In a relatively rare mishap behind the wheel, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme’s Skoal Bandit Pontiac Trans-Am Funny Car crossed the center line and took out the timing cones at the end of the quarter-mile. That tore off the whole right fender, from the hood latch to the headers.
Crew chief Mike Kloeber fashioned a new fender for the car, which found its way to the Blue Max shop at Dallas after the incident, and grafted the new piece onto the exiting bodywork. Close by was Dave Oberhofer’s paint shop. Teenager Jim Oberhofer, the 18- or 19-year-old son of the owner, stayed up all night and painted Prudhomme’s maroon beauty before it left town for another racetrack.
Until this winter, that’s the only time Kloeber and Jim Oberhofer have worked together on a race car, although they have been cordial to one another as their paths crossed at the dragstrips. Now they’re, in Kloeber’s words, “analyzing data and strategizing, creating agendas of what we want to accomplish” to give Top Fuel racer Clay Millican a Parts Plus / Strutmasters.com Dragster that picked up where its record-setting 2018 season ended.
They have been communicating by phone, and this weekend’s preseason testing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix, will mark their first face-to-face work sessions.
The reunion that pairs Kloeber and Millican, who together forged six straight IHRA Top Fuel championships, and extends to Oberhofer also broadens to add underrated car chief Jack Wyatt, who made his driving mark as a Funny Car journeyman. At the Feb. 8-10 Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., they’ll take their first bold step toward an NHRA Top Fuel crown that would be the first for all of them.
“It’s been déjà-vu, of sorts, with Mike and Jack back in the shop,” Millican said. “I have total confidence that they will provide the performance we need with the new parts that have been arriving daily. We developed an awesome, new look for Part Plus/Strutmasters.com dragster, semi transporters, uniforms and more that matches our goals and ambitions. Our new look and our new crew will be in the hunt for a championship this year.”
The entire crew is new to each other and to Straightline Strategy Group, the Doug Stringer-masterminded new megateam that includes partners Scott Gardner and J.J. Koehler, as well as a conglomerate of racers that transcends NHRA action. Funny Car veteran Paul Lee has joined the team, along with Pro Stock’s Matt Hartford, Top Fuel Harley’s Janette Thornley, and No Prep Street Outlaws’ Jeff Lutz and his Mad Max Pro Mod.
Winternationals weekend at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona promises to be colder than in recent February Mello Yello Series season-openers. But Oberhofer is just back from a visit to sweltering Sydney, Australia, where Competition Plus correspondent John Doig reported that track temperatures were “nudging 155 [degrees] Fahrenheit” and ambient thermometer readings showed 112. So Kloeber said he’s thinking Oberhofer will have some pointers about how to race in impossibly hot conditions later this season. “I, personally, have never seen anything above 141 degrees, which I believe was at Tulsa,” Kloeber said. “It’s a pretty big deal when the track gets over 125.”
For Kloeber, a sweet surprise has been Wyatt, a man he knew for a number of years and as a former Funny Car crew chief appreciated for his earnest effort at the racetrack, often with meager funding.
“I never really knew Jack well, except to say hi. But he’s a hard-working, salt-of-the-earth guy. He was out there, trying to keep his car out there and run as much as he could afford to run and get as much sponsorship money as he could,” Kloeber said of Wyatt, who’s in his same age bracket and shares his interest in aviation. (Kloeber studied aeronautical engineering.) “It was sad to see the IHRA program fade away. He got caught in the tail end of the IHRA time, and his was a competitive car in their championship. It was nice to see Jack spreading his wings and doing good.
“The big surprise for me is what a wonderful teacher and instructor and organizer Jack is. Jack has done an unbelievably good job of teaching guys who didn’t know how to do the clutch or the cylinder head or just putting the car together and taking the car apart, helping guys understand how to organize their workspace in the trailer, where they ought to have their tools, how to do things. I have been simply floored at Jack’s ability to train people in a short period of time,” he said.
“And I have been exposed, outside of racing, to world-class training in the manufacturing workspace. And with all the training and education I’ve received, Jack is equal to or better than the vast majority of professional trainers who make a living training people – with no official training of his own to train people. It’s like a phenomenal superpower that I never expected to encounter,” Kloeber said. “And Jack took so much of the load off my shoulders. It has really helped in terms of being mentally and physically prepared for this upcoming season. We had an awful lot of work in a short amount of time. I cannot say enough good things about Jack Wyatt. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to have Jack Wyatt on my team. Jack Wyatt is a phenomenally good person to have on your race team.”
Morgan Lucas thought so, too, for Wyatt was on his skeleton crew who helped him in, essentially, cameo appearances. In one of them, Lucas won the 2015 U.S. Nationals on his company’s branded racetrack in his hometown.
Wyatt was one in the beginning of Millican’s tenure with Stringer Performance who worked under the radar, helping assemble the team with Parts Plus and Great Clips as marketing partners. And Kloeber said Millican had “lots of praise” for Wyatt.
“Change is a scary word as fear of the unknown can keep people from moving forward,” Millican said. “But I’ve fully embraced this change, even with the valleys and hills that are expected in the process.”
One plus for him and the rest of the team but Kloeber in particular is the fact the crew chief said Wyatt “is a really good racer. He’s as good as they come. He has run in a number of different categories. He has worked with no money; he has worked with a lot of money. And he has had success everywhere in between.”
That makes a perfect match for Millican, too, as he tries to improve from his No. 3 finish last season behind champion Steve Torrence and runner-up Tony Schumacher.
Millican and Klober have settled in at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, eager to test parts and crew members and routines and tune-ups. And Monday afternoon he received some welcome company.
“My first truck is here! My first truck is here!” Kloeber exclaimed, giddy as a young boy discovering his first shiny bicycle in the driveway.
With that, the Parts Plus / Strutmaster.com Dragster has launched its 2019 mission.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019