Massive thanks to our friend Matt Kalish for providing this in-depth interview with one of rally’s most legendary racing family members.
Ryan Millen: “It kind of feels like a perfect fit.“
When a driver named Millen decides to enter a rally in the United States big things are expected to follow. Ryan Millen, son of rally champion Rod and brother of Pike’s Peak legend Rhys has made a name in desert racing, most notably winning the 2014 running of the Baja 1000 in a Toyota Tundra. This weekend, he will compete in his first stage rally with co-driver Christina Fate at Idaho Rally International.
Ryan isn’t the only new part of the Millen Adventures rally team; this weekend will see the Rally Rav4 run its first competitive stage miles in the Boise National Forest. The rally ready Rav4 was revealed last month by Millen and Toyota in front of an excited Supercross audience. In the time since the unveiling, the SUV has been finished, tuned, and run through several shakedown tests. The 115 stage miles of Idaho Rally International promise to be an exciting opening outing for Millen and the team.
We met up with Ryan at Rhys Millen Racing’s headquarters in Huntington Beach, California to talk about the challenges of transitioning to rally, the impact of family, and how to choose a car.
What makes you want to try stage rally?
I would probably say that it’s in my blood. My brother and my dad made their careers with stage rally and now I want to head down that road, tick some of these boxes that I’ve wanted to. The Baja 1000 was a huge one, it took me almost 11 years to do and I learned a ton.
So I guess it’s one more challenge, my career has been spread all over the place, road racing as a kid, desert racing, and now stage rally. There’s not much else that I haven’t really tried.
You mentioned the new challenge of stage rally, is there any unique challenge that comes to mind?
I don’t have a ton of experience with stage rally. I’ve done a couple local rallies over the years in my FJ Cruiser and the biggest experience I have with rally was more of a rally raid, a Dakar type of event. It was called the Transsyberia Rally. I did that in 2008 and went from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar. But those special stages were long. I think the shortest one was thirty minutes and the longest was eight hours. So it was more like your Mexican 1000 these days. But we didn’t do notes or anything like that.
My girlfriend Christina, who’s going to be navigating for me, we just did a local rally a month or so ago in my FJ Cruiser. We just started to practice notes and they actually, surprisingly, came really easily to me.
We have notes down in Baja, but they’re not as thorough as rally notes. Definitely not calling as much stuff out. There’s a different element to it because you’re calling corners as well as dips and rocks and there’s so much more to call. I call desert racing notes light pace notes; because when you’re in the truck for ten and a half hours you’d have a bible thick worth of notes if they were detailed.
Do you think any aspects of your desert racing experience will come into play on rally stage roads?
I’m not saying that I’m giving up on desert racing, but I think I’ll like rallying a lot more. Desert racing has just gotten rough because now we have 60 trophy trucks entering in a race and these guys have so much money to buy a truck and then they have that much more money to go buy a pre-runner. The courses are just brutal.
When I first started desert racing ten or fifteen years ago it was pretty smooth. It wasn’t too bad, rough in sections. But now it’s just brutal. To finish in a stock truck, like we did last year…I was so sore for the next week.
What I liked about and where I felt I had an advantage in desert racing was grated roads and reading terrain. So now I get to do all of the stuff that I loved with desert racing the whole time in stage rally. It kind of feels like a perfect fit.
You talked about your father and your brother; we’re sitting in their shop right now. Is your rally program going to be a bit of family affair?
My brother and my dad are huge, huge, sources of knowledge that I get to tap into. It’s really cool. My brother just will come up with some random things and say, do this, this, and this. It just gives me that step ahead so I don’t need to learn everything at my first event.
My dad’s notes are killer; he has 20 years of doing notes and that sort of thing. It’s kind of funny, because other people have offered to show me how to do notes or this and that. Well I only know my dad’s system and I hear other people’s notes sometimes and I don’t know if his are way different or what. I’ve watched a few videos of local events that we’ll be competing in and I hear other people’s notes and it confuses me.
My brother built the car. I was sitting down, thinking, when I started the program. I was in a unique position. It was one of those things where I could build the car and hire the right people to do it. I knew it was going to be a short build and I knew I just didn’t have time to make mistakes. So hiring my brother to do it was, I think, the best call. He has tons of experience and they [Rhys Millen Racing] knocked out the majority of the build in 5 weeks’ time. So they’re going to build it shorter than they expected and it’s come out beautiful. Now we just need to put the time on the car, test it, and figure out whats going to be an issue.
Why did you choose a vehicle with an SUV body over something more common to rally, like a hatchback or small sedan?
Why did we choose a Rav4 over say, a Yaris? My dad is a prime example of this; he made his career racing a rotary engine when people thought nothing of them.
I don’t want to say it’s what we do [laughs]. It’s another challenge and it’s really fun to race something unexpected. The Rav4 is an oddball car, but after getting time on it we’ll see. But I think we will turn some heads. To show up and do well in a car that people don’t expect is very satisfying.
It’s kind of a weird thing, it’s a crossover SUV that’s built like a car but hardware is big. Bigger sized bolts, suspension arms – It’s not small hardware. Everything is what I would consider fairly big, well built.
We’ll see how everything goes. It’s easy to say now that I’m not worried about anything, but traditionally, I’ve found Toyota’s engineering to be extremely reliable so I’ve really tried not to mess with it as much as possible.
Will we see you in the Rally America National Championship next year?
Depending on how well this year goes there’s a good chance maybe we’ll continue this next year. I would love to do a full national round, I think it’d be a blast, and who knows where we go from there.
OpenPaddock is super excited to see the debut of the new Rally RAV4 in Idaho and we look forward to following the progress of this new platform. Again, thanks to Matt Kalish for this impressive behind the scenes look at the new Rally RAV4 project. You may know some of Matt’s photo work from the Red Bull GRC, Rally America, and many other forms of motorsport. You can find out more about Matt via his website mattkalish.com.