Reading, Pennsylvania’s Maple Grove Raceway has been a part of the NHRA national event trail since 1985, and as one of the more oxygen-rich tracks in the country and with an annual race date at a prime time of the year, atmospherically speaking, it’s seen its share of memorable moments. But arguably, one stands above the rest, and it had nothing at all to do with elapsed times or speeds on the scoreboard.
It seems like only yesterday for long-time followers of the sport, while for the newer fans out there, it’s an entertaining tidbit in the careers of a couple of likable racers. In 2002, Clay Millican was an IHRA juggernaut, in the midst of a six-year championship run in Top Fuel — but he was a relative unknown in the NHRA. Doug Herbert was himself a four-time IHRA champion, but was by then a veteran NHRA competitor with a number of national event triumphs to his credit. And at 6-foot-4 and 220-pounds, was he ever the imposing figure.
During that 2002 edition of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, Millican was the No. 8 qualifier, Herbert No. 9. As is common, they were the first pair out on Sunday morning, given their last selection of run order. Millican, at that time, had a 2-0 career edge over Herbert, and on this particular day, each had a lot of patience but not an ounce of patience for one another.
The two drivers lit the stage bulb, opened the fuel pumps wide open, and then sat there. And sat there. And sat there.
And chief starter Rick Stewart, an honorable fella’ but one with little tolerance for shenanigans on his starting line, was having none of it. After nearly two minutes at idle, an animated Stewart angrily shut them down and sent them to their corners. Such a step was common with lengthy Pro Stock burn-downs, but in this scenario — two Top Fuel dragsters — the stakes were a bit higher. One, the idle time of the engines meant a higher likelihood of engine damage during the run. Secondly, and more importantly, nitro cars burn a significant amount of fuel on the burnout and at idle, and that fuel is situated in the nose to assist in keeping the front end down — burn off too much, the nose gets light, bad things happen.
Herbert, who on that day earned the nickname Dougzilla, climbed from his dragster, quickly approached the 5-foot-8, 145-pound Millican, and shared a few choice words about the situation. Then Millican’s car owner, Peter Lehman, entered the scene, got physical with Herbert, and a WWE match broke loose at Maple Grove.
After the two camps were broken up, Stewart, who was originally going to disqualify both teams, allowed them to return to their respective pit areas, service their cars, and come back at the end of the round to try it again. Twenty-four minutes after their first go-round, Millican and Herbert staged up in relatively timely fashion and off they went. As the record will reflect, Millican took nearly two-hundredths out of the gate but was outrun by Herbert, 4.73 to 4.77.
Years later, the two — enemies on that particular day — were foes no longer. Millican was an early supporter of Herbert’s B.R.A.K.E.S. program, serving as a guest speaker at galas and driving schools. Their friendship became ever-closer in the decade to come, as Herbert tragically lost his two sons in a car accident in 2008 and Millican’s son passed from a similar fate in a motorcycle accident in 2015. Earlier this year in Charlotte, Millican’s car flew the B.R.A.K.E.S. logo in support of Herbert’s efforts — a seemingly unlikely partnership on that Sunday morning in Reading 17 years ago.