By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I'm a NASCAR crew chief and an owner!" he says, his voice rising, his grin broadening. "I get to build the car the way I wanna build it. It gets to be black. The interior's white. I make the call on what color the wheels are. Our crew uniforms have the cat with the crossed wrenches, because NASCAR doesn't like the skull and crossbones. And the 18-wheeler's black and has a skull and crossbones on it. It's my deal."
You don't have to know squat about NASCAR to know Milburn's in way over his head. He's just a little guy with a little garage, off Stemmons Freeway and Inwood Road, a place he got from his old man when Jeff decided he liked his dad's garage better than his. In the world of NASCAR, where it takes millions just to get a team to the track every few weeks, Milburn's working with a few thou here and there, spare change he picks up from pals and teeny-tiny sponsors who give till it hurts.
He's the man behind the No. 76 Chevy Silverado in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series—the truck he built with his own hands using spare parts and the grace of the racing gods. It's one of the few trucks in the Craftsman series without a big ol' sponsor powering it. About the biggest name he can claim as a backer is Jim Heath—Reverend Horton Heat to you, the guy who once sang about wanting his 400 bucks. That's about half of what Heath gives Milburn when he needs it—a few hundred just to pay the entrance fee into a race, three of which Milburn's team makes a year. Three out of 25 on the Craftsman Truck Series schedule this year.
Three races. Two at the Texas Motor Speedway—beginning this season with the Sam's Town 400 on June 8, televised live on the Speed Network—and one at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Three races. That's nothing. And still, it's costing Milburn everything he's got. He lives above his garage. He eats dinner with his dad almost every night. Eats lunch with him too most days, when he's not dining on peanut butter and jelly or going somewhere cheap on a buddy's dime. That's all Milburn talks about: money, how he's got none and gotta get some before this dream of his shrivels up and dies and he's gotta go back to the Dodge dealership where he used to work tuning up family trucksters on their last wheels.
He does have another business, actually: Milburn builds and modifies cars for all kinds of movie, TV and commercial work. He's always got someone in the shop welding this or mounting that on something that goes fast. He's done plenty of work on Prison Break; he does Denny's commercials too and everything else in between, no matter how big-budget or low-rent—whatever it takes to pay the bills to keep the dream alive for one more Friday night, when NASCAR usually runs its trucks on the nation's finest speedways. And he does a lot of building and fixing for pals, when he can get to it.
There's a lot to Milburn's story—like how his daddy was a drag-racer before Jeff was born, so it's just in his blood. And there was the time he almost died in a dirt-biking accident. Thought about killing himself. That was just a few years back. There's enough here to make a movie about the guy, which someone did: El Mechanico Loco, which director Chad Jackson debuted a few weeks back during the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. But the movie—filmed in 2004, when Milburn was running the Formula 2000 circuit—stops just before Milburn got into NASCAR two years back. That's where this story picks up.
But before we throw it into reverse, the following story about Milburn's first time on a NASCAR track probably tells you everything you need to know about the guy.
It was September 23, 2006—the Smith's Las Vegas 350. It was the first time the engine didn't blow up. The first time the truck didn't get wrecked during qualifying. The first time he made The Show.
Now, Milburn's more than just the team owner and more than just the guy who builds the truck. He hauls it out to the race himself, in the black transport that looks like it's carrying Stephen King's Christine to a buffet. He's the crew chief, jumping over the wall during pit stops. He runs the catch can, which is just what it sounds like—a small can used to catch overflow fuel pumped into the truck during pit stops. During races, when the other owners are sipping bourbon and slurping victuals up in their skyboxes, Milburn's the only guy out on the track in a fireproof suit, hoping he doesn't die during a pit stop. And, yeah, what some call guts, others call plain fuckin' stupid.