The rarified air at 5,800 feet above sea level posed the usual setup challenges on the Bandimere Speedway dragstrip just west of Denver this weekend, but it was evident that each member of the U.S. Army Racing team plays a vital role in the success of the car on the track, similar to how 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.
Schumacher and his U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) struggled to get down the dragstrip during the opening three rounds of qualifying before a stellar run late Saturday afternoon put him 10th in the qualifying order. And “The Sarge" looked like the seasoned veteran and seven-time champion he is in disposing of his opponents in the first two rounds of eliminations Sunday before coming up just short against Bob Vandergriff in the semifinals.
Most importantly Schumacher stayed within easy striking distance in the Top Fuel standings behind series-leading Shawn Langdon, who started the weekend one point ahead of Schumacher. Langdon also fell in the semifinal round today, losing to eventual Top Fuel event winner Spencer Massey of DSR, but was able to stretch his lead over second-place Schumacher to 19 points courtesy of an oil-down penalty levied against the U.S. Army team after its semifinal run.
“In the big picture, we're in the middle of a great fight for the championship, and you can hardly ask for any more than that at this point in the season," said Schumacher, who beat David Grubnic and Doug Kalitta, respectively, in today's opening two rounds. “The story of our season, and this weekend in particular, is that our endless effort won win another championship totally reflects how the Army is the Nation's preeminent leadership experience, where the Nation's future leaders are developed and empowered with the confidence to take decisive action when needed and the flexibility to excel in constantly evolving situations. There are a lot of great cars we race against week in and week out. The top-three in the points have won three races apiece. The fans are getting their money's worth, for sure, and it's as simple as that. You can't write a better script. It could've been better for us this weekend, of course, but it also could've been disastrous. That last qualifying run Saturday saved us. We came through the adversity and did what we had to do today to win a couple of rounds. In the end, we got beat in the semis. Now, it's on to Sonoma."
Both Schumacher and Vandergriff struggled to get down the track in today's semifinal matchup. The U.S. Army Dragster crossed the line in 4.091 seconds at 299.33 mph to Vandergriff's 4.057 seconds at 294.82 mph. Earlier in the day, Schumacher and Langdon were the first two Top Fuel drivers with four events remaining to clinch a spot in this year's 10-driver, six-event Countdown to the Championship, which begins at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, N.C. in September.
For defending Top Fuel champion and defending Mile-High Nationals winner Brown, a lot was accomplished this weekend in his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR with a pair of solid qualifying runs Saturday and his fastest run of the weekend in today's first-round matchup against Al-Anabi Racing's Langdon. Brown's opening-round run of 3.974 seconds at 310.34 mph, however, was bettered by Langdon's 3.921 seconds at 310.34 mph.
“It's just how we all lined up," said Brown, who remained fifth in the championship chase despite his early exit today. “It's been the luck of the draw, but it's the way it goes. We've still just got to be pumped up and excited to go to Sonoma. We accomplished a lot here as a team, our car worked right, and we almost got there. The good part is, Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald, crew chiefs) and all the boys did what they wanted to do. It just wasn't enough in that first round. We could've beaten a lot of people but them that round. We'll just go into Sonoma and our goal will be to attack that first round of qualifying hard. We're going to attack it just like it's the final round of eliminations, attack each and every round and change our recent trend to where we're up there in the top half of the field in qualifying. And then we'll attack it on race day. This race here, honestly, is just a crapshoot. You're up a mile high and that sets everybody back. The good part is, we learned a lot."
The next event, the second of the traditional three-event Western Swing, is next weekend's (July 26-28) 26th annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. ESPN2's delayed broadcast of the elimination rounds Sunday is set for 8 p.m. EDT.