TOPEKA, Kansas – Memorial Day weekend in the Heartland of America wearing the colors of the U.S. Army – it’s certainly all the motivation Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown and their respective Top Fuel Dragster teams for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) will ever need in their quest for victory at this weekend’s 27th annual NHRA Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.
Schumacher and Brown are proud and honored each day of the year to represent the more than 1 million Soldiers who protect our freedom and our way of life. But taking to the racetrack on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend – also known around the racing world as the “Greatest Day in Motorsports” – alongside the iconic Grand Prix of Monaco in Formula 1, the Indianapolis 500 in the IndyCar Series, and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 makes the honor all the more special.
Fittingly enough heading into Memorial Day weekend, the U.S. Army duo sits first and second in the Top Fuel standings after Brown’s dominating run to the NHRA Southern Nationals event title last weekend at Atlanta Dragway and despite Schumacher’s first-round exit at the hands of Larry Dixon for the second time in three race weekends. Brown, who became Top Fuel’s first multiple event winner of 2015, leapfrogged past Schumacher into the points lead, 53 markers ahead of his second-place teammate in the standings.
Unfazed by the early exit for the third time in seven events this year, Schumacher knows full well the uber competitiveness of the Top Fuel class this season will generate its share of ups and downs. More importantly, the brand new racecar Schumacher and the Army team unveiled at Atlanta passed its tests with flying colors as “The Sarge” continued his remarkably consistent performance in Friday and Saturday qualifying sessions despite the all-new car by blazing to the No. 2 seed for Sunday eliminations. Schumacher’s average qualifying position through the season’s first seven events is now a series-best 2.86.
With an event title at Phoenix and final-round appearances at Gainesville and Houston to go with three first-round exits this season, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team look to translate their Friday and Saturday performance into round wins on Sundays on a more consistent basis beginning this weekend in Topeka, where the eight-time and defending Top Fuel world champion has 2008 and 2009 event titles in his illustrious career, as well as a No. 1 qualifying effort in 2011.
Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel champ and driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, seemingly could do no wrong last weekend in winning for the fourth time at Atlanta in Top Fuel and for the sixth time in his career at the track. He swept the No. 1 qualifier position by being fastest down the track in all four sessions Friday and Saturday, then beating Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta, Terry McMillen and Leah Pritchett Sunday for his 33rd career Top Fuel event title and 49th overall. His first event title of the season came in March, when he won the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte for the second year in a row.
Like Atlanta was for Schumacher a track where he’d yet to hoist a Wally trophy, Heartland Park is one of only four NHRA tracks where Brown has yet to win. Despite earning No. 1 qualifying honors there in 2009, 2010 and 2012, he still has yet to advance to the final round. The last two seasons brought first-round exits, as well.
But with the momentum of his class-leading second Top Fuel win of 2015 still fresh on his mind, plus the added incentive of the Memorial Day weekend festivities, Brown looks to break through for his first career trip to the winner’s circle in the Heartland of America. And Schumacher will be pulling out all the stops in search of his third Topeka win and to goal of recapturing the all-important Top Fuel points lead.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You’re overall thoughts as we head to Topeka for this weekend’s Kansas Nationals?
“Well, we learned at Atlanta that our brand new U.S. Army Dragster is a great racecar. It’s brand new, which means we’re just starting to get the data on it, but for its first outing, we really like what we saw. There was one run, and about the only run, that would’ve beat us at the last race and it was laid down by the guy (Larry Dixon) in the other lane in the first round. It was the only run he made it down the track all weekend, but he goes out and lays down low ET of the day against us, and then never goes down the track another time after that. As frustrating as that might seem to be, that’s OK. To win, we always assume everybody is trying to beat the Army car by doing things they’ve never done before. It’s been proven time and time again. We’ve had the target on our backs for 10 years. A lot of times when people beat us, they celebrate like they’ve won the championship. We really appreciate the effort people put in to beat our car. But, to keep things in perspective, we’ve won more of those than not. We’ve won championship after championship like that. It was unfortunate to go out the way we did at Atlanta last weekend, so we’ll just have to redeem ourselves with our brand new racecar at Topeka and go out and win the thing.”
You’re racing in the Heartland of America on Memorial Day weekend, wearing the colors of the U.S. Army. What kind of a feeling does that generate for you and for the team?
“It’s an incredible feeling to be representing the U.S. Army every single day of the year, there is absolutely no doubt about that. But since they moved the Kansas Nationals back to Memorial Day weekend, that makes it all the more special to be wearing the Army colors. I think it would be entirely fitting for us to be hoisting the Wally wearing those colors on Memorial Day weekend. We had a solid weekend at Topeka two years ago and came close to winning our third race of the year. I’m really looking forward, as always, to hitting the track. Topeka is a really fun place to race. It’s the Heartland of America. There are great people there, great race fans, and they always get a good crowd. I enjoy being there. I’d not run well there early in my career, but we have a couple of wins and a top qualifying effort in recent years and I feel we’re poised to get back to the winner’s circle. I really like our chances with our new car.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You’re heading to Heartland Park Topeka this weekend, a track where you’ve never tasted victory, a week after scoring your fourth career Top Fuel win at the Atlanta track. Your thoughts?
“It’s one of those deals in life when you want something so bad but it never seems you can get it. If you settle down, focus, relax and quit worrying about it, it comes to you. That’s the approach I’m going to take this weekend. I’m going out there and do what we do. Topeka is a track that we’ve always run well at. It’s just a special place. It’s an inspirational race for me and would mean so much if we could bring home that trophy. I have to get past my emotions when I go there just so I can do what I normally do and because it means so much to me.”
It’s a huge weekend in the motorsports world, as it always is Memorial Day weekend. How special is it for you to be a part of that?
“Memorial Day is very special to me and this will be a great time to salute our troops and everyone who has served to protect our country. I was proud to carry the colors of the U.S. Army for many years in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and I’m still involved with the Army through its education program. We’re going to take it one round at a time like we have at every race this year and hopefully some of the chips will fall our way.”
You’re also a huge fan of the late Gary Ormsby, the 1989 Top Fuel world champion, and his name is closely associated with Heartland Park. What is it like for you to race at a place like that?
“The road coming in is named after one of my racing heroes, and that’s one of the things that really stands out to me when we go there. He was very innovative. He didn’t just bring out a dragster with an enclosed canopy, like we now use at DSR, but he brought a fully streamlined car that covered the engine and everything that made it so aerodynamic. I got to see him at races when I was a little kid. I never met him or knew him other than as a fan getting his autograph. He was just a cool, soft-spoken, laid-back guy, yet he still was a serious racer. He was well respected and a genuine, genuine nice guy and he was a hard-core racer. That’s something I’ve always tried to be – I’m very approachable, very nice, but you don’t want to line up against me on the starting line.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine