Just over a year ago, Justin Milliken took the checkered flag in Sun Fun 101 at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
Leading up to the race, Milliken said his team was in a similar position to where they are now. But the win in the 101-lap race turned the season around, and he went on to win the track championship at Myrtle Beach, a half-mile asphalt oval in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Milliken wasn’t able to do any work to his car leading up to this year’s Sun Fun 101, because he was in the hospital for three days with his wife after she gave birth to the couple’s daughter.
On July 10, Milliken and his family celebrated his daughter’s first birthday. He’s starting to feel a bit of déjà vu about the race season.
“Last year, the year started off a lot like this year,” Milliken said. “We were struggling a little bit and we kind of hit on some things.
“This is where we need to turn it on. I think we’ve kind of put ourselves in that position. We’ve been working on some things and putting it together. I think we’re going to have a really good run the second half of the year this year.”
Milliken currently sits second in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model Stock Car standings at Myrtle Beach, though he said his team has had some “terrible luck” this season.
“I guess you have that in racing,” he said. “Last year we had some really good luck, this year we’ve not had so not so good luck. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
Coming into this season there was some added pressure to run for another championship. Milliken thinks back on last year when he and his family and whole team were able to go to the NASCAR awards banquet in Charlotte, North Carolina. Walking the red carpet was something he called a “humongous deal.”
But his competitive edge won’t allow Milliken to accept that being just a one-time opportunity.
“What an awesome experience that NASCAR and racing provided us to be able to do from winning these championships,” he said. “You want to do more. If people were just content winning one championship then we would never know how good Tom Brady really is. He would have just quit after one year. You always want to repeat. But I put a lot of pressure on myself anyway. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Part of what attracted Milliken to racing was the ability to compete.
For more than 50 hours a week he works for his family’s business selling plumbing and electrical parts. His race team is small, with a small budget and all volunteers on his crew. Proving he can still compete with big money teams is part of why he comes back year after year.
“I love it and I’m a very competitive person,” he said. “Some people go to the racetrack and they’re like, ‘Well, look at these big money teams. These people are doing it for a living,’ and then they just quit. But it makes me more proud to be able to outrun those guys or race with those guys. That competitiveness, I just love it. I love everybody working together toward one common goal. Racing takes so much effort from every single person. It’s not just the driver. I’m just lucky enough to be able to drive the car.
“It makes it tough sometimes but that’s the one thing I love. I love a challenge, and racing certainly presents a challenge.”
Racing was a hobby that turned into a lifestyle for Milliken and his family. Growing up, he was a long-haired surfer and skateboarder when his dad started racing go-karts when Milliken was 15 years old.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Why are you doing this? This is crazy.’ And I went to the racetrack with him and it was just a whole ‘nother world than the beach or a skateboard ramp.”
Milliken’s dad convinced him to drive the go-kart in one race.
That’s all it took.
“We made some laps around the racetrack, and I haven’t picked up a surfboard or a skateboard since,” he said.
Milliken’s dad still helps with his race team, as does his 91-year-old grandfather, and his father-in-law. His wife also never misses a race, and neither do his kids.
His work and his hobby are both hugely family-oriented, which makes the sport mean a lot more to Milliken.
“We work together, we race together,” he said. “Racing has made our family very tight knit. I look back and I think, ‘What would we sit around and be talking about? Would I be with my dad or my 91-year-old grandpa? Would I be hanging out with my father-in-law if it wasn’t for this racing?’ I’m very, very blessed to have those relationships and build those memories. That’s going to carry me the rest of my life. There’s a lot of people who will never have that kind of relationship with their family. I completely think that racing is the sole responsible for that.”
Milliken tried racing at some other tracks around North and South Carolina over the years, but he always comes back to Myrtle Beach, the track where he won rookie of the year in 2004, and two track championships. Not only is it just 40 minutes from his home, but his sponsors Bell and Bell Buick GMC and Anglers Marine are located in the city, and he wants to make sure he’s honoring their commitment to helping him race every week and continue to chase his dreams.
With four weekend races left, Milliken said he’d like to pick up a couple more wins to gain some ground in the track standings.
He also has one race wins he’s still chasing – the Myrtle Beach 400.
“That’s kind of our Daytona 500,” he said. “That’s a race that has eluded me.”
If last year was any indication, a turn-around and a little bit of luck late in the season can make all the difference.
Racing will return to Myrtle Beach Speedway this Saturday for the Sun Fun 101, featuring late models, chargers, super trucks, and mini stocks. Qualifying begins at 6 p.m.
The Myrtle Beach 400 will run on November 23.
MYRTLE BEACH LMSC standings:
- Sam Yarbrough Ldr.
- Justin Milliken -30
- Tommy Lemons -48
- Brian Vause -56
- Nick Sanchez -60