SONOMA, California – The U.S. Army Top Fuel driver duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown head to Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway for this weekend’s 29th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals and an abundance of momentum in their respective camps.
Each scored a victory during the last two stops on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour – Schumacher last weekend at Bandimere Speedway in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colorado, and Brown three weekends ago at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois. And, between them, Schumacher and Brown have won six times in the series’ last nine visits to scenic Sonoma Raceway.
For Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), last weekend’s victory at Bandimere was the team’s first in just over a year as crew chief Mike Green, a native of nearby Sacramento, California, and assistant crew chief Neal Strausbaugh have endured the oftentimes painstaking process of developing a radical new racecar concept introduced in May 2015. The fruits of their labor finally paid off Sunday afternoon in the form of the eight-time Top Fuel world champion Schumacher’s record 81st career event title. And it’s one he and the team hope will open the floodgates much like when the Army team ended its previous victory drought in the summer of 2014, which led to Schumacher’s latest Top Fuel championship that November.
“The Sarge” won back-to-back event titles at Sonoma in 2007 and 2008, the latter victory part of his sweep of that year’s Western Swing through Bandimere, Sonoma and Pacific Raceways near Seattle. He hasn’t won at Sonoma since, although he advanced to back-to-back final rounds in 2010 and 2011, dropping a close race to Brown the latter year.
Green, a graduate of Del Campo High School in the Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks, California, is also no stranger to victory lane at Sonoma during his illustrious career despite never having been there with Schumacher since joining the U.S. Army team in 2009. Green helped engineer Gary Ormsby’s Top Fuel victory at Sonoma in 1990, and he was crew chief for Cory McLenathan’s Top Fuel win at Sonoma in 1997 for the team owned by former NFL head coach Joe Gibbs.
Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, the two-time and defending Top Fuel world champions, are the most recent Sonoma victors and are looking for their record-tying fifth Sonoma victory this weekend. They’ve already won three event titles this season and scored their first of four Sonoma victories in 2009, when they went on to sweep that year’s Western Swing. The Top Fuel points leader by a 57-point margin over Doug Kalitta with four events to go before this year’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Brown has added runner-up finishes at three events this season, including last Sunday to Schumacher on the outskirts of Denver.
Daily qualifying coverage this weekend will be broadcast via one-hour shows scheduled for 7:30 p.m. EDT Friday and 10 p.m. Saturday. Sunday’s elimination rounds will be carried live on FOX from 4 to 7 p.m.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing:
You head to Sonoma this weekend having won for the first time in just over a year last weekend at Denver. How did it feel to finally win one, and what are your thoughts heading into this weekend?
“I’m not going to lie, I was starting to worry. No, seriously, our team is just the best there is in the world. And, sometimes to win a championship, you have to take a step back, make some big changes, and it’s about dealing with adversity and about being able to dig. It’s about having an educated group behind you that can look at the situation, make the changes that are necessary. What made the difference in Denver was running a Kalitta car in the first round. There is nothing more difficult than that and, I’ll tell you what, when you’ve got to sit up in the seat the very first run and the crew chief has to do a great job, the fans got to see a great show from the first push of the pedal. We had a great time. That win was a year in the making. We came away from Denver with the trophy and, when you win that trophy, you can’t sweep the Western Swing without winning the first won. And, even if you don’t end up sweeping the Western Swing, we keep everyone else from doing it. So, it was an important one. There have been years I’ve won 10 or 15 races and it seemed a whole lot easier. That was a difficult year, a lot of adversity, got beat in a lot of close races in that time. We really fought this new car but I’m glad we stuck with it and I’m looking forward to building some momentum, now. We’ve had a good car but we just had some bad breaks. Sunday in Denver was just a great day. We started out beating a Kalitta car and it just built from there.”
What is different about this car that crew chief Mike Green and assistant crew chief Neal Strausbaugh and the Army team have been developing since May 2015?
“We made a big change to our chassis the way we make it. We thought it would produce some more rear-end weight and all this stuff and it has been a detailed and painstaking process getting this car to work just right for us. It’s easy in any motorsports to replicate what’s out there. That’s pretty easy to do. In my 200 speeches a year, I tell kids all the time that, if they want to be an engineer, what that means is you don’t get to read the directions, you get to write them. And it’s a different thing when you’ve got to come up with ideas that are outside the box, that no one’s ever done, and then make them work. A lot of the greatest ideas end up failing because people give up on them just a little before they’re done. And it was tough for us because we’re not a team that accepts losing, we’re not a team that likes in any way, shape or form being fourth, fifth, sixth in the points. But we do know that adversity makes champions, getting through, fighting through the battles along the way. Mike (Green, crew chief) and Neal (Strausbaugh, assistant crew chief) were adamant about sticking with this idea. They made the changes to the car and then we meticulously have worked through it for a year, now. Looking back, we were winning races and leading the championship with our old car, but we made the change for the sake of the longer haul. We stuck with it and we finally won in Denver last week. Now, is it going to last when the conditions get good down the stretch? That’s the question. We do know that, when it’s hot out, the car is excellent. We ran low ET of the day Sunday in the heat of the first round against Kalitta. Now, we need to move forward from here and that starts in what should be excellent conditions starting this weekend in Sonoma.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing:
You reached your sixth event final of the season at Denver last weekend and opened up your points lead over Doug Kalitta. What’s on your mind as you head back to near sea level at Sonoma?
“Our game plan is just to keep going rounds and keep putting rounds between us (Doug) Kalitta and to go into the Countdown with the points lead. We’re trying to win another championship. That’s our goal and it starts right now. The mountain in Denver tried to kick our butt a little bit in qualifying, but (crew chiefs) Mark (Oswald), Brian (Corradi), and this whole Matco Tools/U.S. Army crew did what they always do and that’s figure it out, and we always put our best foot forward to race competitively on race day. I couldn’t be more proud to be on this team and doing what we are doing. We are looking forward to Sonoma.”
What is it about the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team that has enabled it to be so consistent seemingly year after year?
“They have the will and when you have the will it will overcome everything. You can be talented, you can be a natural but, when you have the will and the work ethic, you make the great things happen, like our team has. Since 2009, we have been together, Brian and Mark as our two crew chiefs, Brad (Mason) my assistant crew chief and all my Matco Tools/U.S. Army guys, we have been together and have that will. I think that is what makes us go out and compete the way we do. It’s more difficult than ever to win on any given weekend, so to just get to the semifinals is like you won a race this year. To bring a Wally home has been extremely tough. We thought we would have had a couple more wins than we have this year, but we are just happy to pull off three of them. There are a lot of great teams. I think we still have a lot more room to grow and have a lot to do to be competitive in this year’s Countdown to the Championship.”
– TSC –
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine