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NHRA Has One Of The Great Rivalries In Sports

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 24 2010

Larry Dixon leaves the line en route to a victory at zMax Dragway last weekend. Is he headed for the Top Fuel championship? (Photos courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Ennis, Texas – Round-after-round, no current NHRA pairing promises more than the Top Fuel rivalry matching Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon and 1,000 feet for the taking.

Both second-generation drivers, they have dominated the decade in National Hot Rod Association’s premier division, having won eight consecutive titles since 2002. Six of those (2004-09) belong to Schumacher, who believes his rivalry with Dixon extends beyond the current 23-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season.

“The Sarge” sees Schumacher vs. Dixon as an all-timer.

“Later in life when we look back, I think it will be one of the greatest rivalries,” said Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster owned by his father, Don, a pioneer Funny Car match-racer. “I talk about ‘Snake’ (Don Prudhomme) and ‘The Mongoose’ (Tom McEwen). That’s what I grew up on. The fact is, Snake won most of that. He had a great car, great budget. They won a lot of stuff.

“The names ‘Snake’ and ‘Mongoose’ carried that rivalry a long way. Me and Larry, just a couple of guys, have great cars and great records. It truly is possibly the best battle I’ve ever seen in Top Fuel. There’s been other battles in other categories. But in Top Fuel, myself and (Doug) Kalitta had an awesome rivalry in 2006, 2005, 2007. But man, me and Dixon go back. Year-after-year, it seems they’re always there. He’s a flawless driver. Always has a car that’s tough to beat.”

Dixon’s current car, technically, is similar to the one that Schumacher used to drive carrying a tuneup provided by Alan Johnson. Schumacher won five of his titles with Johnson calling

Tony Schumacher's Top Fuel reign has been put in jeopardy.

the shots, but that magic ended when Johnson left Don Schumacher Racing after the 2008 season to form Al-Anabi Racing in a groundbreaking association with His Highness Sheik Khalid Al Thani of Qatar.

Schumacher took particular delight in winning the 2009 championship with rookie crew chief Mike Green over Dixon and Johnson by the slimmest of margins – two points – clearly adding another twist to an ever-evolving plot. For his part, Dixon diplomatically passed on Schumacher’s “best battle” comment.

“That’d be up to you guys (media) to judge that,” said Dixon, son of former NHRA racer Larry Sr. “I don’t know. I know that to have a rivalry you’ve got to have two equal parties kind of going back-and-forth. You can’t have Muhammad Ali and some tomato can in the other corner fighting every week, because it’s going to be a burial every week. You’ve got to have two guys that can fight to win. And so, obviously, Tony’s got the best of everybody over the last half-dozen years. But I think that when we go to race him, I think we match-up pretty well.”

That is an understatement, as Dixon heads into this weekend’s 25th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals. Dixon leads TF runnerup Cory McClenathan by 85 points entering the third of six races in the Countdown to 1 playoffs. Schumacher, the defending event champion at Billy Meyer’s Texas Motorplex, sits third, 148 points behind Dixon following their most recent encounter.

Dixon won last weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C., for his third consecutive win and 11th of the season. Dixon defeated David Grubnic, Schumacher, Cory Mac and Kalitta en route to the winner’s circle.

Schumacher actually left the starting line first during his quarterfinal match with Dixon via a 0.036-second reaction time. But just past the 60-foot mark, Schumacher’s car began to lose traction. As he tried to settle the car down, Dixon’s machine started to smoke its tires around half-track. But Dixon had enough momentum to recover and get the win light.

“Very disappointing,” said Schumacher, a four-time event winner this season. “That was a huge round for us given the fact Dixon was ahead of us in the points by more than four rounds of racing coming in. We’ll just have to pick up the pieces and go on down the road. That’s all you can do.”

Dixon, who will turn 44 next month, now has won more races this year than in any other

Larry Dixon celebrates his Top Fuel win in Indy.

season in his career. He is the first professional driver in NHRA history to win his first 11 final rounds in a season.  And his 11-win total also is more than any other driver in NHRA’s four professional classes.

Heads-up, Dixon has raced Schumacher in eliminations 11 times during 2010. Dixon leads the series, 8-3, and has won each of the last six meetings. In 10 of their 11 pairings this season, the winning driver has gone on to capture the event.  Surprisingly, those stats are impressive to nearly everyone but Dixon.

“I don’t keep count of that,” said Dixon, who is teamed with crew chief Jason McCulloch. “I can tell you the times I’ve lost and why we lost, but he (Schumacher) can probably do the same about him.”

Despite his considerable points deficit, Schumacher remains comfortable in his skin, and with his car.

“I’m comfortable with the way I’m doing it,” said Schumacher, 40. “I’ve always said I’m not going to give you a 0.40-reaction time; I’m going to give you a 60 to an 80, like a machine.  I’m not going to figure out what it takes to give you a 40 because that’s going to give you some red lights. I’m going to give you the perfect average, but always be there.  I don’t want to change that.

“We were also written off last year and went out and won a championship.  So I do not doubt my guys in any way, shape or form. I love being at the track. If I could, I’d race a race car every day. People ask me, ‘If you won the lottery, what would you do?’  I’d buy another race car and drive them both.

“It is a grind if you are losing. I could imagine if you had to go seven weeks and lose first round every time, that would be extremely tough and hard to deal with. We have an awesome car right now. We’re battling head-to-head with Dixon. I owe him a few. I’m looking forward to getting up Sunday morning and kicking butt.”

In fact, Schumacher – who won his first title in 1999 over Gary Scelzi – believes his rivalry with Dixon clearly has made each of them a better driver.

“I definitely think so. I think a lot of the guys out there have,” Schumacher said. “But he’s probably the guy, because even when they (Snake Racing) were in their peak with (crew chief) Dick LaHaie, the Miller Lite deal, people would ask me, ‘Who is the best driver?’ I would say, ‘You know, Larry Dixon is a helluva driver. He’s probably the guy I would put at the top of the list.’

“We went out and dominated for five years. They’d still ask me. I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about the scorecards, he’s still one of the best drivers.’ When Alan said they were leaving, I got a short list of people. There were a lot people that wanted to drive that car. There really were only a couple of guys that were worthy of that car, (by) their driving performance. They’re great drivers and can handle Alan’s pressure. (Because) when you got a car that’s supposed to win and you don’t own it – it’s not your car, you’re just out there – you have to win. If you show up at a race, you should win.  If you don’t make any mistakes, that’s a lot of pressure. A brutal situation to drive Alan’s car.

“Me and Larry are making each other not make mistakes. He’s been a machine, man. He’s doing a good job. So I have to do a better job driving, and in turn it turns back around and he does the same thing.”

Dixon, who was voted 1995 Rookie of the Year under Prudhomme’s tutelage, countered that driving for Johnson has been anything but a chore.

“Coming from Don Prudhomme’s camp, this feels like Club Med,” Dixon said with a laugh. “You know, it’s all on how you look at it, on how you interpret it. Alan’s got a great race car no matter who’s driven his car. Whether it’s brother Blaine, Gary Scelzi, Tony, myself…you pull up to the starting line you know you’re going to have a great race car. So that makes it…it’s not brutal driving for Alan Johnson.

“I thought I drove pretty good before and I think it’s making me a better driver. I’m in a different car and I’m learning, I’m still learning. I mean, after every run I go back and look at video and I’m watching myself in a different car and how it reacts differently than what I drove for the first 12 years of my career. It’s a different car, so every time I go down the track I learn. But I certainly enjoy it. There’s nothing brutal about it.”

Prudhomme, recall, reluctantly opted to shut down his Top Fuel operation just prior to the season-opening and historic 50th Winternationals after failing to secure a primary sponsor.

“Snake had high standards, so does Alan Johnson,” said Dixon, who spent 20 seasons with Prudhomme as a crew member and driver. “When they’re both standing on the starting lines, I mean, there isn’t any more ‘want to win’ out of either one of them. But how they go about it is opposite ends of the spectrum. Alan, really, he puts it on me to figure it out. That’s what he hired me for. That’s what he hired all the guys for _ do their jobs. Just do your job.

“I enjoyed driving for Snake because I remember early-on in my career people would ask me about, ‘Is there a lot of pressure getting in his car?’ And there really wasn’t for me. I didn’t put any of that pressure on me because it’s like I had this guy teaching me how to drive his car the way he wants. And I think as you go down the road you learn what you need to do to get motivated and race people. And you’re still learning as you go.”

Schumacher, meanwhile, is fully aware that only four races and a total of 16 competitive rounds of Countdown eliminations remain for him to overhaul Dixon. Daunting, yes. But Schumacher noted he has faced and overcome similar challenges.

“You know what, ‘06 was pretty tough, man,” said Schumacher , referring to “The Run” that clinched the championship in record-setting style. “We were 336 points back. There will never be anything that equals that challenge – ever. It was very difficult to pull it off. It was what a career is made from, you know? You grow up dreaming about bottom of the ninth, bases-loaded, full-count, you’re up.  We had that.

“Am I enjoying the fact he’s (Dixon) ahead? We’re having a blast. It’s a battle. He’s doing a helluva job. I’m not going to take that away from them. They beat me by a hundredth of a second two or three times – a hundredth. Very good, outstanding races. I don’t feel like they have the edge that’s going to end my career.  I think they have a good car, like we do, like Antron (Brown), like Cory. We all have great cars. Come the end of the year when we battle, it’s up for grabs. There’s a lot of good cars out there that could change my streak.

“But I’ve been telling people for years, if I don’t win a championship, I’m not going to throw my helmet and kick people. It ain’t how it is. It’s racing. I look forward to the day when we race. I look forward to the race. And if I lose, I will walk over and shake the hand of whoever beats me and congratulate them. If they beat us, they did a helluva job. This is a sport. We go out and do our best, leave nothing on the table, and it’s been a helluva challenge.

“Larry and me know we can’t make mistakes. If anyone does, things change, and they change in a day. We can make up 80 points in a weekend no problem at all. Ask Kalitta, 170 points isn’t squat.  He had 336 and we took it back.

“Just a battle, man. Just a good, old-fashioned race. The day you start putting pressure on yourself is when you start choking. That’s not going to happen. We’re going to go out and fight until the end.”

Given the changing parameters of the sport in recent years – rules revisions, tire compound changes, the reduction in track length from the traditional quarter-mile to 1,000-feet for safety – Dixon said Schumacher has every reason to be proud of his six-year title reign.

“I know I would be because having had two in a row (2002-03), I know how tough that is let alone six or 10 in a row,” Dixon said. “There’s not a given on any of this stuff. You got to go out there and prove yourself every week, especially now with the playoff system that we have. It’s round wins is what it comes down, and you got to win two or three races. But it comes down to round-wins. You win the rounds, you win the championship. And if we have the same car that we’ve had in the regular season in the playoffs, I like our chances.

“I wouldn’t want to be in his (Schumacher’s) car. I said the same thing last year. I love the car that I’m in. I love the people that are working on it. When they send me forward to stage the car, I have the feeling that I can take on anybody.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 24 2010
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