INDIANAPOLIS– It’s the signature event in drag racing. “It’s Indy” means so much to everyone who participates in the sport and to the millions of fans who love the incredible adrenaline that the nearly 10,000-horsepower, nitro-breathing machines provide, especially over the Labor Day weekend. It takes pressure to another level and, since his first visit to the famed Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis in 1996, U.S. Army Top Fuel driver Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher has experienced some of the most memorable moments of his illustrious career with the spotlight at its brightest in the world’s most prestigious drag race, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
This weekend, the event celebrates its 60th year and Schumacher and his U.S. Army and Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) teammate Antron Brown return with a primary mission of winning, but they will look to do so in the sport’s biggest weekend representing the colors that only the strongest wear, reflecting the strengths of the more than 1 million Army Strong soldiers they and their teams represent.
After testing at the facility last week, Schumacher is extremely confident that he and the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for DSR are poised to challenge for another U.S. Nationals victory. In 2012, “The Sarge” became the only Top Fuel driver to win the event nine times, breaking his tie with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in the Top Fuel division and evening him with Bob Glidden as the all-time winningest drivers in the event. With the event celebrating 60 years, Schumacher is determined to take advantage of his unique opportunity to become the only driver with 10 U.S. Nationals wins and doing so by 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.
Performance has never been an issue in the U.S. Nationals for the seven-time Top Fuel champion. After growing up in the Chicago area and reveling in stories he heard from the greats in the sport, Schumacher made his NHRA Top Fuel debut in the 1996 U.S. Nationals. It was a storybook beginning as he qualified for the event in the 16th position and raced to the final before losing to Cory McClenathan. Four years later, Schumacher, DSR and the U.S. Army began their incredible relationship at the 2000 U.S. Nationals by winning the event. Since carrying one of the most iconic brands in the world, it became apparent the combination of team, driver and all of its followers had a unique protocol for Indy. Schumacher and the U.S. Army team made eight consecutive finals starting in 2002, winning 2002 to 2004 and 2006 to 2009. Schumacher has been in the final 11 times in 18 U.S. Nationals appearances.
Brown has been a drag-racing historian since is childhood days watching races in Englishtown, New Jersey. His eyes light up when the discussion turns to the tradition of the U.S. Nationals. The 2012 Top Fuel champion now resides close to the historic venue and, since he’s called Indiana home for more than a decade, the magnitude of the event continues to grow. Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army dragster for DSR, is a three-time U.S. Nationals winner. His first two wins came while he was competing in Pro Stock Motorcycle, winning first in 2000 and then again in 2004. In 2011, he became a Top Fuel U.S. Nationals winner. Last season, Brown earned the No. 1 qualifier position in Sunday’s fifth and final qualifying session, but was ousted in the opening round by Morgan Lucas.
In addition to positioning themselves for Monday’s eliminations, the U.S. Army tandem of Schumacher and Brown will compete Saturday in the third annual Traxxas Nitro Shootout that will pay the winning team $100,000. The first round and semifinals of the Shootout will run concurrently with the third and fourth qualifying sessions.
This weekend’s U.S. Nationals is also the 18th and final event before the six-race Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship that begins in two weeks near Charlotte. Brown leads the class with five Top Fuel triumphs this season but trails two-time event titlist Doug Kalitta by 92 markers heading into the weekend. There is a slight possibility Brown could enter the Countdown as the leader and have a 30-point advantage when points for the top-10 drivers are reset. Schumacher is one of five drivers to earn multiple victories in 2014 and currently ranks fourth in the standings.
The 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will be showcased nationwide on ESPN2 and ESPN2HD during more than 10 hours of coverage. Qualifying sessions and the Traxxas Shootout for both Top Fuel and Funny Car will be part of Sunday’s telecast, and Monday’s coverage of the U.S. Nationals begins with elimination rounds at noon EDT.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
Entering the U.S. Nationals, your name is right there with some of the elite in drag racing. Is that something you think about, or is the focus solely on this year’s event?
“I certainly try not to think about it or look at the numbers but, when you are hearing about it from the media and so many other people, we know coming into this race that we have a chance to do something that no one’s ever done. I think it adds to the pressure and I like that. I enjoy the pressure. But to be named with guys who, as a kid who would think your name would be listed with those kinds of names, and to be in a position to have a chance to even beat some of those records, I really firmly believe I’ve had a very blessed life. To be with some great teams that were capable of being part of the situations and moments like, that, it’s just spectacular.”
This weekend, you have a chance to do something no other driver has done at Indy. What are your thoughts on chasing your 10th U.S. Nationals win?
“It’s fantastic. I thank God it’s on the line because I’m a better driver when the pressure is big. I always have been. The easy races, I tend to make mistakes – the ones that don’t matter. This one matters. This is Indy. And this is a chance. And you’re not going to have that many chances. I get to drive another 10 years, maybe. You’re not going to have that many chances to go out and win it. People fight their whole life to win Indy once. It’s going to be difficult to win. And knowing it’s going to be difficult to win is what makes us good. Me and my nine-man U.S. Army team led by (crew chief) Mike (Green) and (assistant crew chief) Neal (Strausbaugh) have to try that much harder. I don’t know where I’m going to find more because I feel like I give everything I’ve got every time, but this team always seems to come up with it when we need it. Always seems to find it, whether it’s the pressure, the rise of the heartbeat, the energy that comes with it, I don’t know what it is, but we get better in these big moments.”
How big would a win this weekend at Indy be in starting the run for the championship?
“Oh, it would be huge. And it’s always been a question, should it be included in the Countdown. Is it a great place to end the battle? To me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s such a massive race. You need this momentum. You need it. You need to go to the first race in the Countdown knowing you won the last one, you’ve got six to go. And I love golf, but you don’t get to drop a ball, you can’t kick the ball back on the fairway. You get beat, it’s over. It’s so quick and so nasty. No 500 laps. No other chance. And I think showing that you can win these four rounds, get that win at Indianapolis and go on with six races to go with absolutely no mistakes to be made, not one, you can’t even think about making a mistake to win the championship. You have to be a machine, the whole team has to be perfect and flawless and having that momentum coming out of Indy is absolutely … it’s possibly the most important thing you could see in the Countdown.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
What are some of your first thoughts when you are asked about the U.S. Nationals?
“It’s survival of the fittest. You know you can’t make a mistake because everyone is bringing their best. Everything is so crucial and nobody is guaranteed a spot at Indy; you have to qualify to race on Monday. There’s a lot of strategy involved and you just have to make a lot of good runs. You have to be like a surgeon and it definitely takes a lot of precision over the entire weekend. At Indy, everybody brings their ‘A’ game and brings all their best parts. That’s what Indy brings out and that’s what makes it special. What gets you excited is just the prestige of Indy. It’s how deep of a field it always is, the history behind it and just the excitement surrounding the event. We’re all geared up, hyped up and feeling good about what is going on. The Top Fuel class is at an all-time high and a lot of people are on point. It’s ridiculous how strong everyone is.”
The NHRA Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series season is a marathon to get to the Countdown. Winning any event takes a lot of effort but, if you were able to win this weekend, do you feel like it would boost your team’s chances into the Countdown?
“If you win, you know it’s something special and, if it’s Indy, it’s even bigger. It’s one of those deals where winning at Indy always sticks out. You know when it happened, how it happened, who you beat and what it took to get there. With the Traxxas Shootout and then the race, it’s just a big, historic weekend. You know, whoever wins is ‘the’ team. Looking at things this year, we know what we have to do to succeed and we will have a good game plan heading into it. We’re Countdown-minded right now and we want to run the best we can every time.”
- Krista K. Massey
Former Group Vice President, Director of Sponsorships and Event Marketing
SunTrust Banks, Inc.