It might be too early to name the comeback driver of the year, but Steve Millen, a transplanted New Zealander who lives in Newport Beach and drives a Nissan 300ZX in the International Motor Sports Assn. GTS series, should head the list of nominees.
Millen was involved in a freak accident June 27, 1993, at Watkins Glen, N.Y. He suffered a double skull fracture, broken jaw, several broken ribs and a severely shattered left arm. Doctors said he might never be able to raise his arm again, much less drive a race car.
Shortly after the accident, the nerves in Millen's face were traumatized and one side of his face was paralyzed. He could not blink, shut his eyes or smile. Three days later, the other side froze and it was six months before his face returned to normal.
"It's still a mystery how I got hurt the way I did," Millen said. "I was stalled in traffic when I got hit (by a car going 150 m.p.h.) and my car just flicked around like the end of a bullwhip. I didn't hit anything, but I got thrown around pretty severely. My belts were secure and the cockpit was not damaged.
"My helmet didn't appear to have taken a lick. We sent it to the manufacturer and it showed no break from an impact. No one knows how my jaw and my arm got broken. They think my skull, which had separate fractures on both sides, was damaged from being shaken up inside the helmet. It was very unusual."
After several operations on his arm were unsuccessful, Millen went to Robert Chandler, an orthopedic surgeon at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, who inserted a metal bar to what was left of his bones and secured it with eight screws.
"It's good quality titanium, it won't rust," Millen says, "but it does set off the alarms in airports. I owe a great deal to Dr. Chandler. I might not be racing if it weren't for what he did with my arm."
When this year's IMSA GTS season began last January at Daytona Beach, Fla., Millen was there with Clayton Cunningham's El Segundo-based Nissan team. He had already tested the car to prepare it for an assault on the manufacturer's championship held by Oldsmobile.
Millen was one of the winning drivers in the 24 Hours of Daytona and has won four of eight events going into the season finale Saturday on Phoenix International Raceway's 1.5-mile road circuit. Nissan clinched the team championship when Millen won last month in Portland, but the driver's championship is still at stake with Millen holding a nine-point lead over Oldsmobile driver Irv Hoerr.
"Even if Hoerr wins, I can win the championship if I finish third," Millen said, noting that "I've been third or better in every race this year."
He was on the winning team at Daytona and Sebring, won individually at Road Atlanta and Portland, finished second at Watkins Glen, Indianapolis Raceway Park and Laguna Seca and third at Lime Rock, Conn.
The reason he didn't clinch the driver's title with the manufacturer's crown is because his victory at Daytona did not count in the points. Millen started in one Nissan and when it broke a crankshaft during the night, he joined Paul Gentilozzi, Scott Pruett and Butch Leitzinger for a two-hour stint with the car that won. Points can be scored only in the first car driven.
"It was fun," Millen said. "We won by 24 laps. I didn't get any points but I did get a silver Rolex." The car averaged 104.80 m.p.h. for 2,516 miles.
Teamed with Johnny O'Connell and John Morton, Millen also drove one of Cunningham's Nissans in the 24 Hours of LeMans, where it finished fifth overall and won the IMSA GTS class. Millen had won rookie-of-the-year honors at LeMans in 1990.
Kenny Smith, the El Monte race car driver who won $24 million in the lottery last week, is looking to make another $1,000 on Saturday night. Smith, the Saugus Speedway Pro-Four Modified champion, will drive his Lumina in a $1,000-to-the-winner Pro-Four race at Kern County Raceway in Rosamond.
STOCK CARS--NASCAR's Featherlite Southwest Tour will make its only 1994 appearance Saturday night at San Bernardino's Orange Show Speedway when the Coors 100 is held on the quarter-mile paved oval. Dale Williams, last year's rookie of the year from Sacramento, is defending champion in the 25-mile race. . . . The season-ending program at Ventura Raceway, washed out by rain last week, has been rescheduled for Friday night. . . . Santa Maria Speedway will close its season Saturday night with a 150-lap factory stock enduro. . . . Cajon Speedway will hold its final sportsman car race of the season Saturday night, with a train race to follow. . . . The season's final points race for pro and pony stocks is scheduled Saturday night at Blythe Speedway. . . . Street stocks and Pro-Four Modifieds will run Saturday night at Kern County Raceway in Rosamond.
SPRINT CARS--Veteran Ron Shuman closed to within 16 points of Rip Williams with his third consecutive Sprint Car Racing Assn. victory last Saturday in Santa Maria and the Arizona driver will continue his championship chase when the SCRA races Saturday night at Ventura Raceway. Mike Kirby and Mike English have also moved into championship contention as the season nears its close. Six races remain in the 28-race season. Also on Saturday night's program will be a USAC three-quarter midget main event.
SPEEDWAY BIKES--Sixteen riders will compete for the U.S. Nationals championship Saturday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. Defending champion Sam Ermolenko, American Final winner Greg Hancock and 1992 champion Chris Manchester are coming from the British Speedway League to compete against 10 Southern Californians (former winners Brad Oxley, Mike Faria and Bobby Schwartz, plus Gary Hicks, Robert Pfetzing, Shawn McConnell, Charles Venegas, Don Odom, Josh Larsen and Andy Northrup) and three Northern Californians (Bobby Hedden, Bart Bass and Jim Sizemore).
MISCELLANY--The Mickey Thompson stadium off-road series will resume after a three-month layoff Saturday night in Las Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium. Toyota drivers Rod Millen and Ivan Stewart lead the Grand National sport truck series, which will conclude Oct. 8 in Denver. . . . The American Nostalgia Racing Assn. will hold its final round Saturday at the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale. The awards banquet will be Sunday at the Palmdale Holiday Inn. . . . Harley-Davidson riders Chris Carr and Scott Parker will continue their battle for the AMA dirt track championship Sunday in the Sacramento Mile at the Cal-Expo Fairgrounds.
INDY CARS--Raul Boesel, 1987 world sports car champion from Brazil and a veteran of eight Indianapolis 500s, will leave Dick Simon to drive as Bobby Rahal's teammate next year on the Rahal-Hogan Indy car team. They will drive Lolas powered by new Mercedes-Benz/Ilmor engines. . . . Jim McGee, one of racing's most successful crew chiefs, will leave the Newman-Haas team at the end of this season to rejoin Pat Patrick's new Firestone team. McGee was with Patrick for 11 seasons during which the team won the Indy 500 twice and the PPG Cup championship in 1989.