NHRA Top Fuel stars off to a solid season start.
Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster team for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) are off to one of their best starts in years during what’s shaping up to be the most competitive NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season in recent memory.
Still, with the Top Fuel points lead in-hand behind an event title, a pair of runner-up finishes and the best average qualifying position over the season’s first six stops on the tour, Schumacher and his nine-man U.S. Army team are not content to leave well enough alone as they head to Atlanta Dragway for this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals.
Much like the Army in its role as the Nation’s most versatile force, adaptive in size, structure and skills to meet the ever-changing challenges of today’s security environment, Schumacher and his team have taken steps in their efforts to stay well ahead of the competition and successfully defending The Sarge’s record eighth career Top Fuel title by rolling out an all-new U.S. Army Dragster beginning with this weekend’s festivities on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Asked what is new and unique about his latest 10,000-horsepower racing machine, the winner of a record 78 career Top Fuel event titles offered a lighthearted response: “It has never lost a race at Atlanta.”
Otherwise, Schumacher simply shrugs off the fact that, among his record total of event titles, Atlanta is the only venue that hasn’t made the list during his illustrious career, even though he has reached the final round of eliminations there on four occasions and has been top qualifier once. Perhaps his brand new ride will finally make the difference this weekend.
Brown is a five-timer at Atlanta
On the other end of the spectrum, Schumacher’s fellow U.S. Army and DSR Top Fuel driver Antron Brown is a five-time winner at Atlanta – three times in Top Fuel and twice during his Pro Stock Motorcycle days.
Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster team for DSR also have logged a Top Fuel event title this season and are a close third in the standings, 37 points behind Schumacher and four behind second-place DSR teammate Spencer Massey, who’s also scored an event title this season. There have been six different Top Fuel winners in the first six events of 2015. Brown scored his victory at the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, Massey at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, and Schumacher at Phoenix.
As the series heads to Atlanta this weekend, Schumacher is banking on the promise of a brand new racing machine while Brown looks to continue the success he’s enjoyed over the years at one of his favorite places to race.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing: Like it or not, one of the storylines each time the series visits Atlanta is the fact it’s the only track on the tour where you have yet to score an event title. How does that sit with you heading into the weekend?
“That’s almost a dumb question. We’ve got a great car, a brand new car – probably the best car we’ve had for Atlanta. We’ve been in the finals there before and just haven’t won. In all reality, we’ve got a great racecar and a great race team. We’ll just go out and do our job. Maybe 30 or 40 years from now, we’ll look back and see that we’ve done great stuff across the board. The only people who are concerned with the meticulous details about what we’ve done and haven’t done are the media. When I’m strapped into the U.S. Army car this weekend and the light comes on, the only thing I’m going to be thinking about is hitting the gas and getting down the racetrack, just like I do during every run, each and every weekend. I don’t go up there and say, ‘Why don’t we win here?’ Like I don’t go to Indy and say how come we always win here. I’m not surprised, but I continue to be blown away by the fact that we’ve won 78 races. We just show up and do our job each and every time we pull up to the starting line, ready for whatever comes our way. For whatever it’s worth, we tested a brand new car last week. After winning the championship last year and getting off to the start we’ve gotten off to so far this we, we’re not settling. We’ve got a brand new car and we’re bringing it out for Atlanta. The guys love it, (crew chief) Mike Green loves it. If that doesn’t show you how determined this U.S. Army team is to win and to keep moving forward, nothing will. That’s just how we operate.”
Every race has had a different winner this season in Top Fuel. What continues to impress and amaze you about this class? And, being the defending champion again, do you feel there’s more of a bullseye on your back than other years?
“It’s a great class this year. It’s what we used to see in Pro Stock. It’s all tight, good racing. When the fans pay good money, they don’t want to see one car win every race. It’s a strong state of affairs to see where Top Fuel is right now. The cars are battling each and every different session. If I was paying money to see what’s been going on this year, that’s certainly what I would want to see going on. As for having a bullseye on our back, it’s not any different this year than any other year, as far as we’re concerned. I think cars always run better against us per run than they do against anybody else. A lot of people say they have the bullseye on their back, but we literally do. Check the stats. We’ve got a great-running car but, when people line up against us, they do better than they do against anybody else. It’s just a form of respect, I guess. I don’t care if people like me or not, they know they have to run well to beat us and we typically see everyone’s best shot. That’s been no different this year and it’s not changed one bit whether it’s we’re defending champs or not.”
Do you feel like you and the Army team are in a good spot at this point in the season? You’ve obviously had success this year. Are things coming together like you want them to?
“I think we are coming together better than we expected. Everybody expects good things to happen with the people and the team they have assembled are what this U.S. Army team is. But our car is stronger and quicker than in years past. The light at the end of the tunnel looks really good for us. The guys know that we have started out strong. The thing is that they know full well that finishing strong is what wins championships. The last thing you want to do is start strong and forget how to race. We’re just going to show up at the starting line each time and continue to look for moments of greatness, like we’ve always done.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing: You came to Atlanta a year ago on one of the hottest streaks of your career. This year, you’ve been relatively consistent with a solid race win under your belt among six different Top Fuel winners at the first six events. How do you feel about where you are at this point?
“I feel really good about where we are right now. Like with any race weekend, you go in with confidence when your car’s running good and the team is operating. One thing I really love about our team is that it doesn’t matter what we do before our first qualifying run, it matters how we end up in qualifying. It matters how much we grew with each run. We’ll have problems at every race, but we’ll grow from it. We get our car into a zone where it’s ready to race on Sunday. The main thing is we know what our team is always capable of. We know we have a really good chance of winning every race if we do our jobs right. What’s so good about our Matco Tools/U.S. Army team is that we’re capable of winning each and every weekend during a time when Top Fuel is probably as competitive as it’s ever been.”
Much has been said about your five career NHRA event titles at Atlanta – three in Top Fuel and two in Pro Stock Motorcycle – in light of the fact your fellow U.S. Army driver Tony Schumacher has never won there. What are your thoughts on that?
“I’m not sure what that means. For me, I love Atlanta because it’s one of the closest races to where I grew up (in Chesterfield, N.J.) and it reminds me of one of the old-school racetracks that I grew up around. When you go there, it’s the history and environment that brings me back to when I was a little kid. The stands are really close to the track and a lot of old-school drag racers show up. It makes me feel like where it all started for me.”
What is it about Atlanta that has made it one of your more successful racetracks?
“It’s always been a good race track for me. I distinctly remember winning there on the U.S. Army bike when I beat Andrew Hines in the final (2006). I remember getting my second Top Fuel Wally (with David Powers Motorsports) when I beat Tony on a holeshot (in 2008, a season when his future teammate and mentor at DSR won 15 of the 24 event titles). That was a huge deal because that was the era when no one was beating Tony.”