Tony Schumacher, winner of the past six NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel drag racing series championships, excused himself at Wednesday’s Las Vegas Nationals news conference atop the Stratosphere, only to return with a decadent wedge of chocolate cake bigger than Funny Car driver John Force’s personality.
Schumacher stands 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 158 pounds with, like, half an ounce of body fat. He was showing a photo of himself, surrounded by the cast of “Bite,” the Stratosphere’s erotic vampire revue, and “complained” how those women made him get up on stage and remove his shirt, turning his washboard abs into their personal blood bank.
This, I almost can assure you, never would have happened to Big Daddy Don Garlits. Not even in his prime.
That’s why watching Schumacher lug a decadent wedge of cake to our table seemed as incongruous as entering a Volkswagen in the Indy 500, which is what Ron Stander, the journeyman boxer, said after Smokin’ Joe Frazier knocked him senseless back in the day.
Schumacher called out to Don Schumacher Racing (as in Tony’s old man) teammate Cory McClenathan, seated at the next table, nodded to his plate and said because he isn’t in the championship hunt this year and McClenathan is, he planned to holeshot the decadent wedge of cake. McClenathan, he said, was welcome to watch.
Apparently, weight distribution in the drivers is as crucial as weight distribution in the cars themselves. I’ve also heard that “keeping the candles lit” is important.
Schumacher took a couple of bites from the decadent cake wedge. He left the rest.
“Tastes pretty good,” he said to no one in particular. “But not as good as the championship.”
This is the first time in seven years that Schumacher can’t taste the Top Fuel championship with two races to go. He has 2,390 points and sits third in the standings; Larry Dixon has 2,544 points and sits first. No matter how many ways the points are resliced and rediced, NASCAR-style, to make the championship battle more intriguing for fans, Schumacher says he is out as champion.
Perhaps winning six consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championships isn’t the equivalent of The French Empire or The House of Romanov or The Kennedys when it comes to “Great Dynasties for $80, Alex.” In drag racing, six consecutive titles is just getting warmed up when one considers Force won 10 in a row in Funny Car. So maybe that’s why these NHRA Framers — you know, pay me now or pay me later, like that oil filters guy — don’t think it such a big deal that Schumacher’s reign is about to end.
Schumacher hardly mentioned it himself during his turn at the microphone, although he did talk about Matt Hagan, the burly driver leading the Funny Car points, hitting a deer upside the head with a Wiffle bat. I think this is because when Force has the microphone first, one always feels the need to embellish.
Afterward, Schumacher spoke more thoughtfully about the title streak coming to an end but dumped the regret like a bad transmission.
“I think we appreciate it each and every time,” he said, preferring to savor his championships (seven in all) as stand-alone events rather than one in a series. “I’ve been gifted with one of the greatest opportunities a race-car driver has ever seen. When I started in ’96, my goal was to qualify for the U.S. Nationals. That was it.”
Schumacher has won the U.S. Nationals eight times, tying Big Daddy’s record. I could tear a page out of the media guide and put it here, but suffice it to say when it comes to keeping candles lit, the driver of the U.S. Army dragster from the western Chicago suburbs who will turn 41 on Christmas is pretty good at it.
“So next year I have to say I’m a seven-time world champion,” Schumacher said. “It’s not like I have to start over. If I’ve got to say that for the next five years, guess what? It’s still pretty cool. If I never win a race, never win a round again in my life, I have lived the American dream.”
Maybe this is what is meant by having one’s cake, and eating it, too.
And why you push it aside after two bites because something’s always gaining on you.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352.