During the off-season, NHRA Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher had a lot of time to reflect on the 2011 season that left his U.S. Army dragster team winless. It was the first time since 2001 that “The Sarge” didn't celebrate in the winner's circle.
From 2003 until 2010, Schumacher averaged more than seven wins a season, which added seven trophies a year to his collection, which currently sits at 67, the most in the Top Fuel category. He said it was a very strange feeling last year, not having to make room for any new Wallys – the iconic trophies that go to NHRA race winners.
“What we haven't had to do is polish our trophies – it was a rough year,” Schumacher said with a laugh. “But looking back, we did a heck of a job. We had some amazing runs, ran fast. We got beat on some close races.”
That was the tale of Schumacher's 2011. He finished fifth in the point standings, his lowest finish since 2001 when he placed eighth. It wasn't like his team didn't contend. They advanced to seven final rounds. In three of those he lost to eventual world champ Del Worsham. In the other four, he lost to his teammates – second-place Spencer Massey and third-place Antron Brown.
Schumacher will try to reverse the trend of last season with a winning performance at this weekend's 52nd annual O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries, Feb. 9-12 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the first of 23 events in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series for 2012.
Schumacher is a two-time winner of the Winternationals, and has six victories in his career at the historic Southern California track.
With a solid winter of testing under his belt and no turnover on his U.S. Army crew led by tuner Mike Green, the seven-time world champ is more than ready to put the goose-egg year behind him and start adding more hardware to his collection.
“Every driver knows at some point there's going to be adversity, and we had it last year,” Schumacher said. “We had to get through it because a lot of teams probably would have gone out and fired a lot of guys. That's not how we act. Mike and I get along so good. The nine guys who build the car are phenomenal in developing and working. We just had to look back on it and say the teams we raced against did a heck of a job when we raced against them. All in all we performed very well. We just have to do better this year. We're not used to getting beat.”
While there were some major shake-ups in Top Fuel during the off-season, including an overhaul at Al-Anabi Racing where Shawn Langdon and rookie Khalid alBalooshi will take over the dragsters driven by the category's last two world champions Worsham and Larry Dixon, Schumacher knows that the competition will be just as tough as ever. It starts with his own teammates at Don Schumacher Racing, Brown and Massey.
“Take those two guys away and I'm world champ last year, and I didn't win a race because of those guys,” Schumacher said. “They beat me more than anybody else. That's fine. It's a great situation to know that if you win a championship, you had to beat those guys. No one laid down. No one had team orders. There was no easy way to do it. I will have to beat the Matco car and the FRAM car if I'm going to be the champ.”
There'll be plenty of competition from throughout the pits. Defending Winternationals winner Lucas will now team with longtime friend Brandon Bernstein. Veterans Doug Kalitta, David Grubnic, Cory McClenathan, Bob Vandergriff Jr. and Terry McMillen will all be in the hunt. Clay Millican, who will be racing a full schedule for the first time in several years, also will be a top 10 threat in his Parts Plus dragster.
“I don't race because I need that trophy, I race because I need the competition,” Schumacher said. “I love a good battle and right now we have it. All four of our classes, including the bikes, too, I would be proud to be an NHRA fan right now, pay my money, sit in the stands, because I'm going to get one heck of a race.”