INDIANAPOLIS – In a sport where wins and losses are determined by thousandths of seconds, the pressure to be absolutely perfect just to have the opportunity to win can be overwhelming. The teams that can rise to the occasion and perform when the stakes are the highest traditionally are the ones hoisting the championship hardware at season’s end. U.S. Army drivers Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown and their teams have accomplished the ultimate mission of winning a championship in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel division 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.
The goal since February for Schumacher and Brown was to have a competitive run through the first 18 events of the season and qualify for the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, which begins with this weekend’s seventh annual Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.
Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), enters Charlotte with a string of four consecutive semifinal appearances. The seven-time world champion lost by .001 of a second to eventual U.S. Nationals winner Richie Crampton two weeks ago in Indianapolis, just two days after “The Sarge” defeated Crampton in the $100,000 Traxxas Nitro Shootout final. Crew chief Mike Green and assistant crew chief Neal Strausbaugh have put an incredibly fast U.S. Army Dragster under Schumacher this season and his recent run of three No. 1 qualifiers in the last five events are proof. The team ranks fourth in the standings after the points were reset for the Countdown and is just 50 points out of first.
Success at Charlotte for Schumacher dates back to the track’s first-ever national event in the fall of 2008. Schumacher conquered the state-of-the-art facility to not only win his seventh event title in a row that season by defeating Brown in the final, but the win also allowed him to become the all-time winningest driver in Top Fuel with 53 event titles. He returns to zMAX this weekend seeking his 75th event title and is hoping to start his Countdown similar to the way he did in 2012, when reached the final and left Charlotte with the lead in the championship standings.
Brown returns to North Carolina as the most recent Top Fuel winner at zMAX. The 2012 Top Fuel champion won the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in April, which was one of his series-leading five event wins in 2014. The pilot of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR is looking to duplicate his spring performance and leave Charlotte with momentum. That’s something he hasn’t been able to do the previous two years in the fall after bowing out in the first round in 2012 and not qualifying for the event last year. Despite the Charlotte struggles to begin the Countdown, Brown went on to win the championship over Schumacher by seven points in 2012, and he finished second in the final standings last season. Brown enters the Countdown second behind Doug Kalitta, trailing by 30 points.
The Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals will be showcased nationwide on ESPN2 and ESPN2HD with tape-delayed coverage. Qualifying sessions will be recapped with a 60-minute show Friday evening and a 90-minute broadcast early Sunday morning. A three-hour broadcast featuring Sunday’s elimination rounds begins at 8:30 p.m. EDT.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You talked prior to the U.S. Nationals about where the U.S. Army team was heading into the final seven events of the season. Despite not winning Indy, do you still feel you’re positioned to make a run for the championship?
“Absolutely. We’ve been building and building to get ourselves to this point. We were all frustrated to not win Indy. We had a perfect weekend going, and just got beat by the smallest of margins. That’s motivation. These guys who work on this team are like the more than 1 million U.S. Army Soldiers we represent with mental, emotional and physical strength like no other. Mike and Neal have continued to stay the course with developing new technology and that’s paying off. We’ve always talked about building for the big picture, positioning ourselves to win championships, be our best when it matters most. And that’s right now. We have six races to go to win a championship. I said this in Indy and I truly believe it: This team is ready to go win a championship and we can’t wait to get on the track in Charlotte.”
With only six races to determine a champion, how crucial is having success this weekend?
“The first 18 races you had the chance to leave something on the table and still get into the Countdown. Once you are in it and you start, you can’t leave anything on the table. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to be in some incredible moments with this U.S. Army team. Most of the time, we’ve come out on top in those moments. Our goal is to capitalize on every opportunity we have. It’s really important for us to be fighting for a win this weekend, make a statement right from the start that we want this championship and we’re going to do everything we can to go win it.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
What are some of the most important things you learned about the Countdown during the last couple of seasons?
“First off, I’ve learned that we need to get off to a better start in Charlotte. We haven’t had the best of luck there, and it put us behind two years ago, which we were fortunately able to recover from. Last year, we just kind of bit ourselves by first being too aggressive for the track and then being too aggressive in how we backed off and ended up missing the race and essentially ending our shot at defending the title. We all know that it is really crucial for us to have a competitive weekend. (Co-crew chiefs) Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswold) and all the guys have been focused on getting us down the track. Winning the Four-Wide was a big deal for us earlier in the year and we’d love to sweep Charlotte this year.”
Coming off a first-round exit in Indy, you and team went right back to work. Do you feel like you’re where you need to be heading into Friday’s first qualifying session?
“None of us were happy about how things went at Indy, so we went right back to work. We found out what was plaguing us. The problem hasn’t been our ability to make power. It was that we weren’t able to keep all of our holes (engine cylinders) lit. The guys were determined to figure it out and they all worked really hard. We made one run Wednesday night and three on Thursday after the U.S. Nationals just to make sure we found the culprit. We’re going to Charlotte with a really good feeling now, and we’re definitely going to be back to where we need to be. We’re ready to get after it.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine