After all, the Army is our Nation's preeminent leadership experience, where its future leaders are developed and are empowered with the confidence to take decisive action when needed and the flexibility to excel in constantly evolving situations.
Last we saw of Tony "The Sarge" Schumacher at the NHRA's home track in the foothills of Southern California - fittingly on Veteran's Day 2012 - the seven-time Top Fuel champion was a final-round victory away from stealing his eighth career title from his Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) teammate and points leader Antron Brown.
Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster, who started the final weekend of the season a hefty 65 points behind Brown and the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster, saw the almost unthinkable happen when Brown was sidelined in the opening round of eliminations by a mechanical failure and brief cockpit fire. That meant victorious runs through all four rounds of eliminations would earn the 2012 Top Fuel title for Schumacher. He made it past J.R. Todd in the opening round, Khalid alBalooshi in the quarterfinals and Bob Vandergriff in the semis to set up a dramatic final-round matchup against Brandon Bernstein while teammate Brown watched helplessly from the viewing stand. Schumacher posted an impressive 3.753-second run at 325.53 mph against Bernstein's run of 3.762 seconds at 320.81 mph. But Bernstein's reaction time of 0.037 of a second versus Schumacher's 0.054 of a second made the difference and gave Bernstein his first Top Fuel overall event win since 2009 and, more significantly, clinched the championship for Brown by a mere seven points.
So close, but so far. Nonetheless, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team exhibited the level of engineering and teamwork during their bold and determined bid for the championship that continued to reflect the Army's leading-edge technology and the powerful, realistic training of its Army Strong Soldiers. It was certainly reminiscent of Schumacher's 2006 Top Fuel title run, during which he overcame a 336-point deficit in the standings and needed to not only sweep the elimination rounds at the Pomona finale, but set a national elapsed time record in the process. He did just that in his final-round win, which has gone down in drag racing lore as, simply, "The Run." The following year, he needed to win the Pomona round for his fifth career Top Fuel title and fourth of six in a row. Again, he did just that.
In all, Schumacher has six career wins at Pomona to tie him with the legendary "Big Daddy" Don Garlits as the winningest drivers at Auto Club Raceway. Schumacher and Garlits also were the winningest Top Fuel drivers at the U.S. Nationals with eight victories apiece before Schumacher won his ninth career event at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis last September. Among Schumacher's six Pomona victories were 2004 and 2008 season-opening wins that launched him to the Top Fuel championship both years. He also was fast qualifier at the Pomona season openers in 2005, 2006 and 2007 among nine top qualifying efforts at the facility.
Despite Brown's first-round exit from last November's season finale at Pomona, the story of his 2012 season had the happiest of endings, and he's understandably anxious to return to Auto Club Raceway to begin defense of his first career Top Fuel title that came in just his fifth season racing in the NHRA's top division. The first African American NHRA champion and the first ever in a major U.S. auto racing series has reached the Top Fuel final four times in his 10 previous appearances at Pomona. While he was runner-up to Doug Kalitta in 2009 and to DSR teammate Spencer Massey last season, Brown powered his way to back-to-back victories in the November 2009 and 2010 finales. He also picked up back-to-back Top Fuel fast qualifier honors in the February 2008 and 2009 season openers.
As another new season gets underway, Schumacher and defending-champion Brown look to once again embody the spirit of the U.S. Army, which is the strength of the Nation while its Soldiers are the strength of our Army. As no doubt will be clearly evident as Schumacher and Brown go about their business in 2013, the Army-NHRA partnership will continue to provide Americans a platform to experience the power, speed, teamwork and technology that drives that strength.
TONY "THE SARGE" SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
You finished the 2012 season within seven points of winning your eighth career championship in dramatic fashion. Do you simply hit the reset button as you embark on the 2013 season, or might thoughts of what could have been last year carry over?
"We'll start from scratch. (Laughs.) I don't think anyone who's asked that question and says something like that is out of their mind, it doesn't happen. It's definitely there. We ran amazingly. We were Army Strong in every way. Our U.S. Army team exemplified the mental, emotional and physical strength like no other down the stretch, just like our U.S. Army Soldiers do every day of the year. So, as we head into this season, what you do the year before, in every way, shape and form, is going to guide you through what the next year holds. As the season was winding down last year, people kept talking about "The Run" - that was a long time ago, getting close to 10 years ago. But even that experience definitely helped me that final weekend last year. It made it a matter of, 'We've been there, we've done this.' Last year, we were coming off a season with no wins, that very, very inconsistent. We had to pull together and go out and win with a lot of media and everybody watching, people asking what was going on. But we did well, we went out and won Bristol and we won Indy, and then it all came down to the last run of the year, again. I've told a lot of people that you are very fortunate if you have that kind of moment in your lifetime, but I've had it happen four times. Those four, in particular, came down to very high-pressure moments that you had to have the correct team for. I think that's the lesson that we learned again last year and we'll be able to build from that and can expect to have much better days this coming season."
Is it safe to say you and the U.S. Army team learned some valuable lessons during last year's stretch run?
"Absolutely, and even on the bad days, a lesson's a lesson. It doesn't just mean that the last run of the year is all we learned all year long. There were a lot of little lessons along the way. I guess it's because the U.S. Army team is a group of people who are smart enough to learn from those situations. Each member of the U.S. Army team plays a vital role in the success of the car on the track. It's just like every Soldier, no matter which of the more than 150 career options he or she chooses in the Army, is vital to the success of the mission. We've watched a lot of teams out there who are taught lessons where you'd think they'd come back and do things differently, but they continue to do the same things over and over and you wonder what's going on. Our team is led by Mike Green (crew chief), who is such a calm guy, and Neil Strausbaugh (assistant crew chief), who is so consistent. Those two guys are so calm and so into their jobs and they're so easy to work with that the team works so flawlessly, even through adversity. The greatest lesson of all is adversity. Anybody can smile when things are going great. It's watching the faces of the people and how they deal with it when things aren't going well that shows true character. Okay, we won two events last year - we won Bristol and Indy. It was an awesome year, we finished second and that makes it a great year, by most accounts. But we lost 20-something events, and that's adversity. I don't care how you look at it, you're going to lose more than you are going to win in drag racing. There are great cars, great teams and you have to respect that. You have to understand that the name of the game is getting to that last race and being the one to answer the call when they crown the champion. And you have to get through it all to get there."
Speaking of adversity, you certainly saw your fellow U.S. Army driver Antron Brown have to deal with it en route to his first Top Fuel championship. How do you size up his performance last year?
"Antron is cool. He's a great dude. He's a great world champ. We made him sweat a little bit there on the last day of the season, but I think it was good for him and good for the team. People are going to respect what they did more so because of the adversity on that final day. The ones where you go out and just put the power down and where you're in control all the way to the end, they're gratifying, for sure. But the ones where you're having to sit back and watch from the sidelines and see it all unfold in front of your eyes, that sure builds character. So we're going to call Antron the champion this year. I told all those guys that they performed amazingly all year. Some of the stuff that happened to them at the end of the year was terrible to watch. But they performed amazingly all year, and that's the part they'll have to be constantly reminded about."
What would you say are the differences racing at Pomona in February versus November?
"The pressure's obviously more at the end of the year for some. For others, they're pretty much out of it by then. At the beginning of the year, it's pretty much about making a statement. It's about, 'OK, we've tested, let's see what everybody's got.' And if you go out there and just thunder the ground and make everybody think they're out there just running for second place, that's a statement. But you're not going to do that. You're going to have at least nine or 10 cars that are all good enough to pound the ground. It's going to be intense. We're all going to go out there and check out the new looks of the cars and see what everybody is doing, what they've got."
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:
What's going to be on your mind when you pull into Auto Club Raceway to start the 2013 season as the defending champion?
"Well, you know, definitely when we pull in there, I'm just going to remember back a little bit of last year. But last year now is pretty much done and over with. So we're back at work, just like usual. We've put those hours in. The effort is definitely going forward. We want to contend for a championship again and we want to defend our title. We saw a bunch of other teams step up at testing. Brandon's (Bernstein) car was running exceptionally well. Our teammate Tony Schumacher, and Morgan Lucas, and the Kalitta cars were running well, and both Al Anabi cars were running well. You have a lot of people coming out there this year and they want to win. This is going to be another year where the competition level is going to be at an all-time high."
Have you been able to enjoy much of an offseason since you clinched the championship at Pomona in November?
"Well, as soon as we got back, basically we had Thanksgiving, came back after Thanksgiving, we broke down our car that we just got done racing. It got totally revamped. Then, we went right into the enclosed cockpit where we started massaging it. I sat in the car, got everything adjusted for how I want it to feel. It's just been nonstop with brand new safety equipment from Impact coming in. Our weeks have been full of development going forward, not just in performance but in safety. Week in, week out, also, I tried to get back to my regular routine - three days in the gym, two days playing basketball. I've been keeping up that regimen all season so I come back in tip-top shape. Let me tell you something, when you go through the racing season where I'm not in the gym as much as I am in the offseason, you can tell when you come back. It definitely took me a few weeks to get readjusted to that again."
You've driven for Don Schumacher for quite a few years, now. How would you describe what it's like, and how was he during your championship battle with your DSR teammates last fall?
"I would describe Don Schumacher right off the bat as being competitive. He's very, very competitive. He's got a real strong eagerness to win. That's the best way to describe Don because he does not like to lose. He gives everything he's got. He rubs off on you. There's no excuse. Eagerness to win and no excuses. The 'no excuse' part is you don't make up excuses. When something doesn't go right, you go right back to work. You don't say, 'This is why it happened.' You go back to work to fix why it happened. That's what he's about. He's a man who wants results. That's the best way I can describe Don to you. Last year, when we were duking it out against each othe for the championship, Don stayed out of the mix of that. He lets the teams actually just fight amongst themselves. He gives each and every team at his shop everything they need to be successful and compete for championships. The U.S. Army car gets nothing different than my Matco Tools/U.S. Army car or the FRAM car did. It's up to us to do what we want to do. He supports us in each and every way. At the end of the day, if you deserve it, you're going to get it. You can't take anything away from his son Tony because he's the seven-time world champ. He's done it because that team has earned it, not because one of his teams stepped out of the way and let them get it. That's the way we do it over here at DSR. You see a lot of racers who like to come over here and race for Don because we race that way. There are no team orders over here. We push each other to another level. I think that's what you saw between all three of our Dragster teams and Funny Car teams last year, where we push each other to another level, and that really helped us in competing for a championship. That's why you saw us finish one, two and three in the points."