ENGLISHTOWN, New Jersey – A year ago at New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire, it was a sight to behold as Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and his U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster team for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) were celebrating the Army’s 240th birthday in ultimate fashion, hoisting another NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Wally trophy in victory lane with the Continental Color Guard – featuring its circa 1784-style infantry uniforms – standing at attention behind them.
Considering its proximity to where the U.S. Army came to be on the outskirts of Boston, just an hour’s drive to the south, it was a particularly emotional victory and birthday celebration.
This weekend, Schumacher and his fellow U.S. Army Top Fuel driver Antron Brown will be celebrating the Army’s 241st birthday about five hours down the road at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, where they’ll take part in the 47th annual NHRA Summernationals. In addition to the traditional birthday cake cutting ceremony just prior to Saturday qualifying, the U.S. Army Drill Team and Continental Color Guard from the 3d U.S. Army Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) will once again be on-site and, prior to Sunday’s elimination rounds, the U.S. Army Gold Knights precision parachute demonstration team will perform.
What better reason for Schumacher and Brown and their respective nine-man teams to go all out for another Top Fuel event title.
For Schumacher, the eight-time Top Fuel world champion, it would be his first of 2016 after a rather challenging start to the season that has shown great improvement over the last three events. Last weekend at Epping, he advanced to the semifinal round of eliminations for the first time this season, and he actually beat his teammate and semifinal opponent Brown across the finish line with the low elapsed time of the round. But Schumacher red-lighted at the start and was disqualified, giving the victory to Brown, who went on to score his second event title of the season by beating Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel final.
Always the positive one, Schumacher looks ahead to this weekend’s Summernationals, an event he won in 2010, as a huge opportunity to finally string together four perfect runs on Sunday and celebrate the Army’s birthday in style, once again.
Like Schumacher, Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster team for DSR also might be looking back a year as they hope to recreate a little magic. But the Chesterfield, New Jersey native’s focus would instead be last year’s Summernationals at Englishtown, where he scored the first Top Fuel event title of his career at his home track where he fell in love with the sport of drag racing as an 11-year-old, watching his father Albert and his uncle Andre compete.
Brown’s victory at Old Bridge Township last year, to go with his wins in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in 2002 and 2005, was also a hugely emotional one. He qualified first for the third event in a row, then mowed through Sunday’s elimination rounds against Jenna Haddock, Doug Kalitta, Dave Connolly and Brittany Force for his third of seven event titles en route to the 2015 Top Fuel championship.
In the midst of the festivities surrounding the Army’s 241st birthday celebration, there is no doubt plenty of motivation for its Top Fuel driver duo to put the figurative icing on the cake by hoisting that Wally trophy once again come Sunday afternoon.
FS1 will provide coverage of the Summernationals, including two hours of delayed qualifying coverage at 1 a.m. and 9 a.m. EDT Sunday, and three hours of delayed coverage of Sunday’s elimination rounds beginning at 4:30 p.m.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing:
You’re on a mission to bring home an event title each weekend you take to the track, but is the motivation level increased as we celebrate the U.S. Army’s 241st birthday this weekend at Englishtown?
“We’ve been racing for the U.S. Army for a long time, now, and it’s been a hugely successful program with a lot of incredible moments together over the years. But each time we celebrate the Army’s birthday, it’s extra special and it is a great reminder of what we all do this for. The Army is bigger than all of us. It’s been around longer than the United States of America, if you stop and think about it. They scored our country its first and still its ultimate victory. That’s certainly reason to celebrate, and we’re proud to have been part of the U.S. Army family for as long as we have. The Army has evolved over the last 241 years, but everyone who puts on the Army uniform continues to reflect the values upon which our nation was founded and continues the long tradition of service, sacrifice, honor and valor. Our Army – and by that I mean Soldiers, families, and Army civilians – epitomizes what is best about America. Their willingness to sacrifice to build a better future for others and to preserve our way of life is the strength of our nation.”
You certainly seem to be sneaking up on your first victory of the season after a rather challenging first nine events of 2016. What’s on your mind as you head to Englishtown?
“Honestly, I think what’s on my mind is that I had the best car every round last weekend at New Hampshire, and that we have been getting incrementally better each of the last three events. We’ve got a great car. We’ve always had a great car. But we’re finally starting to get to where we’re accustomed to being, when we feel like we’re just not going to be beaten. It’s one of those things about being a machine once you get to feeling like that. You’re gonna make mistakes, like last week when we red-lighted. When that happened, I told myself I need to work even harder. I felt that round that I had to step it up. If you look last year, I had a .006 light and beat Antron. That’s always the feeling when we race each other, when we get up there next to them, that we’ve got to be at our very best. The Army car has gotten better over the last three races, a little better each time. Mike (Green, crew chief) and Neal (Strausbaugh, assistant crew chief) just need the time it takes to get us where we want to be because they’re developing, and because the changes they make along the way are small and very deliberate. But, once we get there, we tend to stay there seemingly forever, and that’s what the other teams are afraid of. We’re meticulous and engineered and very particular in the moves we make to improve.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing:
Do you tend to feel just a bit nostalgic every time you return to Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, like you will once again for this weekend’s Summernationals?
“I was pushed around that racetrack in a stroller. That’s how long I’ve been going there. I tell you what, that’s all I ever knew. I embraced it because it was fun, it was exciting. The thing about being part of the team, working with my dad and uncle, they turned around and did the same thing for me. That’s what this sport is about. It’s about people who come out here and work hard looking for that edge. They’re not scared to put that work in. It’s always nice to go back home where you were born and raised. To go back to Englishtown, where the NHRA racing roots were instilled in me, it’s just special. It’s always good to go back and see all of your friends, all the people who remember me as a kid when I was always walking around with holes in my jeans at the knees, being all greasy from head to toe. That’s what I used to do with my dad and uncle. I learned so much growing up as a kid at that racetrack. It’s incredible just to go back and remember all of those good times I had growing up.”
Last year’s win there was your first in the Top Fuel ranks at the track where you grew up. What was that like?
“Not just to win there, but to get my 50th career win at my hometown, there’s something to be said for that. Especially it being my first Top Fuel win there. To be able to get that win with my incredible team in front of my family, friends and my hometown, that was just really, really special. I will remember that race win forever. It was a real dream come true for this Chesterfield (N.J.) kid. We knew what was at stake when we went there. I put everything having to do with what that race meant to the side. And that’s what the crew did. I went to that racetrack back in 1986. I remember it like it was yesterday. We all came out for the Summernationals. I spent a lot of hours at the track. I never thought I would be out there being a professional racer. I always wanted to, but you never know if you’ll get the opportunity. I give all the glory to God.”
– TSC –
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine