UNFLAPPABLE SCHUMACHER READY TO AIM FOR TITLE NO. 9 WITH NEW TUNER
Tony Schumacher has been doubted and written off and even pitied throughout his NHRA Top Fuel career. In the end, he has triumphed, defied, and remained the class standard.
His previous three seasons admittedly haven’t produced his best performances, and he was eighth in the final 2017 standings. That hardly marks him as pitiful. However, his Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) / U.S. Army team made a crew-chief change for 2018, replacing Mike Green with Mike Neff, who brought DSR the 2005 Funny Car crown with driver Gary Scelzi.
Now, with the preseason warm-up at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at Chandler, Ariz., just three weeks away, Schumacher is eager to work with Neff again.
When the U.S. Army Dragster driver and combined with crew chief Alan Johnson for five consecutive Top Fuel titles, Neff was tuning Scelzi’s Funny Car. Schumacher said, “We all worked together. It’s not like any of those guys are coming in blind.
“These guys are extremely talented,” the eight-time champion said. “Mike Green’s a phenomenal guy. He’s still with us. We just needed to make a change. He’s such a great crew chief, but we just weren’t getting the job done. Sometimes you’ve got to shake things up a little bit. Neff is such an aggressive young kid.” He said the experienced Neff “will work well together with the people we have.
“It’s not like we’re bringing a crew chief in on a one-car team with no knowledge and saying, ‘Good luck.’ We got Phil [Shuler] still on board. He knows the car as well as anybody. In case we get in the wrong direction, he can bring us right back to home base,” Schumacher said.
“We’re bringing in a guy who’s an aggressive tuner, a quality young guy with a great knowledge of a working race car. Yeah, it’s a dragster, a little different, but in reality, it’s what we needed,” he said. “We just needed to make a change.”
If a Most Adaptable Driver Award were given, Schumacher would be the runaway winner. He has come back from a nasty, multiple-injury accident. He has bounced back from a mid-season slump and crew-chief change to jump-start an extraordinarily prosperous run with Johnson tuning. He has weathered the dire predictions that bombarded him during an already pivotal U.S. Nationals weekend in which Johnson announced he was leaving DSR to form his own team. He barged ahead defiantly and successfully several years ago when many scoffed that the team’s revolutionary cockpit canopy would be an expensive dud.
“We put a canopy on years ago, and everyone said we can’t do that – it’s too heavy. I’m not lighter than any other driver. My guys worked harder and knocked off the weight of the car in other areas. We’re not overweight in any way,” Schumacher said, still perturbed that others don’t see the safety value of the protective piece.
As for crew chiefs, Schumacher has earned series crowns with three different ones and hopes to keep proving his adaptability by registering a record ninth with yet a fourth.
“It’s all Alan Johnson-Alan Johnson-Alan Johnson. People forget that we won a championship with Dan Olson the first year and had a chance the second year to do it and my car flew over the wall [at Memphis]. Me and Scelzi were battling. It was a great battle. If you watch the video of that car crashing, I was pulling away from them like they were stopped. We had a great race car. I just crashed. I was hurt, so we were out for [two races],” Schumacher said. “Then we won a championship – many [five consecutive] – with Alan Johnson. Then we were written off: ‘We’ll never win again.’ Then Mike Green came over and we won two more championships. So it’s not just me.
“I like to lead as a driver and say, ‘Look – we’re going to get this done.’ But my dad [team owner Don Schumacher] is a great leader, too,” he said. “The whole team just works well together, no matter who we bring in.
“We’ve got smart people around us. We’ve got the best parts and pieces. We choose good people to work with us. The guys I have working on my car right now, they’re as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with, as far as quality crew guys who care about the car. They come to a clean shop with quality equipment, and they do a good job. Beyond that, we have a positive attitude,” Schumacher said.
“We could have fired people years ago. We weren’t winning in different times in my career. We guided them through it. We came back. We figured it out. We used patience. When you have a good race car, everyone finds out. They catch up. Your secrets don’t stay forever. You’ve got to adapt. You’ve got to make changes. Sometimes those changes take longer than others. Every team does it. It is what it is,” he said. “As a DSR camp car, we win a lot of stuff, all together. And when your car’s not winning, you can’t make excuses. It’s just the way it is. You’ve got to make some changes.”
So they did, and Schumacher is looking to regain his winning form this year.
“The last few years, we’ve been off at the end. That’s why we made the changes. But before that, we might win the championship or we might finish No. 2, but no matter if was us and [Larry] Dixon, us and [Doug] Kalitta, or us and this guy or us and that guy, us and Hot Rod [Fuller], it didn’t matter. The ‘us’ was always there. That’s what we’ve got to get back to,” he said.
“It’s not like we forgot how to race. We’ve got to get back to that form, where at the end we’re in the battle and at the end we’re the best in the battle,” Schumacher said. “We’ll get it. Confidence, man. It’s confidence because we’ve pulled it off. We know how to win the races. We know how to win the championships. We enjoy doing the battle. When we get beat, we walk over and shake the other person’s hand. It’s truly just a battle.”
Maneuvering through the 24-race Melo Yello Drag Racing Series can be tricky, but Schumacher indicated he tries to keep everything in perspective.
“It depends on how you look at things. I tell kids all the time, ‘Enjoy the game. The game isn’t always winning. Sometimes it’s figuring how to get back to that shape. If you enjoy that part of it, you never have the wrong attitude,’” he said. “I get sick of seeing bad attitudes. It’s racing. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Sometimes you have a car that would beat everybody but the guy you ran. That’s just luck. That’s being good but having people step up at times they have to step up. You drop your guard a little bit and they win. That’s the game.”
Winning a championship might make a driver smug, but Schumacher recognizes how difficult it is to do that even once, let alone eight times, with all the variables and pitfalls along the route that crisscrosses the United States several times from February to November. Winning a championship, even a race, is humbling.
“And it gets harder,” he said. “In 2008, when we won 15 races, it was so insane to have so much pressure and so many people going, ‘You can’t just keep winning. The parts are going to break, right?’ And to step up over and over again, it’s an awesome thing to be able to do, to be part of something like that. No matter what, you look back on years like that. I won Driver of the Year, the Mario Andretti Award over every other [motor]sport. And Mario Andretti personally delivered the trophy to me. To be part of a team capable of doing that, that’s a gift.”
He enjoys telling a story about being a gifted driver.
“I tell people I’m a gifted driver, and they go, ‘Wow. Cocky.’ And I say, ‘Hold on for a second. I don’t mean I’m better than anybody else,” Schumacher said. “I mean it’s a gift to drive a race car, because that’s what I want to do. It’s a gift to be part of a team that has done what we’ve done. It’s a gift to do it with the U.S. Army on the side of the car. And it’s a gift to have moments where you’ve got to use it all.
“[The] ’06 [campaign] was so big only because we sucked so bad at the beginning. We had to build the suspense. We didn’t do it on purpose, but you wouldn’t have had the greatest run in the history of the sport if you didn’t have the suckiest beginning ever seen. There’s things that go hand in hand. No one’s ever heard of a come-from-ahead victory, you know? Pulling yourself out of the gutter is what makes it great.”
Schumacher’s results from the past three seasons since claiming the 2014 championship didn’t put him exactly in the gutter. In 2015, he won three times in seven final rounds and was No. 1 qualifier three times. He was 2 for 5 in finals in 2016, and one of those victories gave him a record-setting 10th at the famed U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, where he also earned $100,000 as the Traxxas Shootout winner. He led the field four times and won the Gatornationals last season. More than a couple of Top Fuel racers would feel their careers had peaked had they achieved that. For Schumacher, though, that was sub-par, for he has said before, “I don’t risk my life to be pretty good. Everybody’s pretty good.”
This year he intends to be more than pretty good again.
“We’ll go out. We’ll get it done. Zippy will come over. He’s bad to the bone. I’m looking forward to working with him. I’m looking forward to keeping our relationship with Mike Green. And Phil Shuler will do a great job and we’ll win some races and championships,” Schumacher said. “It’s how we do it. We don’t show up just to be decent. We show up to win the event.”
He’ll get his next shot at it Feb. 9-11 at the Lucas Oil Winternationals, the schedule opener, at Pomona, Calif.