MOHNTON, Pennsylvania — In just about every championship journey, there is a specific moment when it becomes clear that something special is happening. In each of the previous two NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series seasons, the turning point in the championship race for U.S. Army Racing teammates Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown has occurred in the rolling hills of Eastern Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Army tandem returns this weekend with the knowledge that coming out triumphant in the 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading has tipped the scales in their respective battles to become the Top Fuel world champion.
Since the Reading event became part of NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff in 2010, four times the event winner has gone on to claim the championship, including the previous three. The other two eventual champions reached the Reading final.
It was two years ago at Reading where Schumacher cemented his championship run and the eight-time Top Fuel world champion pointed to a semifinal matchup with Doug Kalitta as the turning point. “The Sarge” had opened the 2014 Countdown with a pair of victories in the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) but stumbled in St. Louis the weekend before the annual trip to Maple Grove. He was going head-to-head in the Reading semifinal with Kalitta, who had been the dominant car throughout the 2014 campaign.
The two had met more than 60 times through the years and this race turned out to be as close as it gets. Schumacher scored a holeshot victory thanks to his .038-of-a-second reaction time and, when he returned to his pit area, there was a familiar look in the eyes of the nine men who make up the U.S. Army Racing team led by crew chief Mike Green. A confident gaze was present as they knew they were capable of becoming champions. It was something Schumacher had seen several times in his career transpire among the group that has surrounded him. He knew he would defeat Brittany Force in the final to earn his fifth career win at Maple Grove, all of which came during championship seasons – 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2014 – because his team believed it was going to win another championship.
A similar situation played out last October in Reading for Brown in his run for a second Top Fuel world championship. The driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR was off to an incredible start in the Countdown, winning the first two events in Charlotte and St. Louis. He raced his way to the final in Reading and he knew winning his third consecutive event would give him what would equate to an insurmountable lead in the championship. It was the turning point he and his team led by crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald had been preparing for all season. They could take out the closest competition in the standings, who just happened to be the reigning Top Fuel-champion Schumacher, who was also the most recent and all-time winningest Top Fuel driver at Maple Grove. Brown was up to the task and defeated his U.S. Army and DSR teammate and never looked back in his quest for the 2015 title.
The two-time and reigning champion Brown leads the Top Fuel contingent back to Reading this weekend with five victories on the season and the top spot in the Countdown standings. He has a 13-point advantage over second-place Kalitta, and Schumacher trails by 54 markers in the No. 3 spot. After starting the Countdown with a victory in Charlotte, Brown lost to his DSR teammate Shawn Langdon last weekend in the first round in St. Louis to end a four-year winning streak at the track. The New Jersey native feels right at home in Reading and has a 13-5 elimination-round record at Maple Grove during the Countdown, reaching the final three of the previous four years.
Schumacher and his U.S. Army Racing team return to Reading looking for their third victory in 2016 and first in the Countdown. “The Sarge” is coming off a productive weekend in St. Louis where he qualified second and raced his way to the final before losing to Langdon on a holeshot. Historically, Schumacher has been extremely strong at the tracks hosting the final four races in the Countdown. He has earned 19 wins while all other Countdown contenders combined have captured 13 – five each for Brown and Kalitta, two for J.R. Todd and one for Richie Crampton.
Friday night’s qualifying action from the 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals will be televised live on FS1 beginning at 6 p.m. EDT. Sunday’s elimination rounds will also be carried live by FS1 beginning at 2 p.m. EDT.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing:
Your outlook following last weekend’s run to the finals in St. Louis was summarized with two words: Game on. How would you gauge the confidence you and your U.S. Army Racing team have going into the third event of the six-race Countdown to the Championship?
“This is what it’s all about. You want to be in this position where the pressure is at its peak. We’re heading to Reading knowing that we have to go out and grab what we want. We had an incredible weekend in Indy leading into the Countdown, but because of a series of events in Charlotte our Countdown started not exactly as planned. But looking at it now, what happened in Charlotte just put the pressure on us to perform in St. Louis and that’s what this U.S. Army team does. When our backs are against the wall, when we absolutely have to deliver, this team finds a way. It’s that U.S. Army mentality. I will never quit. There is no greater accomplishment than doing something with a group of people fully capable of the moment. That moment is right in front of us.”
Entering this weekend, is your mindset that anything less than a victory is going to be a disappointment?
“We are in the winning business and that’s exactly what we are focused on doing. History shows that, to be the champion, you have to win races. Last weekend in St. Louis, we had an opportunity to win but lost on a holeshot to (Shawn) Langdon. You can break down the Countdown several ways – it’s six races, 24 rounds – but heading into Pomona, you have to have at least one or maybe two wins under your belt in order to be in a position to win it all. Two years ago, we got off to a great start in the Countdown winning twice, but then lost in the first round in St. Louis. We came to Reading and, after we beat (Doug) Kalitta in the semifinals, I could see it in my guys’ eyes, that they were ready to win a championship. At that moment, I knew we were going to win it. Will I have that same feeling Sunday if we leave Reading with the Wally? I don’t know, but that’s what I want to find out.”
The U.S. Army Racing team has been very good down the stretch in several events including Reading. What do you attribute your success to at Maple Grove?
“I think the results over the years prove the theory that we are at our best when it counts most. Reading is one of those races late in the year when championships are being earned. It’s a unique facility. Old school. Throwback to the early days of drag racing. The speeds and power you produce there are incredible. I know (crew chief) Mike (Green) and (assistant crew chief) Neal (Strausbaugh) have really worked hard to make our U.S. Army car perform at its peak in all conditions. We proved that in Indy. Winning the Traxxas Shootout in cooler temperatures and then the next day winning the U.S. Nationals in hot conditions. It’s going to be cool this weekend and we have a baseline to start with. We have a great racecar and incredible team. That’s the biggest factor.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing:
You’ve have talked all season about the competition level this year in Top Fuel. The first two Countdown races have featured a little bit of everything, including a victory and a first-round exit for you. What are your thoughts heading into this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway?
“We always feel good going into Reading because the conditions get to be so good there. We needed to test on Monday after St. Louis just to work on some things, we changed a couple of things around. In St. Louis, it bit us in qualifying. We qualified in a bad spot and raced one of the few people who could beat us first round. It made the points a lot tighter and that’s what makes this Countdown so exciting. The plus part is that we still came out with the points lead and we have four races left to win a championship. Our goal is that we can be there at the end, at the last race of the Countdown with a chance to win a championship. Reading is a big race for us, it’s a hometown race for me. I’m just excited to get out there and get after it.”
As the case has been the previous couple of years, you will drive a special pink-schemed dragster this weekend. How important is it for you to spread the word about breast cancer awareness?
“It’s really big. This Tools for the Cause scheme is always near and dear to my heart, I’ve seen two women in my family go through breast cancer. It really hits at home, it hits hard. It really means a lot to me that we can represent all the women who are going through it, have been through it and all of the families that have been affected by it. The pink empowers all of us and it has a great meaning of women being strong.”
– TSC –
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine