Schumacher takes opener in stride

Updated: February 17, 2005, 9:07 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Only one NHRA POWERade tour team owner had entries in all three pro categories at last weekend's season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.

Don Schumacher fielded a Top Fuel dragster, three Funny Cars and two Pro Stock racecars. But by the end of the day on Sunday, he had not a single trophy in his hands.

Schumacher knows that in drag racing, bigger isn't always better.

"It was a disappointment," said Schumacher from his corporate headquarters in Chicago on Thursday. "But it was the first race of the season and you always discover that there are bugs that still need to be worked out. We weren't the only team that had some tough sledding so we'll just take what we learned to Phoenix next week and hope for better luck."

Schumacher has gathered a veritable All-Pro roster of blue chip talent into his immense operation, which is the largest in the sport. His son, Tony -- the defending POWERade Champion -- drives the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster; Whit Bazemore, Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps make up his Funny Car battalion; and Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Richie Stevens headline his new Pro Stock lineup with the legendary Bob Glidden handling mechanical setups.

On Sunday, Tony was a second round loser in Top Fuel while Bazemore advanced to the F/C semifinals, losing to eventual race winner Tommy Johnson Jr. All of the other Team Schumacher drivers were first-round victims, including Scelzi who ran a career-best elapsed time, 4.717, at a career-best 331.53 mph, but lost on a holeshot to Phil Burkart thanks to an uncharacteristically tardy .154 reaction time.

"Gary is really taking that loss on himself," said Schumacher. "He's down about it, especially when you look at the fantastic numbers he ran. He obviously had the best car on raceday based on performance, but I reminded him that he's won plenty of rounds because of his driving and he has nothing to be ashamed of."

Going zero-for-6 in the season's first race is a bitter pill to swallow for a team owner who was a renowned Funny Car star 30 years ago, driving a string of nitro machines bearing unforgettable names such as "Stardust" and "Wonder Wagon."

Does the pressure of running a successful battery charger company in Chicago while leading drag racing's biggest fleet of rolling stock ever become overwhelming?

"Toward last year, I have to admit, I was beginning to feel a bit scattered," he said. "Recently, I've hired some people who have been able to give me a lot of help in the various areas of my business and that's made a difference."

Of course, the question which frequently pops up during any conversation with Schumacher is whether there's the possibility of expanding his enormous team even further.

To that he said, "I'm always on the lookout for opportunities from the business and sponsorship side. I've said many times how I'd like to have a second Top Fuel car to give us a strategic benefit racing against the Kalitta three-car team.

"But (crew chief) Alan Johnson thinks a second car could be a distraction, and besides, we won the championship last year with one car and I firmly believe we have the ability to win it again."

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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