INDIANAPOLIS (Aug. 28, 2012) – It’s an easy 30-minute drive from Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, site of January’s Super Bowl XLVI, to Lucas Oil Raceway Park in nearby Clermont, Ind., site of another Super Bowl-like event in the form of this weekend’s NHRA U.S. Nationals.
In January, all eyes of the football universe were fixed upon downtown Indy to watch the New York Giants dispose of the New England Patriots on the gridiron to earn the National Football League’s top prize. In similar fashion this weekend, the sport of drag racing’s most electric event takes place for the 58th time Wednesday through Monday on the dragstrip at Lucas Oil Raceway. And among the competitors will be the U.S. Army NHRA Racing duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown, both of whom have left their indelible signatures on the U.S. Nationals in recent years and look to do the same again this weekend with the kind of focus, precision and determination emblematic of the 1 million Army Strong Soldiers they represent.
Schumacher, the seven-time NHRA champion, has certainly refused to accept defeat during his stellar career and, at the U.S. Nationals in particular, has rarely had to. To say Lucas Oil Raceway is his most successful venue is an understatement of Army Strong proportions. The driver of the U.S. Army NHRA Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) has won eight of the 12 U.S. Nationals held thus far this millennium, and he made it all the way to the final in one of the four he did not win. That puts Schumacher in the not-so-quiet company of the legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits as the two winningest drivers in U.S. Nationals history. Having scored his last U.S. Nationals victory in 2009, Schumacher hopes to end his two-year “drought” at Lucas Oil Raceway and take sole ownership of the all-time record.
Brown, meanwhile, hits his hometown track for the past decade as the defending Top Fuel race winner, having edged Del Worsham in last year’s U.S. Nationals final. The New Jersey native who resides in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., has won three of the last six NHRA events this season and his quarterfinal appearance at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway two weekends ago put him atop the Top Fuel standings, just ahead of his DSR teammates Spencer Massey and Schumacher, who hold down the second and third positions, respectively, heading into Indy. Brown’s success at the U.S. Nationals also includes victories in the Pro Stock Motorcycles division in 2000, the year Schumacher scored the first of his eight Top Fuel wins at the event, and 2009, when Schumacher scored his most recent U.S. Nationals win.
As if the prestige of winning the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series’ most colorful event wasn’t motivation enough, the U.S. Nationals is also the final regular-season stop on the 23-race tour, and the U.S. Army duo of Brown and Schumacher would like nothing better than to race their way into the coveted top spot and accompanying 20-point bonus when the standings are reset at the outset of the six-race Countdown to the Championship Sept. 14-16 at zMax Raceway in Charlotte, N.C. Brown is in the driver’s seat with a fairly comfortable 58-point lead over Massey, while Schumacher needs a great deal of help if he is to overcome his 139-point deficit to his fellow U.S. Army-sponsored teammate.
That’s the big picture. Another added wrinkle this weekend is the prestigious all-star showdown known as the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, which pits eight Top Fuel and eight Funny Car drivers in a $100,000-to-win races-within-a-race Saturday and Sunday. Drivers qualify for seven of the eight spots in each division by winning an NHRA event this season, while a fan vote determines the finalists for the eighth and final Shootout berth, which is ultimately determined by a lottery held Wednesday evening.
Brown holds the No. 1 seed in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout as an event winner this season and his current standing as the Top Fuel points leader. He’ll open Shootout competition Saturday against the No. 8 seed determined by the fan vote and Wednesday night’s lottery event. Schumacher, who scored his victory at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway in June, is the third seed and will open against sixth-seeded Morgan Lucas.
With so much at stake, and with the desire to operate successfully on so many racing fronts this weekend, Schumacher and Brown will certainly call upon the strong will and determination of the Army Strong Soldiers they represent all across the globe as the curtain comes down on another thrilling regular season and the all-important playoffs are set to commence.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster:
How is it that you have come to be so incredibly successful at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis?
“Everyone has those tracks. (Doug) Kalitta’s got Sonoma, where he just goes out and wins it. We all have our place, and what a lucky guy I am to have Indy be the place where we have been the epitome of Army Strong. I started my whole career at Indy in ’96 with the Peek brothers and went to the final at our first race. I think I’ve been to the final there 10 times in my whole career. And when you have a track that special, you want to race there as many times as possible because the ‘refuse to lose’ attitude really shines through. It’s a great feeling. I really wish we’d get to race Indy more than once a year.”
How much is being successful at Indy a mental game?
“It’s been that way my whole career. When you show up there and you’re good at it, you’re mentally prepared for it. There’s a mental toughness and a determination to conquer any adversity, like our Army Soldiers, that really comes into play for us at Indy and it influences our attitude and performance all throughout the year. Fortunately, Indy’s not like one of those places like Atlanta, where we’ve never won and it tends to be a little harder on you. For Indy, I go in early, I ride Harleys all week and I feel like a bad-to-the-bone dude. And then I get into the racecar and I drive it well. Our shop’s there. It’s the racing capital of the world. We enjoy it. It’s our home track. Our crew guys and their families live there and we have them out at the track. As great as it is to win in front of all those people, it’s just as difficult to lose. So, we put in a lot of extra time on this race weekend and we definitely leave nothing on the table.”
How cool is it to show up at Indy knowing you’re the guy, the one everybody wants to knock off?
“We’ve won it eight times. They don’t want there to be any more, but we sure do. It’s really gratifying to know people have to dig really deep to beat us. There are teams capable of that right now. They dig deep and pull off some pretty big miracles. So we’re going to have stay on course, a thousand points of light, stay focused, and ‘get ’er done.’ It’s going to be fun. I’m really look forward to it.”
You’re tied with Don Garlits with the most U.S. Nationals crowns in history – eight. What would it mean to be the first in history to make it nine?
“It would definitely be a goal of mine, but I’m pretty proud of just being mentioned in the same sentence with him. It’s a different world now than when he raced, though. There are more races. He’d win by two seconds, we win by inches. So, in a lot of ways, it’s almost a no-win situation. You go and beat him and everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s different, now.’ And if you don’t, they want to know why you didn’t. All we can do is show up with our A-plus game and, at the end of the day, we’ll know how it plays out. I think the most gratifying thing is ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits standing behind my car pulling for me. For as important of a person as he is, as big of a role model as he is to drag racing, he likes to see those records broken. No one likes to see their own records fall, but it’s what racing’s been about. He built it, and he’s a part of it, setting those records. But, like every great guy, he respects the fact there’s somebody else out there doing what he did for all those years. Someday, I hope to be out there doing the same thing, feeling the same way.”
How do you feel about the added wrinkle of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout?
“This is the first year both Shootouts will be in Indy, which I think is a great thing. I love the idea of adding things to the U.S. Nationals. It’s our biggest race and the more that can be done to make it even more exciting, I’m all for it. Having the Traxxas Shootout for us on Saturday and then Funny Cars on Sunday will give the fans even more to come out and be part of. I’m guessing the crowds for Saturday, Sunday and, of course, Monday, will be huge. In the bigger picture of things, the most important run during qualifying will be Friday night to try and go after that No. 1 spot for the U.S. Nationals, and the key will be to stay on top of the conditions Saturday. With the racing as close as it’s been, that is going to be crucial for eliminations. And that’s what adds to Saturday. You’re trying to get everything right on the car in those conditions and, at the same time, go out and win the Traxxas Shootout.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster:
Being the defending U.S. Nationals champion, you have to be a little more excited than usual to get back there, right?
“We’re excited to be coming in as defending champion, having finally broken through by winning one for our U.S. Army brethren last year. Winning the U.S. Nationals in Top Fuel was a bucket list item for me that I finally crossed off. This year, we’re coming in with the mindset of not only ‘refusing to lose,’ once again, but heading into the Countdown with the points lead. That would pay big dividends because of how tight the field will be. Any advantage we can take into the Countdown is huge. There is a lot on the line this week, for sure, but I’m always excited to get back to Indy. It’s in my backyard, in my adopted home where I’ve lived for close to 10 years, now. It’s our biggest race of them all. They stretch it out over fives days, which makes it grueling, so you have to be particularly focused and mentally tough, like our Army Strong Soldiers. Everybody goes prepared and brings the best equipment. It’s a big money race, $100,000. You also have the all-star race this weekend, the Traxxas Shootout, for another $100,000. You have over 150,000 people out there. The stakes are high. It’s lights, cameras and action focused on every single driver, every single team. The pressure’s on and everybody has to bring their A-plus game. We just love going out there in that kind of atmosphere, trying to get the job done.”
How do you approach such a long and grueling event going in?
“You have to go out there and take it one step at a time. Every qualifying round is meaningful. The first run Friday night is going to be meaningful because you want to get down the racetrack and see what it can hold. And then Saturday comes and it’s ‘game on,’ it’s game day, it’s the all-star race. You want to win that race because you’re racing against the best of the best in your category. You have to go through that. And then you have to finish up qualifying. You want to do well and get qualifying points because it’s the last race before the Countdown and it’s going to determine who’s going into the Countdown in the No. 1 spot. We’re going to press hard for that. That’s what we want to do because there are an extra 20 points at stake. So there’s a lot on the line, more than just money and the prestige of winning the U.S. Nationals.”
What is it about the U.S. Nationals that makes it such a unique event?
“One thing about Indy is, you never know what you’re going to get, weather-wise. It could be humid or you could actually get dry air. You’re not right at sea level, so there’s a little elevation. It could be hot one day, and the next day it could be cold, and then the next day it could be cloudy. The weather changes a lot. It’s a totally difference environment from day to day. That’s what makes Indy so challenging and grueling because you can go out there one day and have a track you can’t get down and, the next day, it can be a really tight racetrack that you can set an ET (elapsed time) record on. And then the next day will be an average track. So the conditions change so much and the event is spread out for so many days that nobody really gets adjusted and can say they have an advantage.”
Considering it’s the biggest single event of the season, what does it feel like to win the U.S. Nationals?
“It’s incredible to win that race. When you win a U.S. Nationals, that’s like winning the world championship in and of itself. If you don’t have championship hopes this season, the one thing you really want to do is win Indy. It’s your last hoorah. So everybody’s going to bring their triple-A throwdown package and they’re going to want to get it done. I think it was 2001 when I won both the K&N Filters Pro Stock Bike Battle at Indy and also won the U.S. Nationals on the bike that year. We doubled up the money that weekend, which was a big deal. I came back in 2004 and won the 50th annual U.S. Nationals in the Pro Stock Bike division, as well. It’s always been a great storyline for me to do well at Indy but, right now, it’s out with the past and the focus is on the future. The future is this weekend and we have to take it one round at a time. We’ve got to qualify first and we’re going to go out there each time and do the best job we can.”
There’s always a lot of extracurricular activity surrounding the U.S. Nationals, not the least of which is the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. You’ll be the No. 1 seed for the Shootout. How do you deal with so much more than a typical race weekend’s worth of activity on your mind?
“It’s an honor to be part of something like the Traxxas Shootout. We won early in the year to get our spot in there and we’re excited for it. It’s a great opportunity to win a lot of money and a chance for some great exposure. It’s really cool they’re putting on something special like this for the fans at the U.S. Nationals. It’s a big thing and it’d be a nice boost on Saturday to come out on top. It’s going to be an action-packed weekend and something I, personally, and the whole team has been looking forward to. We are really going to enjoy ourselves this week. There is so much going on building hype for the event, whether it’s the Eric Medlen golf outing at Eagle Creek to the Shootout event and lottery for the eighth-seeded drivers downtown on Wednesday, it’s going to be exciting. We’ve got some fun events with our sponsors Matco Tools and the U.S. Army, and there’s a big open house at Don Schumacher Racing Friday, so there’s definitely lots of build-up for our biggest race of the year.”
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