INDIANAPOLIS – Being prepared to succeed when the pressure to perform is at an all-time high, it’s a learned trait. Since the U.S. Army partnered with Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) 15 seasons ago and later adding Antron Brown to the program, the combination has been lethal when the stakes are at their highest in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. The six-race Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship continue this weekend for both drivers at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania with the fourth of six events of the 2014 playoffs – the 30th annual NHRA Nationals.
With each week, the pressure continues to mount and, through the first three Countdown events, the U.S. Army is three-for-three with Schumacher winning the Charlotte and Dallas rounds and Brown winning St. Louis to position themselves in the thick of the championship 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.
Schumacher, the seven-time Top Fuel world champion and driver of the U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, leads the championship standings by 57 points over reigning champion Shawn Langdon while 2012 Top Fuel champion Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, is in fourth place, 80 points back of Schumacher after winning Sunday at Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis for the third consecutive season.
By sweeping the weekend in Dallas two weeks ago where he claimed both the Dallas and rain-delayed Charlotte victories, Schumacher jumped out to solid lead in his quest for an eighth Top Fuel title. Schumacher and his U.S. Army team have reached the semifinal round in six of the last seven events and, despite a first round loss last week in St. Louis, they remain on target to complete their ultimate mission of winning the championship. The team is excited to put St. Louis behind and return to Maple Grove, where Schumacher won three consecutive events from 2003 through 2005 and another in 2008, has been the top qualifier on six occasions, and established a career-best elapsed time of 3.736 second in 2012.
The annual stop at the tradition-rich Maple Grove is always a favorite for Brown, who holds the track record after making the quickest run in NHRA history of 3.701 seconds and his personal best speed of 328.78 mph, both in 2012. The New Jersey native will once again head into the event as the series’ most recent winner after collecting his series-best sixth victory of the season. In each of the previous two years, Brown has advanced to the Reading final before losing to Khalid alBalooshi in 2012 and Shawn Langdon last year. His record-setting run in 2012, which earned him 20 bonus points, was key in winning his first Top Fuel championship that year.
Points will be at premium beginning this weekend and continuing in Las Vegas and Pomona, California. Eighty-seven points separate the top-five in the championship standings and, if recent history is any kind of indicator, the 2014 champion won’t be decided until the season’s final round.
The NHRA Nationals will be showcased nationwide on ESPN2 and ESPN2HD with tape-delayed coverage. Qualifying sessions will be recapped with a 90-minute show broadcast at 3:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. A three-hour broadcast featuring Sunday’s elimination rounds begins at 8 p.m. EDT.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
With two wins in two days in Ennis, your Countdown couldn’t have started any better. Losing early in St. Louis likely has you and the U.S. Army ready for redemption. How much different is it to be the driver leading the championship standings with three to go versus trying to come from behind?
“Fortunately, we’ve been in just about every position with three races to go through the years. The last few we’ve been behind and I can say I like being ahead better. The approach won’t change though. We’re trying to win a championship and you do that by going rounds. We won eight consecutive rounds to start the Countdown and then got beat early last week. That can’t happen again. I know (crew chief) Mike (Green) and (assistant crew chief) Neal (Strausbaugh) and the entire Army team is ready to come back out in Reading and continue our mission. Only the strongest wear the U.S. Army colors and I put my nine-man team up against any. They’ve been through the pressure of having to perform when the stakes are the highest. We are all inspired by the mental, emotional and physical strength displayed by our U.S. Army Soldiers. The goal this week is to build on our lead by continuing to run well in qualifying and going rounds Sunday.”
You’ve said all season that winning the championship was the ultimate goal. Is this the position you expected to be in with three races remaining?
“We wanted to be running our best at the end of the season when the championship was going to be decided. There were some rough spots along the way, but this team stayed the course and it’s paying off now. We have a lot of work still to do, but we’ve prepared for this moment. It’s just about going out there and trying to execute the plan. We have the opportunity we were hoping for. I know it’s been a few years since we’ve won in Reading (2008) and if we can make a deep run Sunday that would certainly big a bonus with Las Vegas and Pomona left.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
After a pair of early exits to start the Countdown, how important was it for you and your team to bounce back and win in St. Louis for the third consecutive year?
“It was really big. That was really our only hope of contending for the championship. I couldn’t be prouder of (co-crew chief) Brian (Corradi), (co-crew chief) Mark (Oswald) and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army boys. We had some struggles, but we just kept pressing and we got if figured out. We got ourselves back in position with three races left and we just got to keep pushing and doing what we’ve been doing because it’s still anybody’s championship out there.”
Two years ago at Maple Grove, you established a world record. Is it still hard to believe that you ran a 3.701?
“It was just the perfect storm to make those kind of numbers. The weekend was kind of odd with it being warmer Friday night, but Saturday it was overcast and cool. We went out in those second two qualifying sessions and the runs just kept getting faster. By Sunday, there was a threat of rain and it was actually cold. I know at one point they weren’t sure they could get the track warm enough for us to run, but once they did we won a couple of rounds with some low 3.70s before it rained us out. Coming back Monday morning, like I said, the conditions were just perfect and we made that run of 3.701. It was incredible. I just wish we could have come back and won the race, but going that fast, no way I thought we’d be able to do that.”
- Krista K. Massey
Former Group Vice President, Director of Sponsorships and Event Marketing
SunTrust Banks, Inc.