It's getting to be crunch time for the U.S. Army driver duo of Tony "The Sarge" Schumacher and Antron Brown with just two events remaining before the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship begins.
And, true to the form Schumacher, Brown and their respective Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) teams have exhibited during their celebrated careers, they are once again rising to the occasion each time they take to the track during these dog days of NHRA summer, demonstrating the same attributes the Army looks for in its Soldiers – putting the mission first, a never-quit attitude and a refusal to accept defeat.
This weekend's 33rd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway is the next event on the schedule. It's the next-to-last stop on the tour before the regular season concludes two weeks hence with the 60th annual Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals just outside Indianapolis.
And as the majority of Top Fuel competitors continue to jockey for a spot in the 10-driver Countdown field, Schumacher and Brown and their teams are locked firmly into the playoffs after showing they will be two of the drivers to beat once the six-event Countdown kicks off at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina in mid-September.
Schumacher and his U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for DSR concluded this year's Western Swing two weekends ago on a qualifying tear, to say the least. "The Sarge" sandwiched No. 1 qualifier efforts at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado and Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington around a solid No. 3 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, and climbed as far as the semifinals at both Sonoma and Kent.
That's excellent momentum for the U.S. Army team as it heads to a pair of racetracks where Schumacher has scored an even dozen event titles. He won Brainerd in 2000, 2004 and 2008, also reached the Top Fuel final there in 2003, 2006 and 2011, and has been No. 1 qualifier there six times. In two weeks, Schumacher will be vying for his 10th career U.S. Nationals title.
Brainerd has also been a hot spot over the years for Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR. He won the Top Fuel class there in 2011, beating Schumacher in the final, and also reached the Top Fuel final the following year. Add his four Pro Stock Motorcycle-class event titles at Brainerd in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2006, and Brown's five career Mello Yello Drag Racing Series victories at the Minnesota track ties him with Kenny Bernstein. His next Brainerd victory would tie Joe Amato at No. 2 on the win list.
While Schumacher and the U.S. Army team used this past off weekend to prepare for the final two regular-season events in the DSR shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army team took part in a special racing exhibition at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. Not surprisingly, they were in regular-season form as they laid down a head-turning run of 3.801 seconds at 321.65 mph in a unique Top Fuel vs. Funny Car matchup against John Force.
When they get back to business at Brainerd this weekend, Schumacher and Brown will continue to fine-tune their respective setups with an eye on the all-important six-event Countdown. Brown sits second in the Top Fuel standings, 76 points behind leader Doug Kalitta, who beat him in the final at Kent two weekends ago. Schumacher is the fourth and final driver currently locked into the 10-driver Countdown, 346 points behind Kalitta and 147 points behind third-place Shawn Langdon.
TONY "THE SARGE" SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You've had a weekend off since closing out a Western Swing that was successful in so many ways, even though it didn't yield an event title. What are your thoughts as you head to Brainerd for the next-to-last event of the regular season?
"We've really shown during this most recent stretch of races that only the strongest wear our colors, and the Army-NHRA partnership provides Americans a platform to experience the speed, power, teamwork and technology that drives that strength. We've had a weekend off to get ourselves ready for this closing stretch before the Countdown and I'm excited to get back to it. We're headed to Brainerd after coming from Seattle, which is another tree-filled place that makes for a lot of oxygen, which means the potential for generating a lot of power. It's a little tough to know exactly what we can expect this weekend because it really depends on the weather conditions, and they tend to vary a great deal up there at Brainerd. We've run there a lot and we've done well there, so we have great data. I'm really looking forward to going there and racing and representing the U.S. Army. We're focused and determined because we know everybody's going to be on their A-game because it's the race before Indy. Everyone wants to do everything they can to be ready for the last regular-season event."
You mentioned Brainerd's similarity to Seattle in the area of horsepower potential. Are there certain nuances about the racetracks you visit that you especially look for throughout the season?
"If a track has nuances, they don't tell me about them. I don't want to know. Unless there's a groove I have to drive around, I don't want to know about any of that stuff. The crew does its job and I do mine. I always say the mind can hold seven things in it. That's why phone numbers have seven digits. There's a reason for that. The more you tell a driver to watch for and do, the more he's going to make mistakes. I like to say I'm a machine. I want to get in the car and be exact and do the same thing every time. Throw another thing in there and say, ‘Watch for this,' and the potential to make mistakes increases. I think my guys are really good about knowing that. Likewise, I don't have to get out of the car and tell them what it did. I don't have to. We have computers for that. I drive the car and do my best to keep it in the groove and go straight, leave on time, and do the same thing every time so they don't have to worry about the driver. We've been doing it this way for a long, long time and it's a proven approach that works."
You were No. 1 qualifier at Denver and Seattle and a solid No. 3 at Sonoma but could not translate those exceptional qualifying efforts into event titles. In fact, do you suppose it might be bad luck to be the No. 1 qualifier since the series has now gone 21 consecutive events during which a No. 1 Top Fuel qualifier has failed to win an event?
"I was up in the lounge the other weekend at Sonoma when we were going to race Terry McMillen in the first round the next morning, and I told Mike (Green, crew chief) and Neal (Strausbaugh, assistant crew chief), ‘Hey, it's cool, we're racing Doug Kalitta (points leader).' And they looked at each other, then looked at me and said, ‘What? No, we're not.' I told them to just get it out of their minds who we're racing, that we're racing Kalitta. And we went out and went right down the track the next morning. We're learning more and more that you can't start thinking about backing it down based on who you're racing. What happens when you do, and this is so vivid in my mind, is the car leaves soft because we're trying to be soft, but then the clutch comes in like it's supposed to but the car's not moving and then there isn't enough inertia. The car gets too heavy. It's funny, I'm not always correct because I'm just a dumb, old driver, but some of those early round losses are predictable. We don't go out and shake the car or shake the tires when we're running a Kalitta or somebody like that. We do it when we're running a car that's seeded a lot lower than we are. What we've been doing in qualifying in recent weeks is very impressive because it just goes to show it doesn't matter whether we're racing or who we're racing, we just need to get down the track fast every time. We need to keep those runs on our mind and forget about who's in the other lane because none of that matters. Finally, is it a jinx to be No. 1 qualifier? No, it's not a jinx. It just means you're a lot closer to the edge than everybody else. Then again, I've never looked at the stats, but I'm willing to bet I've won a lot more races from the No. 4 qualifier spot than the No. 1 spot. I think most people probably have. It's just one of those things. If you're not living on the edge, you're just taking up too much space."
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You had an impressive run to the Top Fuel final at Seattle from the No. 12 qualifying spot and, for good measure, you and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army team decided to work even on your off weekend at the Night Under Fire exhibition at Norwalk, Ohio, where you laid down an impressive run racing against John Force and his Funny Car. Talk about the last few weeks.
"That's why I keep saying we've got the best team out here. Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald, co-crew chiefs) didn't let a bad qualifying effort by us get them off track at Seattle, and Brad (Mason, assistant crew chief) led our Matco Tools/U.S. Army boys to turning it around on Sunday. Another example of how good our team is was on Saturday night at Norwalk, where we threw down at the Night Under Fire. Running four straight weekends didn't affect our team at all and we got to test some new pieces on our racecar. Our guys had raced seven of the eight weekends before we went back to Norwalk, and they were as focused and worked as hard Saturday night like they were racing for Mello Yello points. What impressed me more than the great Norwalk show was the work done by our Matco/U.S. Army team. Our guys were tired and wanted to be home that night but they worked a lot harder than I did signing autographs. They won't get a day off before they head for Brainerd. I'm so proud to be on the same time with them."
You have five career titles at Brainerd – four in Pro Stock Motorcycle and one in Top Fuel – which ties you with Kenny Bernstein and puts you one behind Joe Amato for second overall. What are your thoughts about returning to Brainerd?
"First off, it's just special to be mentioned in the same sentence with those great drivers. I don't know if I'll ever catch (John) Force (who has won 11 times). We're excited about getting back to work at Brainerd. With just two more races before the Countdown, we know how important it's going to be to head up there and put some results on the board. It will always be a special place to me. That being said, it's always been a really good place to go to and really dig in. What makes Brainerd so special is the fans camping out in the infield known as ‘The Zoo.' It's so relaxing, but it also emits this air of electricity when we're racing. When you're out there with such passionate fans, that's something that makes it so cool. It's a really unique atmosphere to race in. It gives you confidence and puts you at ease because there's so much going on that it keeps you from overthinking the small stuff and mess up. I love it there."