Top Fuel standards continue to fall to Schumacher at Big Go
Is it the tuner or is it the driver? Whatever it is, Tony Schumacher's record-setting Top Fuel run in the Alan Johnson-tuned U.S. Army dragster continued at the U.S. Nationals. And there's plenty of credit to go around, writes John Schwarb.
Updated: September 2, 2008, 2:36 PM ETBy John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com
CLERMONT, Ind. -- There was more drama than usual along the way to the winner's circle at the U.S. Nationals this year for Tony Schumacher. But you get the gist of it: Schumacher won. Again.Everything else in NHRA Top Fuel these days is just talk. Crew chief Alan Johnson announcing his departure from the team in the middle of the biggest weekend of the season? The team waiting until the last day to qualify? Irrelevant. The Don Schumacher Racing U.S. Army team lives for eliminations, and no one has eliminated them in two months.When Schumacher crossed the finish line Monday afternoon in 3.916 seconds at 309.13 mph, ahead of Doug Kalitta's 4.036/299.86 in the 54th running of the Big Go, the adding machine of records ka-chinged again for the four-time defending champions.This was the team's sixth consecutive win, a class record. The 11th win of the season, a class record. The 52nd win for Schumacher, tying legendary Joe Amato atop Top Fuel. The second-round win Monday made it 22 straight, another record, extended to 24 by day's end.And, oh yeah, throw in the fact that it all happened at O'Reilly Raceway Park and the hallowed U.S. Nationals. This was the team's seventh win here, third consecutive and fifth in six years, leaving Schumacher one short of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits for the class mark and two behind Bob Glidden for the most all time."You're trying to figure out which reason you smiled for," Schumacher said. "Not even the victory part, but the whole part of it, knowing so many things were on the line. So many records, so many different things -- and it's Indy. Then you hear that your crew chief's leaving before it, and you can still maintain, pull it together and have an ass-kicking day. Unbelievable."The dominant news leading up to race day was Johnson's departure announcement. Top Fuel's best tuner with seven titles and 76 national wins [and counting] is leaving at season's end to start Alan Johnson Racing, a partnership with Qatar-based Al-Anabi Racing and His Highness Sheihk Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani. The new team will operate a Top Fuel dragster and Funny Car, with drivers and other details yet to be announced.Some in the Top Fuel community, including team owner Don Schumacher, said the news would be a distraction over Indy weekend, though Tony Schumacher adamantly denied it Saturday.For a while, the driver appeared wrong. The Army car failed to make the field over three runs on Friday and Saturday, a small cause for alarm. As it turned out, marquee names like John Force and Gary Scelzi failed to make the show, as did Top Fueler Morgan Lucas at a race he had to run for a chance to make the Countdown to 1."You get yourself in that position, you know you have a car that goes down the racetrack, you get yourself to where you're like 'man, stay focused,'" Schumacher said. "I didn't want to not be in the show."Those concerns were erased quickly Sunday when the car landed in the sixth qualifying spot, 0.036 of a second behind top qualifier Larry Dixon but with the top speed of qualifying: 314.75 mph."I think all the planets and everything are back in orbit normal again," Dixon said Saturday night. "Mercury was in retrograde [Saturday]."Not so Monday. The Army car took out Bob Vandergriff Jr., Hillary Will, DSR teammate Cory McClenathan and Kalitta with, well, Army-like precision. The team had the low elapsed time in the first round and the semifinals in addition to the final. Every run was under 3.950 seconds and faster than 305.40 mph.It was a fairly typical Labor Day in Indy, warm and progressively stickier on the track. It was a day that demanded sharp tuning, and Don Schumacher called it "AJ's race."But someone still had to get the car down the track. Tony Schumacher did that and more, beating Will and Kalitta on the Christmas tree and hardly putting a tire out of the groove.Those details tend to get lost with a legendary tuner, but they shouldn't. This season is Schumacher's best behind the wheel, not only in wins but in details that count, such as a reaction-time average of 0.067 of a second, second only to Doug Herbert in the class."What's helped is Tony driving as good as he is this year," Johnson said. "Teams know. Like the Kalitta team, Doug's probably one of the best drivers out here. He's historically been able to leave on Tony at the starting line, which made us have to overcome that. This year, Tony's leaving on everybody."That gives us a little cushion in the bank, that makes [opposing tuners] push a little. When they do, they go someplace where they maybe shouldn't be. They end up smoking the tires and make it our advantage."So that yin-yang effect again lands in Johnson's lap, too often making Schumacher look like he's simply the conductor of a freight train, doing little more than blowing the whistle."Am I the best driver? When you go and you do a survey of everybody, my name's never mentioned. And I'm OK with that," Schumacher said. "John Force once came up to me and said, 'You know they'll smile, they'll shake your hand. But they don't like you.' I understand that, but when I go home, my neighbors do."Do I think I get the respect? I don't think they voice it, but I think we have it. I don't think there's a guy out there that thinks they're going to pull one over on me. I don't think they're going to go in deep [staging], I don't think they can mess with me, and I think they know that."The respect better be there. Schumacher built a 567-point lead over the season's first 18 races, and though that lead will be 30 in the Countdown to 1 format starting in two weeks at Charlotte, he's still the runaway favorite for another title -- the fifth in a row and class-record sixth overall.The new format says it's Schumacher against nine other Top Fuel dragsters. The reality is probably Schumacher against Schumacher."It's nice that he's not going to be out of touch [in points], but his car just runs better than everybody else's and Tony does a good job driving," said Herbert, eighth in points. "It used to be a couple years ago we could beat Tony by a couple hundredths [off the start], but Tony's driving pretty good now, too. For somebody other than Tony to win the championship, either they've got to have problems -- which the chances are probably slim -- or somebody has to step up and start running better."That's hard to envision on a day like Monday, when the Army car is first off one line and first across the other, over and over again. Credit Johnson, of course, but credit Schumacher, too.Actually, take it one step further. For all the talk of Schumacher's team having to replace its legendary crew chief next year, there needs to be talk of how Johnson's new team will possibly find a worthy driver.
"I get it, I know what they think. But when they try to drive my car and they see that this poor kid " Schumacher said, shaking his head. "He's going to have to hire himself a driver, it's not about sticking someone in the seat. His car is difficult to drive. His car is expected to win. His car has to be staged shallow, his car has to be driven straight, and his car doesn't want to go straight, so he's going to have to find someone good. "I'm sure he'll find one, but he's going to have to find someone that will fill my shoes just as much as I'm going to have to find someone to fill his. He's the best at doing his job and I feel I'm driving the best of my career right now, and he's going to have to replace that. We're both making names for each other."
In the meantime, there's six races left to enjoy the ride they're on together.John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.