JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (November 6, 2000) - Johnny Miller, 34, drives race cars for a living. That's not all that unusual in a day when NASCAR's Winston Cup Series is the fastest-growing spectator sport in North America. But Miller, who grew up in the shadow of high banks at Bristol, Tennessee, isn't a Winston Cup driver. He doesn't race Busch Grand National or even the Craftsman Truck Series, ASA or ARCA.
Miller is a road racer. It's all he's ever wanted to be. And a road racer making a living at racing is a much, much rarer breed. But then so is Miller; racing is all he's ever wanted to do.
"I got bit by the racing bug at about age 12," says Miller, who was the BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series Rookie of the Year in 1996."I started out going to races, hanging out in the pits, volunteering to shine wheels and get coffee for people like Buzz Casson and John Morgan. My hero's were drivers like Irv Hoerr, Paul Newman, Brian Redman and Danny Ongais.
Not born to a famous racing family or to a lot of money, Miller had to figure out a way to get the money to race. He worked as a mechanic, working on street cars as well as racers. But he also went to school, and on to college, earning a degree in Industrial Engineering from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1988. The dream wouldn't die though; running what he could, even in school, Miller was a pizza delivery person during the summers to earn pocket change. He raced autocrosses, timed events mostly run in parking lots around orange cones. He even won the Dodge National Collegiate Driving Championship in that kind of racing while he was in school, in 1984.
When he got out of school, he continued to tear up parking lots and racetracks in the Southeast, running in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) amateur events and whatever else he could with the help of friends and family. But, though he was getting more success, it was still a far cry from where he wanted to be.
"I realized pretty early that if I wanted to race professionally, I'd have to attract sponsors. So I started studying what sponsors wanted, how they looked at racing, how to present myself professionally and how to put programs together that would interest them."
Miller tried his hand at Trans-Am twice before really plunging in. In his own car, he qualified for the Trans-Am race at Mid-Ohio in 1994, but finished 35th out of 36. "I wasn't quite ready for Trans-Am," chuckles Miller. He tried again at Road Atlanta in 1995, and did well enough (13th) to win the Raybestos Rising Star of the Race Award.
When Miller decided to head full time toward his goal of racing in Trans-Am, he put together a very professional-looking press kit. That was the easy part. He also built his own car. And he made a pitch to a potential sponsor. A local businessman used to bring his vintage Corvette into the auto shop where Miller worked, and Johnny's work on the car had impressed him. When that man, Tim Hohmann, left the job he had in Johnson City and headed out on his own to start PLC Direct (which has now become Automationdirect.com), Johnny Miller came knocking on his door looking for sponsorship. With Hohmann's fledgling company not yet a major control products industry player, about the only sponsorship he could offer Miller was to help him buy race tires. And to pitch in; Hohmann could even be found underneath Miller's race car from time to time in that first full season of Trans-Am racing, helping out with an oil or engine change.
Miller made it to the races, and by Lime Rock was even finishing them. But by now he had realized the limitations of his own chassis. That's when he made an even bigger commitment to his goal; he sold his house to raise the funds to buy a new chassis. That might not have been so unprecedented if Miller had been a bachelor, but he was married with two kids, John Miller V, and Heather.
John's biggest supporter in his dream of making a living racing in the Trans-Am series has been his wife, Julie. Together they formed Miller Racing, together they have run the race team, and together they made the decision to take the risk of buying the new chassis. It paid off for that year; Miller began to finish better, even scoring his first top-ten in the wet at Road America that year. By season's end, Miller had copped the Rookie of the Year honors.
Gradually over the next few years, Johnny continued to build his team and up the ante on his efforts, edging ever closer to the front. In 1997, he edged up higher in the points. In 1998, he began qualifying in the Fast Five on frequent occasions, a position that pays bonus points and money. And he scored his first podium finishes, earning him the respect of his peers and giving him the nod for the 1998 Most Improved Driver Award, as voted by the other drivers.
"From the start, we have tried to look bigger and better than we really were," notes Miller. "Even when we didn't have new parts, we painted what we had to look new. We've always presented our team and ourselves as professionally as we could, and we've worked hard to make a good impression on the track, on TV, and in the paddock. We've never lost sight of the fact we're getting to do this because other people's companies were willing to give us the money to do it. And we've always worked to give them the best possible return on their investments."
To many, it may look today like Johnny Miller has finally made it to the big time. He has a brand new, state of the art 53' High Tech trailer to transport his car to the races. The team is always sharply presented in neat and clean uniforms, and Miller runs at the front. But even now, there are others with bigger budgets, others with bigger crews and more personnel, more extensive engine programs and ongoing development. This year, Johnny has been able to match them in speed if not reliability. But no one looks more professional or presents themselves any better than Miller and his team. And that may help Johnny and his wife and team owner, Julie, to a top three finish in this year's owner's championship, a new award that honors not only on-track performance, but also professionalism and presentation. Johnny has suffered numerous mechanical failures this year that have stunted his on-track performance. But his desire to succeed, and his awareness of how to do that, has never wavered. And now he's won, bringing home his #64 Automationdirect.com/UPS/HITACHI/Cutler-Hammer Corvette in first place at the San Diego Grand Prix. And he's doing all he's ever wanted to do; race - and win - in the BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series. k