Going for Broke

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

Jeff dug it too—his earliest memories are of playing with carburetors and crawling under toy cars, so he could be like his old man.

"One of the funny things that happened when Jeff was a kid was, I went out and mowed the grass every weekend, and the lawnmower wouldn't start the next weekend," Bill says. "So I'd fix it, and the next time, it wouldn't start. This went on for three weeks till I caught Jeff in the garage—and he was 4 at the time—with a screwdriver in one hand and the carburetor in the other."

Bill took Jeff to some races. Jeff liked it. Bill taught Jeff how to rip the guts out of an engine. Jeff loved it.

By NASCAR standards, Milburn's garage is tiny.
By NASCAR standards, Milburn's garage is tiny.
Even a fast truck needs to stop: Blair Emerson and Kim Wright are members of Milburn's tiny crew.
Even a fast truck needs to stop: Blair Emerson and Kim Wright are members of Milburn's tiny crew.

"I always wanted to build the thing," Jeff says. "I don't know how that happened, really. Maybe it's because anyone could drive a car. Even NASCAR said it a couple years ago: Man, fucking drivers are a dime a dozen. You can pick them up on the way to the race. It's the owners and the crew chiefs that are important to NASCAR...Knuckle-draggers is what they call the mechanics. Everybody thinks of you as a greasy hand with fingernails, but, really, you're the ones that are doing it—the behind-the-scenes puppet-masters."

His folks split, and Jeff wound up bouncing around a little bit, living with his mom and stepdad mostly, in Odessa. Joined the Marines to become a military mechanic; it didn't take. Bill thought Jeff would go off to college and become a lawyer. Instead, he worked on girls' cars to "make some money for pizzas and shit." Everyone thought he ought to get a real job. He told them thanks, but he had one—in a Dodge dealership, where he wound up for seven years till he latched on with some nitromethane-juiced Top Fuel drag-racing teams that took him to the tracks from which he hasn't returned.

"We all grow up thinking our kids will be like us—get a job, put on a suit and go to a job every day," Bill Milburn says. "But, hell, whatever he wanted to do was fine with me. When he got down to Dallas, he was into drag-racing and said he was gonna open his own shop. Well, I am not a guy to take chances like that."

"My father tells me that I will end up homeless," Jeff says. "He told me that a couple weeks ago...I don't know how much money I have; I'm not a very good businessman. I just have this stuff. His perception is that I don't work for someone else, and I don't have a pension, and I don't have a nest egg and a house and all that shit. When I worked in the dealership, the only money I worried about was the money I needed to buy the tools to do my work, and that's the money I spent building my motorcycles and my hot rod. I seriously ate fucking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Cheetos and drank Kool-Aid and ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast for years. Fucking years."

How do you talk a guy out of his dream when, seven years ago, he was this close to killing himself? Almost did it by accident on January 7, 2000, when he was showing off on his motorcycle and landed short on a jump and broke his back. The surgeon who put him back together told Bill Milburn his kid would never walk again. He was in a wheelchair for months, enduring hours and hours of therapy. He broke his foot as well during that time.

By summer 2001, after frustrating attempts at walking and merely standing, he was ready to do himself in. In his big black old-fashioned date book from then—Milburn has all of them, going back years—there is an entry that reads, "DO NOT TRY ANY MORE...FROM THIS DAY ON." Beneath it is something so marked out that it's impossible to read.

"It says something like, 'Get my tools outta the toolbox, figure out a way to kill myself without anybody knowing.' That's why I scratched it out—so nobody'd know." Shortly after that, Milburn got out of his wheelchair. Four years later, at the insistence of friend and NASCAR West driver Moses Smith, Milburn called NASCAR and told them he wanted to own a team.

Ed Rensis on the phone from Manhattan, where hes trying to hail a cab so he can get to a cocktail party. Big Money doesnt come much bigger: Rensi went from making burgers at McDonalds to becoming the president and CEO of McDonalds USA from 1984 till 1998, when he quit to get into the race-car biz when he and his brother Sam formed Team Rensi Motorsports as part of the NASCAR Busch Grand National competition.

Rensi's met Milburn—at his garage in Dallas, about two years ago. Rensi was in town to meet with some folks at the Richards Group ad agency, with whom Milburn's done some work over the years. Folks at Richards thought they should get together, these two NASCAR team owners. So they met at the garage. The way Milburn remembers it, Rensi wasn't terribly impressed. Something about the tattoos, as Milburn recalls it.

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