INSIGHT: Luke McMillin's long road to Eden

Image by Mad Media

INSIGHT: Luke McMillin's long road to Eden

The scene at last Saturday night’s Mint 400 finish line was all anybody needed to see.

It was there that the magnitude of Luke McMillin’s overall victory was so clearly evident, another major milestone in a family history full of them. For McMillin and co-driver Jason Duncan, the brutal 428-mile Mint 400 course took almost seven hours to complete. But for Luke and his tightknit family and McMillin Racing crew, the road to Mint 400 glory had been a far longer and more arduous journey.

It was there that the impact of rising to off-road racing’s upper crust became evident to all. For a sweet moment, Luke McMillin could exhale with relief and bask in the limelight of an historic off-road Eden.

Father Mark McMillin and mom C’Ann were there, as was Luke’s brother Dan and sister Macy. So was Luke’s wife Jennifer, a longtime partner he married just last year. All were caught up in the victory, but there was a bigger sense of accomplishment permeating endless picture taking and swigs of beer and champagne.

“We are in shock; we just won the Mint 400 overall,” said McMillin. “I have been dreaming about this literally my entire life. Literally. This is what I have been after my entire life. I have dreamed and I have dreamed. My dad won here in 1988, and I can’t believe we are here now.”

For the McMillins, it’s all about family – both by blood, and by race team. Their backstory is an unmatched legacy established in 1976, when Luke’s grandfather Corky McMillin decided to give that year’s Baja 500 a try. He obtained a rudimentary Class 9 buggy with a screaming 1,200cc Volkswagen engine, and that effort eventually saw the family participate in more than 325 desert races, winning races and championships at every level.

The latest chapter in the McMillin family success came following years of hard work and persistence. Image by Ernesto Araiza/Mint 400

The youngest of the McMillin racers, Luke has spent many of those years watching and observing, often while Dan and cousin Andy McMillin enjoyed victory. But like his grandfather, Luke inherited a keen sense of mechanical curiosity and a hands-on approach to his race vehicles, testing and preparation. Despite running a San Diego-based construction empire, Corky often preferred to spend his time out in the shop, out tinkering with his crew and working to improve various components and his racecraft.

In recent years, Luke has taken a far more serious approach to his family’s race team as Andy McMillin and uncle Scott’s organization was earning victories and acclaim. There were changes made to personnel and component vendors, with far more testing and preparation slowly adding performance and much-needed reliability.

The team took delivery of Luke’s Mint 400-winning truck way back in 2014 and spent many years trying to perfect their move to unlimited truck racing from the Class 1 unlimited car ranks. A second truck was secured for Dan; a chassis lost to a massive fire at the 2019 SCORE Baja 400. McMillin Racing obtained a new Mason Motorsports all-wheel drive truck in time for Dan to compete at this year’s KOH Desert Invitational, while a second Mason truck for Luke is set to debut later this season.

It was just over a year ago that Luke’s effort finally paid off, winning the first annual Toyo Tires Desert Invitational for unlimited truck held at the massive King of the Hammers event. The victory earned McMillin Racing the largest cash purse in the sport’s history, but the $100,000 prize was surpassed by the breakthrough moment that gave all involved a sense of confidence and rightfully being seen among off-road racing elite. That momentum translated into an even more consistent season in 2019 and helped earn Luke and Dan title sponsorships for their trucks from 4 Wheel Parts (4WP) this year, along with associate partnerships with Piston Pete’s Distillery, BFGoodrich, Method Wheel and Baja Designs.

Luke’s grandfather Corky (right) introduced the McMillin family to the sport, paving the way for later success by father Mark (left). Image via McMillin Archive

The night before the race, Luke’s father sent him a text, essentially saying not to worry about lap one, two or even three. It was all about lap four.” It was the identical strategy used with such success by defending champion Juston Lofton, who identified Luke as the only driver he was worried about before this year’s race.

That hard-earned strategy paid off, as Luke and Duncan overcame two flats and worked hard just to be in position for a final sprint. When race leader Harley Letner suffered a blown head gasket, the door opened for McMillin, Bryce Menzies and Ryan Arciero. They stayed focused, stayed patient and let the race come back to them. They got to second on the road, then passed Arciero within 30 miles of the finish to claim the emotional win.

“In the end, it’s really not about the accomplishment, but it’s about the times you get kicked in the ass with something ridiculous time and time again,” Luke said. “It can just tear you down. You think, oh wow, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Corky’s often-spoken mantra in off-road racing, as well as life itself, was a simple one; “Never, never, ever give up.” It is clear that Luke McMillin took that advice to heart and rode it directly into the Mint 400 winner’s circle.