MADISON, Illinois – If Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher had his way, this weekend’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois would have taken place this past Monday at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, and Tuesday at the Texas Motorplex would have been the preferred time and locale for next week’s NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pennsylvania.
When things are going well – about as well as can possibly be imagined – that last thing the seven-time NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world champion wants to do is to stand down. He’d much rather be on the racetrack continuing to display the level of engineering and teamwork that is reflective of the Army’s leading-edge technology and the powerful, realistic training of its Soldiers.
Schumacher and the nine-man U.S. Army Dragster team for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) had the weekend of a lifetime last Saturday and Sunday in Texas. That’s saying a lot for the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history who has seven championships already under his belt – some having been achieved in real-life storybook fashion.
But back-to-back event titles to kick off the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship in less than 24 hours, like he and his U.S. Army team earned last weekend on the outskirts of Dallas, certainly is worthy of joining Schumacher’s already jam-packed list of top career accomplishments.
First things first, Saturday, Schumacher finished what he started at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte the previous weekend by sweeping his way to the rain-delayed Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals title deep in the heart of Texas. Then, Sunday, he stretched his streak to eight consecutive elimination-round wins by winning the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals.
His record career event titles 75 and 76 vaulted Schumacher from fourth place in the initial Countdown standings, as venerable NHRA public address announcer Alan Reinhart likes to say, “right … to … the … top” with a 106-point lead over second-place Steve Torrence.
Round three of the six-event Countdown takes Schumacher and his U.S. Army and DSR teammate Antron Brown just across the Mississippi River from the Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis to a racetrack where they have won five of the last eight event titles between them. Schumacher’s victories came in 2006 and 2010 and, last year, he had a solid weekend there, earning the No. 2 qualifying position and advancing to a semifinal meeting with Brown, who beat him and went on to win the event for the second year in a row.
Brown’s first Gateway title came in 2009, and the 2012 Top Fuel world champion and driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR would like nothing more than to make it three in a row there. He’s not yet in must-win mode, but consecutive first-round losses to start the Countdown have dropped him from second to eighth in the standings, 153 points behind Schumacher.
Fortunately, Gateway is where Brown solidified his position atop the 2012 standings en route to the championship that year, although Schumacher and the U.S. Army team gave him a serious run for his money right down to the season’s final run at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California. And Gateway is where he arrived last year in a situation similar to this year’s – eighth in the standings, 150 points out of first. But Brown used his second consecutive Gateway title last year to power his way to a solid second in the final standings.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
After one of the more incredible weekends in Top Fuel history, with two event titles on consecutive days last weekend in Dallas, what’s on your mind as you head to St. Louis this weekend?
“It was an unbelievable thing to happen, what this U.S. Army team was able to accomplish last weekend. It’s a testament to fact that 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. We won two races in less than 24 hours. We won at 5 o’clock Saturday and at 3:30 or 4 o’clock on Sunday. To accomplish so much, to be able to suck it up so many times is really something. It’s important to understand racing. People often go, ‘You’re just going straight,’ and that’s nonsense. For instance, to be able to calm down and stage these cars calm and cool at a time when everything is completely uncalm and uncool, to be able to contain it during mass hysteria, that’s how you win championships. It’s important to understand how to win. It’s been a great job by (crew chief) Mike (Green) and (assistant crew chief) Neal (Strausbaugh) and all the guys. We’ve got a 100-point lead going into another pair of races, that’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back races. It’s brutal pressure, but going in with this much momentum will place the pressure on other people. Some of them will be able to handle it, some of them won’t.”
Did you ever imagine you would leave Dallas with a 100-point lead after starting the Countdown fourth in the standings?
“Absolutely not. Too many good cars. There are too many good cars. We’ve got one of them. Everyone knows we’re coming around at the right place at the right time. Last year, we weren’t in it. We just got the six-disc clutch and we were fighting adversity and people were bashing us and saying, ‘Hey, man, we understand you can go out and win races with a five-disc clutch.’ But we knew we would be able to win them for long. The cars are making too much power and we had to make that switch. We fought through the adversity, and we did it calmly and coolly. We didn’t fire people. We maintained. We learned so many great lessons from the great people we are surrounded by. And that includes our Soldiers and the discipline they have and the calmness they have, it’s just a gift to be around people like that. They calm me down, they keep me where I need to be – humble – and I appreciate the position we’re put in. God’s been great to me.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You head to Gateway this weekend looking to gain some valuable momentum after a couple of first-round losses at the first two events of the Countdown. Your thoughts?
“We’d been fighting problems (with the car) and, when we got one problem fixed, then something else comes up and bites us. Well, going out in the first round certainly isn’t something we wanted at Charlotte and Dallas. We had a good handle on it at Dallas last weekend and we ended up smoking a (clutch) disc out of the car and then it dropped a (cylinder). We worked real hard. The thing about it is, it just wasn’t our time. It takes a little bit of wind out of you.”
Are you confident you and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team can turn things around beginning this weekend across the river from St. Louis, much like you did last year?
“I love this track and it’s close to home. It’s time for us to get back to doing what we do and that’s racing a lot of rounds on Sundays. It’s getting late in the Countdown but it’s not too late for us. It just needs to start happening at St. Louis. St. Louis has always been a great race for us. We love going there and seeing the improvements that Curtis Francois and his staff have done to make Gateway an even better facility. We’re amped up to go there. We ran well there last year the last two years and, hopefully, we can start the win light up and end the year like we started. We’re going to St. Louis in attack mode to win as many rounds as we can and launch us toward another title run. We know we’re 153 points out of the lead, but there’s a lot of racing left.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine