No, we don’t mean Michael. Or Ralf… We’re talking about Top Fuel star Tony, ‘The Sarge’ who dominates US drag racing
By Nigel Grimshaw
It’s a heartfelt and inspiring statement delivered with an honesty and humility that seems at odds with the brash surroundings of the NHRA Drag Race World Finals at Pomona, California: “At some point it’s not about me any more,” affirms NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, raising his voice to best the noise of engines warming in the pits. “I’ve had a great life and if I stop racing today there’s nothing in the world I haven’t done. Raising my kids and teaching them baseball is far more important than all the records we’ve set, that’s what life is about. Racing is just fun.” Schumacher’s delivery is so sincere it compels immediate self-analysis: just what have I been doing with my life for the past 43 years?
Schumacher, born on Christmas Day 1969, is enjoying one of the most remarkable motor racing careers of the modern era and his exploits over the past 12 years have made him fast friends with record book re-writers the world over.
Southern California’s World Finals is one of drag racing’s biggest weekends and later today Tony Schumacher will strap himself into his US Army-sponsored Top Fuel dragster and set about the business of qualifying for the final round of the season. He is as relaxed as a man can be faced with piloting a 300-inch wheelbase, 8000 horsepower, nitro methane-burning machine capable of accelerating from 0-100mph in 0.8 seconds and 0-200mph in 2.2sec.
Having won the past five NHRA Top Fuel titles back-to-back, Schumacher is the man to beat every time his team fires the 500 cubic-inch, supercharged engine. “I call him ‘the GOAT’,” a member of the US drag racing press informs me. He elaborates. “That means the Greatest Of All Time.” It’s a weighty title that requires suitably broad shoulders.
Schumacher sips neatly at a bottle of iced water and considers his position. “Some people like pressure and some people don’t. I have to tell you, I enjoy it.” He smiles the smile of a man who has had his resolve thoroughly tested and not been found wanting.
“I have a favourite quote,” he continues. “It goes something like, ‘in the closing seconds of the game, I always wanted the ball in my hands for the last shot.’ [Basketball player] Larry Bird said that and I completely understand it: some people want that last shot and some people want to pass on the responsibility. I love having fate in my hands. If you win a championship because everyone else is losing that’s how not to do it. I think the majority of the world understands this, but I don’t think they would want to be in my shoes. That’s why fans come to the races – to live that moment but not have to deal with it.”
Schumacher has been “dealing with” drag racing his entire life. His father Don was a formidable racer, but he never planned for his son to follow suit. Nevertheless visiting the tracks to watch his father had a profound effect on the young Schumacher. Even after Don’s retirement drag racing legends such as Tommy Ivo would stop by the Schumachers’ Chicago residence on their way to race at Indianapolis. “Guys like Tommy would sit and tell me tales of the road and they just loved the sport for what it was, and still is,” smiles Tony. “They would drop off videos like And They Walked Away and Fabulous Floppers. I’d watch those films and they just blew me away.”
At 16 years of age Tony was the proud owner of a 1986 Pontiac Trans-Am. “I remember one evening I was sat at home and my dad told me the drag races were on,” says Schumacher, rocking back in his chair as the memories start to flow. “So I asked him which channel and he said, ‘no, no, if you go north on Interstate 294 there’s a little drag strip.’ Well, I went and that was the start of drag racing for me.”
As Schumacher started to progress through the various drag racing formulas it became apparent that racing, and not taking over the family’s electronics business, was the way the world would turn for Tony.
“I blew the body off that car in a big explosion.” It’s an almost nonchalant admission about an incident that goes with the territory. The car in question was an alcohol Funny Car and it was, ironically, the big break Schumacher had been waiting for. “I was out of parts but I wasn’t ready to give up,” Tony asserts in a determined, PR-savvy and heartfelt tone.
Not to be defeated the young man called drag racing’s governing body the NHRA in search of a seat. As luck would have it a family racing team run by the brothers Peek was looking for a driver to campaign its 300mph Top Fuel dragster. Schumacher flew to Denver for a meeting with the team and within 20 minutes he had the job. At this point Tony had never driven a Top Fuel machine on any sort of track, let alone in anger. “I made my initial runs in Denver,” he says, “and let me tell you the first time you push that pedal down on 8000 horsepower it is quite the eye-opener. All I can say is that there is no in between – you either get out of the car thinking it was the greatest moment of your life, or you get out and think there is no freakin’ way you’ll ever get back in that thing again.”
The following weekend Top Fuel rookie Schumacher found himself racing at the US Nationals at Indianapolis. “I hadn’t made a full pass in a Top Fuel car at this stage, and here I was at the biggest race of the year and I ended up making it to the final round.” Schumacher shakes his head, as if he still doesn’t quite believe it himself. The year was 1996.
While the Peek brothers gave Tony Schumacher his big chance it wasn’t long before father Don started making some moves of his own. A plane ride with Art Hawkins, CEO of Exide batteries, saw the talk turn to Top Fuel. Schumacher senior suggested to Hawkins that maybe his company would benefit from a tie-in with drag racing’s top flight, and in particular Tony. So began Schumacher Racing.
Last year was an astonishing season for team Schumacher and its US Army sponsor. “I would say this is the greatest drag race team ever, and the greatest season ever,” says Schumacher without the faintest whiff of conceit or arrogance. “As a driver I have had to be better than I’ve ever been, but then every championship is different, especially 2006.”
Two years ago the team found itself an incredible 336 points adrift after 10 races, which meant that it needed to win the season finale at Pomona and set a new elapsed time record to take the title. “I said to my team going into the race that I would qualify number one, set a world record for 20 bonus points and win the race,” recalls Schumacher. “I actually qualified number two, but the points leader went out in the third round. We got to the final round where we had to win and set a new elapsed time record, and we did it. In 20 years’ time when I’m sitting with my grandkids that will always be a moment I’ll talk about.” This monumental effort gave Schumacher his third straight title and the fourth of his career. It also stands as the biggest comeback in NHRA history.
The year 2006 was a landmark one for drag racing, with Schumacher tying for fourth place on the all-time Top Fuel victory list with ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits. “I think it was destiny,” says Schumacher, “and I told my guys that. I believe in God and I believe there is a plan. That plan could have been for us to lose by one point, but if it was we better be men enough to walk over to the opposition and congratulate them. Thankfully it wasn’t. The important thing to remember though is it’s not the trophy that counts, it’s what you do to get it… and how.”
As challenging as 2006 was, 2009 looks like a mountain to climb in comparison, with veteran tuner and Schumacher crew chief Alan Johnson announcing his intention to leave the team and set up his own Top Fuel outfit. This move puts Schumacher in direct competition with the man who has delivered him five Top Fuel titles. Even more worrying is that the pre-Johnson era Schumacher operation struggled. Despite this Tony remains unruffled. “As a team we’ve done so much, what would we do next year if it stayed the same? Now we have a fresh challenge and an opportunity to race against a group of people who we know will be good. I’ll have to dig deep and build a new team. As a leader I’ll have to inspire and do what leaders do.”
That said, the plot looks set to thicken as Schumacher is also considering leaving Top Fuel dragsters to race Top Fuel Funny Cars; imagine Michael Schumacher switching from Formula 1 to GP2 at the height of his powers, and you’re on the way to understanding what Tony Schumacher is contemplating here. Yet despite much head- scratching among fans, the press and others attached to the sport, Schumacher remains bullish. “Even though Top Fuel dragsters are called the ‘Kings of the Sport’ they run the same engines and clutches as Top Fuel Funny Cars. It’s just that one of the cars is longer and skinnier and the other is shorter and has a bodyshell. Funny Cars are difficult to drive because they have a much shorter wheelbase. It’s a challenge for me and we’re going to have to find a way to get it done.”
The ‘we’ Schumacher refers to includes his beloved sponsor, the US Army. Looking like he just stepped off a troop transport with his close-cropped hair and ready-for-anything physique, Schumacher is crystal clear about his relationship with his sponsor. “I always say I don’t drive for beer and I don’t drive for a fuel company, I drive for a way of life.” Schumacher has been through basic training, jumped out of planes, and visited Iraq and Afghanistan – he is a man who has to believe in what he is doing, or he doesn’t do it at all. “If the Army doesn’t want to move to Funny Cars then we won’t do it,” he says.
The NHRA, just like any other fine and upstanding governing body, is no doubt highly delighted by the turmoil that lurks for Schumacher in the increasingly choppy-looking waters of 2009. After all a dominant force such as Tony, and namesake Michael in his day, is an unwelcome sight. Yet drag racing, despite the multi-million dollar sponsorships for the top teams, has managed to keep its grass roots in sight and that certainly goes for Schumacher. He retains an almost innocent love of the sport. “If I get beat I’ll walk over and shake hands – a lot of people just don’t get that.” And Tony has no patience with pitlane politics and game playing. “I’m not the kind of guy who goes out drinking with the other drivers, but when you win as much as we do you’re not going to make friends.
“I play no games, very few people do. We stage the car and we race. It’s about being a machine on the starting line. I don’t care what anyone else is doing, I know my job, I know what to do and I know how to do it.” It’s a clean, crisp and simple game plan that works.
Back in the ’70s when Don Schumacher was competing, races were won by seconds. Today, two 8000 horsepower cars running different engines in different chassis and competing in different lanes cross the finish line just inches apart. “It’s insane, isn’t it?” laughs Schumacher. “The funny thing is when my dad was racing the film crews used to shoot from the side of the track, which made the cars look like they were running straight. In actual fact the last thing they’re doing is going straight. But you know what? It’s a blast every run.”
Regardless of what 2009 may bring, today, at the World Finals, Tony Schumacher does not look like a man who is ready to hang up his helmet and start teaching baseball. When he does, drag racing will be all the poorer for it.
It’s a funny old world
You’d think that by switching to Funny Cars Schumacher might find winning even easier. No chance…
Despite Tony Schumacher’s dominance the current Top Fuel field certainly keeps him on his toes. Chief among his rivals is Larry Dixon Jr. Dixon started his top-flight career in 1994 when he gained a Top Fuel licence with a 4.76-second pass at Gainsville. In ’95 he was named NHRA Rookie of the Year and followed that up in ’99 when he became the first driver to run quicker than 4.5sec. In 2003 Dixon earned his second consecutive Top Fuel World Championship title. He came second to Schumacher in the 2008 title race.
Cory McClenathan started racing Top Fuel in 1991, finishing in the top 10 in his rookie season. In ’92 McClenathan became the first driver in NHRA history to run in the 4.70s. In ’93 Cory missed four races due to serious burns to his hands and face following a crash at Rockingham Dragway, yet still finished sixth overall for the season. Then in 2006 he recorded his 15th career top-10 points finish and in ’08 came third to Schumacher.
If or when Schumacher does switch to Funny Car the competition certainly won’t be any easier. Waiting eagerly for the Top Fuel dragster champion will be the likes of Cruz Pedregon (2008 Top Fuel Funny Car champion, above), Tim Wilkerson (’08 runner-up, below) and Jack Beckman (third place, ’08). And as if this isn’t challenge enough there is also 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force and daughter Ashley to contend with.