Q&A: Schumacher Talks About Countdowns And U.S. Nationals

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 8 2015

Tony Schumacher has his eye on winning another Top Fuel championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

Reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher and crew chief Mike Green have had their marching orders re-issued for the 2015 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season: Install six-disc clutch…hit throttle…rule the world.

It’s a formula that carried Schumacher, Green and the U.S. Army dragster to victories in three-of-six Countdown to the Championship playoff races last fall en route to a class-record eighth Top Fuel world title for “The Sarge.”

Schumacher and Green overcame a sluggish start to last season – and seven first-round losses overall – to claim five national event victories, four poles and a 39-19 won/loss record featuring an “Army Strong” 15-3 mark during the Countdown. In doing so, Green and assistant crew chief Neal Strausbaugh emerged as gurus of the six-disc clutch setup.

Top Fuel’s winningest driver with 77 victories, Schumacher finished a massive 131 points/nearly seven rounds of racing ahead of runnerup J.R. Todd of Kalitta Motorsports at season’s end to secure his first title since 2009.

A 45-year-old native of Chicago, Schumacher also made a significant lifestyle change last summer, moving wife Cara and children Anthony, Michael and Jacqueline to the decidedly warmer climes of Austin, Texas. With unseasonably warm late-January temperatures as a backdrop, Schumacher visited with the media during a national teleconference to discuss a 2015 season that will begin with a huge Round 1 pairing during Sunday’s 55th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

Schumacher, who qualified sixth with a 1,000-foot pass of 3.757-seconds at 323.35 mph, will meet No. 11 qualifier and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown. The 2012 Top Fuel world champion, Brown qualified his Matco Tools dragster at 3.803-seconds and 313.73 mph.

Here is an edited transcript of Schumacher’s teleconference:

THE MODERATOR: Tony, when you have that No. 1 on the side of your car, everybody is looking to knock you down a peg when you pull into Pomona. Does that give you, and you’ve obviously been here before, but does that give you and your team a little added step as you head into the opening event?

TONY SCHUMACHER: You know, I wish I could say yes, honestly, but I can’t remember the last time I didn’t try, you know? I think about that all the time. I go, ‘Oh, man, they’re going to be really gunning for us,’ and then I go, ‘Wait a minute _ they’re always gunning for us.’ We had the No. 7 on our car last year and the quickest runs in the history of last season were against me and it didn’t have the No. 1 on the side of the car.

I think that Army car is so cool, people love racing it. It’s just awesome. It’s a great car and great team that’s been successful and done a lot over the years, so it’s always a target. That’s the way it is. I’m glad to be the driver. I’m glad to sit in the seat. I enjoy it mostly because I like to know that the guy racing me finds it worthy to try hard, and it’s cool. I think we’re just proud to have the No. 1 on the car, not that we’ve got to try harder or do this or do that, but we’re happy that the year ended like it did and grateful for the same guys returning and doing the same jobs. And we’re getting better and stronger every day.

Q. Talk a little bit about the required intensity it takes to win the championship, one championship, let alone come back and have the intensity to win eight.

TONY SCHUMACHER: I sit in the car a lot of times and think, ‘Why do I do this? This is so intense.’ Before a big run that you have to be really great at, sometimes you sit in the car and you just think, ‘This is nuts. This is just so much pressure.’ And what I’m so happy to be able to do is look back on all the times that it’s been so difficult and how we’ve pulled it off. It makes it so much easier to get through those moments, because there was a time where it was deer-in-the-headlights. It was so big, you thought, there’s no way. And then you win a few of those and your team pulls off these miracles and you start to believe. Some of you (media) guys actually joke about it.

I believe in stuff that doesn’t seem possible. Well, I do. The funny thing is I’ve kind of lived a lot of those moments that have made it easy to believe. That run in ’06 that was physically impossible. I’m not sure we even knew what we thought: ‘Oh, well, there’s a snowball’s chance, but really? Are we really going to be able to do this?’ And then you pull it off and you start to think, ‘Wow, this is absolutely possible.’ World records are broken all the time because it’s never been done before. I like those moments. I think – and I’ve said this in many, many press conferences – if you want to see me get beat, come to a race where it’s not important because we drop our guard a little bit, and that happens. But we’re good when it’s important. We’re good when it’s a must, and that’s just how our team is.

Q. Do you think you could ever be able to teach all that to anyone?

TONY SCHUMACHER: Well, first of all, I don’t want to because then they’d beat me. I think I’ve taught a couple people too much already. It’s just the way it is. I’m one of those dumb guys where people always say, ‘I taught him everything he knows but not everything I know.’ I don’t stop at that. I kind of teach them and then I think to myself and how our team has always been, we race; you know everything I know and now we race.

Q. U.S. Army, all about leadership, they’ve been your sponsor for a long time, 77 wins. Here we are getting ready for the 2015 season. They just introduced ‘Baptism by Nitro,’ their new campaign, encouraging fans to bring new fans. If you were going to show leadership with the sport as the winningest driver in the history of Top Fuel, the most championships, what would you do or bring to the table? What are you going to try to do this year to continue to elevate this sport in the mainstream media world?

TONY SCHUMACHER: I think it’s just personal attention. Like we can blow it up in the media, and we do. We do our best. But you’ve got to be at the ropes and you’ve got to be telling people to bring it, and you’ve got to be out there a lot, because it is the greatest sport in the world.

I am the perfect person to ask. I have asked generals to come out, and get the typical, ‘Oh, man, but it’s a drag race.’ They picture James Dean, a pack of cigarettes and a cool car and they don’t picture what it is. And they get out for the first time and it’s an, ‘Oh, my. That is insane.’ I saw that on Facebook. That’s exactly what that post is, man. Get people out that have never been there. It is our most difficult thing because we don’t have the marketing dollars NASCAR has to go out and do all the ad campaigns to get people out, so it’s up to the drivers. It’s up to the teams to really push. And when we’re in the neighborhood like I do, I get in early. We don’t run until Friday and I’ll spend Wednesday doing media, I’ll spend Thursday doing media, and those days are critical. But everyone doesn’t do that. We need to expand that. We need to get the people out there beating the ground, man.

You’ve got to get people to come out the first time. They all love it. The generals that come out for the first time, when they’re done, they go, ‘I never expected it to be simply amazing. I just pictured something different and never expected it to be this big, never expected them to be that fast, this professional and so great for kids.’

It’s a great kids’ sport. Kids come out and they’re in awe of not the car going fast; that’s always a no-brainer, but to watch the men and women work on the cars. These guys do such a great job that these young kids are so impressionable get to watch this thing and go, ‘You mean, I can do something great like that?’ It gives them a little hope. Right now they’re in school, they’re just working hard and they don’t understand goals yet. Their goals are small and they’re simple. Let them see that these people are doing simply miraculous things as a team. I think the more kids we bring out, the quicker it spreads.

Q. Tony, you very likely could tie or pass former Pro Stock champion Bob Glidden (85 victories) on the all-time wins list this year. I’m wondering how numbers-conscious you are and where you stand on the all-time list?

TONY SCHUMACHER: I honestly had no idea until I heard you guys announce it. And it is not my goal. My goal is to go out and win as many races as I can every year each and every time. At the end of my career I’ll look back on the wins and I’ll appreciate the sacrifice that we all made to get those wins and be proud of those moments.

Things were different when Bob Glidden raced. It was different. There were different amounts of races per year. So comparing apples-to-apples is really impossible. People try to do that with ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, too, in Indy wins. It’s a difficult thing to relate. Drivers are drivers. Now, back then they drove, worked on cars. It was so different. For me to sit back and try to compare myself to anyone, I’ll let you guys do that. That’s your job as the media. You can compare. You can make up those things and I’ll read them, but honestly at the end of my career I hope I have 500 wins. Right now I’m just trying to get No. 78, I think.

Q. You won your championship with the regular points system – whoever gets the most at the end of the season wins. You’ve done it in the Countdown Era, and now with NHRA making it one-and-a-half points deal for the U.S. Nationals, what’s your reaction to that points change?

TONY SCHUMACHER: Indy is supposed to be bigger. It’s the ‘Big-Go.’ It’s supposed to be the biggest race. It has more money, more people show up to win it and it should come with more points. I think most people always felt that. To have it as just another race never made sense. Being an important race for so many cars that can come in and change the position they go into the Countdown, I think it’s really cool. I almost wish it was double points. I’ve won it enough times where it would have always helped me. I think it makes the sport bigger, makes it more important and starts to do what it needs to do at Indy.

Q. Are you a fan of the Countdown system, like when they brought that in (for the 2007 season)? Do you think that it has accomplished what was hoped-for?

TONY SCHUMACHER: I go back-and-forth on it, honestly. The last year before the Countdown we won the championship by setting a world record on the last run of the year. If they could do that every year, they’d be sold-out shows. The Countdown was really put in effect to keep people watching at the end of the year when most of the time by Reading (Pa.) someone had the championship locked-up in the old way and people didn’t even need to see it.

Is it doing what it’s supposed to do? I haven’t seen the numbers, but I would assume it’s probably a good call. If not, NASCAR would have backed out of it a long time ago and I think NHRA has got a job to do. They’ve got to look at each way and maybe they can fine-tune it. I don’t know better ways but they’ve got a marketing department and they can come up with ideas that are great, and we look and we listen, and if we can evolve it even more and listen to ideas and make it better, that’s what we’re going to do.

We are entertainment. That’s what it is. We show up and we have to win and it’s our job, but we’re entertainment. We’re competing with a lot of other companies doing the same thing, and we just have to make it better for the fans in any way we can. Better for the fans, more exciting for them at the end of the year when it’s important. At the end of the day we have to sell commercials, TV slots. It’s what we do. Let’s keep it going.

Q. Don Schumacher Racing has had a tremendous relationship with the Army. There’s been other teams in motorsports that have been cut back by the military. What’s your future with the Army?

TONY SCHUMACHER: I think it’s fantastic. To be sitting here right now with the Army on the side of the car after all the controversy in the past few years especially is spectacular. It just goes to show how successful this Army program is, and it’s not just because we go out and win. It is a recruiting tool. It’s what we do. And when the controversy comes up, we can lay the numbers out that say, ‘Look, this is NHRA. Every fan has a pit pass. Here’s the numbers we provide.’ Nothing in the history for recruiting has ever been this successful, and it tends to quiet those situations down.

You know, we’ve lasted a long, long time, and it’s because we work extra hard to do it. We go above-and- beyond. We do what the Army does. We go above-and-beyond. We do what we have to do to make sure the program succeeds. It’s a great accomplishment and it’s a great, long partnership that we’ve had.

The Army car, man. These are guys who get it. They understand the power, the sacrifice, the work, the blood, sweat and tears and to see them with a smile on their face, knowing how much work they have to do the next day. To give them a little relief for a few minutes and hear their excitement is spectacular.

Q. You started off the call and briefly talked about your test session. What’s the season-long outlook for your team?

TONY SCHUMACHER: Great new car. It’s a beautiful car. We know we can go down the racetrack. We know how to do it. We have the combinations. We have the parts and the pieces…so we’ll go fast at the beginning of the year. We also know that winning the first 10 races doesn’t win you the championship, so we’ve got a long year of getting stuff together for the end of the year because it’s how the rules are set up. it’s how we’re supposed to do it, we’re supposed to win at the end, but being in the correct position to do that, you don’t want to be coming in 10th. Yes, Robert Hight did it (in Funny Car in 2009), but it’s such a long shot. You want to be in those top couple spots and really hit it hard in the Countdown.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 8 2015
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