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Mills endures at Daytona race

February 11, 1999

Doug MillsBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer




Doug Mills hardly conjures the image of a daredevil.

A soft-spoken businessman, he distributes telephone poles to utility companies in six states from his office in St. James.

"Not a very sophisticated business. Telephone polls - that's all we distribute," said Mills, who co-owns Utility Supply Co. "This is as low-tech as anything could be."

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But appearances can be deceiving: Mills flies over roads at speeds approaching 200 mph.

Mills, 56, is a part-time race car driver. Last month, he participated in the Rolex 24-hour GTT endurance race at Daytona International Speedway. The four-man team finished third, giving Mills his first trip to the winner's circle at Daytona in four tries.

"It's the first time I've been at the podium at Daytona - quite a feeling," he said.

The 24-hour race at Daytona is one of the more grueling sporting events. Drivers take turns navigating their cars over hills and around the bends of Daytona's 3.56-mile course.

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Drivers accelerate to almost 200 mph on the straightaway and then slow to 40 mph on the left-hand turn. Mills counted 30 shifts per lap in his five-speed car.

"The road course there is very, very difficult and fast," he said. "Your concentration in one of those things is very intense."

This Sunday, auto racing fans will focus on one of NASCAR's premier events: The Daytona 500. It will give Mills a chance to reflect on last month, when it was his turn at Daytona

At the Rolex 24-hour race, which began at 1 p.m. on Jan. 30 and ended at 1 p.m. the next day, Mills said he and his fellow drivers faced rain, the darkness of night and 15 cautions.

"The speeds don't decrease at night," said Mills, who averaged about 186 mph during the race. "If anything, I find myself going a little faster at night because I'm concentrating that much harder."

Drivers take turns behind the wheel, usually switching at every refueling. At night, drivers take double shifts to give their teammates some extra sleep.

At least that's the theory.

"People don't sleep," Mills said. "It's adrenaline."

On a hot day, with all the protective clothing, Mills said the cockpit temperature can reach 140 degrees.

After last month's race, Mills said he had bruises up and down his body from the seat belt. His shift hand developed blisters within the first two hours and had to be wrapped.

If you think the driver is beat, though, you should see the car.

"It trashes the car. It trashes your body. It beats you up so bad," he said.

Most racing engines are designed to last about 600 miles, Mills said. But endurance racers travel more than 2,000 miles.

After such a race, the car has to be rebuilt almost from scratch; a new engine, a new transmission, new brakes, new shocks, new springs and other components.

Preparation

But for chance, Mills' showing at Daytona might never have happened. A veteran of more than 100 races during the 1970s and 1980s - against legends like Mario Andretti and actor-racer Paul Newman - he said he gave it up seven years ago.

"I had retired from it in '92, sold all my equipment. I pretty much didn't even follow auto racing," he said.

Then last November, Mills got an unexpected telephone call. A road racing governing body, which had recently re-formed under new leadership, called drivers from its data base.

Mills was one of them.

Intrigued by the idea of racing again, Mills said he attended driving schools and honed his old skills. He obtained national and international racing certification and then received a call from Florida businessman Richard Maugeri.

Mills said he worked out to prepare physically for the race. More important, though, was the mental preparation.

Mills said it is vital for drivers to learn every nook and cranny of the race car and study the course and how it changes with the conditions.

That way, Mills said, he will be able to face whatever comes his way.

"Reaction in auto racing has no place," he said. "Instinctive reaction gets you into trouble."

Wild rides

All the preparation in the world, though, can't prevent mishaps. It happened to Mills less than an hour after he started. The front suspension component split in half, disrupting the steering.

"I took this wild ride through the grass," he said

Mills, who took the fourth leg of the race, was able to coax the Chevrolet Camaro back into the pits for repairs.

Spinning out of control at 180 mph may be a harrowing experience, but it is far from the worst Mills has faced.

In 1991, in an endurance race in Atlanta, his brakes failed and he slammed head-long into a retaining wall.

The accident totaled the car. Mills was luckier. He did not break any bones or require hospitalization, although he was "half-unconscious" as attendants picked the glass off of his body.

Mills became a race car driver fairly late in life, at age 29.

Mills said his love of auto racing grew out of his attraction to cars as a youth and his appreciation of technology as an adult.

"The two came together very nicely," he said.

Mills said he installed a Mercury flatbed engine in a 1936 Ford Coupe when he was 12 or 13, just to see if he could do it.

As an adult, he said he came to appreciate the technology of race cars through his job at Fairchild Industries.

"They were concerned about quality, quality, quality. That impressed me," he said.

Then a friend invited him to a small-time auto race and Mills was hooked.

Now that he's gotten another taste of auto racing, Mills said he plans to go to a driving school at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway later this month. He said he'd also like to try the 24-hour race at Daytona again.

Other than that, though, he said he's committed to traveling with his wife - which is what he would have been doing if he were not at Daytona.

"I'd have been planning my next trip around the world," he said.

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