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Fear Drives The Sarge Onward

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 10 2010
Tony Schumacher and his close friend Wally. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Tony Schumacher and his close friend Wally. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Tony Schumacher concedes that his unprecedented run as NHRA Top Fuel champion now has become all about the losing.

“You know, the losing – I’m afraid to lose right now.  It’s crazy,” said Schumacher, a seven-time champion in drag racing’s premier professional class. “We’ve won six in a row.  And guess what?  It’s going to end at some point, I just don’t want it to end this year.  You know, I really don’t want that to stop.”

Schumacher’s performance in the U.S. Army Dragster during his reign has been nothing short of staggering – 50 national event victories over the past six years and 61 overall. It’s a run that legitimately conjures up comparisons to a select group of multiple motorsports champions.

Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, and Jimmie Johnson is the preseason choice to make it five in a row in 2010. John Force’s 14 NHRA Funny Car championships may never be equaled, while Bob Glidden’s 10 in Pro Stock have stood for over a decade. Meanwhile, Formula One ace Michael Schumacher’s professional passion lured the uber German out of retirement for the 2010 season, and beyond. Despite their varied disciplines, the great ones share a need to exceed.

“I just love racing,” said Tony Schumacher, addressing the issue of how he has avoided complacency. “You know, I was writing on my Facebook and people were asking some similar questions.  I get up in the morning and want to race.  I don’t try to look too far ahead. But it’s amazing.  Some of the seasons…2006 we win coming back from 336 points.  Well, it’s hard to be complacent there. And the next year we go to a Countdown (format) and end up winning in the last race of the season.  We just seemed to keep doing it in different ways.

“I’ve said this a thousand times.  I’m not racing for beer and I’m not racing for tools.  I’m racing for a way of life and a group of people.  It makes a big difference.”

Schumacher, whose sponsor relationship with the Army dates to the 2000 U.S. Nationals, revels in his military-inspired nickname. To that end, “The Sarge” presented his 2009 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series trophy to the troops at Fort Hood, Texas, during the Fort Hood Community Strong event in early December. Recall that Schumacher claimed his latest title days after the Nov. 5 shooting at the installation left 12 dead and 31 injured.

“When I announced that I wanted to go there, I didn’t know that they were going to bring a day of healing that they had planned (and) that was going to be the day,” Schumacher said during a recent teleconference. “But it was just an amazing thing. And I think you realize how it’s a lot bigger than you think.  To be able to drive the U.S. Army car is huge.  To be able to present them with a trophy really at a time when they just needed it, man.  They needed something.”

Schumacher and the revamped crew that helped him win last year’s title return intact for the 50th Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Nationals beginning Thursday at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. Schumacher’s 2009 championship ranks as perhaps his most satisfying. Schumacher silenced his doubters by overcoming the departure of famed tuner Alan Johnson, who left Don Schumacher Racing to start Al-Anabi Racing with two-time champion Larry Dixon as driver. In a case of perfect irony, Schumacher and crew chief Mike Green ended the six-race Countdown to 1 with a two-point margin over Johnson and Dixon.

“It was an amazing year last year to be able do what we did,” said Schumacher, the son of Funny Car pioneer and team-owner Don Schumacher. “To be able to go out there after losing Alan Johnson and my whole Army team and beat them by two points, which is what everyone in the world showed up to watch.  Not us beat them, but just battle.  To see what the outcome would be losing a crew chief when so much is put on crew chiefs and drivers.

“Mike Green proved he is a very capable crew chief.  Something he’s wanted to do for a long, long time.  Go out there and do it on his own. (And) it wasn’t like we hired anyone off a Cracker Jack box. These guys are excellent. Each one of them in their own right.  Now we’ve been together for a year.  No one changed positions. Everything’s status quo.

“(We) brought out a new DSR car (in testing), and it ran fast. Two quickest runs in the history of the sport.  Had amazing conditions, but just did back-to-back runs. When you can go out and make back-to-back runs, you know you’ve got something.  The tuneup is where you want it. The clutch disk, the performance, the engine.  Everything is where you want it, and we’ll head to Pomona.  So really looking forward to getting it started.”

The test Schumacher referenced was a four-day session at Palm Beach (Fla.) International Raceway in mid-January. The eye-popping 1,000-foot numbers he bragged on were posted during Day 3 – 3.759-seconds at 318.77 mph and 3.753-seconds at 322.88 mph using an in-house DSR chassis.

“I believe we accomplished what we wanted to do,” Green said in a bit of understatement. “We went down there to try and be the quickest and we did just that. We tested some new stuff with the hope it would give us a performance advantage beyond what we had last year.”

Schumacher, who like Dixon won five races last year, described the new Hadman-based DSR chassis as “just brilliant.”

“The guys did a hell of a job building it. It is the best craftsmanship I’ve ever seen in a race car,” said Schumacher, adding the team’s efficiency level also was off the charts.

“No doubt about that,” Green said. “We had much more of a comfort zone this time around. You can’t forget that last year everything was new, so there was some adjustment on everyone’s part. You have to always try and improve in every area. You clearly can’t rest on your laurels in this sport or else you’ll be left behind.”

A two-time Winternationals winner, Schumacher has developed a deep appreciation for the history of the season-opener. “It’s just awesome.  We’ve done it,” said Schumacher, winner of the event in 2004 and 2008. “You go out and win the first race. What a way to start.  You’ve waited all year, you know, to get to that race.  Believe me, two months off is two months too long.  I know everyone needs a little bit of a break.  When you love racing as much as I do you can’t wait to get there. I think you can’t lead from the beginning to the end if you don’t win that first race.

“It all starts at the Winternationals. The biggest names that have ever won championships in racing and just races in general started right there. So that’s the place. The history of racing comes from California.  To go out and perform at that race from the first get-go, man, you just can’t beat it.”

NHRA legend Don “The Snake”  Prudhomme’s decision to park his team because of lack of sponsorship has, for the moment, removed 2009 rookie of the year Spencer Massey from the championship mix after a sixth-place points finish. But beginning with archrival Dixon, Schumacher is anticipating challenges from a handful of contenders that includes DSR teammates Antron Brown – winner of a class-high six races and third in points – and Cory McClenathan, who won one race and finished fourth overall. Brandon Bernstein won one race en route to a fifth-place finish. The trend he has noticed, Schumacher said, is stability among the top teams.

“Normally you have Silly Season,” Schumacher said. “You have this crew chief’s leaving to go here, and this driver’s moving to this side.  I haven’t heard about any crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, anyone leaving at all. I think that just goes to show you that I think everyone’s found themselves a pretty good home.

“So what people are going to come out and get, they’re going to get their money’s worth.  Especially in a time when people are spending a lot of time thinking about where they’re going to put their money.  We’re giving them the best show I’ve ever seen.  Best show I’ve ever been a part of.”

Schumacher, who turned 40 on Christmas Day, dropped several hints during this interview that a professional career that began in 1996 is anything but open-ended as his young family – two sons and a daughter – deserves added attention from Dad.

“I don’t think I’m going to race that much longer,” Schumacher said. “You know, it’s a matter of some years here, but I want to go out with a bang.  I think that’s going to really motivate me.  Because we’ve seen too many people in the past in all sports go out on the bottom when they were on the top.  And you’ve got to choose your time.

“I never expected to win six championships in a row.  And I don’t expect to go on and win every championship from here on out.  The competition’s too tough. We’re going to show up, qualify the best and run the best we can each round.  At the end of the season we’ll know where it falls.  But it is brutal right now.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been a part of.

“You got to wake up in the morning and prepare for battle. It’s tough. Surround yourself with soldiers, and it’s really easy to get motivated.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 10 2010
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