I’ve often compared elite level import drag racing to the world of heavyweight boxing in the late ’80s/early ’90s. A sports entertainment powerhouse that typically dominated pay-per-view buys and watering-hole conversations worldwide, it seemed virtually unstoppable. The majority of the sport’s success rested heavily upon the shoulders of a standout slugger known as “Iron” Mike Tyson, who brought forth a new legion of boxing fans and invigorated long-term boxing enthusiasts. However, fans have grown restless waiting for the sport’s next savior to shake things up.
Today, as the import drag world seems to finally be reemerging and demanding attention, many fans have based their interest on a pair of standouts that are hell bent on outrunning one another and fulfilling the role of “Iron Mike.” Tony Palo and Chris Miller have both paid their dues and worked their way into the upper echelon of import drag racing, and both have established themselves as the best in their class among a hyper-competitive roster. With greatness will come speculation, comparison, and good ol’ fashioned trash talk. With all of the above in heavy doses, the two were chomping at the bit when offered a heads-up race to settle the “who’s faster” debate. With high expectations on race day, Mother Nature decided to end the event early with heavy rain. However, this past May, the two met once again, this time in the dry desert air of Las Vegas. Weather would not be an issue during this encounter, though mechanical gremlins took their toll on both competitors, and it was Miller who would walk away the victor. Both parties are ready to do it again, and both are gunning for the top spot and, perhaps more importantly, the unlimited bragging rights.
Before you assume these fierce competitors are at each other’s throats, read along and you’ll find there has always been a mutual respect—yet the desire to leave one another in the dust is constantly on the agenda. Talking to both competitors, you get the idea that a third race is inevitable.
Rodrez: Thanks for taking the time out of your hectic schedules to talk with us. Give us a quick rundown of your race history and your daily grind.
Tony: I own T1 Race Development and part of Injector Dynamics. We operate out of a 7,000-square-foot shop in Rowlett, Texas, just east of Dallas. I’ve been involved in the import aftermarket scene since 1997 and have been heavily involved in import drag racing since about 2000. I’ve served as crew chief for a few record-breaking cars and built all kinds of cool projects over the years. I started T1 Race Development in 2005, and started racing my own car shortly after.
Chris: I’m from Babylon, New York, I’m the owner and operator of CMR Racing, ChrisMillerRacing.com, and CMRparts.com. I’ve been into racing my entire life and import racing for about 10 years now. I really couldn’t do any of this without the support of my team and sponsors like AEM Electronics, Driveshaft Shop, Web Camshafts, Competition Clutch, Nitrous Express, Precision Turbo, EFI Wizard, and Golden Eagle Mfg. Every one of these are so important to my program, and they’re dedicated to my program and stand behind me 110 percent.
Rodrez: How long have you known each other, and if you can remember, how exactly did you meet?
Tony: I met Tom and Miller for the first time many years ago at a race at Englishtown. Must have been around 2002 or 2003. I was the crew chief for Kenny Tran’s Civic and worked at Jotech at the time. Even way back then they were always wearing something orange (lol)!
Chris: Yeah, we met in person at E-town one year for the first time, but I really don’t remember the year. I guess that comes with old age (lol).
Rodrez: Give us some info on how the whole grudge-match situation started.
Chris: People just want to see the two best race, plain and simple. I’ve had the record for three years now, and Tony has been right behind me the whole time. We’ve tried to line up a few times, and it just never came about. Cliff from IFO came up with the grudge race idea, and we were both psyched about it. And why wouldn’t we be? A chance to race one another for $10,000!
Tony: There are quite a few fast cars in our class, but none that run as fast and consistent as Miller and I. The first time we lined up was at Englishtown, the 2008 Outlaw Race. Miller got to see the first eight-second pass up close and personal, ha-ha! At the time Miller’s car was fairly new and not dialed in yet. Since then he’s obviously got it dialed in a bit better, and being half a country apart, it’s not often we get to line up. We’ve juggled records back and forth a little over the past few years, and everybody was dying to see us finally line up. Same place, same track conditions, no bullshit, heads up.
Rodrez: Anyone with a competitive bone in their body will tell you that every race counts, but in all honesty, how crucial was the original grudge match and your follow-up event in Vegas last May?
Tony: Well, it was big for me. I love to race and nobody likes to lose, but there was a lot on the line there. Miller talks more shit than anyone I know; you have no idea how many calls and emails I got from people begging me to take him out. At a normal race you’re just another racer, and if you lose, someone else will win. This was different, you either win or you get beat! It’s all about you at a grudge race.
Chris: They were both super important. Every time it’s a heads-up race, it really counts, and yeah, it always matters. Texas was a good time and so was Vegas, but bottom line, I can’t wait to race Tony again.
Rodrez: You’ve both established yourself as monsters in the import drag world with consistent runs and jaw-dropping time slips. Like it or not, you’re serving as the benchmark as drag seems to be reemerging in the Honda community, bringing a whole new generation of fans. How much do the fans and the trash talk play into what it is you guys do?
Chris: It’s all in good fun, but all the BS is silenced when it’s time to think and get down to business. My team and I party hard, but we race harder—that’s what it’s all about. When that tree is lit, nothing else exists or matters, all business.
Tony: The fans are awesome, they definitely make it better and force us all to put on a better performance. You can bet your ass my car goes down the track with everything turned all the way up on every pass. We appreciate people coming to watch, and we always do our best to put on a good show!
Rodrez: Many people who have caught wind of the grudge match assume you guys hate each other’s guts, that you have to be held back when passing one another in the pits. Those in the know are well aware there’s a mutual respect between the two of you. Set the record straight; let the readers know what this is all about and what it all boils down to on race day.
Tony: I know what it takes to build and maintain a car of this caliber, and I have to respect someone who can/does do that. Miller might be an asshole half of the time, but he’s usually a pretty nice guy, and we’ve had some fun times together off the track. I wouldn’t say we’re best friends, but we talk from time to time, and we hang out at events and stuff.
Chris: We respect each other on and off the track. Geez, the last time I was in Texas, I crashed in the guest room of his house and had breakfast with him and his family. It’s all in good fun. We go out eating and drinking when we are together, and we know each other decently well.
Rodrez: Do you feel that if the other guy wasn’t running as good as he is, you wouldn’t be nailing the times that you are currently? In other words, Chris, with Tony running as hard as he is, does that give you extra motivation to push your car even harder? Tony, same question goes for you.
Chris: Of course, I know for a fact that I’m Tony’s motivating factor. He’s even said it to me before. He’s also one of mine. Without competition, there’s really no motivation. We both want the record and the wins, and for the past three years I’ve had them. I’ve said it time and time again, it’s going to take someone to kick my ass to push me to take the next step, and right now nobody is doing that. I went 8.50 in ’09, it’s now halfway through ’11 and nobody has even beat that number—never mind the .40s and .30s I’ve put up. That’s why I’ve relaxed a little in my race schedule, to let these guys catch up.
Tony: Yeah, for sure. I’m always trying to go faster, but you definitely push harder when there’s someone ahead of you. For example, when I was talking to my suspension guy about my new shocks, he asked how good we wanted to go on them. I said, “I’m number two right now…” He said, “Got it!” (lol)
Rodrez: Like any hard-core race car, parts are bound to break. You’ve both had your share of gremlins, especially when facing one another. Chris, you ended up having a cool story involving a “fractured” intake manifold, some street driving, and a Slurpee?!
Chris: (lol) This was awesome! First qualifier right off the damn trailer in the burnout box, the intake cracks! We popped the hood leading up to the line, and none of my guys could figure it out, so I made the pass anyway. The car barely made any boost; got it back to the pits and found the bottom of the intake plenum had cracked. We fixed it as best we could with what we had (big C-clamps, Krazy Glue, and a ratchet strap—lol). Well, the next pass it was still leaking and the car went 8.8 I believe, but was super lazy coming up on boost, and the overall boost on the top end was down. So we made a couple changes and headed out for the third qualifier, and that didn’t go so well. As soon as the boost came in hard in second gear, that was it—the hood bulged and the car laid over. I knew it was bad when I popped the hood and saw the intake manifold was split wide open from one end to the other.
Got it back to the pits and right away we tried to get a game plan going. There wasn’t enough time to pull the manifold and have it welded, or even put the car on the trailer and strap it down. Trevor from Trev-Tec said his shop was roughly seven miles up the road, so we threw on drag radials and hit the road! Didn’t ask anyone, didn’t tell anyone, we just did it. I figured I’d lose the first round but have enough time to make it back for the second. I knew if I could get the boost to hold, running Tony wouldn’t be a problem. Well, that was the longest seven-mile drive of my life, ha-ha! We got it all welded up in about 10 minutes and were headed back, when I saw a 7-Eleven. I was thirsty and figured, “Fuck it, let’s get a Slurpee.” Got my coke/cherry mix and back on the road to the track we went. Got back to the track to find that Tony had hurt his engine in qualifying and wasn’t going to make the first round call. We did, and well, the rest is history.
Tony: We had a big problem before the rained-out event. I headed down to Houston a little before the guys, so my wife and daughter could get to her aunt’s house where they would be staying. The guys were back at the shop putting the trans back in, and we had parts arrive from Australia on Saturday (day before the race!). They got the trans back in the car and started it, and ran it through the gears and all was well. While the car was idling and about to go in the trailer, the engine died! Mike called me and said, “Uh, the gears are in and that’s good…but, uh, a valve broke” WTF!!! What are the odds that an intake valve head breaks off while idling?! Miller just drove forever through blizzards to get here to race, and my motor breaks 16 hours before the race!
My guys didn’t think twice, and giving up wasn’t an option. They pulled the head off and it was trashed, including a huge dent in the piston. We had a spare head but no spare short block, and the pistons I had in stock were the wrong bore for that motor. We called Watt, our engine builder/machinist, and he came over and helped out by pulling the piston out, welded up the big dent in the center, resurfaced it on the belt sander, and slapped it back together. The guys got to the track at about 4 a.m. on Sunday with a running car! No idea how long the welded piston would have held up, but it saw about 50 psi boost on the one pass we did make before they called the event due to weather.
At the Vegas race it was pretty smooth sailing until we found that the oil pan combination we were running was allowing the engine oil to slosh away from the oil pickup under acceleration and starving the pickup. The result was about 30 psi oil pressure through fourth gear at 45+ psi boost and 11K rpm. I can tell you 100 percent that that is not enough oil pressure (lol)! I caught it before it was catastrophic, but it did cut our day short.
Rodrez: You both run successful shops in different parts of the country. How important is it to your business to stay at the forefront of competitive drag racing? Does the grudge-match hype help bring more people through the door?
Tony: The grudge race definitely brought a lot of attention, and the more people saying your name, the better from a business standpoint. I believe that being one of the fastest in the world has a pretty big effect on business. We run an honest and reliable shop; people know they can call me and won’t get any bullshit answers and that the parts we offer actually work. I know they work because I’ve proven them on the track. It costs a lot to race and have a reliable car, but it costs more when you have to do things multiple times. Having someone you can turn to for advice and parts to get it done right the first time is a big help, and I think that’s why T1 does so well.
Chris: It’s definitely a good thing for business. Staying at the forefront is more of a hobby and love for the sport, and it’s that competitive nature that makes me want to kick everyone’s ass all the time! The grudge-match thing is good for the entire industry—my business, Tony’s business, the local tracks and promoters, the magazines, the parts manufacturers, etc. It’s all about driving the sport back to where it needs to be. Back to that heavyweight pay-per-view status!!
“Being half a country apart, it’s not often we get to line up. We’ve juggled records back and forth a little over the past few years, and everybody was dying to see us finally line up. Same place, same track conditions, no bullshit, heads up.” —Tony