After over three months away from the racetrack AMALIE® Motor Oil Top Fuel team owner and driver Terry McMillen is ready to get back to racing at the upcoming E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park this week. His team, led by crew chief Rob Wendland, used the downtime effectively to streamline his organization and also maximize the newfound family time. McMillen and Wendland have a strong relationship and have put together a plan for the rest of the season they both feel could lead to their first NHRA Mello Yello championship together.
How ready are you to get back to racing?
Terry McMillen – “It is almost like starting the year over. You have all that anticipation. We built a new car over the winter and took it to Gainesville. We never got to run it so it has never been down the track. We are excited to see what the new car will do. (Crew Chief) Rob Wendland and the entire team have done a fantastic job just keeping everything going. All our wish lists or want to do lists are all completed. It is time to leave the shop, hear some noise and smell a little nitro. This is the longest we have ever been home sitting at one time. It is just go time. It is going to be different by far.”
TM- “We only have two qualifiers so it is not like you can go out there and try and hit a home run. You have to get the car down the track to make sure you are in the show. There could be close to 20 cars going into Indy so you can’t make a mistake. Hopefully you get that first run in that sets up the weekend.”
TM- “It is going to be different to not be able to interact with the fans the way we normally do. That has been the mainstay of our sport, the fan interaction and the business to business. We are going to be pre-signing hero cards and we’ll all be wearing masks. You appreciate the fans now more than ever because they have a choice where to spend their money and they come out to see us race. You want to give back but it is a difficult time and we want to be as safe as possible. I think everyone understands and we are all just going to have to tip toe this thing and get through the end of the year to regroup and go into 2021.”
Have you been able to get some of the projects that you have been putting off?
TM – “We moved a lot of the shop stuff around and got it organized internally in the shop. We made a specific area to work on our heads and a place to work on our superchargers. We permanently wired some of the equipment that was previously just temporarily wired. We made some upgrades inside the trailer and we also polished all the aluminum on the outside. We had never had the time to do that. We relocated some cabinets and made the flow of the shop a lot better. We have sections for everything and have streamlined a lot of things.”
What has been the hardest aspect of this layoff (mental, sponsorship, etc.)?
TM – “There are so many things that have been challenging. You have to look at it from the sponsor perspective which is near and dear to me because Amalie Motor Oil is my family. Not being able to run Gainesville was extremely disappointing. Whenever you reschedule an event it seems to never be quite as good. You lose a little of the impact but Amalie has such great customers so we are hoping to over deliver later this year. It is trying times for all our sponsors. They have all done a good job of staying focused and giving us the opportunity to keep everyone working. We are ready to be at the top of our game when we get back to Indy thanks to their support.”
How have you kept your team motivated during this stretch?
TM – “Really Rob has done a great job of handling the crew. I don’t have to be down in Indy every day. They have their schedules and internal communications and they are working off a master list. When something is done it gets checked off and then everyone is updated. We are making sure that every little detail is covered. Ultimately, that will be where it starts for winning races when we get back to the track.”
TM – “You have to have the small things covered. When the small details are handled it seems like the bigger issues take care of themselves. We are making sure we have the parts that we need to have to make this all happen. It is a juggling act. I would rather be going 300 mph with my hair on fire because we have so much to do because we are racing. The only nice thing about the break is it has been a more relaxing time to work on our to-do list versus a mid-season thrash when we need parts by next week. It has been extremely busy regardless and I am trying to figure out how I ever had time to race.”
Your son Cameron is going to race Junior Dragsters at second Indy race. How excited are you about that?
TM – “The biggest positive about the layoff has been we got the chance to do things we normally never would have done at this time of the year. We fostered dogs and we got to spend more time with Cameron. We tested his Junior Dragster a couple weeks ago. He is going to get to run the second Indy race. As a six year old that is pretty cool and I am excited we will be racing at the same track at the same time. That is a milestone for me. I am all excited about it. I can’t wait to get out there.”
How do you plan for so many back to back races as an independent team?
TM – “You just have to approach it like any other race. The biggest key for us is having the inventory of parts. What you have to keep in mind is a lot of the vendors have also been closed down. Getting parts will be tricky because they might be backed up with orders from everybody. That is a big key to this whole thing. I think Rob has done a great job to make sure we have all the parts that we need either in our hands or the orders have been placed to we are all set once the season gets rolling again. That is going to give us a leg up. If you can finish the year with what money you have that will be a huge accomplishment or anyone. This year could feel like an Ironman Challenge. You have to manage all your parts and be smart about it. Sometimes that Hail Mary may not happen because you can’t afford to hurt those parts.”
What has you most excited about this run for the Mello Yello NHRA championship?
TM – “I think we have as good a chance as anybody whether it is the most funded teams or not. We are in a position today like no other time. We are prepared to go the distance. We are prepared to go to battle. We are going to have a good car. If this car shows us what we believe it is going to do that chassis will help us succeed. Rob has done a great job of tuning. We will be contender once we get the whole package together. The set-up of this season has definitely leveled the playing field. It may not be about dollars and cents this time. Used to be on Friday night big teams could go out and swing for the fences to get the No. 1 spot and get those bonus points. There isn’t a Friday night now so we all have to be a little more conservative on how we approach the race track. Our notes will be very important. We are going to have to rely on data that we have and certainly in this business a little bit of luck helps too. If you push everything hard enough you will create opportunities and that is what we have to do.”
Talk about your relationship with Crew Chief Rob Wendland…
TM – “There is no doubt about it, he is my best friend. We are not together every day we think alike. We have the same common goals. We have the same passion for what we do. When you add that combination up, it can be dangerous in a good way. With this shorter race season I feel like we have a really good opportunity to really get in there and mix it up. I would be shocked if we are not a top five car. Rob has kept everything on track. I am the most blessed guy to have him by my side.”
How excited are you to send the Amalie Motor Oil Top Fuel dragster back down the track?
Rob Wendland – “I am very excited to get back to the track for sure and I am excited to run this new car that we have. Racing in some of the conditions we will face over the next month, hot tracks, that kind of thing, I think this car is going to do really well. This morning we had a meeting discussing the 2020 NHRA policies. We have to follow this protocol because if we don’t we don’t get to race. That opened everyone’s eyes a little bit. Based on the performance we had earlier in the season I am extremely excited to hit the gas again.”
How have you kept the team motivated?
RW – “Our separation wasn’t extremely long. Terry took really good care of this team. We had some time off but we came back and we all sat down and discussed every project that we wanted to do but never had time for. We went into serious detail with it. I told the team we have to work like we are going to race tomorrow. We got a tremendous amount of things done, lots of organizational things and maintenance things. We built a number of things we hadn’t had time to build before. We made the most of this time being productive but we also got to spend some time with our families. That was huge. We picked a number of days we were going to work and when we weren’t working we were spending time with our families. The motivation came from the more we do now and the better we are organized the better team we will be and the more successful we will be.”
As a crew chief how do you plan for so many back to back race weekends?
RW – “We are going to go into Indy in full race mode. We are going into this race with the same mindset as if we were just racing last week. We just need to get those hits on the new dragster in testing on Friday and see what this thing is going to give us. Our goal is to get two or three hits and get a handle on this race car. As far as fourteen races in a row kind of thing I have prepared everyone the best I can as far as our forecast of parts that we are going to need. The way that we run the car is we are conservative because we have to keep an eye on the budget. We are cautious about parts and wear and tear so I can’t see how the reduced schedule or back to back races is going to hurt us. We do better if we can go from one race right to the next one. We tend to get on a better roll that way.”
How well do you think the Amalie Motor Oil team is suited for the two Saturday sessions and then into racing on Sunday?
RW – “We have had some success with that program. We have used Saturday as a little bit of a test day. I will say this we have missed some opportunities on Friday and had our backs against the wall on Saturday. It has worked out for us a lot and there have been times when we missed out. As a crew chief it is a tough call because you want to get up in the top spots in qualifying but we have raced a lot from No. 9 to No. 13. There are so many good cars out there that if you are No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8 it is like a final round match-up. You are going to be running another really good quality race car.”
RW – “These first two races it looks like we will be racing in the heat of the day. The tricky part will be our ‘night session’ will be Sunday morning first round racing at 9 a.m. in the morning. We have never experienced that before only maybe in testing have we hit the track that early. The conditions will be totally different than what we saw on Saturday. Crew chiefs can make that change, that testing on Thursday and Friday will be important to get up there early,”
What has you most excited about this run for the championship?
RW – “For me it is a lot of pressure. I know that we have a team, a car and a driver that can actually win a Mello Yello Top Fuel championship. Who knows what is going to happen. All of a sudden we might look at this schedule and not have as many races as we thought. I think we are going to go into every race thinking this could be our last race. We are going to get after it and race smart. You can’t try and over pressure yourself. When we won Indy I remember my father in law telling me just go A to B. He said don’t try to overthink it. He told me our car was running good and just make sure it goes down the track. That day it worked out for us. I don’t think a lot of these races will be a horsepower game because of the conditions we’ll be running in. It could be more of a finesse game at the start anyway. In that respect we have the same chance as anyone out there and maybe a little better.”
Can you talk about your relationship with Terry?
RW – “Usually during the season we both have motorhomes and we travel together. In between races we will stop at a campground and all the kids get together and go swimming or we do whatever together. Not a lot of crew chiefs have that kind of relationship with the owner/driver. He loves my kids as much as I do and I feel the same for his family. It definitely feels more like a partnership.”
RW – “When I open the shop I treat it like my shop and that is how I work with him to run the team. Every dollar we spend I treat like one of my own personal dollars. Terry appreciates that and I appreciate the opportunity he has given me. We have a very strong personal relationship that I really can’t describe. We tell each other that we love each other all the time and we mean it. I don’t know of a lot of other teams that have that kind of relationship. They might but I know we have a strong bond.”