Tony Schumacher understood the reality of peaks and valleys early on in his career. As a first-time Top Fuel racer at the 1996 NHRA U.S. Nationals, he qualified No 16 and was scheduled to meet the epitome of what an independent Top Fuel driver should be in Blaine Johnson.
Schumacher scored his milestone first career round win on a single, as Johnson lost his life a day earlier while making the No. 1 qualifying run. A lot has changed for the second-generation driver since that Labor Day weekend 24 years ago.
At 85 career NHRA Top Fuel wins, Schumacher now stands as the winningest driver in the dragster division.
Last Sunday, when Schumacher won the pandemic-delayed NHRA SpringNationals outside of Houston, it marked the first time he’d won since June 2018.
Consider this. From 2007 through 2012, Schumacher scored 28 national event victories. The next five years, Schumacher won only 15 times. In 2008 alone, Schumacher won 15 races in a season.
“I always knew those years where we won 15 races and nine and eight, I said, ‘Guys, there’ll be a time when it’s not this easy,” Schumacher said. “Every single round was hard, but we won a lot of stuff, and you go through it, but I enjoy it. I enjoy the adversity; I enjoy re-planning and re-figuring out. And that’s part of the whole thing.”
Schumacher has lived those “not this easy” years since 2018 when the U.S. Army, his primary sponsor of two decades, decided to pull out of motorsports. This decision by the advertising agency, which represented the U.S. Army, left Schumacher standing on the sidelines.
There’s a natural reaction of frustration for a driver who is forced to sit idle while the sport which they’ve been a part of moves forward without them. Schumacher was a bit frustrated when a driver who has competed at the top of the food chain consistently for two decades couldn’t land a sponsorship.He did, however, use the moment to rediscover himself.
“Everyone’s frustrated when they’re not in the car,” Schumacher said. “I mean John Force is just sitting there. It’s part of life.”
For Schumacher, it was part of life he hadn’t experienced for twenty years, since he first won a championship in 1999 with backing from Exide and rolled over into sponsorship for the U.S. Army’s recruiting division.
After a while of the so-called beating the bushes looking for backing, Schumacher realized the 2019 season wasn’t going to happen. At least it wasn’t going to happen at the level he’d enjoyed for those long decades.
Schumacher visited the track a few times as a fan and even did some pit reporting for FoxSports, but for the most part he immersed himself in a role he’d been pulled away from. He learned how to be at home.
Schumacher learned to re-engage in an aspect of the life he’d missed.
“I learned how to have a vacation and enjoy holidays,” Schumacher admitted. “I never got to be there; I missed all my kids’ birthdays. I never got to see that; I never got to be there for it. And I was almost excited I was going to see his first Halloween in a long time, but guess what? We’re off to Vegas. And we missed it, athletes in every arena, actor, just people that do this kind of a living.
“We choose it. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves, but we miss some of the things, and I got to spend a year really, really enjoying them. Helping [son] Anthony get set up for OU [Oklahoma University], doing things that I wouldn’t have been able to do. I’d have been gone otherwise, just hoping everything went well.
“I enjoy what I do, but I enjoy what I do off the track, too. So, if you have lived your life only by the trophies sitting on the shelves, it’s going to get hard later in life. You got to learn to enjoy life, family, and the people you’re around.”
Schumacher readily admits on the days where he was plane-hopping, meeting chasing, and racing, there was a time at home when he looked around he swore he could hear, at least subconsciously, Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle song playing.
“I used to sing that all the time, that is so true,” Schumacher said. “Life goes real fast. I was there for [Anthony’s] birth on the way to Joliet back in 2001. He was born Thursday morning, and I had to leave that day, and I was like I made it, I made it for all their births, but barely. And it’s part of the sacrifice; it’s part of when you see a win in any class, in any sport, you got to understand what those drivers and crew guys, team guys go through is a lot more than just the work on the racetrack. It’s a lot of sacrifices.”
So for Schumacher to return to the grind again, it was going to need to be a significant effort capable of winning.
“When my dad called and said, “Hey, I want to put you in the car for these races,” Schumacher said. “And I said, ‘Well, who’s tuning it? What’s on the side of the car?” I don’t need to show up and just play around; I got to have a chance to win these races.
And he said, “Now we’re going to put you in a car. We’ll have all good parts, all good pieces, and my team is going to tune it.”
Then Don Schumacher paired his son with Mike Green.
The road hasn’t been all smooth sailing, as Schumacher revealed the car he won in on Sunday was the third different dragster in seven races. And even though his present crew isn’t the same one he shared the glory days with, Schumacher pointed out that the victory’s memory is one they should cherish for a lifetime.
“Winning that race last week with new guys was a blessing just to be able to look at them and go; that’s what it’s about,” said Schumacher, waxing sentimental for a moment. “It’s about the family, the people that show up to watch the race, we know what we’re going to do. We know what we do. We do this all the time, but it’s everybody, it’s the enjoyment of the fan that man, he didn’t get to go to too many different sporting events this year got to really put a little bit into perspective and see it from a different angle this season.”
One aspect, Schumacher is quick to point out, which never changed from the days when he made winning look so easy to last Sunday when his team appeared to be in the right place at the right time. Preparation will always meet opportunities in perfect timing.
“We are under power in a car for not that much time. It’s all the stuff and my speeches; they’ve always come down to the preparation. The preparation is part of the game, and that’s part of the challenge. The endless hours the guys work in the shop and the amount of time it takes to put together the right team and right parts and right pieces, we built a lot of stuff there, and it takes all of it.”
And even for a year and a half, getting to live an everyday life was cool. Well, kinda-sorta, if Schumacher has ever led an everyday life since he went racing full-time. Case in point, on Wednesday hours before this interview, he was at an Army Ranger camp.
“My life’s never been what you would call normal. I’ve lived some incredible stuff, but it was nice to slow down for a little bit. Not that I wanted to, I sure didn’t have to sit on the sidelines for a little while, but I capitalized on what I’ve got. I’m a half-full cup kind of guy.
“I don’t sit there and weep and pout. No, it is what it is. And I thank God every day that not only did I get to drive a race car, but the people I’ve met. I have so many contacts; it’ll make anything I do success. As long as I use the contacts, use the people I’ve met along the way, the people I’ve helped, the people that have helped me, and we work together. There’s always ways, and my strength was always linking people together. And it’s what I do right now.
Schumacher believes the experience of battling back from the sidelines to the winner’s circle will one day be a helpful experience resource he will draw on, much like his time associated with the U.S. Army instilled in him a mindset he employs today.
“I would like to say it trained my mindset for being successful at whatever I do,” Schumacher explained. “It’s a never give up attitude, the way they train, and the leadership, all of it; it’s a blessing to be a part of it. For someone who listens, I really paid attention to what they did. I got to train with them all; I got to be part of what they did. It was outstanding. No matter what I do in my life, I’m a better person because of what I learned from them.”
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