POMONA, California – This is the best time of year to win, says eight-time Top Fuel world champion Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) who with his teammate Antron Brown have combined to win four of the last five NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel titles for the U.S. Army.
As the U.S. Army duo heads to Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California to wrap up another season with this weekend’s 52nd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals, the focus, determination and sheer will to win will be as prevalent as any other race weekend even though Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army team for DSR have already clinched their second consecutive and third overall championship two weekends ago at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Schumacher and the U.S. Army team have second place in the final standings, at best, to claim by the time the Southern California sun sets on Sunday.
Schumacher, after all, knows better than any other Top Fuel driver in history the thrill of closing out the season on a high note at Pomona, having left there with the championship trophy for the first time in 1999, then every year from 2004 through 2009, and again in 2014, and being in contention for titles at the season finale on six other occasions over the last 17 seasons. The six career event titles for “The Sarge” at Pomona ties the legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for tops on the win list at the NHRA’s home racetrack.
Closing out what has turned out to be a rather up-and-down season on a high note at Pomona would be just what the doctor ordered this weekend for Schumacher and the U.S. Army team, who have event titles at Denver and Indianapolis under their belt and would love just one more to get them through the offseason.
Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army team, meanwhile, would love one more event title this weekend to close out the season with a team-best eight for the year after having won seven events a year ago. It’s already been a season of personal bests for Brown and his team with an astounding 11 final-round appearances and 53 round wins through the first 23 events. With the pressure of a championship chase clearly off their collective shoulders, that could be a scary proposition for the other Top Fuel competitors this weekend.
Highlights from Friday and Saturday qualifying at the Auto Club NHRA Finals will be broadcast in one-hour shows at 11:30 p.m. EST Friday and 11:30 a.m. Sunday, while Sunday’s elimination rounds will be broadcast live by FS1 beginning at 4 p.m.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
The Top Fuel title has been decided as your teammate has clinched it for the second year in a row. Your overall thoughts as you and the Army team head to the season finale at Pomona?
“Believe it or not, we’re really looking forward to it, which is pretty much the case every race weekend with this U.S. Army team. We want to say congratulations to Antron and all the guys on DSR’s Matco Tools/U.S. Army team for another job well done. They were definitely the team to beat, once again. We’re also looking forward to an awesome bout between (Ron) Capps and (Matt) Hagan for the Funny Car championship. You know, it’s always nice to once in a while enjoy someone else’s good fortune. We’re an awesome race team with an incredible winning record, a championship heritage. Having won championships, we can really enjoy someone else’s championship efforts because we know every little thing that goes into winning them, just what it takes to earn it. Capps is another of our DSR brethren and he’s on the verge of clinching his first championship that’s been long overdue. As for what we expect this weekend, it’ll be business as usual. We are going to try and win the race. We’re well aware of the points situation and the fact we can leapfrog a lot of people between us and second place if all goes well. That would be all well and good, but we’ve first got to go in with the mindset of trying to win this race. The points will take care of themselves, as they always do. If you’re not No. 1 at the end of the season, it really doesn’t matter where you end up, does it? It’s all about winning. This is the best time to win because, if you don’t, you really have a long wait until you get your next chance.”
Over the years, you’ve been in the championship picture right down to the final run at the Pomona finale. Is it strange to show up without at least a chance to win the title?
“We’re just going to go out and do our job, be a machine, do the same thing every time and try and try and try. The Army that we represent is the strength of our Nation, and the Soldiers are the strength of our Army. This Army-NHRA partnership we are so proud to be the focal point of provides Americans a platform to experience the power, speed, teamwork and technology that drives that strength. That said, I’m also proud to say there’s not a team out here that tries harder. There are a lot of teams out here that perform well, but there’s no one who works harder than my guys. At the end of the day, the kind of adversity we’ve faced this season is half the battle. It’s all about getting through the adversity, keeping us on the track and winning races. We may not be able to go out and win the championship this year, but we can change the direction of other stuff, so now the goal becomes going out with a win. We’ve just got to go out and make that happen so we can spend the winter remembering that we know how to win.”
You’ve had some truly memorable moments at the Pomona season finale during your career. Safe to say you have a real fondness for the place?
“Pomona’s been truly amazing for us over the years. To me, so many times, it’s been what every single American boy dreams of – you’re up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, full count. Whether you end up winning it or not, you’ve had that experience, you’ve lived that dream and, later in life, when you’re chatting about great moments you’d like to relive if you’re given the chance, Pomona is going to come up more than any of the others.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You’re the world champ once again. How does it feel?
“Oh, it feels great. It feels great. It’ll never get old. This is what we all work so hard for. We had a really good season and the Countdown, again, was good to us because unfortunately we messed up in St. Louis, and it set us back, but we were able to rebound and use that after St. Louis, adjusted after St. Louis, rebounded and came out the next three races with our head down, qualified well. That’s what really set the tone, and I think that’s what our team with (co-crew chiefs) Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald) and all of our Matco Tools/U.S. Army boys did well is that we adapted to the situation where we just kept working hard at it, where we said, ‘You know what, to put ourselves in a better situation we need to qualify better,’ and that’s what we set out to accomplish, and we achieved that. We’ve qualified in the top-five every race since then, and it really set us up for race day to go rounds. And that was the main thing – going rounds, getting lane choice, and coming off, peeling off with a few race wins there – and it really helped us clinch that championship again this year.”
You had some early hiccups in the season but, as the season went on, you just got better and better and better. What did you learn about yourself and your team down the stretch?
“Well, what we always knew, I always say that I have one of the best race teams in the business because we’re able to adapt to so many different situations. If we go to races where the track can be stellar at nighttime but then be the hottest, slimiest, tire-spinning track during the day, our team is able to adapt to those situations and that’s what we’re really good at. And when we have those types of races, that’s where we really shine. And then, when a track gets really good, we can throw down and, when the track gets really tricky, we can go down the racetrack and run some exceptional laps. And that’s what it takes now in this era – to go out there and to compete and to win championships, and that’s what we really focus hard on. We struggled the first three races of the year. We qualified well but we had a new clutch pack in our car where it made our car very, very aggressive, and we just had to get used to it, to adapt to it to get our window back on how good our car runs. Every team goes through that, and it’s just what you have to go through. And once we got our window back to where we know how to run like we’re capable of, we went back to work and back to business as usual, and that’s just running as hard as we can with what the track gives us, and it gave us some great opportunities, and we were there in the end to bring some race wins home and really set us up for the Countdown.”
Even though you have the championship in your pocket again, how intensely are you going to race at Pomona? And what changes may you make in the team or in the car?
“Well, when we come to Pomona, I can tell you one thing, that when we race at certain races, we race strategy. We race the racetrack, and I’d be lying to you, you look at your competitors and you try and look and see what you need to run to win that round. That gives you the best percentage value to win that round. That’s what everybody does in statistics, and we go in there and we go, ‘All right, we need to run this.’ Well, Pomona, the cool part is that we’re going to go out there and we’re going to run hard, and the good part is we have nothing to lose, and we can go out there and we can try to rotate the earth. We just hope the earth goes with us so we can actually make some world record-setting runs and have some fun with it. And then, on race day, we’re going to race to win. We’re going to push a little harder than we normally push, but we’re going to push because you have to now to win a round of racing, whoever you race, because all these cars are running so good. Everybody, every team out there is capable of breaking a world record at any given time if the conditions yield it. So, you have to go out there and run and make those runs, you have to go out there and give it your best shot so you can go there and have a shot at winning the race. Well, when you have a shot, you can make it to the finals but, to get there, you have to get through some serious competition.”
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