Millen least likely winner of first Indy Lights race in 1986

Updated: 

Every tradition has a beginning.

Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires has become a tradition as the top tier of the development ladder for aspiring Indy car drivers and teams. The series will celebrate its 400th race today at Barber Motorsports Park (12:45 p.m. ET, streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com).

That tradition started under the banner of the American Racing Series in 1986 – the original name for Indy Lights – but its inaugural winner was anything but expected.

Steve Millen.

A 36-year-old New Zealand native who was one of the oldest drivers in the field and had no previous oval experience. However, fate gave way in the series opener at Phoenix Raceway in April 31 years ago.

“It was particularly exciting for me because it was not intended that I do that event (at Phoenix),” said Millen.

“In fact, I had never been on an oval before or anything like that. So a week before the event I was testing for Truesports, trying to get a road course setup for the car at Firebird Raceway (in Phoenix) because Jim Trueman was actually going to be doing the Indy Lights race for the weekend after. I was testing and while I was down there, they got a call that Jim would not be well enough to the race at the 1-mile oval for the first race.”

Trueman, a former sports car and Can-Am driver, became an Indy car team owner in the early ‘80s and started the American Racing Series team for ’86 with the intent to drive a car himself. But he was diagnosed with cancer in late ’85 and his health deteriorated. Millen was asked to drive the oval opener at Phoenix Raceway in Trueman's place. (Trueman (left) and Millen are shown in the photo above hoisting the winner's trophy at Phoenix in '86).

“They asked if I wanted to do it and I was a bit hesitant at first, to be honest, because I had never done an oval before,” Millen said. “I talked to people like Alan Jones and Chris Amon. They absolutely hated racing on ovals and so it sort of got stuck in my head a little bit, and didn’t know if I could do it. But we did.

“It was very, very daunting to start with. Nobody had any setup experience for the car on an oval, so that was good because it made it like a bit of an equalizer. I was lucky to be with a great team and they really helped me through the process because I was struggling on the first day – I didn’t know if I had oversteer or understeer or whatever. We finished up qualifying on the second row and then went on to win the race.”

Trueman was the team owner for the car that Bobby Rahal drove to victory a month later in the 1986 Indianapolis 500, but he died just 11 just 11 days after the momentous victory. Millen went on to earn a second victory of the ARS season at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course – the track owned then by the Trueman family.

“(Winning at Mid-Ohio) was very satisfying as well because Jim Trueman had passed away at that point, so the family was closing down all their other operations apart from Indy car,” said Millen, the 1990 rookie of the year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

ARS built a platform for numerous drivers who went on to compete successfully in Indy cars, Formula One and sports cars.

“There were guys like (1986 ARS champion) Fabrizio Barbazza, who I thought was a really good race car driver,” said Millen. “Having him in the series was great, along with Wally Dallenbach Jr. and others.

“There was just a lot of good guys in it. It was a good little series.”

Despite only running six of the 10 rounds that season, Millen captured two wins, three podiums, one pole and led 75 laps en route to finishing fourth in the championship.

“At Phoenix, Jim was interviewed by TV and he said that he was having a go with two Indy cars the next year in 1987, and that I would be driving the other one,” said Millen. “That would have done me good, but with Jim passing away, that all went away.

“I did get an offer to go racing with Hemelgarn Racing, which I did, but the team itself wasn’t very good and then I was on to doing the IMSA racing.”

Millen’s success in IMSA was unparalleled. A 1992 GTS class champion, he swept overall wins during the 1994 season in both the 24-hour race at Daytona and the 12-hour event at Sebring. It helped him earn a second GTS title.

Millen competed in off-road, endurance sports cars, rally, Formula Ford and International Race of Champions competition, but to this day he still cherishes his time racing in single-seaters.

“That win at Phoenix, I was on a high for about a week after it,” he said. “Having gone to an oval and winning that, it was a big time. It was really exciting to achieve that and Mid-Ohio was great fun as well because it was with a ‘house car.’ So it was good. I loved single-seater racing.

“A majority of my early career was in single-seaters. The Malaysian Grand Prix, Macau Grand Prix, Penang Grand Prix and stuff like that, those were fantastic races because we’d get guys like Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Keke Rosberg and lots of good guys that’d be down for those races.”

“Even to this day, my time there in single-seaters was a highlight that I’ll always remember.”

And Steve Millen will be remembered as the first winner of an Indy Lights race.

From the fans