By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"He says, 'I gotta tell you something, son. You should keep your sleeves rolled down when you're meeting somebody like me,'" Milburn says. "Then he goes on about this and that, and then that's when he told me, 'You have something that we don't have.' He says, 'You're dangerous, if somebody can figure it out, because you're gonna be somebody they can relate to.' He knows that in the scheme of things, that out of the 75 million people that watch NASCAR every week, 10,000 of them know who we are and what we're doing. To the rest of them, we're just some team...But if a marketing company or McDonald's wants to sell burgers to tattooed-up people that watch Miami Ink and shit like that, he knows that all of a sudden we're gonna be a hot commodity and something's gonna happen. But he's not gonna tell anybody that, because that means that whatever sponsor might go to him is gonna end up going to me."
Yeah, maybe so, Rensi says. Maybe so. It's clear Rensi likes "the kid." It's clear he respects him. Says Milburn's "good for racing." Calls him "energetic," "hardworking," "committed." Says he doesn't want to discourage Milburn. Only, that's all he does during our talk—offers nothing but reasons why Milburn ought to get out now and go work in the film biz full time and race the local tracks on the weekend when he's got time to kill.
"The most important proposition for him to remember is that he's in the entertainment business and the sales business and the marketing business," Rensi says. "The first thing you need to do is find a sponsor. The most important person in a race team is a sponsor. The second is the crew chief, the third is the driver. The least important person on a race team is the owner, because if you don't have the money and people and equipment, forget about it. If I were his dad, I would say to him, 'Son, chase your dreams and hang tough, but race locally and hang tough there.' I don't want to discourage him, but the fact is someone needs to."
And the fact is, Milburn doesn't have a sponsor—a few here and there, sure, but nothing bigger than The Electric Light & Power Company, a local film-equipment rental house, and Reverend Horton Heat. And he never will get a big sponsor till he wins a race, or at least places better than 27th. Only, he'll never place higher till he gets more money. Because no chief marketing officer for a big corporation's gonna spend his boss' dough on a guy who believes in himself. Doesn't matter how big his heart is, only how fast his truck goes.
"Unrewarded genius is a proverb," Rensi says, "and the first question everyone asks themselves is: What's in it for me?"
Oh, and Milburn doesn't have a crew chief—or, for that matter, much of a crew. Three weeks before the Sam's Town 400 at the TMS, Milburn figures he's got nowhere near the minimum of 12 people he needs for a decent-sized pit crew. "Shit, I have trouble having seven," he says. "I'm telling you, I'm having a hard time sleeping at night because of it, let alone the money situation I've got. I don't know what I'm gonna do."
And he doesn't have a full-time driver. He's running the TMS race with Chris Wimmer, who latched on with Milburn last year—just a few days before a Texas Motor Speedway race where he wound up placing 30th. Wimmer's coming down this week to spend a couple weeks going over the truck with Milburn and his crew. "I'd never heard of him till last year, but he turned out to be a really, really nice guy—honest," Wimmer says. "Told me exactly what his deal was—just that he loves racing, but that he hasn't gotten the money to do it."
Truth is, though, NASCAR likes having Milburn around. Sure, he may not win or make even a fraction of the races, but he's good to have on the team—proof that there are still a few Davids in a sport dominated by Goliaths. Couple of years ago, Wayne Auton, director of the Craftsman Truck Series; Dennis Adcock, head of tech for the series; and a few other guys were in the neighborhood for a Texas Motor Speedway event and dropped in on Milburn, to see if he was worthy of an invite. They dug what they saw—a guy who made his trucks by hand, who wanted to play by the rules, who had more spirit than cash but was gonna be damned if he failed.
"I've been on that side of the fence with a team that's underfunded and trying to make it," Adcock says. "Jeff's not gonna get the big money, but Jeff making the show, that's what counts, because there are people walking around the garages, and one of them might go, 'I may give this kid $250,000 to make a few more races.' That's all the guys in the back hope for, and it happens."