Jersey. Robert did his part by making the fastest pass on Friday so I had the opportunity to pass Brant a 1978 league championship ring from his favorite team, the Dodgers.
The last ring I packed for the trip to Joliet was for Clay Millican. In my research for the weekend I realized that Chicago was where he made his debut in 1998. After just going through the Bulls championships for Greg Anderson, I quickly realized that the Bulls also won a championship in 1998.
Without much additional thought I sat that ring aside for Clay. He has had a rough year. As I went through the previous events results, I started to wonder if Clay had even made it out of the first round yet this season. He hadn't. While I would like to claim that each person who I distribute a ring to always wins, the reality is that many, if not most of the time they don't. That being said, there are a few that have done surprisingly well with the extra piece of hardware.
Anyway, for the most part I wanted to try to make Clay smile the way he always does for everyone else, including me. Just maybe, this would be the weekend he would make it back to the winners circle.
Over the weekend, I gave Ron, Greg, Brant their rings. By the time Sunday rolled around I had yet to connect with Clay for the weekend but after his first round win I left the media center for the pits with the intent to congratulate Clay on the round win and to give him the 1998 Bulls ring.
As I got close to Clay's pit, I noticed him standing at the rope, smiling like always and interacting with the fans. Clay walked toward me to give me the normal handshake and to ask me how I was doing and I reached into my pocket to grab the ring I had brought for him.
I normally try to share why I think the ring might have a connection or significance and I got ready to present to Clay and it hit me. 1998 was not only Clay's NHRA debut, it was 25 years ago.
I stopped, I pulled my hand from my pocket. I am sure I stuttered a bit but I decided at that time not to give Clay the ring.
As I finished the quick conversation with Clay, I realized it wasn't time yet. Clay wasn't done with his day, I did not want to screw anything up. I was uncomfortable.
If you are familiar with Clay, you are familiar with the significance of the number 25. If you are not familiar, spend a few minutes to learn about Dalton Millican, Clay's late son who lost his life in a motorcycle accident in 2015.
As I walked back to the media center, I questioned if I should have given Clay the ring or not. Once back I looked at the bracket, checked out the matchups and imagined the path that Clay would need to take for the win. Knowing that Clay's last win came at that same facility, 5 years earlier I started to convince myself that if Clay won, I would hand him the ring in the winner's circle, and if he didn't, maybe this one was just better left in my pocket.
Clay won round 2 against Doug Kalitta.
The semifinal's brought Brittany Force. Could Clay get past the reigning champ?
The finals brought Josh Hart, who after winning two Wally's in his rookie season, had not yet captured number 3.
While I try not to pick favorites, and I like all the drivers, Josh holds a special place with me and I know I frequently find myself cheering on the inside when he wins, and letting out a sigh or grunt when he doesn't.
This was going to be a tough one for me, wanting both drivers to pick up the victory but knowing that only one would get it done in the end.
I watched the final round from the media center, writing the headlines as the winner of each class made it official.
Millican won this battle. A great race overall with Millican barely getting the best of Hart by only 7 thousandths of a second. About as equal as it gets and one of the best races of the day.
The crowd erupted. Many of those same people who lined the ropes earlier in the day mimicked Clay's infectious smile with satisfaction.
In the media center, when asked about the 25 years since his debut in Chicago, Clay commented, "That number 25 means something to me, and I almost lost it at the top end. I held it together, but what a day."
After a handful of hugs and handshakes with those in the media center, Clay walked to the winner's circle for pictures and the hat dance. After Clay made sure everyone got every picture and pose they needed, after each hat was worn, it was time to pull the car back to the pit and celebrate with the team.
"One more thing Clay", as I handed Clay a bottle of RPM branded wine I sometimes give out to the winners to assist in their celebrations. My other hand held the ring I had waited to give him all weekend.
I shared the story about why I brought it for him. It had been 25 years since his first start, at that very same track. I shared that I meant to give it to him after his first round victory but decided to wait.
Clays larger than life smile may have gotten even a little bit bigger. With a bottle of wine in one hand and the ring in the other, Clay thanked me and pulled me in for a hug.
Congrats on the win Clay, and thank you for being so important to this sport we love. It's no question why the fans love you, some G.O.A.T's are not measured only by wins! That being said, you still have plenty coming your way.
As I was leaving the track after nearly a 14 hour day with a 4 hour drive still to go, I happened to see Josh Hart playing with his daughter in an open field as they awaited a food delivery. I turned the car around, exited, and ran over to Josh for a quick fist bump, a congrats on a great day and a quick condolence on the final round loss.
While upset about the loss, he also mentioned he was happy that Clay got the win if he wasn't the one to lift the Wally.
And with that I went back to my car as the sun set to start the drive home. As I pulled away, I saw that Josh received his food delivery and walked back to his motorhome with his daughter at his side. Seeing Josh with his daughter reminded me that on this day there were no losers. It satisfied me that both drivers ended their days as winners. Just like Robert Hight, just like Ron Capps, just like Greg Anderson, even though they didn't leave the track this day with a Wally.
As I certain missing voice from the weekend always says, "love this life!"
See the full event recap from Kelly Wade at nhra.com:
Don't miss Sunday's photo gallery from NHRA National Dragster staff:
Content: Chris Bishop | NHRA (Kelly Wade)
Photo's: NHRA | Racing Pro Media (RPM) | Will McPhail Photography