- Bill Stephens
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Ten years ago, Clay Millican wasn't sure if he'd ever get a job driving a race car.
Today, he's a five-time IHRA Top Fuel champion.
Who would have believed it?
Millican's fifth consecutive Top Fuel title was achieved in five consecutive seasons. The only other racer to win five Top Fuel championships in professional drag racing is Joe Amato, who won his five NHRA titles in 10 years, with his first coming in 1984 and his last in 1993.
On Sunday, Millican put the finishing touches on his latest career milestone, placing a punctuation mark on a long, hard-fought journey that began a decade ago when he was just a determined young man hoping to get that first big break. The Drummonds, Tenn., native was a familiar sight at NHRA national events, using his upbeat, gregarious and unshrinking enthusiasm to try to convince a team owner to put him into the cockpit of their Top Fuel machine.
At first, there weren't many takers.
There were a few false starts with teams that were headed nowhere. Deals that looked promising but were never closed. Millican had every excuse to throw in the towel and take his racing aspirations elsewhere.
Then in 2001, with a well-funded team owned by businessman Peter Lehman, sponsored by Werner Enterprises, and led by a veteran tuner, Mike Kloeber, Millican got the chance to demonstrate his driving skills. He went on to win his first championship, thus fulfilling a dream he had nurtured since childhood.
He began racing at both NHRA and IHRA events as he continued to make a name for himself. Although he has yet to score an NHRA national event victory, his Top Fuel peers know on any given race day -- on either circuit -- he could be the driver to beat.
Last year, as he was in the midst of taking his fourth IHRA crown, disaster nearly struck back home in Drummonds when his mother was shot and wounded when the family grocery store was robbed. She was only slightly injured and Millican came through the traumatic experience with the same positive and engaging resiliency that has marked his rise to stardom.
This year, after Lehman sold the team to a group of racers, including Millican, Kloeber, and NHRA Pro Stock regular Kenny Koretsky, the quest for another championship seemed a foregone conclusion. Millican did suffer a blow-over at the IHRA race in Milan, Mich., in July, but Kloeber, along with co-crew chief Lance Larsen, restored the race car to pristine condition. The team has now racked up eight wins out of 11 events with only one event remaining on the '05 IHRA schedule.
"We feel good," Millican says, "and we know we really, really had to turn dumb to not win it again. We've been trying to do what's necessary -- not oil the track and turn on enough win lights to get the job done.
"I've been spewing it all year that we wanted to win five championships in our five years with Werner Enterprises in 2005," he said, "and we got that done."
Only a fool would bet against Clay Millican getting anything done once he's set his sights on it.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
With his fifth straight IHRA Top Fuel title, Clay Millican placed a punctuation mark on a long, arduous and unexpected rise to prominence.