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Tony Schumacher back on top, eyes NHRA success at LVMS

Updated October 31, 2020 - 7:36 pm

During his 1½-year exile from drag racing, Tony Schumacher remembered every nuance about driving a Top Fuel car.

Except for one.

“I forgot how damn loud they were,” said the winningest driver in NHRA Top Fuel history.

Important thing to know. So is getting down the strip in the blink of an eye, what the eight-time series champion did last week in defeating reigning Top Fuel kingpin Steve Torrence in a thrilling final at the coronavirus-delayed SpringNationals in Houston.

Schumacher’s elapsed time was 3.669 seconds; Torrence’s 3.687. The man they call “Sarge” — owing to his 19-year sponsorship by the U.S. Army that ended after the 2018 season and put him on the sidelines — won by .018 of a second.

It was one of the fastest and closest side-by-side races in Top Fuel history.

“Way up at the top,” the affable 50-year-old said before the start of qualification runs for the Dodge NHRA Finals on Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway about where the victory near his adopted home in Austin, Texas, ranks among his 84 others. “(And) we’ve had some miraculous and monumental battles.”

Foremost among them was just getting back on the track. As strange as it sounds, it took a pandemic for that to happen.

When the NHRA decided to cobble together a season after pausing nearly five months for COVID-19, Schumacher was put in a car to satisfy sponsor commitments made by Don Schumacher Racing, the powerhouse team headed by his father.

Any ride will do

The first car he drove was one of DSR driver Antron Brown’s backups. Then he switched to Leah Pruett’s spare car. After she crashed at St. Louis and needed back in the spare car, Schumacher was assigned to another of Brown’s hand-me-downs.

“Antron’s backup backup car,” said the Chicago-area native who struggled in Saturday’s qualifying at LVMS, posting the 11th-fastest ET among 14 cars.

“We’ve had three different cars; we’re working out of a trailer that’s not ours, full of parts and pieces in a barrel with a crew that most of them haven’t worked together,” Schumacher added of his comeback victory that was popular if not altogether unexpected given his pedigree.

“To have to go through two Torrences (he defeated Billy Torrence, Steve’s dad, in the semifinals), epic battle, both races were great, it was just such an exciting weekend.”

Winning was so far from his mind that he invited some friends to the track who had never experienced an NHRA weekend for bonding time.

“When I told them what I did, they pictured James Dean with a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve and a Chevelle,” Schumacher said.

Seeing their eyes light up like the Christmas tree on the starting line made Schumacher appreciate the win — and the sport — that much more.

He hopes to return full time in 2021, but that will depend on finding sponsorship dollars that have become harder to come by with the coronavirus still running amok.

“We’ve been working on deals. They are not that easy to get. But if we’re put in a car, we’ll fight for a championship,” Schumacher said about making another strong showing in Sunday’s final eliminations and perhaps enticing a potential backer to jump on board.

But there are conditions.

He was reminded of a press luncheon a few years back after which NHRA drivers bungee jumped off the Stratosphere Tower to call attention to the local race.

“I did not do it,” Schumacher said with a hearty laugh. “And even if the Stratosphere says they will sponsor me, I’m not going off that tower.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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