|Having won four of the last five Top Fuel world championships between them, the U.S. Army duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown have wiped the slate clean once again and are ready for more as they open the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season with this weekend’s 57th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.
Schumacher, the eight-time world champion in the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) whose most recent title came in 2014, is coming off his most challenging season in the last decade and a half despite a pair of event titles at Denver and Indianapolis – adding a victory in the Traxxas Shootout all-star event at Indy – three runner-up finishes and a No. 1 qualifying effort. Still, Schumacher and the Army team remain undaunted by their eighth-place finish in the final standings and expect to be contending for another Top Fuel title throughout the 2017 campaign.
With crew chief Mike Green back for his ninth season at the helm of the Army team along with most of his key personnel from last year, a fresh face joins the team in the form of new assistant crew chief Phil Schuler. Neal Strausbaugh, who helped engineer 26 event titles and Schumacher’s 2009 and 2014 world titles in his seven years with the Army team, moved up to crew chief on the Funny Car team of DSR driver Jack Beckman while Shuler moves from the DSR Top Fuel team piloted by Shawn Langdon the last year and a half. Shuler and Green worked together from 2003 to 2006 on the DSR Funny Cars of drivers Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. Shuler helped engineer Langdon to four event titles in 30 events.
“The Sarge” also will be sporting an interesting, new paint scheme on his U.S. Army Dragster beginning this weekend, one that turns the spotlight on 29 branches of expertise in the Army. The 29 insignias unique to each branch of expertise is woven into the overall scheme, representing the way each branch brings its expertise to the fabric of the U.S. Army, creating the bond that builds the most capable force in the world. Likewise, the members of the U.S. Army team are focused on coming together to make great things happen on the track once again this season.
Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster team for DSR, meanwhile, would do quite well simply to pick up where they left off the past two seasons, during which they were machine-like in reeling off a remarkable 14 event titles, 21 final-round appearances and 10 No. 1 qualifying efforts. But as Brown, as well as his crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald are ever-so-quick to caution, maintaining the status quo is certainly not the way to the next championship in the ultra-competitive world of NHRA Top Fuel racing. Consequently, they are deeply immersed in their latest wave of technological upgrades and developments in an effort to stay ahead of the pack.
Qualifying for the 57th Circle K NHRA Winternationals begins Friday with FS1 providing delayed coverage at 7 p.m. EST Friday and live coverage at 1 p.m. Saturday. Sunday’s elimination rounds will be broadcast live on the FOX network beginning at 4 p.m.
|TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:|
You and the U.S. Army team start with a clean slate this weekend after one of your most challenging seasons to date in 2016. What is your outlook for staying in championship contention all through the season in 2017?
“It’s a brand new season, which is kind of like the first day of school, or the first day on a new job, and that means new life, new energy, and this U.S. Army team knows exactly what it takes to win a championship from day one through the final round of the season. We have the best people in the sport starting with our crew chief Mike Green and our new assistant crew chief Phil Shuler, and we have the level of equipment and expertise that will do everything in its power to find a way to bring the Army its ninth world championship. We shook things down and had some good moments in Phoenix last weekend (for Nitro Spring Training). We ran a 3.70 after shutting off at 800 feet. We had another excellent run going before we blew up big-time – thank goodness for the (cockpit) canopy on that one, otherwise I would have been engulfed. Looking ahead, the competition is at a level it has never been at in the history of the NHRA and that is the greatest thing in the world for the fans who love this sport. The down side is there is less of a margin for error than ever before. But we’ll be focused as we always have been on our one job, and that is to be No. 1 at the end of the season. If we’re not No. 1, it really doesn’t matter if you’re No. 2 or No. 8 at the end of the day. We are all about championships and it’s time to go out and get another one.”
What do you expect with the addition of Phil Shuler as assistant crew chief?
“I think it’s a great addition. Hats off to Neal (Strausbaugh, former assistant crew chief), who earned himself a spot as a crew chief in our DSR Funny Car program. We had a long and great run together. Phil brings us a fresh perspective. He’s another longtime member of the DSR organization and he spent a few years working with Mike (Green) in our Funny Car program back in the early 2000s. Most recently, he played a huge role with our Dragster for Shawn Langdon that was in championship form the last year and a half. It’s a change for our team, but I expect us to hit the ground running at Pomona this weekend. The first thing I told Phil when he moved over here is there should be no holding back when it comes to tuning the car for me because I will drive it like nobody else out there. Hey, I’ve been through many changes in my lifetime, in my racing career. But one thing I’ve learned from the U.S. Army is adaptability. The ability to adapt as well as we do is one thing that has carried us through from one year to the next, from one struggle to our next run of successes. I’m looking forward to good things.”
This year’s new paint scheme for your racecar is an interesting one, casting the spotlight on 29 branches of expertise in the U.S. Army. Your thoughts on that?
“I think it’s very special, one of the neatest paint schemes and themes we’ve had in all my years with the Army team. We know our team has one job each year and that is to go out and compete for the championship. Our car this year is showcasing 29 branches of expertise in the Army and their respective insignias incorporated into the paint scheme. It’s a wonderful design and it tells a great story in the way the insignias are woven into the overall design. It represents the framework made by the way those 29 branches come together to power the most capable force in the world. It’s teamwork in the ultimate sense – 29 teams that come together for one common bond, the common good, and that is the U.S. Army.”
|ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:|
Your Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster are carrying the No. 1 as Top Fuel world champion for the second year in a row and the third time in your career. Are you and the team hungry for more?
“Absolutely, and they put the work in each and every day. When you have a team that isn’t worried about going home at 5 o’clock, they will stay there until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., or come in on the weekends to do what they need to do. That is when you know you have a driven team. They don’t worry about me working because they know I’m always in the gym working and doing my part and they do their part. Then we come together as a whole. We aren’t just satisfied going out there and racing. Once we get to that point, that we are just out there to be out there, that is the time to step aside and give somebody else their shot to do what they want to do and live their dream. Right now, we are still so passionate and driven. The part that drives us is, each and every year, the competition steps up and they get tougher, better, stronger. That is what makes us look inside ourselves. How can we raise the bar? What we did last year isn’t going to make it happen this year. We are going to have to reinvent ourselves and come out and get better. Sometimes we take a step backward to get better. We struggle, like last year when we struggled at the beginning of the year because we started off with a brand new routine. We started with brand new parts and pieces and tried different things – being more aggressive in areas that we weren’t aggressive enough and had to find our window. Once we did, we were able to capitalize and grow during the year. We still didn’t stay stagnant and had to grow at each and every race. When we go into the Countdown, we had to put everything together and it worked out. We are going to go into 2017 with that same formula. What can we work on to improve upon that formula? At the last two races, we saw the Kalitta cars come out swinging hard – very hard. That is going to be a team competing for a championship and we have to battle them. We have to come back and step up to that level.”
You say you’re never content just doing the same things. So, what is new with the team this year?
“We have been working on quite a few things to make our Matco Tools/U.S. Army car better. I can’t get into details about it, but we have been working on quite a bit of things – in our clutch department, and also on our chassis, so we are always developing new things. We are learning. We are at the infancy stage of some things but really starting to dig into them and want to see how they are going to pan out as the year goes on. We are going to be incorporating them throughout the year to make our program better.”
You and the team have been machine-like since your first championship in 2012 and now, having won three of the last five Top Fuel world titles, one has to wonder who you might have modeled your approach to racing after. Anyone in particular?
“Someone I always idolized growing up as a kid was Michael Jordan. The reason being is, that no matter how good he was, he knew he was only as good as his team. What he did was make everyone around him great. From a team aspect, you have to surround yourself with the right people. I’ve been very fortunate to find people who share the same desire I have. Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald (crew chiefs) have always made people around them great. Brian took drivers who were average drivers, or drivers who couldn’t win races, and he won races with them no matter what. Brian made the people around them better. When I got a part of it, that’s what really made our team stand out as a whole. Brian wasn’t doing it by himself. He brought Mark along and then he got other assistant crew chiefs and myself, and then the rest of our guys on our crew all came in together. We made something like one of those miracles happen, miracles like where you truly get an all-star cast to get together to make unbelievable things happen. That is where I credit out entire team’s success.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!