Like he did here at last year's finale in his attempt to snatch his record eighth career Top Fuel crown, Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster team executed with precision this entire opening weekend and came within a whisker of an overall event win, beaten across the finish line by Shawn Langdon of Al-Anabi Racing in Sunday's thrilling final.
Meanwhile Brown, who survived Schumacher's run through the elimination rounds and came away with his first career Top Fuel title here last November by just seven points, feels fortunate that the engineering, safety technology and teamwork of the NHRA Safety Safari enabled him to walk away from a horrific crash after he crossed the finish line with a second-round victory in his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster. That, and his own powerful, realistic training in the safety department.
After setting the fastest Top Fuel qualifying runs both Friday and Saturday, Schumacher reported for duty Sunday morning focused on mowing through all four rounds of eliminations. In his first-round matchup, he disposed of Brazilian Sidnei Frigo, who earned the distinction Saturday of becoming the fastest 16th-seeded qualifier in NHRA history.
As Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster were staged behind the starting line for his second-round matchup against Steve Torrence, the seven-time champ ended up with a front-row seat as his DSR teammate Brown, racing in the right-hand lane just ahead, had burst into flames as it crossed the finish line, shot left across the drag strip and backed heavily into the concrete barrier. Brown, belted safely in the canopy-enclosed cockpit of his Dragster, slid all the way down the track, coming to rest upside-down in the sand trap. With the exception of a few bumps and bruises, Brown emerged unscathed, but the ensuing cleanup and wall repair to just under 90 minutes.
"I had a front-row seat for a pretty nasty-looking crash - but apparently everything did its job to perfection, from the car construction to the canopy to Antron's ability to stay calm and make all the right moves in a situation like that," Schumacher said. "Not only did I see Antron crash right before my eyes, I saw a lot of other ones on the big-screen TV during the down time. We knew when we got going again we were going to be the next car on the track and we were ready to get back in the car and get the job done. That second-round run against Torrence was a huge run because the winner got a free pass to the final and we were going to get the opportunity to try a few things, which we did. It ended up being a good battle. If we drop the ball in either direction, we lose the race."
Brown's quarterfinal victory over Dave Grubnic earned him the semifinal slot against Schumacher but, because his car was destroyed, series rules mandated that his weekend was over - although Brown made it known he was more than ready to jump in his backup car to continue if the rules had allowed.
Schumacher's final-round matchup against Langdon was all that was standing between the U.S. Army driver's 70th career Top Fuel event title. Langdon benefited from an amazing .011-of-a-second reaction time off the starting line compared with Schumacher's .042 of a second, and clocked a run of 3.721 seconds at 322.27 mph over the 1,000-foot distance. Schumacher arrived in 3.747 seconds at 324.12 mph. It was the 51st runner-up finish of Schumacher's career while it was Langdon's second career event title.
"We came back and made a really valiant effort in the final," said Schumacher, who had to do some crisis management of his own during Friday qualifying when his safety chute malfunctioned and left him having to coolly and calmly bring his U.S. Army Dragster to a stop against the safety netting at the end of the strip. "The car that beat us ran well and deserved a trophy. It was a phenomenal run, a great race. They ran amazing - a .72 with an .011 light. It was just an awesome race. Not too many fans can complain about the final round, there. I've got to say, the story of our opening weekend was about how only the strongest wear our U.S. Army colors, how U.S. Army Soldiers possess a mental, emotional and physical strength like no other, and how this U.S. Army Racing team reflects those strengths. I'm proud of everybody on this team. They performed flawlessly all weekend. We qualified No. 1 and we leave here second in the points. Obviously, we'd rather be first, but that's the way it goes. But a lot of people went home in the first round and a lot of people didn't qualify. Langdon and I were talking before the (final) run and said there are going to be some good cars that don't qualify this year. This was the quickest qualifying field ever. The first round I had to run against the quickest 16 (seeded) car ever. There's nothing easy about it. The conditions were fantastic and everybody got down the track all day. But we've got a good position to build on as we move forward with the overall mission of winning the championship."
Brown, meanwhile, was thankful in his own right for having emerged from his accident unscathed.
"The first thought in my mind was, ‘Lord, have mercy, God, please get me through this,'" he said. "I was very coherent of what was going on around me, and it was a terrible feeling to know I can't stop it. Your instincts kick in and you slow down and think about what you need to do to survive that situation. I just remember going to the end of the racetrack and everything was going fine. I didn't hear anybody around me so I was, like, ‘We're doing good.' All of a sudden I just remember the car just snapping. Basically, when we blew up, I felt the back end come up and all I remember was going over on my side. And then I remember pulling the brakes and everything else and I couldn't do anything else. I remember turning the fresh air on because the fumes were getting to me from the nitro. I guess I was on fire but couldn't see it. Thank God that canopy is on our car because, when we hit that sand trap, it really kept everything away from me and the fire away from me. I'm just grateful we had that thing on our car because I don't know what would've happened if we would've had our normal setup on the front of the car. I'm able to walk away from something like that and that is a very good thing. So we're just going to regroup and find out what happened."