Rhys Millen has been at the top ranks of American drifting for years. In 2007, Millen replaced the Corvette-powered GTO he was comfortable in with a smaller, more agile, turbocharged 4-cylinder Solstice roadster, and struggled to find his way back to the top. Though finding the lowest rung on the podium at the third Formula Drift event last year at Summit Point, and 2nd place at Formula Drift NJ, Rhys continued to fight gremlins through the rest of the season and couldn’t find his way back to the top of the podium. Finally, at Formula Drift Atlanta this year, the bugs were gone and Rhys made his way back to the top rung of the podium, with new teammate Dai Yoshihara making top 4 as well. We took an opportunity to catch up with Rhys about his car, his new teammate, and the rest of the season.
EverythingDrift: First off I would like to congratulate you on the win in Atlanta. That was the first win ever for the Solstice. How does it feel?
Rhys Millen: Thank you. It was the first win for Formula D, but we also won the team drift event this year in Long Beach with Samuel and Tanner, and we won our class at Pikes Peak Time attack last year as well, so the Solstice isn’t new to winning. As a Formula Drift event we’ve got a second before and a third. This was the first real win in Formula Drift, so for myself, Bridgestone, Pontiac and for Red Bull, we were all very excited about the win.
ED: Now that you have the chassis dialed in, can we expect to see you on the podium a lot more?
RM: The chassis has been dialed in for quite sometime now. Last year out of seven rounds, we had five mechanical issues that were small minor details. But were ones that were very, very hard to trace, and of those five events we did well enough to finish fourth over all for the season. The two events where the car ran well, we made podium both times. The development of the chassis has been fantastic. It’s been small details that we have had to address. And now, after the win in Atlanta I think the whole package has finally come together, and we have the speed, visual image and the right percentages to pull off the win and hopefully carry this momentum on for the rest of the championship.
ED: In the off season, the biggest news was about your car crash pursuing the Red Bull’s New Year’s Eve Experience. How have you recovered from that?
RM: The recovery has been good, as well as can be expected, you know. I have been racing for some sixteen to eighteen years and doing stunts professionally for fourteen years and prior to this injury I had not broken a single bone. This was the first one that really kind of knock me back a little and just about enough to take me out forever. To rebound in three or four months, to physically feel comfortable enough to compete at the level that the sport of drifting is at now is amazing. Even last weekend, I had to go down and pre-run for the Baja 500 and put my body through the paces that I need to, in order to know mentally that I’m physically ready to tackle any task again. It’s probably the confidence that you saw come out in the win at Atlanta that I am feeling comfortable and the car is running well. It’s a package now that’s back 100% and we’re going to be ready to tear it up for the rest of the season.
ED: Do you or Red Bull plan to eventually attempt that again?
ED: We’re one of your friends on MySpace (ADD US), and you mentioned recently on your profile that you did some stunt driving for the new Bond movie. How was that?
RM: *Laughs* Well, it was meant to be. Gary Pal is the stunt coordinator for the Bond movie, and I worked with him on the latest Indiana Jones movie. I worked for three or four weeks in Connecticut last year for the Jones movie. At that point in time, I had some face time with Gary and we started talking about Bond 22, the new Bond. We were in the gym one night and he was watching ‘Fast and the Furious 3’, and he looks over at the exercise bike and goes “Did you drive that?” and I’m like “Yeah”. He just rolled the conversation into “I got this new project ‘Bond’ and you need to be on it. We got these scenes sliding through mountain roads and you know, I’ve watched you at Pike’s Peak and you’re perfect for it.” That was the open conversation for many months, and then, probably three weeks leading up to the start of their filming, it all kind of just faded away. It conflicted with the dates of Formula Drift, I would have had to fly out immediately after the race in Long Beach on Saturday night to have a chance of making it to Italy in time to start filming, and I think for their own securities they chose to go with other people.
Obviously those securities were maybe the wrong choices, as they had 2 major incidents on set which put people in the hospital, I think even one was even induced into a coma because of the severity of the injuries from crashing one of the Aston Martin’s. But if anything, I think it pays a lot of respect to the ability of the drivers that are at the top level of the sport of drifting. You know, I come from an eclectic background of racing, small amount of road racing, off-road, Baja, rally, until you get exposed to the sport of drifting you really don’t know how little you really do know. I could have slid around the car for years but to use the clutch techniques, the hand break techniques, and the proximity. It really elevates your game as a driver and it makes you really well rounded to be able to penetrate other forms of motorsport a lot easier.
ED: Several drivers have recently made the jump from being an amateur or driving in another series to running Formula D. What do you think is the biggest change that they will have to make to adapt to this series?
RM: You know, for other drivers coming from a lower tier style of drifting or sport of drifting, the biggest changes that I’ve always found even in this past event at Atlanta, was running unfamiliar faces. It’s one thing to go out there and qualify and run your own line, do an uninterrupted run, that you could set your own speed, own pace, your own angle. But when you come into the dynamics of battling in the tandem rounds, it’s a completely different beast. Your vehicle has to be dynamic enough to match those characteristics of the other vehicles and at that same point run against a driver that you are unfamiliar with. Facing Takatori in the finals, I didn’t push as hard as I would say with Tanner or Samuel because I don’t know his style, I don’t know his strengths, his weaknesses, his tricks. My guys had been telling me that he’d been brake checking people, so I didn’t want to get sucked into making a personal mistake rather than just out right beating him. So the challenges for those new drivers coming in are going to be exactly that. A new field of competitors, new tracks and locations and how quickly they can adapt and how well the other drivers that have been in the top sixteen are going to survive, are they going to make mistakes allowing people in, or are the top sixteen going to be pure good all year long?
ED: No more Wall Speedway on the Formula D schedule. Are you happy or sad about the change?
RM:You know Wall was an event that was good to me and it was also a heartbreaker. In 2005, we won the championship, and Wall was the first round and we scored a perfect 100 and number one qualifier, and ending up winning the whole event. 2006 was a different story. We were leading the points race going into Wall, and broke an axle there and pretty much handed the championship over to Samuel at that point. We went into that event leading by 9 points, we came out of it 47 points behind. So Wall has given us both ups and downs, but to see it go away, it’s a little disappointing. I’m always up for new challenges, and to go into a newer venue with unforeseen track conditions and obstacles, it’s always exciting to try and figure out that track in three to five laps.
ED: How did it feel going against a brand new teammate, first round actually for you to be competing in?
RM:Yeah, yeah, I knew it was going to come all season, I just didn’t think it was going to happen at my first event. I know that GTO so well that I knew where I could push or not push, and I was on the radio to my guys, and to Dai’s guys. I told them “Hey if you guys beat me, then I made the right choice as a team owner.” Hands down, I didn’t want to lose to my old car, that’s for sure!
ED: How is the rest of the season looking for you and your team?
RM: You know, this year is going to be very exciting for drifting. I’ve been in meetings with Red Bull and they have some very exciting things planned. It’s going to be what this sport has needed, and I think all the drivers are just going to be bouncing in their seats when they find out some of the news that is coming down the pipeline. This year has also been extremely competitive. We were knocked out in top sixteen at Long Beach, and won the Atlanta event. Anything can happen, at this point, we’re along for the ride. The last event, there was a lot less pressure for me because we really didn’t have anything to lose. We went up against Darren McNamara, we went up against Vaughn, and then went up against Dai. That shows the strength of the top sixteen. When you’re meeting those guys in the rounds of sixteen, eight, typically you don’t meet any of them until like four or the finals. So the field and depth has grown in ability and it’s what’s going to make this sport survive and progress for the future.