Ripples of surprise spread through the drag-racing community when the unimaginable happened, when crew chief Mike Kloeber and Top Fuel driver Clay Millican parted ways. Together they had earned six consecutive championships, and they seemed to be inseparable, like John Force and Austin Coil or Kenny Bernstein and Budweiser. They made mechanical magic together.
Millican raced with Kenny Koretsky’s operation, then Bob Vandergriff’s, and was a true independent with Mark and Lauren Pickens before settling in with Doug Stringer. He found happiness with crew chief Dave Grubnic, his wife’s suggested tuner. Millican and Grubnic became an intimidating tandem, challenging the Don Schumacher Racing and Kalitta Motorsports meagateams, setting records, and getting Millican his first NHRA pro victories.
Kloeber, meanwhile, worked with Pro Mod regular Sidnei Frigo when the Brazilian business mogul took a fleeting crack at dragsters. Then Kloeber went back to the Funny Car class – where he had made his mark working with legends Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Dale Pulde, and Ed “The Ace” McCulloch – with Bob Tasca III. But the charm, the mystique, didn’t transfer. Kloeber went back to Vancouver, Wash., and managed the production and machine-shop operations at a nearby diesel-engine manufacturing plant.
He made changes in his personal life and his personal development. But he had a void only drag racing could fulfill.
Kloeber said, “A lot of things impacted me in the years that led up to me not racing, the last few seasons. There was a lot of negativity in my life outside of motorsports. That clearly had an impact on me, and that’s one of the big life changes that I’ve made. The circumstances that created that environment had been gone for a number of years, and so now I would say more of the truer self is what I live with every day.”
He never stopped pondering the what-ifs and never stopped strategizing. And he never stopped watching and cheering for Millican.
“I’ve always raced for a living. While I wasn’t racing, I was constantly thinking of things that I would do differently and better if I had the opportunity to race again. So I’ve always wanted to race. However, I wasn’t able to for a period of time,” Kloeber said.
How he wished he had had a hand in Millican’s classic first NHRA victory in June 2017, at Bristol, Tenn., sharing the indescribable joy with Millican in person and hearing the strains of “Rocky Top” blaring in his ears rather than through a TV.
“I thought it took way too long. I wish I could have been there to have helped him win a race sooner than he did. That was my emotion through that waiting period. It was only a matter of time, not if,” Kloeber said. “I was excited because Clay was going to get a chance to win an NHRA championship. That’s a lifelong goal of mine that I haven’t been able to fulfill. You know, that’s the biggest benchmark that you can achieve in drag racing is to win an NHRA championship.
“So I’ve never wished anything bad on Clay. I’ve been secretly rooting for him at home every weekend, watching every run on the internet or on TV when they come on live. I’ve been right there with him every pass he’s made all year long and last year, the year before that, and the year before that,” he said.
But Grubnic is bolting for greener pastures after receiving multiple offers as early as last year and deciding to stay on through 2018. Even through the Auto Club NHAR Finals at Pomona, Calif., last week, he didn’t announce where he was headed. But his move was a serendipitous one for Kloeber in this Crew Chief Chess game.
And, Kloeber said, “With a call from Doug Stringer, I’m back in business.”
Stringer said he considers Grubnic’s exit from the team as part of “evolution.” The team owner, who has been through such changes as a boss for 16 years in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, said he told Grubnic after refusing an enticing offer, “Don’t do that again, because it’s about your individual life, too.”
Business partner Scott Gardner said, “The bottom line is it’s about people and people respecting each other. So we have to respect when somebody wants to change or do something different. It might not be in our minds a move up but it’s something they want to do in another arena.”
Stringer said, “So it’s just time. It’s time for us to evolve into another program, another team with new people. We’ve taken on two business partners with J.J. Koehler and Scott Gardner, and it’s time for this program to grow, and for life to go on. We’re excited for what the future holds for us. As you know, there’s a long relationship between Mike and Clay, so there’s a huge comfort level there. Mike’s got some unfinished business out here, as does Clay. People say, ‘Wow, they’re changing crew chiefs, their direction.’ Yes, people are moving on, and people are moving in. But our direction is to win the championship next year.”
Gardner, too, definitely is familiar with Kloeber through his years as a track operator and IHRA President. And he backed up Stringer’s philosophy: “We want to win the championship, but we want our people to succeed. I don’t care if that’s one of the crew people or a hospitality person or the crew chief. Everybody’s got in life the things they want to do and how they might be able to do things better. The last thing we want to do is stop or hold people from their opportunities. So I think it’s great for us. We feel very happy with what we have going on. It’s some exciting stuff and I think it’s going to be great for David and the guys that are going to leave with him.”
And Kloeber is the new linchpin in the deal.
He understands the dynamics of it all, because he said that’s what happened with himself and Millican: “II think that it was probably one of those things that was good for both of us. I don’t really have a lot to say about that. It was just the time for him to do something different, it was time for me to do something different. And for me personally, I needed to make changes in my life outside of racing, so it was not good or bad either way. It was just time to do something different and time for Clay to try something different, as well.
“He had only known the way I did things, so I’m sure he wanted to see what life had in store for him outside of what I would do with him. But we’ve come full circle, so I think that kind of tells the whole story right there,” Kloeber said.
The sequence of how he ended up at Stringer Performance, reunited with Millican as his driver, is irrelevant to Kloeber.
“I honestly don’t know what happened first, what happened second, what happened third, who said what when. I wasn’t there,” he said. “I know that Grubnic won’t be with the team next year and they called me. I honestly don’t know the details, so I really shouldn’t say. I just know he’s not going to be with the team and they called me and asked me if I would do it, and I said yes.”
Our final video recap of the NHRA season. – https://t.co/FCZMqTQeC6
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) November 16, 2018
Kloeber has his own philosophy.
“Well, my philosophy is that there won’t be any recreating of the past. It will just be what we’re doing now. We’ve certainly had great accomplishments from the past, and that’s going to create some expectations of future success, and I plan to do my part to make sure that we’re successful,” he said.
“Having Clay as a driver makes it a lot easier for me to be the chosen person to run the team. It puts you in the right head space. So there’ll be a lot of hard work that needs to get done,” Kloeber said. “It will be a new team of people that won’t be all of the same crew guys that Clay and I had back in the 2000s. So it will be very different. It won’t be anything like the past. It will be like how it’s going to be.”
Kloeber gained the reputation for being extremely talented but also gruff and intense and inflexible. But he has come to terms with “that” Mike Kleober. He said he didn’t think he was typecast unfairly.
“No,” he said, “I was a real butthead at times. Very strict and rigid. So, you know, not everybody enjoys that.”
With a grin he displays a lot more often these days, Kloeber said he has decided to loosen up a bit: “I said yes, I’ll let people drink beer in the pits.”
As for anyone who has misgivings that Kloeber might not be up to speed with the sport’s technology today, he said, he’d “respond to that the same way Ed Pink responded to me when I didn’t see him for about 10 years and I bumped into him at the Indy 500. I said, ‘Pink, what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’m building engines.’ I said, ‘Still?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, kid, the pistons still go up and down the same way.’ So I’m pretty sure the clutch discs still work the same [and] the blower still works the same. They like to smoke the tires, they like to not go straight. I’m pretty sure all the major points of drag racing haven’t changed.
“When I blow it up really bad, it will probably look like I’m struggling,” he said. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen. However, I’m pretty sure everybody out here has hurt at least one engine in their life. I might have hurt more than one, but we’re going to do our best to get me back up to speed as quickly as possible. There are going to be things for me to learn. I don’t think the basics of drag racing, the fundamentals, have changed. So I have a firm grasp of those fundamentals, and I’m sure that to some degree it will be like riding a bike. But only one car can win on Sunday, and I want to be that one car as many times as I can.
“I’m still going to have a laser-like focus. I’m still good at doing that. You have to be able to have a high level of concentration for short periods of time to do a good job out here, both tuning and driving. So I will focus on putting my race face on at the right time and take it off when it’s not time to have the race face on,” he said. “So I’m sure that you’ll still find me with a laser-like focus and seemingly unapproachable. But after hours we’ll do things a lot differently than in the past. Everybody likes to have fun. That’s one of the things that I wanted to remind myself about. We all started racing in the beginning because it was fun. I still want to win like I’ve always wanted to win, but I want to have a little more fun at it this time around.
“I didn’t forget how to have fun. I have lots of pictures in my photo album – you can see my Facebook page – you know I have fun. It’s just not at the racetrack. I come here because this is business and I want to win, so I’m very focused to that goal. When I leave the racetrack, I’m a completely different person. Go camping or kayaking with me, we’ll have a lot of fun,” Kloeber said.
He just is wired to be competitive.
“I’ve literally spent my entire life thinking about racing, either wanting to be in racing or wanting to do a better job in racing or build better parts for racing. Pretty much all of my waking moments throughout my life have been spent trying to have continuous improvement.”
Millican won back-to-back races this season, at Topeka and Joliet, Ill. And when he earns his first Wally trophy with Kloeber to stand shiny among the 51 IHRA Ironmen statues they captured, the crew chief said, “It will be elation for sure. I’ll be very excited and happy. It won’t be easy, so it will be a big accomplishment. I’ll be as happy as one person can be.”
That’s kind of how Kloeber feels right now.