KENT, Washington – The calendar flips forward only to the first three days of August this weekend, but the U.S. Army Top Fuel duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown and their respective Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) nine-man teams are already focused on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ ultimate prize – the 2014 Top Fuel world championship trophy.
Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, and Brown, the 2012 world titlist, head to Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington hoping to close out this year’s three-event Western Swing in style by mowing through qualifying and Sunday’s elimination rounds of the 27th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals.
With exceptional qualifying efforts of first and third at the opening two stops of the Western Swing the past two weekends at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado and Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, Schumacher and his U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for DSR have been arguably the class of the field on Fridays and Saturdays.
And, last weekend at Sonoma, Schumacher rebounded from a frustrating first-round loss in Sunday eliminations in Colorado by advancing to a semifinal-round meeting against Shawn Langdon. It was the 999th round of Schumacher’s illustrious career but, unfortunately, was over before it even started as a part malfunction bogged down the U.S. Army Dragster at the starting line.
Disappointing to say the least for the U.S. Army team, which knows only the strongest wear its colors, and that the Army NHRA partnership provides Americans a platform to experience the speed, power, teamwork and technology that drives that strength, but it’s certainly not discouraging. The team’s recent surge in Friday-Saturday qualifying rounds has Schumacher feeling confident everything is headed in the right direction with just three events remaining before the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship begins at zMAX Raceway in Concord, North Carolina in mid-September.
Now, it’s just a matter of putting it all together by way of a complete weekend effort, and what better place to start than at Pacific Raceways, where “The Sarge” is a four-time event titlist having earned the coveted “Wally” first in 2004, then three consecutive years from 2006 to 2008. He also was runner-up in 2005, 2009 and 2011, and was fast qualifier in 2004 and 2008. Schumacher enters the weekend fourth in the Top Fuel standings, 312 points behind leader Doug Kalitta but a still-reachable 154 points behind third-place Langdon.
Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, meanwhile, are second in the standings, 46 points behind Kalitta after dropping their first-round matchup against DSR teammate Spencer Massey at Sonoma last weekend. The series-high five-time event winner this season also has tasted success at Pacific Raceways, capping a three-event sweep of the 2009 Western Swing there, and adding a runner-up finish in 2010 and a top qualifying effort in 2011.
While the Countdown remains Brown and his team’s ultimate focus, they also would like nothing more than to overtake Kalitta for the top spot in the standings before the Countdown commences and reap the all-important 30-point lead, which includes 20 bonus points for the first-place finisher in the regular season, once the points are reset for the 10 Countdown competitors.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You’re closing out the Western Swing this weekend after two very strong showings during Friday-Saturday qualifying at Denver and Sonoma. Are you extra motivated to put in a complete weekend at Seattle this weekend?
“We’re motivated, first and foremost, by the opportunity and the privilege of representing the U.S. Army, and we work every day to emulate the teamwork and the strength our Army Soldiers exhibit every day. Every member of the U.S. Army Racing team, from 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. Now, we head to Seattle this weekend after a bit of a hiccup in the semifinals at Sonoma last weekend, but rest assured the U.S. Army team has dealt with the situation and we are ready to roll this weekend. I’ve won Seattle a lot of times and we’ve got a great U.S. Army racecar. We qualified number one and number three the first two weekends of The Swing. We’re getting down the racetrack all the time, for the most part. We’re doing fine. We’re heading in the right direction. I think it’s important right now to get turned around before the end of the regular season. The leaders aren’t running great right now. They’re running OK, but they’re not running great. I’ve always said it’s cyclical. You’ve got to come in at the right time and do well and, right now, we’re doing it exactly how you’re supposed to do it."
Your semifinal run – or attempted run – at Sonoma Sunday was the 999th of your illustrious career? Are you disappointed at all that it turned out the way it did?
“If we don’t have the mechanical issue we had and I end up beating Shawn Langdon – who smoked his tires – it would have been cool to be in a final for my 1,000th round. But all you can do is stage your car and do your best. That’s a fact. I feel like I did a good job driving last weekend. The car did a great job all weekend long. Mike (Green, crew chief) and Neal (Strausbaugh, assistant crew chief) have been at the top of their game, as the entire U.S. Army team has been during this middle part of the season. Malfunctions will bite you. Every time we seem to get a break, where we’ve ended up on the right side of the ladder and we’re really doing well in qualifying, something comes up. We’ve got to change the luck. You can have issues, sometimes, but you’ve got to do when the other guy does it, too. At Sonoma, Langdon went down there and smoked the tires and I could see him, but what happened to us happened before the tree. I don’t think our car moved. It did it so fast, it was hard to grab it.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You were creeping closer to the points lead before a little setback at Sonoma last weekend – getting eliminated by your DSR teammate Spencer Massey in the first round. Safe to say you’re itching to get back out there at Seattle this weekend?
“Yeah, we had an opportunity there but the competition is so tough out there that those days will happen. I’m just glad Doug (Kalitta, points leader) only lasted one round more than we did. Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald, co-crew chiefs) and our Matco/U.S. Army boys are running every race to win because, if you try to play it safe, it will bite you. We’re in great shape right now. Our racecar is really good, but we hit some really tricky conditions like everyone else the last two weekends. If it’s not too hot at Seattle, like it’s supposed to be, we’ll be ready to fly. We want to be No. 1 when the Countdown starts and that 30-point lead would sure be nice.”
With competitive as the series is right now, does that mean sweeping the Western Swing, like you did in 2009, is a thing of the past?
“No one is going have to worry about sweeping the Western Swing this year. It was a lot of fun when we got out the broom for the sweep in 2009 but, right now, our Matco Tools/U.S. Army team is focused on being ready for the Countdown. It didn’t go completely our way the first two weekends of The Swing this year, so we just licked our wounds and headed to Seattle. We didn’t have too much damage in the points last weekend. We’re still 46 out of the lead with three races left before the Countdown. Our main mission is still to go after that number-one spot for the Countdown. That’s what we are pressing hard for. We’re looking forward to getting out to Seattle and Pacific Raceways, which is beautiful this time of year, and we’re ready to put forth a good showing. We’re ready to go out there like Iron Man on everybody.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine