Going for Broke

NASCAR team owner Jeff Milburn might never win a race, but there's more to life than a checkered flag

"So all the crew chiefs sit on the pit boxes, and you have a NASCAR official with you and everything," Milburn says. The NASCAR official in Las Vegas was Dennis Adcock, who makes sure the cars are up to snuff for every race. The guy doesn't let jack slide. Ever.

"So Dennis is walking around, and he walks up and he's like, 'How're you doing, Milburn? You guys are running your race! You're here!'" Milburn recalls.

"And he's like, 'Why aren't you sitting on the pit box?' And I pointed at the catch can, and he's like, 'Un-fucking-believable...' But the first time we ran that race, I swear to God, it was like somebody took the burden of the world off my shoulders. I'd done my whole lifelong dream. I was almost afraid that that was it, and I couldn't go any further.

Milburn puts his No. 76 on the track whenever he can afford it--i.e., not often.
Photos by Mark Graham
Milburn puts his No. 76 on the track whenever he can afford it--i.e., not often.
Milburn does the work of team owner, mechanic and crew chief--and any other job that needs doing.
Wayne Ebinger
Milburn does the work of team owner, mechanic and crew chief--and any other job that needs doing.

"It was so weird. It was like, at the end of the day I had put so much energy into it, I wasn't sure. I knew we had to get back to Texas and get the thing apart, get ready to go to the next race, but it was so overwhelming. In one way, there's a lot of people saying, 'You can't do this. You can't run in NASCAR. You can't get that money; you don't have that money.' But, look, I know I don't have the money, but I've got the gumption, and I've got the chutzpah. I've got the grit, and I know that I can pull this off."

Milburn's truck placed 27th of the 28 trucks that finished in Vegas. Might as well have been first fuckin' place.

It costs anywhere between $5 million to $10 million to run a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team for an entire year, depending on how many trucks you're running and how many races you're entering. That money goes for everything from paying the crew (10 to 20 folks, any fewer and you're screwed) to maintaining the vehicles to keeping fresh tires on the trucks. Every team takes two trucks to a race and hauls two more to the next stop. Milburn's lucky to have one truck, period.

Since the races don't pay much—Mike Skinner, winner of that Vegas race last year in a Toyota Tundra, risked his life for a share of $54,675—most of that dough comes from corporate sponsors who shell out big money for them big ol' decals reflecting off the hood. It's all about big money, and Milburn's about as small as it gets.

Fact is, they don't let folks like him into NASCAR much anymore. Sure, they used to, back in the 1950s and '60s and '70s. But that's when NASCAR was closer to its outlaw roots. That was before Mom and Pop and the kids started piling into Winnebagos and heading out to Daytona and Talladega and Darlington for weekend stays in parking lots full of tailgaters with their fancy-pants satellite dishes and thousand-dollar stainless-steel grills.

There was a time when the shade-tree mechanic and his hitchhiking driver and a broke-ass, ragtag team could run a race for cheap and do it every few weeks. That's how NASCAR was built—on the sweaty backs of junkyard scavengers, speed demons, moonshine-runners and grease monkeys who built a multibillion-dollar spectator sport. Guys like Fonty Flock and Herb Thomas and Fireball Roberts wouldn't even recognize the NASCAR they created.

Wasn't so long ago that trucks weren't even part of the NASCAR series. Trucks were relegated to the off-road circuit out in the Californian and Mexican deserts, where the boys hoped they didn't smoosh the spectators into roadkill. The first time NASCAR fans saw a modified pickup that looked like a race car—kinda, sorta—was in 1994 at the Circle Track Trade Show in Daytona Beach, Florida. In NASCAR's official history book on the Craftsman Truck Series it says there wasn't much interest from upper management at first. Seemed too clunky, all those pickups going around and around on tracks built for stock cars.

But on July 30 of that year, the Truck Series made its bow—to the strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," natch—at the Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, California. According to NASCAR's published history, Dennis Huth, who was then NASCAR's vice president of administration, told the crowd, "Tonight, you are witnessing a very historic occasion and the birth of the next great NASCAR racing series." And, sure enough, the big names over on the car side became early adopters of the truck series, among them Jack Rousch and Richard Childress and Ed Rensi, the latter a former president at McDonald's. Even so, the truck series is still the stepchild of the bigger, badder NEXTEL Cup and Busch series.

So that explains how the truck series got its start. Doesn't explain anything about Milburn, who can't even afford to eat at McDonald's.

The long and short of it is, his daddy was—and still is—a car freak, a speed fetishist. Bill Milburn worked for the phone company in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1960s, when Jeff came along. He had a good job, always had nice cars. Before Jeff was born, Bill "was deep into organized drag-racing," he says now, and later, he kept around its periphery—to the point where he always had a buddy's car in the garage so Bill could tinker with it in his spare time.
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