Pyron G. "Duke" McMillen, a Northern California auto racing pioneer who built sprint cars for many winning drivers, died Wednesday of pulmonary fibrosis, his family said. He was 72.
Mr. McMillen was a leading figure in the auto racing community for half a century as an innovative designer, builder and owner of race cars at his Carmichael shop. He also made his name in the pits as a hands-on team director for many champion drivers.
He started in the early 1960s creating supermodifieds, including hardtops for Hank "Raisin' " Cain at Capital Speedway in West Sacramento. By 1975, he began building sprint cars for top drivers on the Northern Auto Racing Club circuit.
"He always had a super-fast car that all the drivers wanted to drive," veteran racing announcer Bobby Gerould said. "A who's who of great American sprint-car drivers drove for Duke McMillen."
Mr. McMillen helped introduce sprint racing to Australia with a team of American promoters and drivers in 1979-80. During the 1980s, he partnered with his sons Scott, a mechanic, and Jason, a driver in the NARC series. In recent years, he worked with many winning drivers at regional and national races.
"He did a lot of mentoring," said Jason McMillen, who won the 1987 NARC championship. "He trained a lot of people who did well on their own. He wanted to make the sport better through competition, so he shared his ideas."
Duke McMillen supported the careers of many veteran open-wheel and sprint drivers, including Butch Bahr, Tim Green, Chuck Gurney, Brent Kaeding, Gary Patterson, Jimmy Sills and Wayne Sue. He gave early national exposure to pro driver Joey Hand, who was on BMW's winning team at the 2011 24 Hours of Daytona race.
"I was just a kid that he didn't really know, but he gave me a shot with a full-blown sprint car that I raced in Chico," Hand said. "He was really a great guy."
Pyron Galloway McMillen was born in Kirksville, Mo., in 1939. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he moved with his family on a church mission to Santiago, Chile.
Believing they were in South America to stay, his parents did not teach him English so he spoke only Spanish when his father was recalled to the United States in 1948. The family settled in 1951 in San Francisco, where he worked two newspaper routes to earn money to buy his first car at 12.
"It was an old Ford Model A," Jason McMillen said. "He took it apart and put it back together twice to see how everything worked before he started driving it around the city as a teenager."
Duke McMillen moved with his family in 1954 to the Sacramento area, where his father was a longtime pastor at Carmichael Presbyterian Church. He graduated from El Camino High School in 1957 and served two years in the Coast Guard.
He owned and operated Hansen Machine Works since 1975. A Carmichael resident, he raised three children with his wife of 54 years, Carolyn, and was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"He always had an open-door policy, where you could drop by his house anytime and hang out and talk about cars and racing," Gerould said. "He was a classy person."