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By Len Sammons, Dirt Track Digest
Eugene Mills will be honored for his 50 years of dedication to the sport of auto racing when he receives the annual Gene DeWitt Car Owner award this summer. The ceremony will be held on Monday, August 8, at the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame and Museum, located on the grounds of NY’s Weedsport Speedway.
Mills, a lifelong resident of Milford, DE, will become the first from his state to enter the prestigious Hall of Fame. “I didn’t think they’d ever put someone from Delaware in there,” said the 71-year-old Mills. “I’m very honored.”
Mills’ dad, also Eugene, and his uncle Jim first got the family involved in auto racing when they put together a car to compete at Georgetown Speedway, a track just south of Milford where the family roots run deep. Georgetown was sanctioned by NASCAR at the time. The organization assigned numbers to the stock cars, and “30″ was available and given to the Mills team. It’s been on Mills-owned race cars ever since. His father and uncle grew tired of racing and sold their equipment when Eugene was about ten years old. Not before, however, they planted the love of the sport into the next generation racer in the family.
In his early 20s, Eugene bought his first race car. Amazingly, he won the feature the first night out in the Hobby division at Little Lincoln Speedway. Eugene moved up to the Sportsman division, today’s 358 Modifieds. He did very well during a six-year period at U.S. 13 Speedway in Delmar, now called Delaware International Speedway; and at southern New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. His driving career came to a sudden halt in a bad crash at Delmar when he broke his back. While discouraged, Mills didn’t leave the sport. His wife of 54 years, Etta, took him to the races and they watched the events from their passenger car in the infield.
“The doctor told me I could no longer drive,” said Eugene, “so I found someone who could.”
Fred Workman and Haines Tull drove his Sportsman car for about two years. Then Mills made the move up to the big-block Modified division. With four friends, Mills organized Blue Hen Racing in 1977. They purchased the third ever Olsen-built Modified and hired a hotshoe from outside the state, Johnny Kozak, to be their driver. Kozak, a regular at PA’s Reading Fairgrounds Speedway, drove south each Saturday to Delaware to drive the #30 and became a top winner.
“We had a lot of success with Johnny,” said Mills who felt some locals didn’t appreciate the outsider driving and winning in their state.
After Kozak left the team, Mills did go with local talent, including a good stretch with Bill Towers as his driver. In Delaware, Mills’ biggest rival as a car owner lived in his hometown. Steve Dale’s D&D Dismantling #19d team always gave the Mills #30 a run for the top prize. Dale and Mills also competed for the area’s best drivers. Three of Delaware’s biggest winners — Harold Bunting, Bobby Wilkins and Ricky Elliott — all drove for both car owners.
“We were pretty good rivals,” said Mills of Dale, who passed away in 2003.
The two were known to wager on whose car would finish first in special events. The bets were rumored to often be as much, if not more, than the winner’s share offered by the track promoter. Mills’ best known victory as a car owner came in 1988 when Kenny Brightbill drove his #30 to victory on Sunday of Super DIRT Week at the NY State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, NY.
“When Brightbill won Syracuse that was the biggest win ever at the time for me,” said Eugene, the first and only Delaware owner to ever go to victory lane in Super DIRT Week’s 44-year history.
In 1987 and ’88, Brightbill and the Blue Hen Team also drove north weekly to compete on the Super DIRT Series, posting wins at Rolling Wheels, Lebanon Valley, Fonda and Ransomville. With the DIRT series mainly in New York and Canada, it was difficult for the Delaware-based Mills team to compete. They spent endless hours on the road traveling north to run DIRT events after racing regularly at home on the weekends. “It was a challenge,” said Mills, “but I really enjoyed it.”
After Brightbill, the Mills Modified went north to compete on the DIRT series with Wilkins and Elliott. When Dale lured Elliott away from the Mills team to drive for him, Eugene’s only son, Jamie, stood up and wanted to take over the wheel. “Jamie said he wanted to drive, and I told him I’d rather he not,” said Eugene. “He said if he couldn’t drive he was going to stop messing with the race cars. So I gave him a shot.”
Jamie jumped right into the headline Modified division in 1990, and has had much success, winning six track championships in three states and being named DIRT Motorsports Rookie of the Year in 1994. Eugene’s biggest fear for his son driving became a reality in 2010 when Jamie was involved in a bad crash at the same speedway he had been injured. Like his dad, he too broke his back. While Jamie recovered, Eugene’s grandson Joe Watson drove the #30 and Jamie acted as crew chief during much of the 2011 season. Joe finished out the year driving the #30, with uncle Jamie later jumping into good friend Will Brown’s Modified and winning the big season-ending Delaware State Championship race for the Modifieds. While Mills is proud to have had many great drivers behind the wheel of his #30 — including Bob McCreadie, Frank Cozze, Keith Hoffman, Jack Johnson, Keith Kauffman, Gary Gollub and Dave Kelly — he’s prouder still of his family legacy in racing.
Eugene said while every win is special, those with his son as the driver give him an extra special feeling. Now he has three grandsons who race. His daughter Donna married Glen Watson. Their two sons, Joe and Jordan, both became dirt Modified race car drivers. And Jeremy Harrington, son of Eugene’s daughter Michelle, drives grandpa’s #30 in the Crate Sportsman division. All have won races. In 2012, Jordan edged out Jamie to take the Delmar Modified title.
“Jordan has become a very good race car driver,” said Eugene proudly. “He’s a very dedicated racer who works hard on his cars. Jamie is the one who taught them all, but Jordan is the one who took it and ran with it.”
While racing is expensive, Eugene feels every dollar spent has been well worth it to him. “Racing is a family affair for all of us,” said Eugene, who doesn’t believe he could ever imagine a day without being involved. I have a picture on my desk of me and my son standing together after a race that he won,” reflected Eugene Mills. “That is a bond that you will never lose, something I’ll never forget.”