CLERMONT, Ind.—Last year, Tony Schumacher lost his legendary crew chief. This year, has he lost his mind?
Times have changed for the winner of the last five NHRA Full Throttle Series Top Fuel championships, and on paper not for the better. A year ago he came to Indianapolis for the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals with 10 wins and a massive points lead, this year he’s third in the standings with three wins, only third-best in the class.
In the last nine races leading up to the famed “Big Go” at O’Reilly Raceway Park outside Indianapolis, Schumacher not only has not won, he has reached just one final round and has lost several more times in earlier rounds by microscopic slivers of time. There were defeats by .002 and .005 seconds in consecutive races, even a holeshot (reaction time) loss of .004 to Antron Brown when both ran identical elapsed times at Brainerd, Minn., an oddity that might happen twice a year in Top Fuel.
These were the races that Schumacher got the win light more often than not over the last five years, but “The Sarge” and his U.S. Army dragster aren’t bulletproof anymore. Yet he’s perfectly OK with that, even relishing what is now a roller-coaster ride instead of straight-line domination.
“I was part of the greatest team in history, but that was so far out there. Now, we’re just trying to battle,” said Schumacher, 39, who drives for his father’s Don Schumacher Racing team. “I’m enjoying it. You have no idea who’s going to win on race morning, you just have to figure out how to do it.”
It’s a puzzle that the Army team is now figuring under Mike Green, the crew chief charged with filling the biggest shoes in the sport. Alan Johnson, the architect and whiz tuner of Schumacher’s class-record title streak from 2004-08, announced one year ago at Indianapolis that he was leaving at season’s end to form his own team. Al-Anabi Racing, co-founded and abundantly funded by Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, is second in Top Fuel points with driver Larry Dixon, the 2002-03 class champion before Schumacher began his run.
“It’s hard, you can’t depend on that Alan Johnson horsepower now,” said Rod Fuller, the 2007 Top Fuel runner-up when Schumacher won the title on the last pass of the season. “When I strapped in against him I had to do something extraordinary to beat him, that’s hard for a driver to do. When he was strapped in, he knew if he just did what he was supposed to do, he was going to win.”
That hasn’t been the case this year. It hasn’t been as much of a struggle as some were predicting—the team won three of the season’s first eight races, rising to first in points—but there have been uncharacteristic falls. At his hometown Chicago race, Schumacher qualified second but was bounced by a No. 15 seed in the first round, his first early exit since 2007. In all of last year he went out in the second round five times, this year that has happened nine times in a more evenly matched Top Fuel class.
“Schumacher whipped up on a lot of people out here for a lot of years. Every chance some of these guys get, they feel like they’re getting those round wins back,” said Brown, the points leader with five wins and a 4-1 round record against Schumacher. “My butt’s still sore from last year, I raced him eight times and only beat him twice. This year’s a little different story. It just feels great that we stepped up to his level.”
As opposed to 2008, when the Countdown to 1 playoff format nullified a 567-point lead and let the competition back in (albeit to no avail), this year the system is saving his title hopes. Brown is 241 points clear of Schumacher, but when the Countdown begins in two weeks at Charlotte, N.C., the margin will be reset to 40.
Schumacher and the team knew the adjustment was coming, so there hasn’t been any panic in recent weeks as the losses and razor-thin losses mount. Instead, the team has been experimenting with new combinations, preparing for this weekend and the Countdown.
“One thing Alan Johnson is the best at is that he knows when to race, when it’s time to drop the bomb. That’s what we’re building,” Schumacher said. “We could have gone out and won a few of those races with our old stuff, but we can’t win a championship that way. We understand there’s a time and place to go win, there’s a time and a place to figure out everything else.
“All that’s out the door now. We win here. We win here because this is the ultimate battle, we pull out everything we have to win this race.”
For every drag racer, Indy is the most coveted trophy. But Schumacher has personal history (his first Top Fuel event was here in 1996, where he lost in the final) and the record book on the line. A win on Labor Day would be his eighth U.S. Nationals, tying “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for the most in Top Fuel. It would also be his 60th overall, a milestone achieved by four others in NHRA history.
“No. 60 has eluded me for a bunch of races, but it’s going to happen. What a great place to do it,” Schumacher said. “Looking at all the exciting moments I’ve been a part of, this would rank at the top. This would re-establish our team.”
And who wouldn’t have fun doing that, even after being on top for five years?
“We’ve got something to prove these last six races, but we’re looking forward to the challenge and doing it together,” said Green, who moved over this year from DSR teammate Cory McClenathan. “Tony’s very positive about it, he’s a positive influence. I would say, if anything, he’s more focused and dedicated to winning another championship.”