Day 6

New series Friday Night Thunder celebrates Canada's only Indigenous-owned racetrack

Musician and sprint racer Derek Miller, alongside director and executive producer Laura Milliken, co-created and stars in the new APTN series Friday Night Thunder, which takes viewers behind the scenes of Ohsweken Speedway in the Six Nations of the Grand River territory.

Musician and sprint racer Derek Miller stars in the new APTN series that follows Ohsweken Speedway's drivers

Sprint car racing at Ohsweken Speedway is a family affair, with a love for the sport passed down through generations. (Big Soul Productions)

Derek Miller knows that sprint racing is dangerous, but that doesn't matter to him. When he's strapped into that high-powered car, he's at peace.

"It's really a great adrenaline rush, and it's something that once you're hooked, it gets you," Miller, a Juno award-winning Haudenosaunee Onkwehonkwe musician from Six Nations of the Grand River, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Though he's relatively new to the sport, Miller has become a mainstay at Ohsweken Speedway in Six Nations territory — the only Indigenous-owned racetrack in Canada.

And now, alongside director and executive producer Laura Milliken, he's co-creator and a star of the new APTN series Friday Night Thunder, which takes viewers behind the scenes at the racetrack, which hosts both sprint races and stock car races.  

"I just think, you know, there's a lot of speedaholics around there," Miller said, laughing.

WATCH | Friday Night Thunder airs on APTN

Glenn Styres had always dreamed of opening a racetrack, and about 20 years ago he did — but not without making sacrifices.

"I went without siding on my house for 10 years, and I didn't have insurance on my vehicle. Just scrimping and just getting by," Styres said in episode one of Friday Night Thunder.

The show focuses on sprint racing, which involves small cars with big engines circling a wet, dirt oval at around 200 km/h. Wings on the top of the vehicle keep the cars close to the ground, but inevitably, fast speeds on loose terrain can mean big crashes.

Derek Miller, a Juno-award winning musician from Six Nations, stars in Friday Night Thunder — a new series about sprint car racers on APTN. (Big Soul Productions)

But Styres knows all about the dangers of sprint racing. After a crash in 2017, he hung up his helmet and turned his attention to running the course.

"I had just a normal, regular crash — 120 miles per hour, 20 feet in the air, end over end," he says in Friday Night Thunder. "What ended up happening was a severe concussion. Symptoms that I've never, ever experienced before. I wasn't able to go out into daylight, so it was pretty devastating."

"The neurologist told me next time, your brain could just shut off."

Racing runs in the family

For Milliken, who is Anishinaabe from Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, the unabashed love for sprint racing is what drew her interest to the sport.

Racers invest a lot of time maintaining and improving their cars, and a lot of money, for just a few minutes on the track and "that's if you don't crash," said Miliken.

"It's a huge payoff emotionally for a lot of people, and it's not just about adrenaline," Milliken told Bambury.

Glenn Styres says that he spent a decade without siding on his home in order to build his dream race track, Ohsweken Speedway. (Big Soul Productions)

Friday Night Thunder follows six racers, including Miller, as they recover from past accidents, break barriers and train to win. 

And for many of the racers, it's a family affair.

Miller's grandfather who, he says, craved the adrenaline he experienced flying in the Lancaster bomber during World War II, travelled to the United States to race small cars that were the predecessor to sprint car racing.

Miller's father had a love of drag racing, he adds. "Motorsports runs in our family," he said.

Friday Night Thunder follows the lives of Indigeous sprint car racers, including musician Derek Miller, second from right. (Big Soul Productions)

As a newcomer to the sport, the depth of passion for the sport was a surprise to Milliken.

"This car culture and racing, I think, is generationally steeped in this community," she said. "You have so many people that are amazing engineers and mechanics ... that can create and fix pretty much anything."

Speed comes with risks

Miller admits that the possibility of a crash is always at the back of his mind, but when he's racing, his focus is elsewhere.

"You just think about what you can control and the decisions you make," he said, adding that few other activities come with such immediate consequences. One of those decisions is to never take your foot off the pedal.

"What are you willing to do to win?" Miller asked.

WATCH | Why sprint car racing is more than a sport for Alex Hill

Kanien'kehá:ka woman races sprint cars


5 months ago
Sprint car racing is a fast and dangerous sport that's brought together the community at Six Nations of the Grand River for decades. 1:16

Racing on that dirt track is like an "emotional, mental, physical, spiritual release of, you know, wonderful chemicals in the brain," Miller said. That experience is something Milliken wishes she could capture.

"Honestly, the way they describe it, I wish they could bottle that stuff and I could just drink it because I don't know that I want to strap that thing to my back," she said.

"I did it in a two seater," Milliken added. "I was strapped in and, man, it's like ice…. It does not feel like clay, it does not feel like dirt, it feels like ice."

"And it was terrifying but exhilarating all at the same time, so I get it for sure."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Derek Miller and Laura Milliken produced by Annie Bender.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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