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 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 will again be televised on ESPN2 and 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 that a lot of eyes will be 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 nonstop 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 that 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 in 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, and 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 world 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 victory, Matt Hagan, and Robert Hight are other capable winners at the ultrafast facility.
The reigning Pro Stock world champ, Jeg Coughlin Jr., will look for more success with Mopar teammate Allen Johnson, who was the most recent event winner in the class, and fellow Dodge driver V. Gaines holds the series points lead. Winternationals winner and four-time Gatornationals champ Jason Line and his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro are seeking another early-season victory, 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 world champ, earning his second 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, who will be joined by his father, Hector Sr., and brother, Adam, and newcomer Chaz Kennedy.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, which is also making its 2014 season debut, will thrill the crowds as well during the weekend with intense competition on the track.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful motorsports attraction on the planet. While visiting the pits, interactive NHRA Nitro Alley, and NHRA Manufacturers Midway, fans will also want to check out NHRA’s popular Hot Rod Junction presented by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum that offers a spectacular display of many nostalgic dragsters, race cars, and hot rods, including vintage machines that were driven by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, K.S. Pittman, “Big John” Mazmanian, and Bruce Larson, among others. There will also be several NHRA Legends of Drag Racing autograph sessions, allowing fans the rare opportunity to meet drag racing stars of the past.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, March 14, with sessions at noon and 2:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 15, also at noon and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, March 16.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to NHRATix.com or call the NHRA Ticket Sales Center, 800-884-NHRA (6472). Middle school, high school, and college students can purchase tickets at 50 percent off with a special student discount ticket, which is available at the gate. General-admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket.