Terry McMillen - A Modern Racer

By Jim Luikens

Terry McMillen grew up in northern Indiana near the illustrious Gary (Indiana) US 30 Dragstrip. As a youngster Terry struggled in school until a kindly 7th grade teacher took him under his wing and allowed Terry to write his essays and reports about racing. From this humble start has evolved a new breed of racer. This is the story of Terry McMillen who has used the computer and the internet to become a new kind of racer.

Terry originally used the money he saved from his paper route to purchase his first car, a yellow ‘32 Ford with a Chrysler engine. That first yellow car began a tradition of yellow racers for Terry that continued for some time. Terry prepared his ‘32 for strip action with the help of his father. He actually made his debut at the renowned US 30 racing facility when he was just 15 and actually too young to drive on the street yet. Despite only turning times in the 16-second range at 76 miles-per-hour Terry was hooked on racing for life.

When he was old enough he got his street driver’s license and, eventually, cars that could be driven on the street but his love for the strip never left him. In 1972 he returned to the track in a front engine dragster that was powered by small block Chevrolet engine. That dragster ran consistently in the 10-second range and served him well. Continuing to bracket race throughout the 70s, Terry had advanced to the 8.30-second range by 1978.

Reviewing his progress to date in 1978, Terry came to a profound revelation. If he was going to continue to race he had to get over onto the pro side of the sport. As a result of this revelation he bought his first funny car, a 1973 Corvette powered by a late model 426-style Chrysler engine. This funny car was set up to run on nitro, which was a new experience for him. He started his nitro career in the IHRA by running the 1978 events at Norwalk, Ohio and Bristol, Tennessee.

In 1979 he ran 6 of the 8 IHRA events and was right in the middle of it with the stars of that day like Al Hoffman and Chuck Etchells. During this period he had a good sponsor and also did some match racing in addition to his IHRA events. As well as things were going they took a surprise turn when IHRA chose to drop the nitro funny cars from their events.

Recognizing that racing is fueled by sufficient funding, Terry chose to sit out the next three years while he developed a sponsorship proposal that would allow him to continue his career and compete on equal footing with the stars of drag racing. He eventually sold his nitro hemi engine while retaining the body and chassis of his funny car. To keep his driving skills fresh and current he converted the Corvette to use an alcohol powered engine and then ran some Midwestern UDRA events.

All of Terry’s sponsorship due diligence paid off when he landed the major sponsor he had desired for so long. Mitel, a Canadian firm that sold telephone and PBX equipment, signed up and Terry was back in the professional racing business. After reviewing his opportunities, he chose the IHRA to make his return to front line competition, running all IHRA national events using a Dodge Avenger funny car.

Terry was back in the thick of things and living his dream when things came to crashing halt in February of 1999 because Mitel was sold. The sale voided his sponsorship contract and just that quickly Terry was sponsorless again. Undaunted he began his sponsorship quest again. Arising each workday at 5 am, Terry typically spent two to three hours using his computer doing research on potential sponsors. After working at his shop from roughly 8 am to 10 pm he then returned to his computer for another two to three hours of internet time before turning in for the day.

Terry basic premise in sponsorship management is to under sell and over deliver. While normally that philosophy is a sure fire recipe for success and longevity, nothing is guaranteed in today’s corporate world as sometimes things happen that are beyond the racer’s control. In the event that the undesirable happens a racer needs to be able to regroup and begin again quickly and confidently.

Terry’s persistence eventually led him to the Amalie Oil company and a relationship that began in 2000. Ever the marketeer, Terry was looking for a way for his car, and thus his sponsor’s image, to stand out from the rest of the funny car field. The Florida Gators provided a brainstorm for him to create a Gator themed car. After his earlier partial gator paint scheme met with such positive response Terry has refined his 2004 paint scheme to an “all gator” car.

Away from the track Terry is the proud father of five sons, two of which still live at home. In addition to his sons he is grateful for the support of his wife, Rhonda. He also enjoys fishing and golf but his career leaves little extra time for either. In addition to maintaining his own car and the never-ending computer work he also maintains the IHRA Q/R race cars of Brent Long (dragster) and Jack Todd (roadster) as well as the Top Dragster of Troy Stone at his shop.

Terry eventually sees himself as a team owner some day when his driving career is done. Always enthusiastic about young people, he would like to give them the chance to benefit from his years of experience. It’s ironic that Terry evolved from someone that struggled in school to become one of the most prolific computer users in all of drag racing. One can only wonder what might have happened had it not been for a certain 7th grade teacher who found a way to reach him so long ago.