Justin Milliken has won countless races at the Myrtle Beach Speedway.
Yet, the local track’s top event – the Myrtle Beach 400 – has eluded him.
Under most circumstances, the opportunity to finally pry that monkey off his back is motivation enough. But for Milliken and members of his racing team, this is not your typical year.
In July, Milliken and fellow drivers Terry Evans and Adam Fulford, along with Fulford’s son, were in a crash on their way home from a day of practice at Myrtle Beach Speedway. While Fulford and his son were able to leave with minor injuries, Milliken left with serious back injuries.
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Unfortunately, Evans succumbed from injuries sustained in the crash weeks later.
“It’s one of those things where, I thought this was someone I would grow old with, our children would have the chance to play and grow up together,” Milliken said. “We had that type of relationship. It’s something I doubt I’ll ever really get over.”
Evans will be with them in mind, spirit as well as Milliken’s car hood as the driver hailing from Shallotte, N.C., pursues his first Myrtle Beach 400 title Saturday evening.
He’s been close in previous tries, so a win in this year’s classic race would prove rather special.
“It would be great to check this one off the list,” he said. “This is the (race) that has eluded us. It’s a fun one that challenges crews and drivers. (Evans) and I raced here so many times, so I feel there is no other place that we will ever be closer to him than when we’re on the racetrack.”
The accident was one in a series of tragic events for those associated with Myrtle Beach Speedway this year. In addition to Evans, the Myrtle Beach Speedway family lost drivers Mark Hale and Jackie Ward.
Ward died last week after crashing during a race at the track. Hale succumbed to cancer in September.
“It’s been tough, really tough,” Milliken said. “Though we may race hard on the track, these are people we see on a regular basis so you get to know them quite a bit. It’s a tight-knit group, we have our own little community.”
For each of them, a common love of short tracks and the chance to test a vintage semi-banked asphalt oval draws them back time and again.
“I think the main thing bringing so many of us back is the charm of the track,” Milliken said. “It is kind of worn out, and works you kind of like a cheese grater. It’s tough, but if you love a challenge you tend to love this track.”
Built in 1958, the track has hosted NASCAR races and used as a proving ground for a bevy of the sport’s stars, past and present.
On most weekends, though, it is home to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, which runs from February through November. A host of other classes including late model Charger, super trucks and mini-stocks also race at the track.
At stock car racing’s premier level, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ premier race – the Daytona 500 – raises the banner on a new season. At Myrtle Beach Speedway, the final green flag of the campaign serves as its most beloved.
“For most of us, this isn’t something we do full-time,” Milliken said. “Us short track guys need all winter to run our home tracks at the beginning of the year. So this race is somewhat of a celebration on a great season.”
Pain from the crash – both mental and physical – may come and go. But if for only 225 laps Milliken can feel the presence of his friend, he’ll consider it worth it.
“(Evans) was like a brother to me, and a second son to my dad,” Milliken said. “We didn’t have hobbies, cars were our life. So hopefully we can get into victory lane for him.”
Myrtle Beach 400
When: Saturday, Nov. 18.
Time: Grand stands open at 9 a.m.
Last race: 5:15 p.m.
Grand stand tickets: $25-35; kids under 11 free
Pit passes: $40-70