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Schumacher Loses Top Tuner But Retains His Fastball

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, June 26 2009
Tony Schumacher could be headed for a sixth-straight Top Fuel championship.

Tony Schumacher could be headed for a sixth-straight Top Fuel championship.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Topeka, Kan. – Oh yeah, Tony Schumacher had heard the talk, all right. Loud and clear, even though much of that talk was snarkily whispered. And judging from the way Schumacher acknowledges that he heard the talk, it stung him.

Lord, it would sting anybody to hear that all of the success he or she has had in their professional life was the result of somebody else’s talent.

The talk has stopped now. The stinging, though obviously not completely forgotten, has eased considerably – witness the smile on Schumacher’s face at Heartland Park Topeka a couple weeks ago.

It’s all because Schumacher and his Don Schumacher Racing U.S. Army Top Fuel operation have not dried up and blown away because it has lost tuning-god Alan Johnson as many in the sport predicted they would.

On the contrary. Schumacher has won three times this season and has spent a large portion of the year atop the Top Fuel standings.

When the cars take to the track at Norwalk, Ohio this weekend for the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals – which marks the end of the first half of the 2009 NHRA season – Schumacher will be second in points, just 34 behind leader Antron Brown.

And Johnson’s driver, Larry Dixon, will be third.

As usual, it was hot and humid in Topeka when the NHRA rolled into Heartland Park a month ago – so hot and humid that engine tuners, who were getting their first taste of the summer conditions they will face through the end of the season – were having trouble getting their cars to hook up with the track.

But in a muggy grass parking area out behind his team’s compound at Heartland, Schumacher is happily puffing away on a big old cigar as fans converge on him for handshakes and autographs.

“I didn’t know it would happen so quickly,” Schumacher said of success after Johnson, “but I knew we would go out and win races.”

A year ago, Schumacher won his fifth-straight championship. It came in a season for the record books as he won 15 events, won seven events in a row, supplanted Joe Amato as Top Fuel’s winningest driver and became just the third NHRA driver ever to win the prestigious Driver of the Year Award.

This week, Schumacher was named to the ESPN Espy Award ballot for the third straight season.

You would think all of that would force critics to cut the guy a break. But critics don’t become critics buy cutting breaks and when Johnson decided to bolt and form his own team, the word was that Schumacher’s run was done.

Not only did Johnson leave to form Al-Anabi Racing, he took virtually his entire crew with him.

Schumacher takes a pull on the stogie.

“Adversity is great,” he says. “When Alan said he was leaving, I said, ‘That’s only going to give me an opportunity to race against you. No big deal.’ Life is not about getting up every morning and winning the race. Life’s about figuring it out. It’s about challenge.” 

Schumacher went out, hired Mike Green to tune his car and so far, has met the challenges and maintained a winning pace.

The end of the dark-brown cigar glows red.

“Terrific job by Mike Green and the crew this year,” “The Sarge” says with a pride on the exhale.

Schumacher is 22-8 in eliminations this season. That is near the top of the standings. He is coming off the event at Englishtown, N.J. two weeks ago where he was the No. 1 qualifier.

And then there is this week’s good news from ESPN.

“It’s an incredible feeling to be recognized by the ESPY folks for the third consecutive year,” said Schumacher, a six-time world champion. “I’m hopeful we can finally present this award to our Army Strong Soldiers. It’s their dedication, teamwork and passion that inspires the U.S. Army Top Fuel team to be successful.”

Joining the Chicago-area resident on the ESPY Best Driver ballot is NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, as well as IRL pilots Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon.

“That’s a bunch of talented drivers,” added Schumacher. “As in years past, I’m honored to be included in such an elite group.”

No drag racer has ever won the ESPY Best Driver Award. In addition to Schumacher, other NHRA drivers to be nominated over the years included John Force, Tony Pedregon, Greg Anderson and Melanie Troxel.

“Maybe, the third time will be the charm for me,” offered Schumacher.

And maybe, a sixth-straight Top Fuel championship will put him on the ballot again next season and quiet the snarky whispers for good.ß

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, June 26 2009
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