BRISTOL, Tennessee – Last Sunday at New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire was about as magical of a moment as Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher can remember. And there have been some pretty magical moments in Schumacher’s storied career as driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR).
The eight-time and defending Top Fuel world champion upped his record total of event titles to 79 by beating three-time world champ Larry Dixon in the final at Epping. But it was much more than just another Wally trophy for Schumacher. It was earned on the day the Army celebrated its 240th birthday. And, for the first time, the NHRA’s annual rite of summer these past 15 seasons of Army sponsorship of Schumacher’s Top Fuel team took place just an hour’s drive north of where the Continental Army was born on June 14, 1775, more than a year before the United States of America came to be.
Fittingly, the setting for Sunday afternoon’s final-round matchup with Dixon was highlighted by the Continental Color Guard, who in their authentic 1775-era uniforms complete with three-cornered hats stood in formation behind Schumacher’s 10,000-horsepower racing machine at the starting line. Schumacher went on to score his second event title of the season and his second in a row at Epping, and another memorable entry has been added to a long list of magical moments for U.S. Army Racing since it began sponsoring Schumacher and DSR on Labor Day weekend 2000 at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Sunday’s win was the first of Schumacher’s 79 event titles to have occurred on the Army’s actual birthday. Just twice previously had Schumacher scored event titles at race weekends when the Army birthday was celebrated. The first was June 8, 2008, when he beat Rod Fuller in the Top Fuel final at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago. The second came June 17, 2012, when he beat Doug Kalitta for the final-round win at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway, site of this weekend’s 15th annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
Bristol is where the Army has conducted its previous four birthday cake cutting ceremonies and, as far as Schumacher and his fellow Army and DSR driver Antron Brown are concerned, this year’s celebration might as well continue through this weekend in Tennessee.
Schumacher is a five-time event titlist at Bristol while Brown is still chasing the first of his career at the scenic dragstrip tucked among the hillsides adjacent to famed Bristol Motor Speedway. That 2012 victory for Schumacher was his most recent after having won three times in a row there from 2008 to 2010. His first Bristol win came in 2004, and also qualified No. 1 in 2004, 2007 and 2008.
While Brown has yet to score a Bristol event title, he did reach the 2011 final, and he also was fast qualifier there in 2010 and 2012. This weekend, Brown hopes to do like he did two weekends ago in his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, when he finally broke through and scored his first career victory at his boyhood hometown track at Englishtown, New Jersey.
The win at Englishtown was Brown’s series-high third of the season and second in three events – a streak during which he also earned three consecutive No. 1 qualifying positions. The momentum suffered a bit of a hiccup for Brown last weekend in Epping as he qualified sixth and dropped his first-round matchup to Dixon.
Brown still leads the Top Fuel standings, but his margin over second-place Schumacher fell from 118 points to 33 last weekend.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
Talk about how special it was to win last Sunday in New Hampshire on the Army’s 240th birthday, and with that Continental Color Guard standing in formation behind you at the starting line.
“The East Coast, it’s neat to race up there. That track’s been around a long time. To have that color guard standing there supporting us representing the Army that, having been around 240 years, is one year older than the United States has existed. It was 240 years ago those guys went off to battle have they’ve been fighting for us and making us a free nation ever since. We appreciate it every day. I’ve been doing this almost 20 years. I’ve helped recruit a lot of Army Soldiers, watched them go overseas, watched them do their jobs, and watched them come back and I’ve talked with many of them and watched their scenarios unfold as they’ve gotten on with their lives. It’s a pleasure to be part of something so big. But to be able to win on that day, on the Army’s birthday, when there’s no other chance to do it but on that day, that’s a lot of pressure. You can’t get that close – to the finals – and then leave something on the table. Mike and Neal did some thrashing five minutes before our final run and it got my heart rate up a little bit. But I trust that they know what they are doing, that they will put the tuneup in the car that they deem necessary at that given moment and they did a great job. The car did outstanding on that run.”
After that eventful win last weekend, safe to say you can’t wait to get back in the Army Dragster at Bristol, a place where you’re a five-time event winner?
“Everybody seems to have tracks where they are good and, fortunately, Bristol is one of those for the U.S. Army team. Yeah, ever since we won last week, and the way the day unfolded, and all the meaning behind it, with the Army’s birthday celebration and the Continental Color standing there at the starting line, I was ready to just keep the momentum going. Bristol being Bristol, that just has us all the more fired up to go out there and represent the U.S. Army once again. It’s a special place to race, for sure. There is some altitude to deal with there, but mostly it’s just that I love Thunder Valley. I always go into that race feeling successful. I think, anytime you win races, it gets easier the next time. That’s why I go into Bristol with a completely positive attitude and the results have been the proof."
The brand new U.S. Army Dragster you debuted at Atlanta last month has qualified second, third and third, then was top qualifier last week at Epping and won the event in only its fourth outing. What do you think of the new car, so far?
“It’s a great car. The purpose of this car should benefit us greatly when it gets warm out. So far, we’ve been two-thousandths quicker than a lot of cars. We’ve been maintaining, but we’re not substantially quicker. We’re building that backbone for when it starts getting hot week after week. The changes we made to build this car aren’t way out there, they’re not from far out in left field, they’re not guesses. We hire great people with great minds who sit in boardrooms and talk about what might happen. They put it on computers and the computers show results and then they go and build it and put me in there. The car hasn’t been all about big changes. We make small changes and then we make lots of them. We have good ideas, some for three years down the road that we might get if this works and that works and it’s a scenario that keeps building upon itself. If this works and that works, and depending on what it tells us, we might try this next. We’ have great minds out here, not just on our team but all through Nitro Alley. I think the fans who don’t come out to an NHRA race miss that. They miss the minds of these guys in the pits. They’re outstanding. These guys are incredible with what they do when they get into their comfort zone.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
Much like your home track at Englishtown, where you won for the first time in your career two weeks ago, you now head to Bristol, which is another track where you are still looking for your first event title. How special is Bristol to you?
“Bristol always has been a special place. It’s always been good to us, to an extent. Just like Englishtown, we’ve been to the final but it’d be nice to finally get a win there. You’re right in the middle of a valley and it’s one of those premiere tracks where you want to go out there and you want to do well. We’ve qualified well there before, we’ve been No. 1, we’ve been out there and we’ve done well in the past. We’ve been in the final where we’ve lost because you’re pushing too hard because you really want to win. It’s been one of those tracks where we really want to win, for sure, and cross it off the bucket list. We’ve just got to attack just like we did at Epping last week. We had a good shot but we just didn’t get it. Now, we’ve got to go to Bristol and we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s tough, but we’ve got to start off with good qualifying like we’ve been doing. And that’s our goal there, to get off to a good start. It’s going to be hot in Bristol, it’s not going to be easy. We’ve just got to put our best foot forward and see if we can get back to where we’re at.”
After three solid weekends during which you scored a pair of event titles and swept the No. 1 qualifying position at all three, momentum didn’t seem to be on your side at New Hampshire last week. Your thoughts on that?
"Epping didn’t go in the first round like we wanted it to, but we’ll just go after it at Bristol and try and regroup and do it better. What happened at Epping is just racing. We go out in the first round matchup against a guy like (Larry) Dixon, who right now has been killer. We could’ve raced a couple of other people first round and it would have been no problem. Like both our teammates and some other cars smoked the tires and won, anyway, we just didn’t have that luck. We were against a guy we couldn’t beat. With that being said, we’ll just jump back on the horse, put our best foot forward and get after it.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine