Antron Brown knows what it's like to contend for a championship. He just doesn't know what it's like to win one – yet.
Since he swung his leg over a drag bike for the first time in 1998, Brown, who switched to Top Fuel in 2008, has never finished outside the top 10. Throw out his first and last seasons in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and he's never been out of the top five.
There's just one thing left. Is this the year he wins it all?
“It could be,” Brown says. “I understand what's happening with the car more than I ever have. There are still things to learn – there always will be with a nitro car. You never have this deal completely figured out. But I feel like I have a good handle on driving now.
“Plus, this is the first time since I've been in Top Fuel that I didn't have some big transition to make in the off-season. The first year, it was the whole move to a new class. The next year, I went from one team to another. Then we went from that team to Don Schumacher Racing, where we run a whole different kind of chassis. This year, we knew all winter that the team wasn't getting sold; nobody was going anywhere. Now, there's no more sidestepping. It's time to take a step up that ladder.”
As part of DSR, Brown is teamed with seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, former Rookie of the Year Spencer Massey, and four fully funded Funny Car drivers. He has sponsorship from Matco Tools and Aaron's, and a dozen years of experience racing at the highest level of the sport – just not all of them in Top Fuel.
“I never raced a Top Fuel dragster until three years ago,” says Brown, “but already I knew all about the pressure of racing on Sunday and knew how to race. Sunday isn't just driving – it's racing. You have to learn how to win. What you go through in your mind before the run is as important as the run itself. Some people can take the car down the track but can't race.”
For anything he doesn't know, he has six other DSR drivers to draw from and a former world champion driver on his own team to fall back on. Mark Oswald, co-crew chief with Brian Corradi, won the 1984 NHRA Funny Car championship and finished second four other times.
“Mark and Brian – especially Mark, because he drove for so long and was a champion – still work with me on what to do when the car isn't right,” Brown says. “If you get in trouble in qualifying, you just shut it off. On Sundays, you can have a problem – shake or smoke tires or drop a cylinder or something – but maybe the other guy has an even worse issue and you can still win if you drive the car right. I'm learning to tap the brake handle instead of letting all the way off the gas. I'm working on catching things quicker. I can do it pretty fast now, but I want to get better.”
If Brown doesn't have low e.t. and top speed at an event, he's never far from it, consistently qualifying near the top with a refined combination that bears little resemblance to the setup that nearly won him the title in 2009. “This year, we have more power than ever before – and what we had was already good,” he says. “We've done blower development, engine development and just improved everything across the board. Last year, Mark and Brian made a commitment to this. Brian said, ‘This is what we have, we're going to make it work.' It took a little time to get it all worked out, and we're still fine-tuning, but we're a lot better off now. The tuning window is bigger.”
After a semifinal finish at the season-opening Winternationals and a second-round loss at the Gatornationals, Brown dominated eliminations at the Nationals in Las Vegas, running low e.t. of the meet to that point (3.845sec) in round two and an even better 3.843 in the semifinals, both at 320mph. In the final against Brandon Bernstein, who hadn't been out of the 3.90s all weekend, Corradi turned back the power a little bit, and the car responded with a smooth 3.88 for the win.
“We were unstoppable after the first round, and it was great to get a win so early in the season, but it should have been the second one,” says Brown, still not over an in-the-bag semifinal race against Shawn Langdon back at the Winternationals. He had a huge lead until the engine exploded near half-track. “That was our race to win,” he muses. “A little ball-check in a nozzle body got pressed through a spring, leaned that hole out, number four fired at the wrong time, and boom. Backfire, a huge explosion and we're out. We were going to run a 3.78 or .79 that time and we would have gone for the record in the final. It took a while for Shawn to come around me, so I knew I was way ahead. For a while, I thought I had him. But he got me. All it takes is one little thing.”
Last year, it was one little thing after another as Brown went winless until the final race of the year, reaching six other finals but losing every one. “Five of them were by less than 0.01sec,” he says, still miffed. “We just fell on the wrong side of some really good races, and there's nothing you can do about that. In '09, the close ones all fell our way; last year, they didn't.”
Those final-round heartbreakers were nothing compared to what happened at the second race of 2010, when a wheel came off Brown's dragster not far off the line, and eventually landed in the pits, striking and killing a female fan who was attending her first race.
“It set us all back emotionally,” Brown says. “A person lost her life. For a while after that, I was just kind of doing what I needed to do, relying on talent to get me through. I wasn't in it mentally for a month or two, and that accident is something that will never go away. To get myself right, to get that hunger back, to want to feel like a gladiator again took me a little while. It really beat up all of us. It's the kind of thing that can make or break you as a team, and we eventually came out of it stronger. It was a defining moment for all of us.”
Brown ultimately finished fourth in the final standings and excelled late in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, closing strong over the last four races with two semifinal finishes, a runner-up and, at the Finals, a victory. Compare to '09 – five wins in the regular season, then disaster in the Countdown.
“When you get to the end of the year, you just want to be there in contention for the championship,” Brown says. “That's all you can ask for. In 2009, nothing went right in the Countdown. Last year, we finished strong but it was already too late.
“One thing I know for sure, after three years in Top Fuel: You can't just try harder. It has to be there already. You have to trust that all the work the crew chiefs did in the off-season and all the work you put in at the gym and the work the crew did is going to pay off. We led all year in 2009, but it fell apart in the Countdown. This year, that's not going to happen.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the June 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.