Don Schumacher, owner of NHRA drag racing’s largest team and multimillion-dollar global firm Schumacher Electric, was devouring his daily copy of The Wall Street Journal 20 years ago. A specific article caught his attention.
It traced the U.S. Army’s experience of recruiting a young man or woman for duty, from first contact to getting a signature on the dotted line and shipping him/her to boot camp, and put a dollar figure to the process.
According to Jack Beckman, one of Schumacher’s NHRA Funny Car champions, “He thought, ‘I’m a great businessman, and I think I can help them do this in a less expensive way.’ And the racing program, with Tony Schumacher as the driver, was so successful that even when a government mandate came out that said the government ‘can’t be spending money on X and Y and Z’ and the Army had to pull out of NASCAR, Don said, ‘Time out, guys. You’re not spending money on drag racing. You’re saving money with drag racing.’ And he showed them the numbers. And they said, ‘You know what? You’re right.’”
Since then, since that Labor Day weekend in 2000 when Tony Schumacher first buckled into that iconic black-and-gold U.S. Army Dragster at Indianapolis, the Top Fuel racer’s life took on a new purpose. He became synonymous with the Army. In the following 19 years, he has done so much more than simply host hundreds of ROTC students, recruits, soldiers, and Army brass at NHRA races.
Schumacher has gone to boot camp. He has rung in the new year with soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. He has skydived with the Golden Knights parachute team. He has laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. He presented his 2009 championship trophy to tragedy-weary Fort Hood at Killeen, Texas. He has joined the Army on occasions joyous and somber. He has lived Army values. And those memories, those values, won’t disappear when this weekend ends and the Army sponsorship is peeled from his race car.
“You realize the stuff you’re doing here at the track is fun. It’s entertaining and all that. But there are a lot of other people doing more important things. Some people say, “Eh- the Army. I’d never do that.’ You don’t have to, because others are willing to. You ought to love them even more for that,” Schumacher said. He long has contended that he’s proud not to be hawking razor blades or automotive parts or a business – not that he doesn’t value such products or endeavors. He assumed the proud responsibility of “selling a way of life.”
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This association, Don Schumacher said, is “such a personal thing to Tony and really, the whole team. Every crew guy out there, myself included . . . being involved with the U.S. Army is very, very special. We’ve gotten to go places and do things and see things that I wish every citizen would do. It would give you a whole different feeling about these soldiers and what they’re doing for us and how committed they are to us — whether it’s a soldier who’s working out of a computer center here in the United States or the guy or the lady on the front line overseas.
“Tony is a true professional at it. It comes from his heart. Nothing’s made up there. Nothing’s a script that he studies. It’s really what’s in his heart,” Don Schumacher said. “And it’s the same way with every guy who’s on that team. He has certainly got his heart involved with the U.S. Army. And that is where it comes from — it comes from his heart.
“It is a remarkable relationship,” he said.
And after this Veterans Day weekend at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., it ends.
”It’s going to be the end of our run with the U.S. Army, and with that I have to say I am honored to have represented the Army over the last 14 years,” DSR’s Antron Brown said. “To support the soldiers and drive for them was a true blessing. The Army will forever be a part of me. This partnership and all of the great people involved gave me the strength to push forward to switch from Pro Stock Motorcycle Top Fuel. The never-settle attitude and the motivation to keep striving for your dreams have been instilled in me for the rest of my life.”
Beckman called the U.S. Army presence “an enormous footprint in the NHRA for the last 19 years” and said its exit is “a sign of the times in a positive way, if that makes sense. We’re not in an active ‘war’ right now. We’ve drawn down troops in the Middle East. We don’t need to put a whole lot more fresh recruits in boots. And that was the entire point of the whole Don Schumacher Racing-U.S. Army affiliation.
“It’s just that their recruiting demands are far, far, far fewer than they have been in the last couple decades, and so this was kind of inevitable,” he said.
The Army’s exit from drag racing and Don Schumacher Racing doesn’t mean the end of association with the military. Beckman is a former Air Force Sergeant who was wowed by drag racing since he was a schoolkid in Southern California. He reached back to his military ties a decade ago when his Funny Car sponsor was Mail Terminal Services CEO Rodger Comstock and wife Karen Comstock. Together Beckman, the Comstocks, and DSR helped link NHRA fans with overseas troops with MTS’ “Mail from Home” program. That provided fans the chance to show their love and support for servicemen and servicewomen stationed on the front lines by sending signed notes of encouragement. Beckman also flew with the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds in 2009.
Today Beckman drives the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger Funny Car that Terry Chandler established and her widower, Doug Chandler, continues to fund. Beckman has used autographed challenge coins to help raise upwards of $400,000 for veterans and their families who need help with service-related mental and physical injuries.
“It’s not a sponsor. The definition of a sponsor typically is a company that provides funding for a race team in exchange for exposure,” he said as a guest on The Caruso and Wade Podcast episode that will be posted online Sunday at anchor.fm and its affiliated platforms. “Infinite Hero was put on our car simply because one lady had a huge heart. Terry Chandler wanted to change lives and provided every penny of funding – basically gave the car to Infinite Hero to raise funding awareness to the injured vets. Every run in our car, we take 20 of these military-style challenge coins with us, and they’ve become great souvenirs for the fans. If anybody wants to donate $100 [to the Infinite Hero Foundation], I’ll sign it. We started this program in late 2104, and so far, over 4,000 NHRA fans have been part of this. That means that just this coin program alone through our Infinite Hero car has raised over $400,000 to change the lives of injured veterans.
Longtime Pro Stock owner-driver Larry Morgan is elbow-deep in engines these days – Pro Stock Motorcycle motors. https://t.co/6fAsaPMS3q
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) November 2, 2018
“The nice thing with Infinite Hero,” Beckman said, “is we get to pick where the money goes. Whenever I talk to people who donate, I tell them, ‘If you ever walk a 5K to raise money for a charity or you send 20 bucks in online, you feel good because you’ve done something nice. The reality is you have no idea how your money is going to get spent. It could buy a pen and pencil set for the desk of somebody who doesn’t need it at that charity. Infinite Hero [Foundation] is so transparent and above-board. We have an all-volunteer grant committee. So all of the funds we raise go into the grant cycle. This grant committee looks at programs that have the best history of changing injured veterans’ lives for the better.
“We don’t need the credit for starting a program. Starting a program has all these immense costs that go with it and the risk that it might not work. Why would we want to do that? We want to make a difference,” he said. “So all the money that we grant to these programs is audited. That program has to show that it spent 100 percent of our money directly on the cause. It can’t cover overhead or things like that.”
Another thing Beckman said he doesn’t need is a thank-you for his four years in the Air Force.
“I don’t need to be thanked for my military service. I really don’t. I think it has provided its on rewards,” Beckman said. “I didn’t serve in combat. I didn’t do anything heroic when I was in the military, and I got a paycheck for being in there. And I voluntarily went in there.”
One thing he does need, he said, is that abiding and voluntary commitment to be respectful of the national anthem.
“It’s a time when you remove yourself from anything you were thinking about and be thankful, no matter what,” Beckman told Competition Plus years ago. “When I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, I know within 30 minutes I am going to jump in a Funny Car. But I can still walk, and I have two arms, two legs, and both eyes. There’s a lot of people who served who didn’t come back that way. There are some who didn’t come back at all. To me, it’s very important to be thankful on Veterans Day and reverent on Memorial Day.”
The big gold or black lettering saluting the “U.S. Army” won’t be on Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel dragster anymore. “Infinite Hero” still will shine on Jack Beckman’s Funny Car. But the NHRA’s genuine commitment to our military forces will endure.