GAINESVILLE, Fla. (March 12, 2013) – Two events into the 24-event NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series calendar, Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster team for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) have been machine-like in the level of engineering and teamwork they’ve displayed at the racetrack that is reflective of the Army’s leading-edge technology and the powerful, realistic training of its Army Strong Soldiers.
Heading to this weekend’s 44th Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville, Fla., Schumacher and the U.S. Army team find themselves atop the Top Fuel standings by a hefty 79-point margin on the strength of their runner-up finish in the season-opening event at Pomona, Calif., and their wild, final-round victory one week later in Phoenix that marked the 70th career Top Fuel event title for Schumacher.
In fact, the seven-time Top Fuel champion and last year’s series runner-up behind DSR teammate Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster, has been the hottest driver in the Top Fuel ranks dating back to last year’s penultimate round at Las Vegas. In the last four events, Schumacher was fast qualifier twice, advanced to all four event finals, including the winning effort at Phoenix Feb. 24, and sports a 13-3 record in elimination rounds.
This weekend, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team hit town for an event in which they’ve exhibited similar success over the last six seasons, a reflection that only the strongest wear the colors of the U.S. Army Soldiers, who possess a mental, emotional and physical strength like no other. Schumacher has reached the event final five of the last six seasons at Auto-Plus Raceway, scored event titles in 2007, 2008 and 2010 to go with his first Gatornationals title in 2004, and was fast qualifier in 2011, as well as in 2006.
After a two-week layoff, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team look to continue the solid wave of momentum they maintained through the Pomona and Phoenix rounds last month. Brown and his Matco/U.S. Army team, meanwhile, welcomed the two-week break in the schedule to retool after the defending Top Fuel champion’s horrific crash in the quarterfinal round of eliminations at Pomona. Unhurt in the accident that destroyed his primary racecar, Brown came back strong at Phoenix to qualify second and advance to the semifinal round of eliminations, where he was edged by Schumacher by just .0182 of a second.
With a new back-up car at his disposal, Brown, who sits just one point behind second-place Shawn Langdon in the Top Fuel point standings, looks to regain his championship form and finally tame a track this weekend where he has yet to taste victory despite running well over the years. He was fast qualifier in 2010 and advanced to the final round before taking the runner-up spot behind his teammate Schumacher. In his Pro Stock Motorcycle days, Brown was fast qualifier in 2001 and event runner-up in 2006 before advancing to the Top Fuel ranks.
You and the U.S. Army team have been on quite a roll since the penultimate round of 2012 at Las Vegas. How do you explain the success you’ve been enjoying during this stretch as we head to Gainesville?
“I think, last season, the U.S. Army Dragster was a great car at the end of the year. Like the Army is the strength of our Nation, and the Soldiers are the strength of our Army, this Army-NHRA partnership continues to provide Americans a platform to experience the power, speed, teamwork and technology that drives that strength. We had a world-champ car, got beat on a hole shot with a 40 (0.037 of a second) reaction time, a guy pulls one of those miracles, you get beat. It happens. It’s no different than me pulling a miracle in my Army car pulling one against Doug Kalitta. As gracious as you are when you win them, you have to be classy enough to accept them when you lose them. It’s one of those things. Our car was phenomenal, but it’s better now. It’s better this year. Even though we can see the four finals, they’re separate. Last year, we had a different car. (Crew chief) Mike Green and (assistant crew chief) Neal (Strausbaugh), all the guys that work on the Army car, had an extremely dedicated winter. They came up with some new stuff. It’s a great, new tune-up. At the end of the year, you run out of stuff. You run out of clutch discs. You run out of parts that you make last till the end. We went out and tested. I think what we enjoy about this year, what we’re seeing, is that when we make changes to a car, the car’s result reflects it. A lot of teams go out there and they go fantastic but they don’t know why they did it. ‘I told it to do this.’ That’s not what we’re seeing. We’re seeing educated decisions that are making the results reflect them. It’s fantastic. That’s exciting. That means when it gets hot out, we’re going to be able to make a change in the car, we’ll show that we can make it down the track quicker than anyone else. I’m excited, man. We’ve got a great car, a great team. I’m looking forward to 22 more fantastic races starting at Gainesville, one of my favorite places, ever, to race.”
Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville is another track where you’ve enjoyed success over the years with four event titles. What is it about that place?
“It’s massive. It’s early in the year. You tend to forget how big our sport is until you get to Gainesville. Pomona is a little light, Phoenix a smaller market. Gainesville is such a big event. As the driver, we wait for an hour to get into the track on Sunday morning, that’s how long the lines are. It’s one of those things, man. It has the greatest list of people that have won that race. Maybe second to Indy, so many people show up there to try to win it and it makes it difficult. What really stands out the most, the four wins are great, but the last two years I’ve gotten beat by incredible racers. Morgan Lucas last year runs the race of his career against me. That is what the Army team makes people do. Del Worsham (won) the year before by four-thousandths of a second or we would have had six wins there. We’ve had good success. Any driver will tell you going to a racetrack where you’ve been successful is the greatest. It’s a gift because you look forward to going there. It’s one of the ones where you have an advantage. You’ve proven you can win there. I’m really, really looking forward to getting there.”
Having won seven championships, and currently sitting on a huge lead in the Top Fuel point standings, what would you believe are the traits that make for a championship-winning organization?
“I think the champions I’ve known and have been blessed with being surrounded by are very good leaders. They’re very good at understanding this is a team sport. Getting through adversity with some calm is important. This is an easy sport to be happy when you’re winning and angry when you’re losing, but you can’t be. Nobody can possibly tell me that my nine guys aren’t working 150 percent every day just because the car doesn’t run one day. Getting through those big moments is how a team wins a championship, because those guys that you stick with through the adversity work so much better together knowing you’re part of the team, not just some guy out there driving, taking all the credit. I think it’s something that’s so critical and important to a championship team.”
What should the fans expect to see at Gainesville this weekend?
“I think they’re going to see some good racing. In the last, I’d say, two years, you’ve seen the best racing in Top Fuel history. The races have gone from my one Army car and Alan Johnson dominating 15 races of 22 or 23 we had that year, to winning championships by winning a handful. It’s because there are so many good teams. There are so many good cars. There are so many good drivers doing just a great job. If I was a fan and paid money, this is the year you want to do it. I know it’s difficult times, but we’re still seeing good crowds. I think it’s because we’ve really given them the show that they expect. Everyone is out there with phenomenal cars. We remember as we do our job, this is an entertainment sport. We are entertainers. When there’s just one car out there doing it all, dominating, it kind of turns people off. When you show up at a race, there can be 10 different winners, it’s pretty exciting.
After quite an eventful first two weekends of the season, yours was probably the happiest team in the Top Fuel ranks to have a few weeks off. Are you ready to resume the defense of your 2012 championship this weekend in Gainesville?
“Absolutely. We just needed a chance to regroup and get a chance to put a back-up car together. We’ll be back at full strength when we get there. I’m feeling really good, right now. I’m really looking forward to getting to Gainesville. It’s always been a good racetrack for us, and we’ve qualified well there but we never got it done there, yet. I’m always excited to go back because that’s one track where I haven’t won a Wally. It’s always been a good racetrack to go to. It’s just been one of those racetracks we haven’t been able to conquer, yet.”
Just days after your accident at Pomona last month, you were speaking to a group of high school kids as part of the U.S. Army-sponsored Ten80 Student Racing Challenge program, and you described how the Army’s STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) concepts helped save your life. What did you tell them?
“Well, while all the parts and pieces to the front and rear of the car flew off during the accident, the only thing that stayed on our car was our enclosed canopy and our compartment where the driver sits. My car blew up at over 300 mph and took my rear tires out. I hit a guardrail and took out a big piece of the concrete barrier. It went down the track end over end over end and slid all the way into the sand trap, engulfed in flames. Through all the science, technology, engineering and the mathematical equations used to develop this car on the computer and make it into a reality on our racecar, I was able to get out of the car and walk away from it after taking G-forces to my body that were off the charts. Through this seat that we have, through all the innovations we have, I was able to get out of the car and come back the following week to race again. All of these things we do, week in and week out, we are able to make a racecar that is able to sustain those kinds of impacts with a human being inside and I’m able to come out of it. Our race capsule could probably take an egg, experience an accident like that, and come out without cracking the shell. The human is that shell. We work at the race shop doing model testing to make these things into a reality, and that was just a remarkable deal at Pomona because everything we did, all the testing we’d done, it all worked. That’s everything to do with science, technology, engineering and math.”
U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster