There wasn’t a U.S. Army Top Fuel championship in the cards this season for the first time in four years, but the duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown still had a hand in the final outcome of this year’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series title Sunday at the NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.
While eight-time Top Fuel world champion Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) dropped their first-round matchup in today’s elimination rounds at the track where “The Sarge” and the Army team had made history so many times before, including during his most recent title run in 2014, Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, the 2012, 2015 and 2016 champions, eliminated this season’s winningest driver and points leader Steve Torrence to open the door for the first career championship for Brittany Force.
Schumacher, the No. 6 qualifier here this weekend, saw his up-and-down 2017 season come to an abrupt end despite a solid first-round run against No. 11 qualifier Shawn Langdon. “The Sarge” powered his way down the track in 3.725 seconds at 328.38 mph after getting off the starting line with a solid .057-of-a-second reaction time. But Langdon was able to get off the line just a bit better – in .046 of a second – and that allowed his run of 3.725 seconds at 326.16 mph to still beat Schumacher across the finish line by less than 5 feet. It was Schumacher’s second first-round exit during this year’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs and his sixth of the season.
“It was one of those seasons where you can look back on so many things that you could’ve done differently and ended up winning a bunch of races,” said Schumacher, who finished eighth in the final standings after finishing the regular season in fourth. “It’s all about timing. Just look at the runs in the first round today – we would’ve won against all of the other seven cars from the lower half of the qualifying order, and it just seems like it was that way so many times this year. But we also were outrun by other great teams and drivers who had great runs at the right time against us this year. We need to step it up. For the next two months, we need to get it together and come out fighting. This U.S. Army team is a great team representing the greatest fighting force in the world and I’m more proud to be a part of it than ever. We celebrated Veterans Day here all weekend with a lot of great activities and that is a tribute to all the men and women who have served this great nation of ours and the reason this team goes racing. It’s a shame to have the season end as abruptly as it did this morning, but I’m looking forward to coming back stronger and faster than ever next year.”
Brown, who arrived at the season-ending Pomona event having already clinched the Top Fuel title each of the last two seasons, was eliminated from title contention before today’s action even started. But Brown still managed to affect this year’s Top Fuel championship.
After an impressive first-round victory over No. 13 qualifier Mike Salinas in 3.710 seconds at 329.91 mph, Brown, the No. 4 qualifier here this weekend, eliminated points leader and series-high eight-time event winner Torrence in the quarterfinal round. Brown got off the line in a rapid .042 of a second to Torrence’s .090 of a second, and he cruised to victory from there in 3.691 seconds at 328.30 mph. Torrence got down the track in 3.695 seconds at 328.26 mph but was beaten across the finish line by a full car length. Torrence then watched helplessly as Force to leapfrogged her way past him to the championship, which she clinched by beating Richie Crampton in their quarterfinal matchup.
Brown and Force then faced off in the Top Fuel semifinal with Force taking the win with a run of 3.674 seconds at 326.63 mph. Brown’s run clocked in at 3.677 seconds at 329.34 mph, and the three-time champion ended his season fourth in this year’s standings.
“The Matco Tools/U.S. Army car ran phenomenally and it was our race today, but we win and we lose as a team,” Brown said. “Today was one of those hard days when you want something so badly and it doesn’t go your way. I just screwed up. I went in there (to stage) and blinked the bulb. I thought I took enough where it wouldn’t blink and that it would be a solid stage and it blinked on me. I just screwed up, plain and simple. There’s no other explanation for it and we lost the race by two thou (two one-thousandths of a second). They did a great job and ran a phenomenal ET and they won the championship. They ran great all day and throughout the last six races. For myself and this entire Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota team, we’re going to work hard this offseason. I’ve got a lot of things that I need to work on. But the positive thing is, it feels good to have our car back. Our car is definitely where it should be. It ran great today and we improved every round. We’re back where we need to be. I’m just looking forward to next year and to start off on a high note. I wish next year was tomorrow, but we’re going to go as hard as we can go this offseason. All I can say is, we’re going to put the work in and we aren’t going to be anything nice next year.”
The top-10 drivers in the final Top Fuel-class standings are:
1. Brittany Force (2,690 points)
2. Steve Torrence (2,609 points -81)
3. Doug Kalitta (2,553 points, -137)
4. Antron Brown (2,508 points, -182)
5. Leah Pritchett (2,452 points, -238)
6. Clay Millican (2,419 points, -271)
7. Shawn Langdon (2,406 points, -284)
8. Tony Schumacher (2,395 Points, -295)
9. Terry McMillen (2,310 points, -380)
10. Scott Palmer (2,218 points, -472)
The 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series kicks off with the 58th annual NHRA Winternationals set for Feb. 9 to 11 at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.