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.
CP: IN NEW ENGLAND, THERE WERE TWO OF THE TOP TEN TOP FUEL CARS NOT COMPETING. ONE OF THOSE DRIVERS WAS LEAH PRITCHETT. IS THAT A CONCERN OR THE NEW NORMAL FOR MAJOR LEAGUE DRAG RACING?
DS: It’s a great concern. Leah wasn’t there because of sponsorship. I have to do a better job and my team has to do a better job to get funding put in place for all of these races. Because again, okay I saved the money running the car, saved the travel costs but all of the other costs stayed in place. So it’s not a win by not running the car there, for me.
CP: A WHILE BACK YOU TRIED YOUR HAND AS A PRO STOCK TEAM OWNER. NOW YOU HAVE A FACTORY STOCK SHOWDOWN TEAM. DOESN' FUEL RACING KEEP YOU BUSY ENOUGH?
DS: I try to do what is the right thing for the fans, the sport, NHRA, my sponsors and my teams. Sponsors came to me and wanted me to get involved in the shootout class. I said “okay, but please understand the only way I want to do it is to try to go out and win the world championship. Leah won the world championship last year. Did I ever think that was going to happen that way? No.
Then the other two manufacturers involved in the class have taken it to a whole other level in performance but also in cost. My understanding that class was created to where anybody could go out and buy one of these Drag-Pak cars or Cobras or Camaros and come out here and at least feel like they can be competitive. Maybe they’re not going to be top four but they should be able to reasonably be competitive.
That game got changed tremendously over the winter and hopefully, all of us will be able to figure out how to put that genie back in the bottle.
CP: I’VE NOTICED THE FACTORY STOCK SHOWDOWN HAD QUITE A FEW RULES ADJUSTMENTS IN THE NAME OF PARITY. YOU’VE NEVER BEEN THE KIND OF GUY WHO EMBRACED RULE CHANGES LIKE THIS.
DS: We have to have parity but they had parity last year and I know people want to say ‘no, they didn’t. Look the Dodges won the championship.”
But the Mustangs and the COPO’s were very competitive with us and/or even quicker than we were at the races that Leah won. So it was a very competitive class with great parity ad it got away from us. There’s no pointing the finger at any one individual or anything else. It got away from “us.”
It’s not a viable class going forward without them looking at it and how do we bring it back to reality where Bobby Bennett or anybody that listens to this is capable of buying one of these three cars and yes, it’s going to cost you six figures. Then you’re going to spend another chunk of money to get it really competitive, but you should be able to come out and be competitive. Not spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars to run one of these cars at eight races. Something’s gone wrong and we need to fix it.
CP – DID IT OCCUR TO YOU THESE CARS ARE MORE EXPENSIVE AND RUN FASTER THAN YOUR FUNNY CARS BACK IN THE DAY?
DS: I really never thought about it that way. Yeah it is amazing what they do with little tires. What we hope to return to is a basically stock car that you buy from the factory and you can go race and enjoy yourself. Because that’s what built this sport. I got involved because the car I drove on the street I went down to US 30 Dragstrip and I raced it. I got beat and I didn’t like getting beat so I started working on it and one thing led to another.
CP: IF YOU COULD TRAVEL BACK IN TIME, WOULD YOU GO BACK IF ONLY TO EXPERIENCE AGAIN A DAY OR SO WITH WHAT YOU KNOW NOW?
DS: I enjoy the sport as much today as I did back then. On a different level and in a different way. But yeah, I’d so anything to be able to get 20 years back but not necessarily for drag racing just to be able to get 20 years back. Again, I thoroughly enjoy what I do today and I thoroughly enjoyed what I did then.
CP: IS THERE A PART OF YOU THAT MISSES THE DRIVING?
DS: Without a doubt but at my age, there’s just parts of you that should not get back in one of these vehicles. If I wanted to drive, I could go out and do it. There’s no doubt in my mind I could do it. I still have the talent to be able to do it and such but there’s things at my age that tell you ‘you really shouldn’t do that any longer’. When I got back in the sport, I did get myself a helmet and firesuit and all of the equipment and fitted and that kind of stuff. I never made a pass because I knew I’d fire one of my drivers.
CP: YOU KNOW YOUR WHOLE AGE THING DOESN’T HOLD WATER AS LONG AS CHRIS KARAMESINES IS OUT THERE.
DS: [Laughing] Yes, that’s true but Chris is a very special, unique individual. What an amazing man and I have to say thank you to Jim Head for the efforts that he’s putting forth in getting Chris’s car back in shape. I think everyone will be very impressed with what goes on in Indy this year with Chris’s car. It has spent a number of weeks at my race shop getting everything worked on by many of my crew members but Jim is really the guy that is doing that and taking it to that next level and is going to commit to doing what needs to be done hopefully for Chris to qualify comfortably and go from there.
CP: YOU AND JOHN FORCE, YOU KNOW YOU’RE LIKE THE DRAG RACING VERSION OF FOGHORN LEGHORN AND THE DOG. ARE YOU GUYS STILL AT IT?
DS: Without a doubt. I love to beat him when my cars pull up to the starting line. John and I have more cordial conversations today than we’ve ever had, about the sport and what we’re doing and what we think we could adjust or those kinds of things. Are we competitors? Heck yeah. Do we like to beat each other up out on the dragstrip? Without a doubt. But at times you have to put all of that behind you and get with your competitor and say “hey, let’s discuss what we’re doing and what’s going on and how we can maybe talk about it and think about making it better.”
CP: HOW DIFFERENT IS THE SPONSORSHIP PROGRAM YOU SELL TODAY THAN THE ONE YOU SOLD, LET’S SAY, 15 YEARS AGO?
DS: It was a different era 15 years ago and it cost a lot less to run one of these cars for a year - when I say cost we’re talking payroll, travel and all of those components - than it is today. It’s difficult to find ways to get the funding to do that. You have to involve numerous associate sponsors not just the one main sponsor and you have to get that happening on the cars. It’s more difficult every day and every year. It’s a different animal today than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
CP: THERE ARE THOSE WHO CLAMOR FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS. DO YOU THINK THEY ARE ABLE TO ACCEPT THESE ARE THOSE GOOD DAYS WHEN EVEN THE CREWMEMBERS HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE AND OTHER JOB BENEFITS?
DS: I’m sure they don’t. It’s so different today that most teams have 401K programs for their employees. Back when I started racing in the 1960’s and early 1970’s you didn’t even have health insurance no less much else. We were really gypsies running around the United States just having a great time as young people. Kind of burning the torch at both ends and just having a ball.
CP: THE BUSINESS OF DRAG RACING, IS IT MORE ABOUT BUSINESS TO BUSINESS?
DS: It’s much more business-to-business today. You have to have that component or you have to have a component that what you’re doing out here impacts your sponsors business on kind of an immediate basis with what we’re doing out here. Each sponsor is different whether it be Matco Tools or NAPA or the FCA and Mopar and Make-a-Wish and Infinite Hero, Pennzoil. Every one of them are being done for different reasons. It isn’t just put the name on the side of the race car and the people in the stands are going to see it and it’s going to be on tv and we’re going to yell “oh my God” that sponsors name. There’s a lot of parts and pieces to it from social media to all of the impressions. All of those parts and pieces that cause this job for the drivers especially to be really a seven day a week job.
CP: INTEREST IN MOTORSPORTS HAS STRUGGLED LATELY, BUT DRAG RACING SEEMS TO BE HOLDING ITS OWN …
DS: I think NHRA drag racing has survived in sports, not just motorsports, in sports better than any of those other sports. The only other really viable sport that is growing and doing really remarkable is the NBA. Every other sport, and I don’t care if it’s hunting or fishing, biking, swimming, tennis or golf, any of them has been impacted by what the Z-Generation or the Millenials, the young generation today chooses to be involved in versus what you and I were involved in when we were kids. We came home from school and let’s go out and play. It isn’t that way with the young generation today. You know it and I know it. It’s different and we need to keep making adjustments. The great thing about NHRA is that it’s a very quick experience and you get great excitement and feeling and euphoria from the cars going down the race track. We’re not in a five to six-hour game. Yeah it takes that long for the four rounds to go on but the fans and everybody have different things they can do between the sessions. So we’re very different than the other motorsports but very different than every other sport.
CP: I’M A 24-YEAR OLD WHO ASPIRES TO BE THE NEXT DON SCHUMACHER. YOUR ADVICE?
DS: Work longer and harder than your competition.