By Devon SorlieJuly 12, 2007
FORT EUSTIS, Va. (Army News Service, July 12, 2007) - He wears an Army uniform, yet he's not in the military. He trains constantly, but without his team, he is nothing. He's survived incredible tragedy only to brush himself off, eager to get back into the fight as soon as he can recover. For nearly 10 months of the year, he puts himself in harm's way, piloting the fastest and most powerful car in the world.
He's Tony "The Sarge" Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army-sponsored Top Fuel dragster. And he's gunning for an unprecedented fourth consecutive National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) championship title while wearing the brown and yellow Army colors.
With just four weeks left in the POWERade 2007 series, Mr. Schumacher is in fifth place, trailing Rod Fuller by 168 points. The top eight points earners among the 27 Top Fuel drivers will continue on to the six-race Countdown to the Championship that will end Nov. 1-4 in Ponoma, Calif., where the season started Feb. 8-11.
"Yes, we are happy to be in the top eight," said the driver of the U.S. Army NHRA Racing Top Fuel dragster. "But, like the U.S. Soldier, we don't want to simply settle for anything, we want to better and will be better. We want to be running consistently, in a better position when the 'playoffs' begin."
It's not an insurmountable task. Mr. Schumacher has roared from behind in the past, although he'll never have the finish he experienced in 2006, when he trailed the points leader Doug Kalitta by 336 points mid-way through the season.
In the remaining races of that season, Schumacher executed his offensive, passing one racer after another to the final showdown in Ponoma last November. Schumacher trailed the leading Mr. Kalitta by 45 points in the final race of the 2006 season. He faced Melanie Troxel, who had knocked Mr. Kalitta out in the semi-final race. In order to retain his championship title, Mr. Schumacher had to run a perfect race, win it and set a new national record elapsed time. He owned the current record at 4.437.
"I was sitting on the roll cage, thinking this is huge," Mr. Schumacher said between qualifying sessions at Englishtown, N.J. "Then one of my team members came up to say he's got a couple of Army Soldiers in a Black Hawk helicopter circling Baghdad waiting to see if I pull this off."
Although under extreme pressure, Schumacher said he was calm as he contemplated what could happen during the five-second race.
"I just relaxed," he told a group of Future Soldiers from northern New Jersey who were attending the race that day. "There was nothing I could do in the next 15 seconds that would make me a better driver because I've been trained and I have the best crew there is. All I can do is my job and go."
Mr. Schumacher had raced this race several times before - in his dreams. He almost lived it in 2000 when he joined the Army team during the Indianapolis event. He won the event. Two weeks later in Memphis, however, his rear wing separated from his dragster after winning his fourth qualifying run. Out of control, the car careened over the barrier at 314 mph, breaking apart. Mr. Schumacher survived, suffering a compound fracture to his leg. He missed two races, and then came back for the final race of the season, where he lost in the finals to Gary Scelzi, ending 2000 in second place. Mr. Scelzi has since joined the Don Schumacher Racing stable as a Nitro Funny Car driver.
"You know the dreams you had when you were a kid' You never thought about winning by a mile. You'd always dream about winning at the last possible second. Like making a basket at the buzzer. That's the kind of finish I was expecting," he explained at a December 2000 interview.
Now in 2006, it was Schumacher's chance for another dream ending. The dragsters rumbled anxiously on the strip as the drivers waited for the starting lights to flash on what is called the Christmas tree. Although Mr. Troxel had the fastest reaction time, within 60 feet, Mr. Schumacher's Go Army car whizzed past her to not only win the race at 327.98 miles per hour, but set a new national elapsed time record of 4.428 seconds. Mr. Schumacher would three-peat as Top Fuel champion for Army and earn his fourth national title.
"With live television, live Internet and live Baghdad, I was the last to know whether I had retained the national title after the race," Mr. Schumacher said.
He had finally lived his dream.
"I was gifted with a great team, one very few people have a chance to be a part of. Not one guy quit when we were down 337 points. We stuck together and we pulled it together. When you don't have the right team, you make it the right team. No matter what else happens in my life, I will remember that."
And it will never happen like that again. For the 2007 season, the Countdown to the Championship was created, where only the top eight points earners will get to compete in the final six races of the season to determine the overall championship. Call it the Tony Schumacher rule.
The U.S. Army's team is the only military branch that competes in the NHRA. Army is the primary sponsor of two Pro Stock motorcycles and their drivers, Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown, who are all part of the Don Schumacher Racing team.
The Army is an associate sponsor with other Don Schumacher vehicles, which includes drivers Richie Stevens in the Pro Stock, and points leader Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi and Ron Beckman racing in the Nitro Funny Car category.
Although the partnership between Army and Mr. Schumacher is as peanut butter is to jelly, that almost didn't happen. Mr. Schumacher had already earned his first Top Fuel championship in 1999, just three years after leaving the Funny Cars to race dragsters.
"I had heard Army was interested in a sponsorship," said Mr. Schumacher, a military school graduate. "Every kid growing up dreams of playing Army."
Mr. Schumacher had his head shorn into a military buzz cut just prior to going into the meeting with Army representatives, only to be told they had chosen someone else to represent Army.
Pointing to his scalped head, Mr. Schumacher quipped, "Well, you can't say I won't give everything I have or do whatever it takes for my team."
Minutes later, Mr. Schumacher was the Army's Top Fuel driver.
"They didn't know how I drove. They didn't know anything about that. They just knew I was the guy who was willing to do what they needed to make their Soldiers feel a part of this team," he added.
And the Army has done its part in making Mr. Schumacher feel like he's a part of their team. He's gone through a few days of basic training. He's done tandem parachuting with the Golden Knights, driven tanks, trained on weapons, worked out with the Army's Olympic athletes, and hung out with rangers and engineers.
"Not even all of the Soldiers get to do it all," Mr. Schumacher said. "But when you're selling the Army, it's better to know all of the Army."
The father of three has also been to Iraq and Afghanistan. "Those guys over there need to hear how much the world loves and supports them," he said. "That's my mission."
And the Soldiers love him back. Schumacher has carried pictures, engagement and wedding rings, and even Purple Hearts and combat ribbons from Soldiers in his dragster during races.
He's a fan-favorite because of the time he'll spend signing autographs, especially for children.
"I'm not knocking other sponsorships, because free alcohol and car parts are nice," Mr. Schumacher said. "But I'm selling a way of life. While other drivers have dinner with CEOs of companies, I have dinner with four star generals, or get to hang with Soldiers."
Although it was his dragster that initially was called "The Sarge," Mr. Schumacher's buzz cut and military bearing that lengthens his 5-foot-8-inch stature resulted in having the nickname transferred to the driver himself.
The Army also sponsors a vehicle in NASCAR, as do all of the other military branches. But the Army and NHRA demographics is a match made in heaven.
Those interested in joining the Army will get the opportunity to talk with recruiters who attend the races, and also those who have served in current and past wars because all are fans and often hang out around the pits visiting their favorite teams and drivers, Mr. Schumacher said.
"It couldn't tie in any better with the Army," he explained. "It's a team sport, the fans are the right age, and it's intense and right-now situations. It's all about speed, power and teamwork. We can dissemble a motor and put it back together in 75 minutes to win a race by inches going 330 miles per hour.
"But you don't become a great race car driver until you have a great team," Mr. Schumacher added. "Just like in the Army, you're only as good as the guy next to you."
(Devon Sorlie writes for Military Newspapers of Virginia.)