- Bill Stephens
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Maybe there wasn't a collective outcry of cynicism from Drag Racing Nation when Antron Brown was announced as the driver replacing Whit Bazemore in the David Powers Motorsports Top Fuel dragster late in 2007, but then again, there wasn't a rousing chorus of universal acclaim, either. After all, how well could a Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran suddenly adjust to the demands of driving the fastest machines in the sport?
In the span of just six NHRA POWERade national events in 2008, it appears we have our answer.
On Sunday, Brown not only won his second race of the season at the 28th Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, but he did so with a sensational display of his driving talents against some of the most experienced and capable competitors in the category. Brown won both the second round and the final round on holeshots, and throughout the day, his reaction times were consistently quick, ranging from a .072 light (.000 is perfect) in the first round versus David Grubnic to an exceptional .023 RT against No. 1 qualifier Cory McClenathan in the first of his holeshot wins in Round 2.
But it was his final-round burglary of the event title against five-time POWERade champion Tony Schumacher that was most memorable. With the grandstands overflowing with fans on their feet, Brown pulled out a nifty .035 leave against the category's most feared driver and clipped Schumacher for the win with his slower 4.537-second pass to beat Schumacher's quicker 4.521.
Brown's victory lifted him to the second spot in the Top Fuel points and placed him in serious contention for the POWERade championship. Were he to win the championship, he would be the first rookie driver to accomplish that feat since Gary Scelzi's freshman title in 1997.
"I have to give a lot of the credit to my team, my tuner Lee Beard and to the people at Matco Tools who have been behind me all the way," said Brown, who became the second black driver in NHRA history to win a Top Fuel national event, joining J.R. Todd, who won three races as a rookie in 2006.
"Right now, we feel the confidence that you need to be able to go out there and get the job done. Top Fuel is as competitive as it's been in a long time, and all you have to do is look at how close the racing was in Atlanta last week to understand how difficult it is to win in this class. We had some problems in qualifying last weekend, but my crew not only got the car straightened out, they were able to get the tune-up right where it had to be for race day, especially since we were in the first pair to go down the track."
There have been previous instances of Top Fuel rookies making big splashes shortly after moving into the professional ranks. Scelzi won his first two national events in his rookie championship season. The late Darrel Russell also was victorious in his first pro start, and Cory McClenathan didn't win in his Top Fuel maiden voyage but did win the first national event in which he competed in his Top Alcohol dragster in 1989 in Denver. But in each of those instances, the newbie Top Fuel racers were coming from a four-wheeled category, while Brown's only previous racing experience had been on a Pro Stock Motorcycle, which requires a substantially different set of disciplines and skills.
"There are some things that you have to do that motorcycles and dragsters have in common," Brown said. "But the bikes are much lighter, and you have to avoid red-lighting because of how quickly they react to you. Top Fuel dragsters have a split-second hesitation as the slicks bite and the car hooks up, but the sensation of the G's pushing you back into the seat is unlike anything else I've ever experienced."
Brown's meteoric rise atop the Top Fuel charts has not gone unnoticed by teammate "Hot Rod" Fuller.
"Antron has really stepped up," Fuller said. "It's just amazing how easily he has adapted to Top Fuel and is as accomplished a driver as he is in such a short time. He's won as many rounds this year because of his driving skills as he has from the performance of his car. He certainly helps to keep me on my game."
Brown's outstanding rookie season has gone a long way in convincing what few naysayers remain that he has the goods to be not only a player but a major player in the Top Fuel ranks. But his rise to Top Fuel prominence has been based more on his belief in himself, rather than the belief -- or lack of belief -- embraced by others.
"You have to have confidence in yourself no matter what you race with," he said. "If you don't have that, you'll never reach your potential."
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
Go from Pro Stock Motorcycle to Top Fuel and be successful ... right away? With two wins in six events, Antron Brown proved it can be done, writes Bill Stephens.