If you grew up listening to AM radio in Chicago during the late 1960s, then your introduction to the sport of drag racing probably was identical to mine.
They’d play a song by Tommy James and the Shondells or Creedence or John Fred & His Playboy Band, and then that SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! guy would come on and shout about the races coming up at Smokin’ U.S. 30 dragstrip or Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., where the featured attractions were almost always “TV” Tommy Ivo and the Chi-Town Hustler.
The Chi-Town Hustler was a famous Dodge Charger Funny Car owned by Chicagoans John Farkonas, Austin Coil and Pat Minick. One of their chief rivals was fellow legend Don Schumacher, also of Chicago, who in those days drove a Funny Car, a Chevy Vega, that resembled a loaf of Wonder Bread.
Schumacher’s father, Albert, was the original Chi-Town hustler. But it had nothing to do with drag racing.
“My father was a bookie,” Schumacher said as we sat in his well-appointed motor coach just before qualifying runs at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Strip, where he has entered three Top Fuel dragsters, including one for his son, Tony, a seven-time series champion, and four Funny Cars.
“He was a professional gambler in all of his young days.”
This is the thing I like most about drag racing — OK, second most, after the smell of nitromethane in the morning and halter tops in the grandstands. The sport is honest, and it attracts polar opposites.
At one end of the paddock, you have the Al-Anabi Racing team, founded by Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar, who is referred to on news releases as “His Excellency.”
At the other end you have Don Schumacher, whose father made his living throwing dice.
“He was a transformer winder up in Michigan, but he was a gambler, and after the war a bunch of sailors came to a picnic where he was, in Grand Rapids, and he went out in the back of his car and got a blanket, and he played dice with them,” Schumacher, 67, said as a smile creased his tanned face.
“You should not play dice with somebody who knows how to play them on a blanket.”
Albert Schumacher cleaned out those sailors and quit his job. The family eventually settled in Chicago, where Albert’s in-laws owned a couple of taverns.
In Chicago, the taverns always have apartments above them. This is where Don grew up and where his mom and dad set up their bookmaking operation.
Don Schumacher never graduated from college — he quit after a couple of years at Loyola University Chicago — but guys who grow up in apartments over taverns in Chicago where their parents are doing business with guys named Lefty and Big Frank have all the education they ever will need.
As for how Don Schumacher got into drag racing, well, here’s the zero-to-60 version: He had lent a former supervisor $2,000 so they could start a business that made transformers for radios and televisions after World War II, and when his business partner died (while attending his father’s funeral), Woodward-Schumacher Electric became Schumacher Electric.
Albert Schumacher turned over the bookmaking business to Don’s mom. Eventually, Lefty and Big Frank had to find another apartment over a tavern at which to make their bets, because the transformer business had taken off.
Every success story that begins with throwing dice and booking horse races must, at some point, find its way to Las Vegas, and Don Schumacher at least is partly responsible for that.
“When I got involved in racing in the early 1960s, most of the gamblers came from Chicago,” he said. “My dad introduced me to the people from the Stardust hotel-casino, and we got a sponsorship going with them.”
When Albert Schumacher died in the 1980s, Don took over Schumacher Electric and switched to manufacturing battery chargers, which are sort of like transformers, only in plastic cases. But you can buy them at Sears and Walmart and Pep Boys and Ace Hardware, which probably explains why Schumacher Electric Corporation of Mount Prospect, Ill., with offices (and facilities) in Matamoros, Mexico, and Wujiang, China, now employs about 2,000 and does around $100 million in annual sales.
Maybe that’s not quite Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani money, but as John Force likes to say, it’s enough to keep the candles lit.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.