Australian gains Top Fuel fans


Robert Schwab is not a household name within the ranks of the Funny Car elite in the NHRA POWERade series. He had never qualified for an NHRA national event before this weekend. After emigrating from Australia to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time professional drag racer, he had spent the majority of his career on the match race circuit, far from the media glitz of the NHRA's professional limelight.

Schwab put himself squarely on the drag racing road map Sunday at the 25th Mopar Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway outside Denver in his Wheeler/Cat nitro Funny Car.

After qualifying on the bump spot of the 16-car field, Schwab went into eliminations with the spirit of determination that helped him survive a horrific Funny Car crash at Rocky Mountain Raceways near his Magna, Utah, home in 1999. His "Thunder Down Under" fuel coupe erupted into a fireball on that April day five years ago, and he was seriously burned over much of his body.

His recovery was long and arduous, and he still has scars on his face and body from the violently intense flames he survived. Throughout the ordeal, though, he never doubted he would once again be in the seat of a Funny Car. That is, after all, why he moved to the United States in 1988 with $500 in his pocket, ready to do whatever it took to be a professional drag racer.

Facing No. 1 qualifier Whit Bazemore in the opening round of eliminations in Denver on Sunday, Schwab again accomplished the near impossible. He beat beat Bazemore, who had set a new track record elapsed time in qualifying at 4.842. When Whit's Matco Tools Dodge smoked the tires, Schwab won his first-ever NHRA national event round in his first-ever national event round appearance.

In the second round, Schwab met rookie Eric Medlen, the No. 8 qualifier, and got past him when Medlen's Castrol Syntec Mustang lost traction. Schwab's 5.46/239 pass was good enough for a second-round victory.

"This is really amazing", Schwab told the ESPN2 television audience after catching his breath at the top end. "Most of my crew has never been to a national event before. This is something I certainly hadn't expected, but I'm very grateful for all the help I'm getting from my team."

With an inexperienced crew and only 75 minutes to prepare for the semifinals, Schwab barely completed his between-round maintenance and was unable to warm up his engine prior to racing Cruz Pedregon. Schwab's racecar fired up when cranked over and made its burnout without problems, but when the Christmas Tree turned green, Schwab's .364 reaction time allowed Pedregon to win with a much slower elapsed time. Cruz's 5.54/272 beat Schwab's 5.39/ 272.

Despite losing his semifinal matchup, Schwab gained a legion of fans who enthusiastically cheered his efforts throughout the weekend and gave the resilient Australian driver and his wife, Lisa, unforgettable memories of his first career start at an NHRA national event.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.