'HUMBLED' SCHUMACHER SHARES SCARES, LESSONS OF BATTLING CANCER
Gatornationals Top Fuel winner Spencer Massey admitted he had tears in his eyes.
Funny Car winner Ron Capps said he was amazed at what he saw.
Matt Hagan, the reigning NHRA Funny Car champion, found inspiration.
Top Fuel's Antron Brown saw only joy.
Their boss was back.
Don Schumacher, owner of the NHRA's largest organization and the global battery-charger titan Schumacher Electric Corporation, made his first public outing since undergoing surgery and treatment for head and neck cancer. And with his presence last weekend at the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., it was clear he is a changed man.
Or is he?
"I am back, and I'm 100 percent," Schumacher quietly declared. "That's the person I am. That's the competitor I am, at both businesses. Both businesses are successful, because I love beating the competition."
To understand his grit, one only has to know about "the mask." Head and neck cancer patients use a custom-fitted, fiberglass-like mask that's clamped around the head and shoulders to keep them immobile during radiation treatments, for precise aim. These masks soon become like a ball and chain, and even those who aren't claustrophobic to begin with soon learn to despise it as an emblem of what Schumacher called "a barbaric way of treating a disease."
With 31 radiation treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at Houston, at maybe a half-hour each, Schumacher had to lie still with that shroud keeping him in place for more than 15 hours.
Because the masks are tailored for each individual and therefore of no use to the hospital after treatments are finished, a patient may take his/hers home. Many have turned them into art sculptures that the "Courage Unmasked" exhibits in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, have displayed as fundraisers for head and neck oncology research. Melinda Fenholt Cogley, executive director of the Joan Levi Bisesi Foundation that hosted the Ohio event, said, "I know of people who have backed their SUV over their mask or taken them out to a firing range to shoot them." That's how despised these masks become.
And Schumacher evidently is in the majority. An avid fisherman, he said, "I am really looking forward in October to stuffing it full of fish parts and feeding it to some sharks. There are certain goals everybody sets for themselves. And that's really what I'm looking forward to."
Even when he received the diagnosis just before Thanksgiving last November, Schumacher approached it like the businessman and former mechanic he is. He said he looked at it like "It's time to go to your corner garage and have these parts changed." He said, "That's kind of the way I have dealt with it. It was time to go to Mayo Clinic. Let's get up there and get this surgery done. I had it done the day before Thanksgiving."
He described four months of medicine's most harsh, exhausting, disturbing remedy for an illness in a methodical, almost detached, manner: "What was key in my success for fighting this cancer was detecting it early. Found it two days after the world finals. Had surgery up at Mayo Clinic [at Rochester, Minn.]. Finished 31 radiation treatments down at M.D. Anderson [at Houston]. No chemo, just radiation. Was HPV-positive. Very high-cure rate, 90-plus-percent cure rate. I figure they cut it all out of me when I had the surgery, which was base of the tongue and my whole neck. They did the radiation just as a Band-Aid effect, and I am looking to go forward in life, enjoying a lot of years."
However, it wasn't all that neatly taken care of.
"They said I'd be in the hospital two nights," Schumacher said. "Spent two nights in the hospital, and Friday morning I got up and got dressed, and they said, 'What are you doing?!' Had a feeding tube in my nose. I said, 'You said I was going to be here two nights. I'm out of here.' Took the feeding tube out myself the next day, but that's kind of the way I have dealt with this so far. Let's fix this and let's get on with it."
So while nothing appears to have changed regarding his spunk and his aggressively competitive spirit, Schumacher made a huge concession.
"I have to say I love more people today than I did prior to that diagnosis," he said. "There's a lot more love out of me today than there's ever been.
"It's a whole different frame of what life is really about. I'm sure going forward it’s going to change me. Everybody that I've talked to that has gone through this disease, cancer, [says] it changes you . . . changes, really, your philosophy of life and people and friends and love. It changes what irritates you and aggravates you, which is really meaningless when you look at the big scope of it," Schumacher said. "Family and friends and the people you surround yourself with are really the important ones.
"It's going to change the way I handle business, I handle people, whether it be team members, whether it be competitors. The way they've received me and the way they've reached out to me is just been remarkable. It's really humbled me," he said, calling the diagnosis jolt "a very humbling, set-you-back-in-the-seat realization that this is a difficult, difficult time."
Schumacher has jousted verbally and in on- and off-track one-upmanship with NHRA icon John Force, but these days more shop square footage or a bigger American flag on the pole out in front of headquarters or more victories all pale in comparison to the fellowship they enjoy, the common ground they love.
"John Force and I have had a different relationship out here over the years. And I have to say it's a different relationship since I came down with cancer. And that's not just John feeling different about it, but it's me feeling different about it, also," Schumacher said. "John and I have a very strong relationship. We love each other. And I know that's hard for guys to maybe understand."
Force learned those secrets of life the hard way, too, through the death of Eric Medlen and his own dreadful accident six months later in 2007. Standing on that shaky edge of the cliff, staring at mortality, has given them a bond beyond wanting to win any on-track tug-o-war against one another. (They still want to do that, by the way.)
But Schumacher was used to doing what he liked, when he liked, and never really considering his health when jetting off somewhere on a fishing getaway, like the one he has enjoyed again this week. He was used to making decisions and having nearly 2,200 workers from Mount Prospect, Illinois, to Mexico to China carrying out his wishes. He was used to a 120,000-square-foot shop full of fabricators, machining specialists, crew chiefs, mechanics, marketing specialists, and others at Brownsburg, Ind., toiling for his seven-car racing team. And he has enjoyed seeing Don Schumacher Racing earn, counting the Gainesville spoils, both Top Fuel and Funny Car trophies at the same event 43 times – including twice this season in the first three races – and receive 245 total Wally statues.
But cancer is rude. It interrupts people's routines and puts their schedules on hold. Cancer is no respecter of economic or employment status. Cancer is mean and selfish, something Schumacher is not.
"So the fans know," said Capps, who has gone through anguishing times with son Caden's recent illness, "he didn't come [to Gainesville] to hang out with his seven teams. He came to the track to personally thank everyone for the support that he's gotten. The fans have been so gracious, too. I've never seen anything like it. He went into each competitor's trailer to thank them for the support, and that goes to show why he's such an icon in our sport. I can't even tell you how tough he is."
Schumacher is tough enough to recognize when he can't be in control – and tough enough to limit the duration of such an abnormality.
He turned the racing operation over in late November to Mike Lewis and Todd Okuhara and daughter Megan Fessel Schumacher and the daily decision-making at Schumacher Electric to John Waldron, Cory Watkins, and Chris Hadsall. For four full months he removed himself from his regular agenda: "I have not been at DSR. Pulled myself away from the computer. Have not been at Schumacher Electric. Have not dealt with my banks. Really have just dealt with family and friends close around me. It was a difficult time.
"You’re under pain medication or this medication or that medication, and the last thing I want to do is make decisions that affect all of these people's lives," he said. "I've got close to 2200 employees between my two businesses. The last thing I want to do is affect and destroy their future because of the medication I'm on. I made a decision. I turned the businesses over prior to my surgery in November to the key people I have . . . and they've all stepped up.
"It's tremendously gratifying, the way my teams have been able to come out and perform over the years, but this year especially. They've just done a phenomenal job. Out of the three races, we've won five of the six fuel competitions. Guys back at the shop do a phenomenal job. Mike Lewis and Todd Okuhara and my daughter Megan, all of those people who stepped up for me in November when I got ill, the credit goes to them," Schumacher said.
"I know I'm 70 years old. I've set things up to where people are in place to take care of these things," he said. "The racing company is a very, very personal company, and having Megan involved in the racing company, I look for that to be able to continue on for years and years and years with Megan and Tony and Mike Lewis and the people that involved that are still Schumachers and family names. Do I want to step away and relinquish control of those companies? Heck no.
"It was tough. I'm very involved in this business, in this sport, in NHRA. Being away from it was a difficult thing," he said. "I certainly was on the computer and on my cell phone, following every run during qualifying and every run during eliminations. The people I turned the team over [to], they did a phenomenal, phenomenal job and stepped up unbelievably. That's why we're doing what we're doing."
Schumacher underwent an angioplasty procedure in 1993, and after that, he said, "when I’d get an ache in an arm, it's 'OK, I'm getting ready to have a heart attack.' " So his self-motivating mantra that "I try to go on with life and not think about it" doesn’t always work.
"As my throat has started to heal and peel, I've coughed a fair amount. The first thing that goes through your head is 'You've got lung cancer. You're coughing.' I had a real bad backache last night: 'OK, I'd better cancel this trip of fishing. I need to go get an MRI and CAT scan, because I've got bone cancer.' When you've had one of those life-threatening diseases, that's what your mind does to you," he said. "It is scary and frightening every day you get an ache. Standing there on the starting line, if I started to cough and got to where I was uncomfortable, I hate to tell you what my mind would go to. That's just the reality of these diseases.
"My wife's a two-time cancer survivor," he said. "And I can say being with her, maybe I thought I understood. But no, I don’t understand. I didn’t understand until now, going through it myself."
And he still might not understand why so many people with cancer have to endure chemotherapy (which he did not have to undergo) and radiation treatments, why that's the best the medical world has to offer.
"I've been slashed and burned and just kind of deal with it from there. It's a barbaric way of treating a disease. But that's the best they have at this point," Schumacher said. "Five years from now, 10 years from now, it's going to be a whole different world for treating cancer and beating cancer. I just look forward to being part of that."
Capps had a serious scare with his son last year. Hagan has several close family members who are struggling with cancer now. Tony Schumacher's mother was a 2003 cancer victim. Antron Brown raced last October at Reading, Pa., with the name of mother-in-law and breast-cancer survivor Linda Matranga on his dragster and firesuit. Tommy Johnson Jr. knows the complicated emotions, treatment options, and even politics of cancer from father Tommy Johnson Sr., who authored "The TRUE story of how I survived absolute terminal CANCER." And Jack Beckman has triumphed over a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and has served as a national spokesman for the Chemotherapy: Myths or Facts campaign.
So the Don Schumacher Racing drivers are no strangers to the illness. That's why Don Schumacher's return to the racetrack was inspirational.
"To have Don not here for the first couple of races was tough," Massey said. "We knew we're missing something, and it was a huge void in our pits." To Schumacher following his Top Fuel victory last Sunday, Massey said, "You have no idea how hard our hearts were hurting for you and how much we were thinking about you this entire time. To not have you there is totally different. To see you show up yesterday, it brought a tear to my eye. To sit here with you, thank you."
Hagan said, "It's awesome to see Don out here. We need him out here to motivate us."
"It's great to see the boss man back and in good spirits," Brown said. "He went through all his treatments, but this is the best therapy. You can see the smile on his face and the joy in his heart for being part of this sport of NHRA drag racing."
What Brown saw was genuine.
"I love what I do, and I will continue to do what I do," Schumacher said. "I'm a businessman, and that's what I do. I love racing. I love the sport of NHRA. They've allowed me to be a big part of things out here, and I look to continue, keep it going forward, taking care of the sponsors, and building teams and competing out here.
"I love my businesses. I love my family. I love what I do in life. I'm blessed with what I have accomplished," Schumacher said.
Before it sounded too much like a love-in, Schumacher steeled himself and adopted a look-ahead-only posture, adding, "And I look to continue on in the vein that I choose to continue on."
He said he's feeling "better every day. Having cancer is a long-term battle and a long-term fight. You fight it every day. I'm recovering. Things are good. It's going along, and I'm looking to just continue on and do what I do. I'm back. I've thoroughly enjoyed what they've done and how successful both companies have been. Looking forward to getting back involved and getting back up to both Chicago and Indianapolis. I need to get to see my people, my bankers, and such, and let them know I'm still here. I'm sure they saw it on TV, but I'm still here and things are OK."
Maybe cancer and heart problems simply are no match for Don Schumacher.
"At this point it hasn't changed me a lot, I think," he said. "But maybe you need to talk to my family and my friends and see if they think it’s changed me."
Whether he has changed or how much he has changed, really, is immaterial. What matters is he got to ring the bell. It's a tradition at the hospital for radiation patients who have completed their treatments. For a man whose racing team has won 245 times, more than any other in NHRA history, following that tradition was a significant victory. It's a living, evolving trophy.
"I can't say that ringing that bell was the best moment in my life," Schumacher said. "Family, friends, and love is really what it is today."
It's not the love story Schumacher imagined he ever would write. And he still has drag racing's most successful organization, a thriving business besides that, two homes, a private plane, a loving family, caring friends and colleagues, dedicated employees. But he has discovered love in the most unlikely places and through maybe the most unlovely method. But as the Beatles sang, "All you need is love."
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