Sarge stayed in charge against the odds
The Schumacher era ended a couple of years ago in Formula One racing, but it continues unabated in drag racing.
Michael Schumacher rewrote the F1 record books by claiming five consecutive world championships between 2000 and 2004, bringing the great German's total to seven titles.
Last weekend at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., Tony Schumacher went one better. The 39-year-old Californian claimed his sixth consecutive Top Fuel crown in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, his Michael Schumacher-matching seventh overall.
And Schumacher did it with his usual dramatic flair. After clinching his 2006 and '07 titles at Pomona, the driver of the U.S. Army dragster once again demonstrated his mastery of the classic California venue by posting a near-record 3.772-second pass to take top qualifier honors for the Auto Club NHRA finals. That gave him a crucial two-point advantage over longtime rival Larry Dixon.
When both men lost their separate runs in the semifinals (Dixon to Spencer Massey, Schumacher to Don Schumacher Racing teammate and eventual event winner Antron Brown), the record-extending title went to Schumacher. He promptly declared that the trophy would be sent to the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, where 13 lives were lost Nov. 5 in a shooting incident.
"This trophy will go to Fort Hood; I don't think there's any question in the world where it belongs," Schumacher told reporters. "We'll present it to the family, the friends, everyone at that base."
It was a classy gesture by the man known as "The Sarge," who demonstrated once again his absolute command of the Top Fuel category despite racing with a new crew chief and crew in 2009. Schumacher's rivalry with Dixon, who teamed up with Schumacher's former crew chief Alan Johnson with the new Al-Anabi team, was one of the top storylines of the NHRA season.
Mike Green guided Schumacher to his latest title.
"Of all of the championships, this one ranks pretty far up there," Schumacher said. "Having to go out with Mike and build a new team and go through that adversity, it's outstanding to be standing here on the podium. Nobody expected us to win a race, no less a title."
Schumacher's 58th career pole proved to be the difference.
"That run was bone-crushing, weight-of-the-world pressure, and that U.S. Army team came through -- unbelievable," he said. "We knew we had one shot at low ET [elapsed time] and that extra point that would help us control our own destiny. I was blessed with the greatest team that gave me the ability to make that one shot."
Six consecutive Top Fuel championships (and seven overall) puts Schumacher in the company of drag racing greats including Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, John Force and Kenny Bernstein.
"It's a blessing to have your name mentioned in the same sentence with those guys," he said. "It was a different breed back then. They would build their own cars and work on them. It was a whole different world."
But his dominance of drag racing lands him in exclusive territory no matter what form of motorsport it is compared with. Aside from the above-mentioned Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna was the most successful Formula One driver in recent times. Senna won three championships in four years between 1988 and 1991.
In NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson is on the brink of his fourth consecutive championship. Cup Series icons Richard Petty (1971-75) and Dale Earnhardt (1990-94) both managed to win four titles in five years, while Jeff Gordon won the Cup championship three times in four years between 1995 and '98.
In Indy cars, Sebastien Bourdais' run of four consecutive titles in the defunct Champ Car World Series from 2004 to '07 was the most dominant recent run. Rick Mears won championships in three of four years between 1979 and '82 and A.J. Foyt won four of his USAC crowns in a five-year span from 1960 to '64.
The only driver more successful than Schumacher (who won his first Top Fuel trophy in 1999) for such a sustained period of time is winged sprint car legend Steve Kinser, who posted streaks of six, five and four consecutive championships during his World of Outlaws career.
Impressive company. And the worrying aspect for Schumacher's rivals is that after a "learning" season with Green and his new DSR crew, "The Sarge" could be even more in charge in 2010.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.
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