When Tony Schumacher heard the Army was looking for a Top Fuel driver, he shaved his head and walked into the meeting looking like a Soldier. The Sarge, as he is called by Soldiers and race fans alike, knew then that he and his team would be a perfect fit with the Army, and he still believes it today, 10 years later.
"I was thinking, who would I rather drive for' I knew I was going to have to go out and do a lot of extra stuff, but that's what I wanted to do," said the defending Top Fuel world champion. "There's no other team out there in the world I'd rather have on the side of my car. It's the complete backbone of the United States, man, it's the inspiration that we, as a team, used to propel us to seven championships."
The Labor Day weekend Mac Tools U.S. Nationals National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) event in Indianapolis will mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Army's partnership with Don Schumacher Racing. Schumacher and the Army unveiled their partnership in 2000 at an Indianapolis event, which he won.
"I don't drive for a beer company, I don't drive for a tool company; I drive for the United States Army. There is a whole group of people behind me. That's something very special."
Schumacher, who's been racing since he was 16, said he was terrified the first time he got into a Top Fuel dragster. "I got buckled into this thing, and thought what am I doing'"
Now, the 40-year-old father of two said it's a thrill, and he can't believe it's what he gets to do for a living.
"I get to drive the coolest car in the world, man - 8,000 horsepower, 330 miles an hour in four seconds - two football fields a second - it's lightning fast. But it's kind of funny ... I can't even start it by myself."
Though he said he's the driver and the face of the racing team, it takes nine people to make the car go. In between every four-second run, the team completely takes the engine apart and puts it back together in 75 minutes, a process that resembles a well-choreographed dance routine around a 2,225-pound dragster. Schumacher gives tremendous credit to his team, which earned the NHRA Full Throttle Hard-Working Crew Award following the races in Bristol, Tenn., June 20-22, 2010.
"They had to work through some terribly hot conditions. But, like our Army Strong Soldiers, they remained focused and got the job done in a professional manner. Their reward was holding another trophy at the end of the day. That's what it's all about," said Schumacher in a race team release. The team will be competing for another world championship, which begins with the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
"It's not the trophy that's amazing, it's what it takes to get it - knowing we have formed this awesome group of people to achieve it. Our championships come down to what we accomplished," Schumacher told future Soldiers in Las Vegas in April. "We won last six championships in a row ... seven altogether: three of them were in the last race of the year, two of them came down to the last run of the year, one we had to set a world record and win the race."
"It's a gift to be part of that, not only once, but time and time again. Very few people get to live that moment."
Schumacher said he and his team are incredibly proud to be sponsored by the Army. With the sponsorship comes speaking engagements at NHRA Youth and Education Services track side events, high schools, future Soldier programs and Army center of influence (COI) events.
"I love Tony's message, he's a fantastic speaker. When he goes to high schools, he really has an impact," said Capt. Logan Kerschner, a Las Vegas company commander. "One thing I like about Tony is he's so personable, when we bring him out to future Soldier and COI functions he makes extra time to stay at the events, he sits down with the kids, he interacts with them and makes them feel special."
Schumacher is well-known for being fan-friendly, spending a great deal of time talking with fans, signing autographs, posing for photos and inviting fans into the pit for an up-close look at the car. Schumacher said he truly enjoys it.
"I get worn out like everyone gets worn out. Why do I do it, because [of the Soldiers], I have the Army behind me, pushing me."
In the first couple of years he said he talked about how he couldn't wait to get into the race car because he was new to the sport. Now he said he talks about preparation, because he realizes how important it has been not only to the success of his team, but to success in life.
"Prepare, prepare, prepare" are words that echo through his talks, whether to high school students, future Soldiers or influencers.
"I've had so many big moments: bottom of the ninth, crunch time, suck-it-up, dig deep moments occurred that it's so easy now to talk to them about the importance of preparation, so when the moment comes it doesn't just flight right by. In high school I didn't prepare; it took me years to realize this."
"There's nothing you can tell yourself in the five minutes before the run that will make you better. You've got to train for it, you've got to prepare," he told the students at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas in April. "You're gonna wake up one day and be 40 - it's gonna happen - and you're either gonna be someone who prepared to get there, or you're gonna be one of the people looking in the help wanted ads for all the jobs left by the people who did prepare, who are living their dreams."
His message resonates well with educators, too, because Schumacher emphasizes success through teamwork, according to Bart Mangino, Bonanza High principal. Schumacher tells students they might not be the best in school, but they can be the best at whatever they choose to be, they just have to put 100 percent effort into it.
What does he most want Soldiers to know about him'
"I love it. I'm not faking it," said Schumacher, who admitted that it's difficult for him to name the single most rewarding thing about his 10-year ride with the Army.
"Everything about it is gratifying - everything - whether we're out there setting world records or whether I'm standing next to Soldiers who've done so much for us and hearing their great stories. I have so much respect for Soldiers, for the Army. "I would not want anyone else on my car."