POMONA, California – At the historic dragstrip where U.S. Army driver and record seven-time NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world champion Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher has pulled off season-ending miracles on more than one occasion, it will almost take nothing short of a miracle to keep Schumacher from winning his eighth world title this weekend.
It is evidence of the fact that only the strongest wear the colors of the U.S. Army, and the Army-NHRA partnership provides Americans a platform to experience the speed, power, teamwork and technology that drives that strength.
Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, site of this weekend’s 50th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals, is where Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) clinched the 2006 Top Fuel championship on the very last run of the season – having had to not only win the race but by setting a national elapsed-time record and collecting the 20 bonus points for doing so. It completed the biggest comeback in NHRA history for Schumacher and the U.S. Army team, who found themselves a whopping 336 points out of the championship lead after the season’s first 10 events.
A year later, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team arrived at the season finale in Pomona fourth in the standings, 67 points out of the lead. Once again, he ran the table during Sunday eliminations and clinched his fourth championship in a row and fifth of his career on the final run of the season.
This weekend Schumacher, who carries the U.S. Army colors along with DSR teammate Antron Brown, arrives at Pomona with a 109-point lead after winning three of the first five of six Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship events this fall. Provided “The Sarge” successfully qualifies for Sunday eliminations for the 272nd consecutive event, he could clinch his eighth world title over his nearest competitors – DSR teammate Spencer Massey, who is 109 points back, and TEAM driver J.R. Todd, who is 112 points back – by scoring a first-round victory Sunday. Even if Schumacher was to be eliminated in the first round Sunday, the only way either Massey or Todd could steal the championship would be by running the table and establishing a new national elapsed-time record.
Consequently, it is Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, who owns the current national elapsed-time record of 3.706 seconds set in October 2012 at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pennsylvania. The Auto Club Raceway record is 3.721 seconds set last February by Doug Kalitta.
Rest assured, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team will be anything but in defensive mode this weekend as they look to close out their best campaign since winning the 2009 Top Fuel world title in 2009 with a win this weekend.
Brown, meanwhile, looks to end his season on a high note at the track where he clinched his first Top Fuel world title in 2012 and completed a runner-up finish in the championship standings last year. He fell to seventh in the latest standings with his first-round exit at Las Vegas two weekends ago and finds himself an insurmountable 177 points behind Schumacher. He would like nothing more than to add to his series-high six event titles for 2014 this weekend.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You and the U.S. Army team begin the final weekend of the season with a 109-point lead in the championship. How does it feel to know you can clinch your eighth career Top Fuel title simply by qualifying for Sunday eliminations, barring any miracles by your closest competitors?
“I feel great. I’ve gone into this last event several times with either a one-point lead or behind the eight-ball, so it’s a good place to be. Obviously, we’ve talked a lot over the years about that moment when you have to win and all that. But when you come in with a big lead, you’ve won already, in a sense. You’ve done a great job and your car has done what it has had to do to get this lead. It’s a testament to the fact that, every time we are on the track, this U.S. Army Racing team demonstrates the same attributes the Army looks for in its Soldiers – putting the mission first, a never-quit attitude and a refusal to accept defeat. In all honesty, I’m comfortable. It’s funny because, like at the last race at Las Vegas, getting beat by Billy Torrence, you only get beat because you can. We’re really good when those moments are huge, when you have to win, but you kind of drop your guard, unfortunately, and I just hope we don’t do that. I just hope I step up and the Army car goes as fast as it can, and we win this event and show why we’re the champs. We have to continue living up to what the Army car is supposed to do.”
You were simply unstoppable in winning three of the first five Countdown to the Championship events and you head to Pomona with the huge lead despite being eliminated in the first round at the other two Countdown events. Talk about that.
“Most importantly, the U.S. Army car is absolutely fantastic right now. Those hero shots that are run against us from time to time seem to be more often than just sometimes. It certainly has felt over the years that most cars that go out and run their best times do it against us. The Army car has won a lot of races and championships, and it makes people step up their game and do a heck of a job, like Billy Torrence did in the first round against us at Las Vegas. Billy did a great job Vegas and he did what he had to do to beat me and, unfortunately, we relaxed a little bit. Our car probably could’ve gone a little quicker. I definitely could’ve had a better light (reaction time), but that was a textbook run for us – an 80 (.080 of a second) light and a good run when you’re running a lower-seeded opponent in the first round. But, when they step up, that’s when they beat you, and they seem to do it from time to time.”
Have you thought about any kind of an acceptance speech, yet?
“No. I think it would be inappropriate to do it before Saturday night if and when I’m safely in the show for Sunday. I’m a firm believer in earning it all the way. You can jinx yourself and I don’t intend on doing that. We obviously have a great lead. We have something that’s about as far out as most people have had going into Pomona. It’s comfortable but, with that being said, I don’t even know what the speech would entail until the end, if and when we’ve made the runs we would have to make to win it, and a lot of the stuff I would learn along the way as the weekend unfolds as we’re trying our best to live out another great moment for this U.S. Army team.”
DSR has won all five of the Countdown races, so far. What does that say about the organization?
“It’s great, and I think we need to win the last one. I think the best part is that we haven’t run each other. I haven’t run Antron (Brown) and I haven’t run Spencer (Massey), and I don’t think they’ve run each other, either. So, we’ve done it by beating everyone else, not ourselves. No one can say anyone’s been taking it easy on anybody else to help each other in the points. That’s all nonsense, anyway. When we race, we race fair, we race hard, we’re great teammates. I’ve been beat by my teammates more than I’ve beaten them over the years, and that’s just the way it is. It’s always just a heck of a battle at DSR.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You’ve won a series-high six event titles in 2014 – and for the fourth time in your career. But you head to Pomona just seventh in the standings and without a mathematical chance to win the title. Your thoughts on that?
“We’ve had a great year, but everyone on the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team is disappointed that we’re going to Pomona without a chance to win our second championship in three years. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a very special Sunday after the Finals at Pomona.”
What is your and the team’s approach at Pomona this weekend
“We’re steady and ready for Pomona. We’ve worked hard to leave there with our seventh trophy (of the year) and, with all the things our Matco Tools/U.S. Army guys have accomplished, that’s something we haven’t done, yet. There couldn’t be a better way for us to start getting ready for 2015.”
It was just two years ago this weekend that you clinched your first career Top Fuel title. What comes to mind as you think back on that?
“With our team, it was our fifth year together. We kept on making that climb to the top of the mountain and we got so close so many years before and just couldn’t take that last step to get on top, like Mount Everest. When you’re trying to take that last step and slip and fall all the way down to the bottom, that’s what it feels like to run for the championship and you don’t bring it home. Two years ago, we got to experience that incredible feeling where you take that last step and finally get to hoist your arms in the air and say we finally made it to the end of the journey and got what we set out to get, and that’s to be king of the mountain for a year. That feeling will never leave us. And we’re part of that unique group known as NHRA world champs.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine