Schumacher dedicates win to Johnson family
In almost poetic fashion, the 52nd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis dished up a heady combination of drama, excitement, and perhaps in a larger sense, major servings of irony and historical mile markers.
This year, the "Big Go" offered size and substance.
In 1996, Tony Schumacher made his Top Fuel debut at Indy and it was a Labor Day weekend the sport will never forget. In qualifying, Blaine Johnson -- a future champion to be sure -- was killed on the pass that awarded him the No. 1 slot. Schumacher qualified 16th and would have raced Johnson in Round 1. Instead, Schumacher staged his race car in the opening round beside an empty lane and his emotions were at such an extreme level, he wasn't able to engage both fuel pumps on his Peek brothers-owned dragster and idled down the track.
"Everyone thought that I chose to just slowly drive down the track as a tribute to Blaine," said Schumacher, when asked about that memorable moment. "But the fuel pump malfunctioned and I took it as a sign not to make a full pass. I think Blaine would have wanted me to go all out, but I chose to play it safe."
On Monday, on the 10th anniversary of that tragic weekend, Schumacher won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals for the fifth time in the last seven years, tuned by Blaine Johnson's older brother, Alan. The irony of their joint accomplishment is inescapable.
Schumacher dedicated his fifth U.S. Nationals win to Blaine. The significance of his Indy successes can be summarized best by the fact that only one Top Fuel racer has won the sport's biggest race more times: "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, the greatest drag racer in NHRA history, who has eight Indy trophies.
"There are a lot of reasons to win races -- the fans, your sponsors, the championship chase, whatever -- but today we raced for Blaine," said Schumacher, the first nitro category driver this season to win from the No. 1 qualifying position. "My first Indy race was 10 years ago and I would've raced him in the first round if he hadn't died. To come back now and win with Alan as my crew chief, it was meant to be. This trophy is going on the Johnson family mantle. That's where it belongs."
In Funny Car, 13-time POWERade champion John Force appeared locked and loaded to win his fifth U.S. Nationals title after taking the $100,000 payoff on Sunday in the Skoal Showdown and scoring the No. 1 qualifying position. But in Monday's first round of eliminations facing Jim Head, Force made a rare and costly error when he left the starting line way too early (-.067-seconds), giving the victory to Head.
Not only did Force lose a chance at the $50,000 "double-up" bonus paid by the NHRA for winning the Showdown and the event, he later lost the points lead back to Ron Capps, who advanced to the semifinals.
"I can only blame myself," said Force after his loss. "I'm the best in the business and I have no excuses for what happened. That's not what my fans and sponsors and my team expect me to do, and if they're mad at me, I can't blame them."
Force could take some consolation in the victory enjoyed by his teammate and son-in-law, Robert Hight, who defeated Whit Bazemore in the final round to score his first career U.S. Nationals win.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," Hight said after giving crew chief Jimmy Prock his second win in three years at Indy. "The pressure of this race is unbelievable. You come in telling yourself that it is just another race and then you get here and you see that that is not the case."
Greg Anderson sank his roots even deeper into the NHRA's Pro Stock history books with his fifth overall Indy championship. The win gave him four straight U.S. Nationals victories and placed him side by side with class legends Bob Glidden and the late Lee Shepherd as the only Pro Stock drivers to rack up that many consecutive wins at the Labor Day classic.
"It's incredible in this day and age to win four in a row at the race where everybody goes all out to win," Anderson said. "I know the competition was awesome when [Glidden and Shepherd] did it, but it's even more brutal now. I feel very humbled and privileged."
There was another good story in Pro Stock Motorcycle. One year after a controversial final round saw Steve Johnson awarded the event crown one day after a timing glitch mistakenly had given the win to Matt Smith, Smith returned to avenge that disappointment when two-time Indy champ Angelle Sampey fouled out against him in the '06 finale.
Smith, the son of veteran Pro Stock driver Rickie Smith, bagged his second NHRA national event win at the sport's defining race and the significance of it was not lost on the likable 33-year-old.
"I'm keeping this one," he said after his win. "I was so jazzed when I saw Angelle's red light that I'm not sure I can remember what happened after that. Yeah, I was pretty jacked."
And that's what racing and winning at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals does to people.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.