by Michael Dickens, April 2011
Mike Miller is a street stock car driver who isn't afraid of a little dirt.
A 15-year veteran of the California desert racing scene, Miller made the switch from asphalt to dirt track racing 10 years ago. It's a change he doesn't regret.
"I like racing a Mopar in a sea of Chevys," said Miller, a welding contractor (and owner of Mike's Iron Works) who didn't become interested in racing cars until his early 30s.
Now 53, Miller started racing on asphalt at the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, driving a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro. After five years, he switched to the 3/8-mile dirt oval track at Victorville Auto Raceway, which enabled him to race closer to home and save on expenses. Along with the change of racing venues, Miller switched rides and divisions.
For several years, Miller drove a 1973 Plymouth Duster before switching to a 1974 Dodge Challenger that he bought on eBay for $1,200 (which included the car shell with driver's cage). He recouped part of his investment by selling some of the car's extra parts, then spent an additional $2,500 on a 360 LA engine with late-model magnum heads bored 0.30” over and equipped with Keith Black hyperutectic pistons and a Holley 4412 500-cfm 2-barrel carburetor.
"My heart has always been with Mopars," said Miller, who began racing in the Super Street category before landing in the Street Stock division at Victorville Auto Raceway. Now, he looks forward to defending his 2010 Street Stock division title beginning this month, driving his familiar blue and yellow 1974 Dodge Challenger.
Miller has been a regular at the Victorville dirt track for the past 10 seasons. It's a surface he's comfortable driving on and it's located only 30 miles from his residence in Barstow. Asked about the bright yellow No. 44 that adorns each side of the car, Miller said he chose that number because it was his age when started dirt track racing.
"My car is always a favorite and I'm looking forward to repeating," said Miller, who has garnered three new sponsors for the 2011 season and races for Chrome Horn Racing. Having sponsors, he said, will help defray the cost of competing in about 16-17 Saturday night races between April and November.
In 2010, Miller footed all of the necessary expenses to compete without the benefit of any sponsorship support and handled much of the off-the-track repairs himself. During races, he received valuable assistance from his pit crew consisting of his son-in-law John Sandridge and his wife Louise Carmichael Miller, as well as Brian Fuzie, Joe Dillow and Phill Harris.
Despite earning only one first-place finish, Miller made the most of his opportunities.
Last year's points title wasn't decided until the last lap of the last race of the season on October 30. Entering the final 20-lap race at Victorville, Miller led in the overall points standings with 423, a single point ahead of his nearest competitor, Curtis Dietzsch. However, Dietzsch had won more races than Miller during the season and held the tie breaker. Despite the odds, Miller knew what he had to do. He had to finish ahead of Dietzsch to secure the points title.
"The best strategy is to finish the race first," said Miller. "However, you want to hold your position on the track. You don't want to take any unnecessary chances in the first few laps. Unless you get a good opening, you want to stay cautious and keep your momentum." Plus, according to Miller, the dirt on the track gets drier as the race wears on.
As it turned out, neither Miller nor Dietzsch earned the final checkered flag of the season. Instead, the race was won by Robert Lawler, who took 13th place overall for the season at Victorville. However, Miller passed Dietzsch on the straightaway during the final lap of the race and edged him at the finish line by a mere two feet -- despite finishing with a flat right rear tire. Not only did Miller gain a second-place finish, he also secured the points title by a margin of two points over Dietzsch.
"I only won once race, but I finished in second place six times," said Miller, who reached the finish line in every race he started last season. "I put (my Dodge Challenger) together in a couple of months -- and we were competitive -- even though the car didn't always run the way I wanted it. The Chevy guys didn't like me."
Fast forward five months since last October and it's time for Miller to defend his points title. Racing on dirt tracks like Victorville Auto Raceway is done on a much smaller and simpler scale -- the pit crews are small and versatile, and each race costs about $150 for pit entry, gas and other racing expenses. And, according to Miller, the crowds are friendly and appreciative of all of the drivers who compete for the enjoyment of racing.
"You earn $250 if you win. If you finish in the top three you can sustain a profit provided your car has no accidents or breakdowns," said Miller.
"I have the financial means to race and I've always enjoyed working with engines. Bottom line, you aren't racing for the money. But you can get some of it back."
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