MORRISON, Colorado – It’s time for the annual Western Swing for the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown and, by all accounts, both are headed in the right direction with regard to their 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series campaigns – up.
Schumacher and his U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster team for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) have made a steady climb upward in the championship standings over the past five events and look to continue their positive momentum with this weekend’s opening stop on the three-event Western Swing – the 34th annual Mopar NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colorado.
Their surge in the standings over the past month and a half is proof that the U.S. Army Racing duo and their respective teams have been demonstrating the same attributes the Army looks for in its Soldiers – putting the mission first, a never-quit attitude and a refusal to accept defeat.
Schumacher’s second event title of the season June 22 in Epping, New Hampshire and his semifinal appearance against DSR teammate and fellow Army driver Brown two weekends ago in Norwalk, Ohio helped vault the seven-time Top Fuel world champion from seventh to fourth in the point standings.
With the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoff set to commence five events from now, each position in the standings is important as point totals for the top-10 drivers will be reset for the final six-event run to the title. After the first 13 events of 2014, Schumacher trails leader Doug Kalitta by 345 points, which is mathematically possible to overcome in five events but not likely, particularly considering Kalitta’s incredible consistency this season despite just one event title.
Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR sit in second place in the standings behind their series-high five event titles this season, just 48 points behind Kalitta and closing fast. Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel world champion, trailed Kalitta by 157 points just three events ago before sweeping back-to-back titles at Chicago and Norwalk for his 29th and 30th career event titles.
For Schumacher, catching third-place Shawn Langdon in the standings these next five events of the regular season is a realistic goal as the Al-Anabi driver sits a very reachable 153 points ahead of “The Sarge,” particularly if the U.S. Army team can sweep the three-event Western Swing like it did in 2008. Schumacher also won the Denver event in 2005 and has reached the final five other times.
Brown also swept the Western Swing, pulling off the back-to-back-to-back event titles at Bandimere, Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and Pacific Raceways near Seattle in 2009. He followed up with another event title at Bandimere in 2012 and was runner-up to Schumacher in 2008.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
Your overall thoughts as you head to Denver to kick off this year’s Western Swing?
“We’ve had a weekend off after a busy four-race stretch and we are headed in the right direction in the point standings. It was good to have a weekend off. It gives everyone a chance to recharge a little bit and get ready for this Western Swing. Every member of this U.S. Army Racing team, from the pit crew to the business staff, plays a vital role in the success of the car on the track. Similarly every Soldier, no matter which of the more than 150 career options he or she chooses in the U.S. Army, is vital to the success of the mission. We’ve had a chance to regroup a bit and now we head out West, where we’ve had a lot of success over the years. Denver is a place I can just be thankful for the absolute lack of bad memories I have there. It’s zero. There are no bad memories, from the Harley rides, to the fly fishing to the beautiful golf courses, and John Bandimere’s built us a beautiful racetrack, tucked into a mountain. You just can’t get enough of it and I really enjoy it. It’s a difficult race because you have to make horsepower in a set of circumstances that doesn’t really apply well to a Top Fuel Dragster. But, at the end of the day on Sunday, there’s a winner and you just have to be the guy who not necessarily sets a world record, but goes faster than everybody else. We’ve been fortunate enough to do that. We love going to Bandimere, we love going to Denver, and I just can’t wait to get there.”
What are the effects on the U.S. Army Dragster when it comes to racing at altitude in Denver as opposed to racing in a place like Gainesville, Fla.?
“When you’re at sea level, like Gainesville, there’s more air. You walk outside and you can just flat breathe. You don’t get tired as easily. It’s the same thing with the car. In Denver, you’re starving the engine for fuel, and you can’t add as much fuel. What it takes to go fast is, the more nitromethane you can stuff into the motor, the faster you can go. The more air you have, the more nitro you can put to it. The blowers we have, which are basically like an air compressor sitting on top of the engine, they can only work so hard. They can only spin so fast. We’re not spinning them slower because we’re in a place like Gainesville, we’re trying to make more power and go faster. What happens in Denver is, you get up high in the mountains and your car’s having a hard time breathing. You’re having a hard time breathing and so is your car, so your car’s just going to run slower. All the cars are equal as far as that goes. We’re all starving for air, and the air’s the same in both the right lane and the left lane. It takes a good crew chief and a good driver to figure it out. The right combination for the right moments.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You swept the Western Swing back in 2009. Where do you rate that as far as your accomplishments? How important is the Western Swing as you approach the Countdown to the title?
“When you go out on the Western Swing, it gets everybody in gear. Playtime is over. Everybody is really buckled down. They start finalizing what they’re going to run in the Countdown, whether it’s clutch disc or anything like that. Getting to the nitty-gritty. When you’re talking about the team and the driver, the crew chief wants to get in the groove and get that symmetry going. After the Western Swing, we have Brainerd, then we have the U.S. Nationals, then right after that we’re right into the Countdown. This Western Swing can build you some momentum and give you some confidence. When you go into those races, you’re ready to be in attack mode, for sure. The Western Swing is a big, big part of that.”
What might be the differences between the three tracks that make up the Western Swing? And what is it that made it possible for you to win all three in a row back in 2009?
“We came real close to doing that again last year. The thing about it is, all three tracks are different. There’s nothing alike about them. When you go to Denver, Denver is all by itself. It’s the only racetrack we race at a high altitude where it’s hard for our nitro cars to make power. You’re using 30 percent of your power at Denver. That makes it tough on the crew chiefs. You have less oxygen, so you can’t burn as much fuel. You have to cut the fuel back. You cut the fuel back, you have less power. It can get hot up there. When it gets hot up there, it makes it even worse. Then you go from a place where you can’t make power to Sonoma, where you’re at sea level, back to making killer power because you’re at sea level, and it also gets cool out there because you’re by the ocean. You have to make good power. You have nighttime qualifying at Sonoma, when you can get close to setting the ET record, run some mid- to low-70s (3.70 seconds) on Friday night. Then you leave Sonoma, where you have great conditions, and go up to Seattle, where you’re still close to sea level. But Seattle gets hot that time of year. It gets humid, muggy. You’re not halfway in-between them (Denver and Sonoma), but you come to a racetrack where you’re racing almost like at a, I would say, a Bristol, or something like that, where you get decent air, good air, but then it gets muggy. So you have three different environments. What makes it even more taxing is that our crew guys are driving from track to track, out there working. It’s like a marathon of races where you have to maintain, not to be worn out and try to stay upbeat, keep your mind right and focus while you’re being tired and trying to get the job done because it’s back-to-back-to-back. That’s what makes the Western Swing so grueling, all the climate changes. Then, the car for the crew chiefs to tune them, then for all your crew members, the drivers and the crew chiefs, what they go through mind and body getting accustomed to all the conditions, too. Then trying to put all that together and maintain focus and do your job on Sunday and get those round wins. It makes it taxing and grueling to win the Western Swing, almost impossible. Yet we were able to get it done back in ’09.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine