AN INTERVIEW WITH DON SCHUMACHER, PT. 1
When we look at the business of drag racing very few have left an indelible mark as Don Schumacher has. He is drag racing's largest professional team owner fielding six nitro teams, after having at one time had eight. Schumacher also has two Factory Stock Showdown teams as well.
Schumacher, who is behind the Schumacher Electric Empire, first paid his dues as a driver, and then team owner in the 1970s, fielding one of the more successful multi-car efforts. His exploits both as a driver and shot-caller has earned him inductions in the various Hall of Fames.
Schumacher is also a cancer survivor, and a passionate drag racing fan.
At the recently completed NHRA Sonoma Nationals, CompetitionPlus.com editor/publisher Bobby Bennett caught up with "The Don" to discuss the state of the sport, the changing face of motorsports marketing and ways he sees to improve the sport.
COMP PLUS: YOU GET INTO SONOMA LATE AT NIGHT, AND EARLY NEXT MORNING YOU ARE ON THE GOLF COURSE. FEELING SPR THESE DAYS?
DON SCHUMACHER: No, just needed to get out and do something to take my mind off of a lot of other stuff. So it was good. Enjoyed it thoroughly with Joe Merdocka and Mike Neff and another guy and we just had a good time.
CP: HOW IS RACING TREATING YOU THESE DAYS? ARE YOU STILL HAVING FUN?
DS: I always love NHRA drag racing. There’s always challenges and there always will be challenges but it’s in my heart and it’s in my blood and I love it.
CP: IS IT STILL AS MUCH IN YOUR BLOOD AS IT WAS IN 1973 AND 1974 WHEN YOU WERE IN YOUR PRIME AS A MULTI-CAR TEAM OWNER AND DRIVER?
DS: When you’re young like that it’s a whole different world than when you’re my age. It’s very different today than it was back then, I can truthfully say that. I can’t say the passion is much different.
CP: HAS TO BE TOUGH WATCHING YOUR SON ON THE SIDELINES AFTER MANY YEARS AS THE BENCHMARK FOR TOP FUEL RACING
DS: I just cannot cope with us not being able to get him out here. Have to get it done and keep working at it every day and that’s the only thing we can do.
CP: HOW BIG HAS THE TEMPTATION BEEN TO FUND THE TEAM OUT OF YOUR POCKET?
DS: Not at all.
CP: DO YOU SEE YOURSELF LETTING UP ANY TIME SOON IN DRAG RACING?
DS: Not really. I look at the sport and see what I can do to keep the sport viable and keep it growing and keep it going forward. Just keep working at what we love.
CP: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE NHRA DRAG RACING FACES TODAY?
DS: The cost. The cost isn’t so much in the engine part of it and the chassis part of it. Yes, there’s costs there but there’s going to be cost no matter what changes you make in those areas. That’s really less than a third of your costs. It’s all of the other things from the travel to the payroll, to all of the benefits, to all of those other things that we have to look at and see how do we bring some realities back into that. How do we shrink it down some? How do we work together, the three partners out here – the fuel racers, NHRA and the track owners. We have to work together to figure out a way to do a better job of lowering our costs in those other two-thirds of the cost to run one of these cars. Yes, we always want to make engine changes and hope we can do something that’s going to lower the cost there but the majority of our cost is in those other areas.
CP: YOU ASPIRED, EVEN IN YOUR EARLY DAYS, TO TAKE DRAG RACING TO THE NEXT LEVEL. AREN’T YOU PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS OVERWHELMING COST?
DS: I talked with some NHRA folks this morning about that. Oh yeah, I pushed it to the limit in a lot of areas. Whether that be changing the size of the valves in the heads. We all pushed for tremendous performance and the next step and we weren’t concerned with next year or the following year. But now it’s caught up to us and we really need to look at it and say “what really makes sense here? How can we pare back some of this?”
Hospitality to my program is key to my sponsors and such. I will do it, I have to do it, it’s the right thing to do to keep the sponsor involved and engaged. We’ll just go from there. That was something that I did push and created what we have today. I’m glad it has never turned into an air-conditioned facility out there and we’re still willing to do it out in the temperature that we have at the race track. It’s a different sport today. It’s a different animal that we’re trying to figure out how best to do the right thing with it. It’s certainly not broke but we need to look at everything and try to do a better job of it.
CP: GOT ANY IDEAS OF HOW TO PUT THAT GENIE BACK IN THE BOTTLE?
DS: It’s a different generation today. The young people do different things and act different ways but the one great thing about NHRA drag racing is that it’s a short, quick period of time and it gives that young generation the time to get on their devices and look at everything else in the world they look at that they can get the euphoric experience of these nitro cars running and performing and doing what they do. In some ways we have the best of both worlds and I do know that there’s efforts being put in to make the whole experience easier to use your smart devices out at these race tracks. Like here, out in the Napa area. But they are putting more and more equipment in to be able to do a better job wi-fi-wise to satisfy what all of us need. Not just the young people but what all of us need.
CP: THAT WOULD BE INSTANT GRATIFICATION?
CP: ABOUT RUMOR OF THE NHRA RUNNING QUARTER-MILE AT SELECT EVENTS …
DS: You know you can hear so many rumors out here and hear so many different things about everybody and everything. It’s hard to really comment on it. I wasn’t in Denver and I know there was some of that conversation between people there in Denver. I can’t tell you who because I wasn’t there. I am not a proponent of returning to 1320. But I am a proponent of doing whatever is best for the sport and the best for our fans.
CP: YOU THINK LESS RACES WOULD MAKE IT BETTER?
DS: Not really because my sponsors look at the markets you’re in and you’re in, I think it’s 21 different markets because there’s two races at three of the race tracks. If you take us out of one of those markets it gives them less value. Yes, we’d save some on race parts which I said is a component of it but it isn’t the biggest cost. Save us something on travel and hotels but it’s not going to do anything for any of the other costs.
If this sport cuts back let’s say 10% or 15% in the number of races, do you think we can go out and get a 15% decrease in our health insurance cost? Or insurance on my building back in Indy? Or the heat, light and power?
So let’s think about all of it before we go off in a direction. It’d be great to run seven races a year like we used to but it isn’t like it used to be. We’re dealing with today with sponsors who look at it differently.
With sponsors who look at marketing in every marketplace and such. So I am not a proponent of less races because of that unless we can figure out a way to reduce all of those other costs and I don’t see my heat, light and power going down at my race shop. I don’t see the real estate taxes. None of those are going to reduce if we have less races and we have less income from our sponsors.