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‘The Sarge’ Hits Pomona With Sights Set On No. 8

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 13 2014

Tony Schumacher is in the Top Fuel driver's seat this weekend in Pomona. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The 2014 version of Tony Schumacher’s biggest-ever week was just getting started on Tuesday and it was already decision time. And, as one would expect from a guy who races cars at well over 300 mph, Schumacher was quick and decisive when it mattered a ton.

“Oreo,” the seven-time NHRA Top Fuel champion blurted out with pride. “Of course.”

If Schumacher is feeling the pressure to become an eight-time champion, which he will do if he can win just one round at the season-ending AAA Nationals at the historic drag strip in Pomona on Sunday it was apparent on Tuesday as he stood in line at an ice cream stand at the Austin, Texas airport, that it wasn’t affecting his demeanor or his sweet tooth.

With Oreo ice cream in hand and headed toward taste buds, Schumacher, driver of the famed U.S. Army-sponsored Don Schumacher Racing dragster, explained his motivations and expectations for the Auto Club Nationals in Pomona.

First off, Schumacher said, the goal this weekend is not to simply pick up just enough points to win the championship. The goal, he said, is to collect two Wally’s – the big boy that goes to the season champ, and the smaller one that goes the event winner.

“It would be amazing to go out on top,” the driver known as “The Sarge” – and who, with closely cropped hair and well-squared jaw, most assuredly looks like a Sarge – told RacinToday.com during a phone call this week. “Assuming we do pull it off (win the championship), it’s very important to me to pull it off correctly. And that is to win Pomona.”

Schumacher, a native of Chicago who recently relocated to the Austin area, has arrived in Pomona in past Novembers amid a variety of competitive circumstances. He’s staged for the elimination rounds on Sunday with the championship all but bagged, and he’s staged needing to collect every single bonus point he could scrounge.

This weekend, he will pull the gloves and booties on with a 109-point lead over second-place Spencer Massey, his teammate at DSR.

Even if Schumacher is eliminated in the first round Sunday, the only way either Massey or third-place J.R. Todd (112 points back) can win the championship is by running the table and establishing a new national elapsed-time record.

Hence the ability to enjoy the frozen confection as he rushed to catch his flight to California.

“It’s definitely more fun when you have to win,” Schumacher said, “but it’s definitely easier when you just have to qualify. But we want to win this race just for fun.”

Don’t confuse his lust for fun with over-confidence. All Schumacher has to do is find a restroom with a mirror someplace to look at somebody who has ran the table at Pomona II and left the track having pried the championship from somebody appeared to have with an iron grip on it when the weekend started.

Schumacher himself did that in 2006. He won Pomona, picked up maximum points by setting a national elapsed time record and split town with the money and all the trophies. Schumacher knows Massey, a former champ himself, and Todd have 2006 on their minds this weekend too.

“Even though this is down to the last day, there is so much less stress. On the one hand,” he said. “On the other hand, there are those two guys on the other side who have to win and they know I pulled it off, so I’m not going to take anything for granted. We need to go out there and dominate.”

For reasons both of history and pride.

“We don’t want to be the team that snuck in a few wins and caught other guys off guard. We want to be the team that everybody looks up to and says, ‘Wow, those guys earned it and in a very difficult way. They went out and dominated.’ That’s what we look forward to.”

The quest for domination does not include having crew chief Mike Green de-tune Schumacher’s dragster to make sure clutches and tires grab with precision. No, the plan is bid-ness as usual.

“If you want to get beat,” Schumacher said, “you go easy. And I’m serious. The times we’ve lost this year, we tried to back it down a little bit and it threw us off. Go out to win. You have to stay on your game. Our game is making our car go fast.”

Eight time winne: Of course that sounded good to Schumacher. But improving on an NHRA resume that already listed him third best behind Funny Car driver John Force’s 16 and Bob Glidden’s 10 Pro Stock championships will not be center-square for Schumacher this weekend.

There are other motivations. Some, are much more personal.

Schumacher won six of his championships in successive years – 2004-09. The one he is the most proud of was the last one.

The reason is extremely personal. The first five came with the great Alan Johnson tuning his cars. But after the 2008, season, Johnson opted out. He moved to Al Anabi Racing and he took a lot of the key people from Schumacher’s organization with him.

More than a few people predicted The Sarge would be six and done when it came to championships.

With Green wrenching, however, Schumacher’s engines – the one in the cars and the one beating in his chest – never missed a beat. No. 7 was bagged.

“I lost all those guys, we’d won five championships in a row, and yes, we came back the following year and we beat them,” Schumacher said. “We heard, ‘You are not going to win a championship without Alan Johnson.’ He’s a great crew chief and I enjoyed working with him, but we’re good too. I mean, Antron (Brown of DSR) has won one (since Johnson left), we’ve won one. Yes, he’s won two (at Al Anabi), but it’s not just him. It’s a whole group of people in the right time and right place.”

It was not, however, like Schumacher and his team remained in crush mode after Johnson left. There were lean times and times where lean would have been gladly accepted. In 2011, Schumacher failed to win a single national event.

The reason, he said this week, had nothing to do with racing sans Johnson. It had everything to do with greed: He, Green and the rest of his team wanted No. 8 really, really badly and were willing to re-script everything to get it.

“It’s because we spent time digging for something different,” Schumacher said, getting as serious as an adult can get while holding an ice cream bar. “Every one has a similar tune-up out there. We’re all running good. We needed to find something to take us to the next level to win. So for the last three years, we struggled. And the hard times have paid off. We dug for something, we stayed, while others stuck with what they knew, we stayed on this new course.”

Schumacher and Green and their folks have won five events this year. They’ve won four poles and they are 36-18 in eliminations. But they’ve also gone down in the first round a couple times. Important times. Times like at, yep, Pomona in the spring and then last weekend in Las Vegas.

But as he headed to his gate at the Austin Airport, it was the good times that were pushing him onto the jetway. It it was the fact that he could taste championship No. 8 the way he was tasting Oreo ice cream that were pushing. Tony Schumacher boarded his flight with a double scoop of confidence.

“The mood is fantastic,” he said. “We are absolutely right where we want to be.”

And that is on the verge of yet another historical accomplishment.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 13 2014
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