NEW TEAMMATES SCHUMACHER, WILKERSON MORE ALIKE THAN NOT
They aren’t exactly the Odd Couple, Tony Schumacher and Tim Wilkerson.
But the new NHRA teammates with the Joe and Cathi Maynard / SCAG connections seemed an unlikely pairing at first.
Schumacher, for example, has a Top Fuel-leading 86 victories and eight series championships. Wilkerson has won a respectable 22 Wally trophies but no Funny Car titles. Both have won the U.S. Nationals – Wilkerson twice but Schumacher an unprecedented 10 times. They were born nine years apart, almost to the day. One competes in the Top Fuel class, the other in Funny Car. Schumacher is a driver; Wilkerson is a team owner, tuner, and driver. Schumacher’s demeanor is more nonchalant, while Wilkerson constantly is tiptoeing that tightrope between high performance and high anxiety – Schumacher is breezy, Wilkerson intense.
Each brings something different to the table. But what Randy Gloede, president and CEO of their marketing partner SCAG, found alike in them was more than their skills on the dragstrip (or the fact they have two of the longest names among pro drag racers). It was their ability to relate to the fans and help SCAG deliver a superb customer experience for the company’s employees and VIPs.
Gloede saw an almost-magical value in the Camping World Drag Racing Series platform, the same as he saw in current and five-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders. During this offseason, SCAG agreed with Elite Motorsports to become a major associate sponsor on her Camaro. At that time, he said, “It has taken me a year to understand how powerful the connection between us and our SCAG dealers and customers can be at the race events. I became a true believer that the race weekends are a valuable way to thank our VIP customers with an event they love. Elite Motorsports and Erica Enders understand how important this relationship is as a means of connecting with our customers and we believe we chose a first-class, winning team to partner with to give out SCAG customers the best life experience and thank you possible at the race events."
And in participating in Tuesday’s announcements that Wilkerson had merged his operation with Joe and Cathi Maynard’s, Gloede spoke about relationships and driver interaction with fans and team guests.
“Tony took the time last year. We've seen Tim interact with his fan base. And to have those guys interacting with our customers and taking the time to thank our customers for using our brand that makes everyone even more successful,” Gloede said.
“Both Tony and Tim are winners, and we're excited to give back to the people that have made us successful over the course of time. This is perfect for our brand,” he said. “We couldn't be more excited. We couldn't be more thankful. And this is just a way for us to build off the momentum that we started with last year.”
Joe Maynard, already sold on Schumacher as the best drag racer, gave the same endorsement to Wilkerson. Once again, the theme of interaction, of association, of sharing, arose. Of course, winning was on Maynard’s mind, too. But that element of performance and the notion of relating to one another seemed to be woven into the fabric of Maynard’s involvement in the sport.
“Randy approached me, SCAG approached me, and said they're really interested in having a Funny Car at some point in our relationship,” Maynard said, “And my mind immediately went to Tim Wilkerson, simply because No. 1, he and I like each other a pretty good bit. No. 2, he's won a lot. And I think that No. 3, bringing our forces together with the SCAG support, we can do some things on the track. It's going to be a lot of fun and maybe run a whole lot of [rounds] for Randy's distributors and his dealers that attend. I prefer to call that a partnership versus just a sponsorship. So we think that Tim fits the bill, brings everything to us that we could ever ask for. I think it's going to be a super, super strong relationship with SCAG.
“Naturally, we thought Tim would be an excellent fit. As a self-built business owner and someone who wears many different hats throughout his day-to-day operation, Tim is a relatable guy who appeals to the masses,” he said. “He’s a hard worker, a true get-your-hands-dirty type. And let’s face it, what’s not to like about Tim Wilkerson? He’s one of the most well-liked and respected drivers in our sport.”
The feeling was mutual. Wilkerson returned the compliments. He said, “Joe and Cathi Maynard run a first-class operation, and they have a quality sponsor that was looking for a Funny Car. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve got a good car. And I think Joe and I partnering as co-owners on the SCAG/LRS Mustang will provide that extra boost that my team has needed to help take us to the next level where we can compete for a championship. I’m still going to run the team, but this is a great opportunity for my operation to grow. I’ve been trying to win a championship for many years, and this investment will allow me to run my car a little harder. I’ll have access to additional personnel and the incredible team of tuners Joe has assembled at JCM [Mike Neff, Jon Schaffer, and Phil Shuler]. I’ll never turn down another set of good eyes.”
“Tony and I raced Alcohol Funny Cars together back in the middle-nineties [1990s]. He used to call me up and say, ‘I can't figure out how to put this camshaft in. What do I do?’ So it was kind of interesting, but since he started driving the PEAK Dragster back when he did, and then his dad got involved, oh, all hell broke loose, right?” Wilkerson said with a chuckle. “I mean, he's champion, a terrific driver. They used to call him a machine: The Sarge, The Machine. So that was kind of cool.
“But I don't think there's a time that I can't learn something from somebody,” Wilkerson said. “Maybe I need to take a breath before I stage or my foot pedal's in the wrong spot or stuff like that to a guy that just drives. I mean, that's important stuff. So no, believe me, well, Wilkerson's already on that program. He's already thinking about stuff. He can ask Tony, guarantee you that. So Tony and I, we've got a good relationship.”
“So when we started racing, he and I raced Alcohol Funny Car against each other,” Schumacher said. “He finished in Division 3 No. 1. I finished No. 2. That was a long time ago. It was probably 94. Then ’95, Joe Penland [who later became Schumacher’s brother-in-law, when Schumacher married Summer Penland in 2021] wins the championship. And I mean he wins it over everybody good. They were all bad asses. There were like 10 people that year. And here comes Joe Penland Jr., sneaking up and just kicking their asses. I wasn't a national guy. And I don't think Wilk really was. We were more racing Division 3 and popping a race off here or there. We kind of followed each other – and Randy Parks was there, too, at the time, because Randy Parks was running Midwest Super Comp with me. And then I went into alcohol cars, and he went into alcohol cars. And I got a fuel car and he went in. It was just a few of us that ran the Midwest popped up and got to where we needed to get to . . . well, where we wanted to get to. A lot of people took the way smarter route and got jobs.”
Taking a friendly jab at Schumacher, Wilkerson said, “I don't even know if he knows what a 9/16th wrench looks like, but he probably does. (But he's my friend, so he knows I'm going to beat him up a little bit.)
So does Schumacher recognize a 9/16th wrench?
“Of course I do,” the Top Fuel champ said, not the least bit miffed that Wilkerson teased him. (“Expected,” he said.)
“I would venture to say he's more the mechanic by far than I am,” Schumacher said. “We came from very different areas. My deal was we put businesses together, sponsors, but we both worked our way up the same. I don't even know all the cars he ran. I ran Super Street, Super Comp, jet cars, Formula Fords, Alcohol Funny Car, and Top Fuel. And he worked on stuff his whole life. He owned a gas station in Springfield. So he was mechanically inclined to do that stuff and came that way, racing and building stuff. Slowly we put big deals together that we could go race. Little different, little different avenue. But if someone said, grab a wrench and turn something – they wouldn't ask me to, because we've always had people on each position. He has had to fill those voids.
“Everyone does it differently. I've been out doing speeches, traveling the world at different Army bases. Totally different. Totally different in that perspective. I've done 10,000 speeches for [who knows] how many schools. [Kenny] Bernstein was good at it, right? I don't know if he knows how to work on stuff, but I bet he did at the beginning. We all lose that because we go from ‘I need to turn the wrenches to help out,’ which we all did to ‘I need to be on the road, making sure there's a sponsor on the side of the car.’ I've been very successful at that part of it. Just different. Just different,” he said.
“Even back in the day, both of us spent endless hours [working with their cars]. We probably both have been broken down on the side of the road with an axle hanging off our 42-foot gooseneck trailer,” he said. “We probably both spent till three, four in the morning every day in our garage when we were young.” Then, Schumacher said, they carved their respective paths “but with the same exact goal.”
But Wilkerson might dive deeper into SCAG’s equipment. He said, “I'm excited about learning about Randy's business. I really am. I am excited about getting involved with Randy and his distributors . . . because not to beat Tony up, but I'm a little bit better fit than Tony is for that kind of job because Tony's a driver. Let's put it how it is. I understand what they're talking about when they're talking about a motor that wears out or a blade that's not sharp or a belt that's falling off all the time or alignment of a pulley or anything that works on some of SCAG’s power equipment. I can talk the talk.”
On the other hand, Schumacher can talk the talk on the business side that SCAG likes to hear. And both are valuable.
“People always joke about my mechanic[al ability] but I mean, who cares whether or not you work on a car?” the pragmatic Schumacher said. “What I've done in my career is please the Army for 19 years as the No. 1 recruiter. I am all in on making sure whatever the sponsor is that the people involved enjoy what they're putting their money into. It helped build that thing from an eight-race deal one year to a long commitment. So everyone's got their forte. Mine is pleasing those people and keeping long-term deals.”
One big similarity between Wilkerson and Schumacher is they both are loyal. Schumacher’s devotion to the U.S. Army never will fade. The individuals he met, the lessons he learned, the amazing sense of duty he witnessed always will be etched in his heart.
Wilkerson already is loving SCAG and its line of products, but he looked for, and found, a way to remain a faithful friend to longtime sponsor Dick Levi, of Levi, Ray & Shoup. Levi, at least for this season, will remain an associate sponsor of the new SCAG-branded Funny Car.
“We'll see how things go after that. Randy's commitment has taken us over the top SCAG, but I didn't want to lose that relationship [with Levi],” Wilkerson said. “Be real truthful with you, I'm a little bit of a sentimental guy. I had a hard time with that. And Randy allowed us to work with him to give Mr. Levi some space, and that was awsome. And it was a hard thing to do. But it all worked out well. And hopefully at the end of the year, everybody's tickled to death with the situation and we can continue on the way we are. Or if not, we'll figure that out.”
Levi and Wilkerson met when Levi was a regular customer at Wilkerson’s service center. By the Wilkerson was deep into drag racing, and Levi knew it. One day he asked Wilkerson why he never asked for sponsorship from him. Wilkerson told Levi he didn’t want to spoil the business relationship they had by asking. Levi volunteered to become involved, and that association has lasted more than a quarter of a century.
So while Schumacher and Wilkerson might have seemed like apples and organs, in many ways, they’re more like two peas in a pod. And the bottom line is that Schumacher is thrilled to be partnered with Wilkerson.
Schumacher said, “Having Tim on board, man, he's cool. He's a cool cat. He’s just a good dude. So I'm excited, man. If I can help him in any way and if he can help me in any way, I'm sure, we both will. He’s done a great job being out there. I think the majority of the people find him as a kind and a good guy and just, he's nice to be around, man. He's a nice guy. I can't look back in all the years we raced each other and think, ‘Here's this one time he did this [anything negative].’ He just races, man. He's not doing anything to piss you off. He's just a cool dude.”
It takes one to know one.