Story courtesy of Hunter Thomas/TheFourthTurn.com
MYRTLE BEACH, SC - Three months ago, Justin Milliken never thought that he'd ever race again due to injuries sustained in a roadway crash. On Saturday night against all odds, Milliken put his helmet back on, strapped into his NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model and once again took the green flag at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
On Friday, July 21, Milliken and fellow racers, Terry Evans and Adam Fulford were t-boned at an intersection after leaving a day of practice at Myrtle Beach Speedway. Sadly, Evans passed away from the injuries he sustained. Fulford and his son were okay, and as for Milliken who was driving at the time, he sustained serious injuries.
Milliken fractured his L1 vertebra and completely broke the transverse process off of the spine where the vertebra is located. He also fractured his T5 vertebra and sustained massive amounts of swelling. At one point, his right leg was nearly double the size of his left leg, and that was a cause of concern for blood clots. Aside from the terrible mental aspects of the crash and the feeling of pure hurt and sadness from losing a best friend, Milliken honestly didn't know if he would ever physically be able to compete in another race. With the help from Coastal Integrative Health in Shallotte, North Carolina, Milliken battled through and overcame intense physical rehabilitation.
"Probably for the first month, I didn't think that I would ever race again," Milliken said. "I thought that was going to be it for racing and I just tried to get to where I could walk halfway normal again. I've had some awesome neurosurgeons, and I've had some awesome doctors that have put me with the right equipment and the right braces. I was in a full body brace from below my waist to my neck for nine weeks to try to keep all of the vertebrae immobile, and when I went a few weeks ago and got a scan, they said everything has actually healed quicker than we thought, and that's actually what led us to be coming this weekend."
While at the track on Saturday, Milliken had been overwhelmed with the amount of support that the local racing community gave him. The Shallotte toilet salesman could hardly walk a few feet on Saturday without someone coming up to him and congratulating him on the recovery. This was extremely humbling to Milliken. In fact, he didn't even know that many people knew who he was despite being a weekly competitor at the track. Being back at the track made Milliken feel like he was at home. Although it's a highly competitive atmosphere, Milliken felt a sense of peace. While returning to the track gave Milliken a sense of normalcy, the idea was to arrive three-months to the day of the crash and honor Terry Evans.
"I've had the whole support of just about the whole Late Model Stock racing community," Milliken said. "People that I don't even know have called me and reached out to me. It's definitely one of the most humbling experiences of my life. It has been a tough road back. We probably came back a little too early, but we came down here, and we ran the race because that's what Terry would've wanted us to do, and that's what we came to do."
Surrounded by friends and family, including Terry's as well, Milliken climbed into his black, blue and white Chevrolet and set the 13th fastest time in qualifying out of 28 drivers. The highly competitive field was at the track competing for the wild card to get back into the Daytona 1 Beach Madness, a bracket-styled competition that offers bonus incentives aside from traditional purse payouts during a race weekend.
Once the green flag flew and the drivers crossed over the finish line for the first time, all chaos broke loose in Turn 1, when Sam Yarbrough and Ryan Repko made contact. Milliken couldn't see anything through all of the smoke, but he was able to get his car slowed down enough to not receive any nose damage; however, he was hit on the right side by another car. All-in-all, nearly 20 cars piled up in Turn 1, but Milliken was able to continue.
"It was like Days of Thunder," Milliken said. "It was like just pick a line and try to drive through, and there was no place to drive through. I actually got stopped, and we didn't get any nose damage. I got stopped, and then somebody on the outside lane come down and just drove into the right front tire. It killed it. We come in, and we were kind of doing this Battle Back for the Beach thing. I knew that the 21 (Chad McCumbee) and the 20 (Sam Yarbrough) were the two cars that we were going to have to race to get in the thing. I saw both of them on the hook (of the tow truck), so we fixed it the best that we could with that same hard work and dedication that we've preached for the last five years. We didn't give up, we put our nose down, and we fixed the car the best that we could, and we went back out there.
Milliken's crew got him back onto the track, but unfortunately while running ninth, the left front wheel broke, and the damage ultimately ended his promising night.
"I felt like actually even with it tore up, I felt like we were going to have a top-six," Milliken said.
Although Milliken finished 14th and didn't have the ending to the night that he wanted, he has learned one thing from all of the recent chaos in his personal life. He has learned to never ever take anything for granted. Don't take for granted one race or one moment in life. He learned that from Terry Evans whose influence on Milliken's life has made him a better person.
"The good Lord watched over us, and he gave us another chance, and I want to do everything that I can to make Terry proud no matter if it's at work, at the racetrack or anything else that I do," Milliken said. "He taught me a lot of things. He taught me simpler ways to do everything. A better way to do this. A better way to do that, and he's still teaching me. He has taught me that you've got to get up and you've got to go on, and you've got to keep pushing, and you can't take anything for granted."
Now that the Myrtle Beach 400, Myrtle Beach Speedway's largest race of the season, is within site, Milliken is ready to get completely healed so he can compete for the victory. Milliken is a hands-on guy who hates having to need help in the race shop because he can't completely bend over at the moment. Come November 16-18, Milliken expects to be living a fairly normal life. Look for him to be a strong contender for the 25th running of the prestigious event.