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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
And if it doesn't, well, there's always that movie work to fall back on. There's always some garage that needs a mechanic. There's always some movie star or rock-and-roller who needs a hot rod custom-built by yesterday. There's always work for a guy who can make something out of nothing. But it's work all the same, and work ain't the same as a dream you've been chasing since you were out of diapers and tearing apart the lawnmower carburetor.
"This might be it," Milburn says, "These next three races might be it, and then I might be in too deep. But, fuck, that would be depressing if this was as far as I could go, because then if you quit, you've gone backwards, and I don't ever wanna go backwards. That's why I needed to stand up when I was in that wheelchair. You don't wanna go backwards. You don't wanna talk about what you're gonna do; you don't wanna talk about what you did. You just wanna be doing shit."