LAS VEGAS– The “Entertainment Capital of the World” is about to get downright entertaining this weekend when the U.S. Army driver duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown head to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s next-to-last event on the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour.
Both Schumacher and Brown and their respective Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) teams have shown all season long that only the strongest wear the colors of the U.S. Army, and the Army-NHRA partnership provides Americans a platform to experience the speed, power, teamwork and technology that drives that strength.
After leaving Las Vegas last March with his record eighth career Top Fuel event title at The Strip behind the wheel of his U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, Schumacher hopes to leave this weekend with much, much more – his record eighth career Top Fuel world championship and first since 2009.
Brown, meanwhile, has been gunning for his second Top Fuel world title in three years but will need a lot of things to go his way over the final two event weekends of the season if he is to succeed, beginning with the 14th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip.
Schumacher holds a commanding 134-point lead over Doug Kalitta atop the Top Fuel standings after winning three of the first four of six NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoff events. If he can leave Las Vegas with a lead of 151 points or more, Schumacher will head to the season finale at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California with his eighth career Top Fuel championship locked up. Schumacher can eliminate his nearest competitors Kalitta, third-place Steve Torrence and fourth-place Shawn Langdon, the defending Top Fuel champion, by outscoring them this weekend by 17, eight and three points, respectively.
The Strip would be a most fitting venue to hoist the championship trophy for Schumacher. He stormed to his first of five event titles this season there March 30, beating his teammate Brown in the Top Fuel semifinals and Kalitta in the final. In addition to his eight career event titles at arguably his most successful racetrack, Schumacher has three runner-up finishes and nine top-qualifying efforts dating back to 2002.
Schumacher’s most recent of his record 77 career event titles came from the top-qualifying position Oct. 5 at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was two weeks removed from his remarkable double-Wally weekend in Dallas, where he won the rain-delayed Countdown opener from Charlotte Saturday, then the Dallas event itself Sunday. His victory at Reading three weekends ago was notable in that it ended a 26-event streak during which the Top Fuel top qualifier failed to score the event title.
Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team for DSR, meanwhile, started the season looking like the team to beat after hoisting the Wally trophy at five of the first 13 events. The team now finds itself fifth in the standings, however, 170 points behind Schumacher, after suffering first-round exits at three of the four Countdown events to offset a dominating victory in the third Countdown event at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis.
Considering a perfect Top Fuel weekend can net 150 points, and that includes the maximum three bonus points for clocking the fastest times in each of the four qualifying sessions, as well as 20 bonus points for setting a national elapsed time record during the weekend, Brown and his team know they have their work cut out for them at Las Vegas and Pomona. But motivation enough will be the quest to finish the season, at the very least, with an impressive eight event titles, which would be a career best.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
Looking back at the success you’ve had in the Countdown, what factors have attributed to this run?
“The mental, emotional and physical strength like no other displayed by our U.S. Army Soldiers is inspiring and plays a huge part in our drive to be successful. That’s where it starts, for sure. We’ve been on both sides of it. We’ve had years where we didn’t perform perfectly in the Countdown, or as well as other teams, and we’ve had years where we’ve been absolutely lights-out. What attributes to our success when we have it is timing. All the cars out there run really well a lot of the time. One factor is having the right reaction time with the right car at the right time, and that wins championships. I’ve had great reaction times where the other guys smoked the tires. I’ve also had OK lights when the other guy had a spectacular light. The bottom line is, when you need it, can you get it? This year, the answer has been yes. We’ve done it by winning some very difficult races. If we can hold on for two more race weekends and win this thing, it’ll be incredibly gratifying.”
Are you concerned about keeping up the momentum after being off the past three weekends?
“That’s a great question. When you have momentum like we’ve had, you don’t want to take a long break. But the teams who were maybe off a little bit the first few races probably welcomed the break so they could regroup a bit. What we have in our favor is that we were great at Vegas and we were great at Pomona at the start of the season. So, the last thing we’ll be doing this weekend, in my opinion, is being defensive. We need to be going fast from the get-go. We’ve all seen it in the past where people try to get conservative and they end up shaking the tires and that’s the end of it. Our goal is to win these last two events and leave absolutely nothing on the table. Just do what we do and be a machine.”
The ultimate goal this weekend is obviously to clinch the championship. Where does your mindset and the mindset of the team have to be heading into this weekend?
“The way we look at it, there are eight (elimination) races to go. All we can do, without knowing what else is going to happen, is to go out and win those races. That’s all we can count on. We don’t know what the other guys are going to do. They’re a ways behind us in the points, but not so far back that it’s unattainable. I’ve been that car that needed eight rounds and did it, so I’m at least one guy who knows for sure that it can be done. So, I’m not taking it likely. We’ve won Vegas eight times, and we’ve won it when we’ve had to, so we know what it’s like to get through the pressure. But I guarantee, if you ask all the others if they’d prefer to be in my shoes, every one of them would say they would. What would not be fun is to not perform at the end of the year and not win the championship with three months to think about it. We want to show up, go out and absolutely show what a great team, what a championship organization this U.S. Army team truly is. And then we can go away for three months and come back and do it all over again next year.”
How satisfying has this success been this year, especially considering how impressive the talent is in the Top Fuel class?
“It’s been probably as gratifying a season as any I’ve had to date. We worked so hard to get through the adversity of this six-disc clutch program, and so many people criticized us for taking the stand. I was getting fed up with people not knowing and appreciating the awesomeness of Mike Green (crew chief) and Neal Strausbaugh (assistant crew chief) and this U.S. Army team. So, to be in this position, I couldn’t be more proud. And I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of guys in the world.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
With 170 points separating you from your teammate in the U.S. Army Dragster and just two events to go, how are you going to deal with the uphill battle ahead of you?
“It’s the U.S. Army team and Tony Schumacher’s championship to lose. They are in a really good spot and all the other teams wish they could be in their spot. They have a good shot at winning it. We can’t worry about where the U.S. Army or any other team is. We have to go out do what we do and that’s race to the best of our ability. We’re going out there and plan to tackle it like every other race we go to. We’ll get after it. We’ll go out and run as hard as we can and then let everything else fall where it falls. (Finishing the season with eight event titles) would be huge and that’s what we’re shooting for. We want to win Las Vegas and Pomona. That would be a good way to end the year."
Your Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster will carry the pink “Tools for the Cause” paint scheme this weekend, like it did at the last event in Reading, and your firesuit and helmet will carry the phrase, “I Drive for Linda.” How special is that for you?
“October is a very important month to our series because it’s right in the middle of our Countdown playoff, but October means even more to our Matco Tools/U.S. Army team here at DSR. My wife’s mother (Linda Matranga) is a breast cancer survivor and this disease has affected our family, as it has many others. As part of Matco’s ‘I Drive for …’ campaign, I’ll be carrying my mother-in-law’s name on my firesuit and helmet.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine