Gainesville Schumacher Emerging as Top Fuel Contender

SCHUMACHER EMERGING AS CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER IN TOP FUEL GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Add another contender to the list of candidates with the potential to win Top Fuel's biggest prize: an NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series ...

SCHUMACHER EMERGING AS CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER IN TOP FUEL GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Add another contender to the list of candidates with the potential to win Top Fuel's biggest prize: an NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series championship.

Second-generation driver Tony Schumacher has emerged as a major threat to win in the 6,000-horsepower category in 1999. Strong performances in the opening two races have the Exide Batteries driver turning the heads of his fellow competitors.

Turning really fast, that is.

Schumacher, from Park Ridge, Ill., sealed his eligibility for Top Fuel's championship club by driving his dragster into drag racing's history books at the recent Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix.

Schumacher, son of drag racing legend Don Schumacher, was behind the controls of the first dragster to eclipse the 330 mph barrier. His run of 330.23 mph was stunning, especially to most of his competitors who predicted a 330 mph run was still a couple of years away.

Schumacher's speed is the fastest in NHRA history, however he wasn't able to produce a run within the required one percent to make the speed an NHRA national record. Schumacher was also in contention for his first career victory at Phoenix, but lost in a semifinal encounter with Joe Amato.

Still, he says the strong weekend, combined with a solid performance at the season-opening AutoZone Winternationals, puts the team in a great position for success at upcoming races.

Schumacher will try to break into the winner's circle for the first time in his young career at the 30th annual Mac Tools Gatornationals, March 18-21 at historic Gainesville Raceway. The $2.1 million race is the third of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"We wanted to back up the speed for the national record and we also wanted to win the race at Phoenix," Schumacher said. "We just missed out on both of them. We feel good about our program. We're going to win some races and we're going to battle with these guys all year. A win at Phoenix would have given us a big boost in the Winston championship standings. We'll just work harder to get that first victory at Gainesville."

Schumacher says the 330 mph run is an experience he'll never forget.

"That was an awesome run, the car was flying," Schumacher said. "It wasn't shaking, just going straight and it set me back in the seat. I felt like I was stuck to velcro. I hope the run was exciting for the fans. It sure was a rush from where I sat. I guess I had the best seat in the house."

Schumacher, a runner-up four times during his brief Top Fuel career, finished 15th in the Winston point standings in 1998 while running a limited schedule. The former jet car and alcohol funny car driver says all the ingredients are in place to make a serious challenge for the Winston championship in 1999. It's an opportunity he's always dreamed of having. A key ingredient to the puzzle has been the addition of crew chief Dan Olson, who worked for Eddie Hill in 1998.

"Dan's tune-up has been so consistent all year and that gives me confidence every time I go to the starting line," Schumacher said. "Consistency is what wins races, and each successful qualifying attempt improves your chances for Sunday. We have great chemistry with this team."

He says Olson has brought some great creative ideas to the team, that has produced quick results. At Pomona Schumacher set top speed with an impressive 324.75 mph run. At Phoenix he also clicked off runs of 325.06 mph and 323.74 mph.

"We've been working a lot on aerodynamics to improve downforce and top-end steering," said Schumacher. "When the car stays planted (to the track) it's real comfortable over 320 mph. My Exide crew has been giving me some really great rides. We've been running quick and fast and haven't been hurting parts. That's a real confidence and momentum builder."

The elder Schumacher, who in addition to being Tony's biggest fan also owns the team, thinks there's no question about who has bragging rights in the category after the first two events. Despite not getting a victory in either race, he says the competition knows who has the muscle.

"We've got the baddest hot rod in the sport and everybody knows it," said Don Schumacher, a five-time NHRA event winner during the 1970s. "We're making tons of horsepower and the car is handling it very well. The guys all know what they have to do and we're having fun. We'll always take pride in knowing we were the first to go 330 mph."

Now, all that remains is getting on the fast track to recording a few victories. Schumacher, 29, says it's just a matter of time.

"John Force was a runner-up nine times before he finally won his first race," Schumacher said. "Every driver out here has paid their dues and I think I've paid mine. I think a win is very near. It could come at Gainesville because we're on a roll."

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Don Schumacher