GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Terry McMillen has replayed the scenario over in his mind enough times to lose count, but when the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville comes around, the visualization of the Top Fuel driver’s first career win in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series goes on repeat.
“I do that every race, but this one more so than any other,” McMillen said. “I’ve envisioned that first win so many times, but what better way to do it than to win at your sponsor’s race. To go from DNQ to winning, that gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.”
A year ago, Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Johnny Gray (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that marks the third of 24 races in the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
For McMillen and his 8,000-horsepower Amalie Motor Oil Top Fuel dragster, it represents an opportunity for an ultimate underdog triumph. He failed to qualify at the prestigious event a season ago, something that became even harder to swallow considering his team sponsor is also the title sponsor for one of the most historic races on the NHRA circuit.
A year later, McMillen and his team are ready to make up for that – and then some.
“The best way to look at it is this is a big race no matter what,” McMillen said. “Last year I didn’t qualify and I don’t want to let them down again. I’ve got a good car, we’re confident and we feel good about the direction the team is going.”
But in the next breath, McMillen also realizes there will be a lot of eyes focusing on how he performs. Rather than ignoring that fact, the upbeat McMillen is seemingly embracing it.
“It is a lot of pressure and it’s been non-stop getting ready for this race since December, really,” McMillen said. “You can try to make light of it, but there’s no doubt it is a huge, huge race. You want to do well every race, but that’s definitely the case at this one.
“There’s going to be 1,400 people there for Amalie and it’s really a compliment to Amalie. It’s a whirlwind weekend, but it’s worth it. I’ve been with Amalie for 14 years and we’re just watching the company continue to grow. I’m pumped up to get out there. I wish the race was today.”
The major reason for that, other than McMillen’s always excitable mood, is his new car has already exceeded the team’s early-season expectations. The team is still searching for its first round win, but McMillen posted a career-best 3.806 second run at Pomona and the car has responded well to the changes the team made at the first two races.
It’s a sharp contrast from a season ago when McMillen failed to quality for seven events. But that is a distant memory for McMillen, who has visions of reaching the 3.70s for the first time in Gainesville and possibly ending the weekend in memorable fashion.
“Last year was just a tough year in general,” McMillen said. “That’s a compliment to the Top Fuel class. The competition in Top Fuel has absolutely stepped up. Now our car is responding to what we want and we’re confident we’ll be in the 3.70s in Gainesville. The key is going out there and hitting a home run and getting in the low 3.80s right off the bat. Our guys are working hard and our confidence level is high. As a driver I feel back on my game.”
McMillen will have his work cut out for him against a talented Top Fuel field that includes Shawn Langdon, who raced to his first world championship in 2013, and Doug Kalitta, who is the points leader in his Mac Tools dragster after posting back-to-back No. 1 qualifying positions to start the season. Langdon’s Al-Anabi Racing teammate Khalid alBalooshi won the 2014 season-opening event in Pomona while other top challengers in the class include Spencer Massey, Brown, four-time Gators winner Tony Schumacher, 2013 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, Leah Pritchett and 2014 rookie contender Richie Crampton.
In Funny Car, John Force wrote another chapter in his legendary career by claiming the 2013 title – his 16th Funny Car championship – and he is the early-season points leader in 2014 after winning in Pomona. Force is a seven-time Gatornationals winner, but Ron Capps and a host of others, including Force’s daughter Courtney, Alexis DeJoria, who won in Phoenix to claim her first career victory, Matt Hagan and Robert Hight are other capable winners at the ultra-fast facility.
The reigning Pro Stock champ, Jeg Coughlin, will look for more success with Mopar teammate Allen Johnson, who was the most recent event winner in the class, while fellow Dodge driver V. Gaines currently holds the series points lead. Winternationals winner and four-time Gatornationals winner Jason Line and his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro are seeking another early season win, and Erica Enders-Stevens, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile and Dave Connolly always provide tough competition in the parity-filled 200-mph factory hot rod category.
The Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals marks the first of 16 events for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Matt Smith enters the season as the defending champ, earning his second world title after winning four times in eight final round appearances. Others to watch in the two-wheel category include three-time Gainesville winner Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Michael Ray, defending event champ Arana Jr., who will be joined by his father Hector Sr. and brother Adam, and newcomer Chaz Kennedy.