JOLIET, Ill. - Just when everyone thought that Tony Schumacher was downright lucky in winning his 1999 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series Top Fuel championship, the personable driver from Park Ridge, Ill., is making everyone take a second look. And...
JOLIET, Ill. - Just when everyone thought that Tony Schumacher was downright lucky in winning his 1999 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series Top Fuel championship, the personable driver from Park Ridge, Ill., is making everyone take a second look.
And he's doing it with speed, power and quickness. Not to mention a car that's as consistent as the old Chevy Nova that dad used to drive to work every morning.
Many of his peers felt like the 30-year-old driver was handed the ride of a lifetime late in 1998. With premier sponsor Exide Batteries on board and veteran crew chief Dan Olson calling the shots, several of Schumacher's competitors thought it would be a waste of good money and tuning talent with an unproven driver behind the wheel.
That was the thought until Schumacher started making a regular habit out of advancing to the final round each Sunday. Then he won. Before the Top Fuel contingent knew what had hit them, Schumacher was standing tall, accepting the Winston championship trophy in what was arguably the most competitive Top Fuel championship chase in NHRA history.
While some drivers might bark 'silver spoon', Schumacher isn't hearing it. He knows what his racing background has included: a lot of long hours in the shop learning the finer points of the mechanical end of the car. Besides, he doesn't need approval from his peers. He gets enough encouragement from the folks who count the most in his eyes: the fans.
"The fans didn't say we backed into it -- it was the other drivers," Schumacher said. "The fans know what's up. They know the real deal. I'll make it real simple -- if (the other drivers) want the Winston championship, it's easy: come beat me. Just beat me, that's all you have to do." Which could be a tough task for many on his growing list of rivals, including two-time champ Gary Scelzi, five-time champs Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato and first-time title seeker Larry Dixon. With five final round runs in seven events so far in 2000, Schumacher is holding firm to his promise of doing everything possible to defend his crown.
So far, Scelzi has posed the greatest threat, answering Schumacher in finals at Pomona, Calif. and Atlanta. The two drivers have met often in eliminations this season.
"I hope we meet in eliminations at every race," Schumacher said. "That's what it's all about. When it comes down to it, people want to see side-by-side, cut-throat drag racing where everybody gives their all and there's no average runs. I think Gary and I have met four or five times already. Had we both managed to stay in at a couple of races there's the possibility that we could have raced each other at every event. That's brutal. When you've got the last three Winston championships sitting on the starting line and everybody stands up to watch, it really pumps you up." As does racing in front of your hometown crowd. Schumacher will have no problem generating additional adrenaline at the third annual Prestone Route 66 Nationals, June 1-4, at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago. The $1.9 million race is the 10th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
"It's a great place," Schumacher said. "It's our home track. You show up and you have 2,000 friends cheering for you and it gives you a great feeling. It's probably the one race I want to win. Everybody wants to win the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, but Chicago is my home track and if I could trade everything to win one race, that's the one I want to win."