NHRA Top Fuel driver Antron Brown doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘slow’

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No matter what his method of transportation, Antron Brown isn’t just fast, he’s F-A-S-T.

He’s fast afoot: He was quick enough in the 100-meter dash to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials in 1997.

He’s fast on two wheels: During his nine years in NHRA competition in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, Brown came close to winning the championship (finished second) in 2001, won at least one race and finished in the top 10 in the final standings in every season from 1999 through his last season in the class in 2007, was a 2-time winner at the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, and won the Autombile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award in 1999 (NHRA’s version of Rookie of the Year).

He’s fast on four wheels – MUCH faster, indeed: Won his first Mello Yello world championship in 2012, becoming the first African-American NHRA world champion and the first black driver to win a major U.S. auto racing title; he also is the only driver in NHRA history to win races in both the Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle ranks. Also won the U.S. Nationals yet again, this time in a Top Fuel dragster.

And Brown, 38, a resident of Chesterfield, New Jersey, is by no means showing any signs of slowing down.

The driver of the Matco Tools dragster heads into the start of the NHRA’s “western swing” this weekend at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver as one of only seven drivers in the sport’s history who has ever swept all three races of the “swing” in one year, having done so in 2009.

But Brown has higher aspirations than just doing well the next three races. With five wins already in the series’ first 14 events, and a solid second in the Top Fuel points standings, Brown wants his second championship in the last three seasons.

“It’s been actually incredible this year,” Brown said on an NHRA teleconference Wednesday. “The whole competition in Top Fuel this year has been just insane right now. Battling out with Dougie (points leader Doug Kalitta), he’s definitely been the leader of the class so far, but our Matco Tools car is definitely running like gangbusters.

“We’ve been right on track where we need to be. With that being said, we always look forward going on to the Western Swing because right now this time is real crucial for us to get going right now because once you get back from the swing we have the U.S. Nationals and then we’re off to the Countdown to our championship, which is where the championship is won.”

Brown’s dominance this season has only been hindered by three other races where he suffered a first-round loss in eliminations. Had he been able to advance past the opening round on Sunday morning at those three events, he likely would be closer – if not ahead – to Kalitta.

At the same time, Brown is more than poised to make up for those three early exits in the western swing, which along with the U.S. Nationals is the most important part of the season for teams heading into the Countdown to the Championship.

“To win one round of NHRA racing right now is crazy hard,” Brown said. “To get past the first round is crazy hard. There’s no more gimmies. There’s 12 great race teams out there, and to compete out there in it is just it makes it that hard and difficult to try to get it done.”

While winning the championship is his goal, Brown believes that a second western swing sweep would put him in the driver’s seat, so to speak, towards that second Top Fuel crown.

“It’d be huge (to win the western swing again),” Brown said. “You’ll be the first mark in history to do it, you know what I mean, and we came so close to doing it before. We go into Western Swing and we can think about that, but when we go into the first race in Denver, you erase all that from your mind because you don’t let your emotions get the best of you to try to actually get that done.

“There’s so much that you have to have go your way to get that done, if you’re focused on that, you’re not focused on the thing that you need to get done (win the race and come one step closer to the championship).”

Brown is not only an in-demand Top Fuel racer, he’s also known for the motivational talks and speeches he gives, especially to youngsters across the country.

He has several speaking engagements lined up in the coming weeks, and as much as his audience of kids is wowed by Brown’s presence and what he imparts, those talks also help keep him grounded and still hungry for more wins and championships.

“There’s one thing that I can tell you honestly,” Brown said. “It comes down to the heart and determination of the individual. You have to be willing and you have to want it, you know what I mean? That’s the one thing that you can’t teach people today, and like that’s the difference between somebody like Michael Jordan and somebody that comes off the bench.

“You can’t teach ‘want to’ and my deal is I just want it. I can speak for everybody on our Matco Tools U.S. Army Toyota race team is that that’s what I’m telling you; we had a lot of talented guys before even that won the championship. We had great guys. But we have a group of individuals on our team that we make up one whole team together that has that want to, that desire.

“They want to win. The boys are hungry. They’re willing to do whatever it takes, and they’re all about being perfectionists, and that’s what it takes to have a great team and win and they don’t have no attitudes. They’re willing to work together. That’s the biggest thing, that we don’t have one person going a different direction that we’ve got to reel in. We have all of our guys go together, it’s nine of us, and we’re going into the same direction. And that’s something special right there. It’s something really, really, really special. I think that’s what makes the deal so great in doing what we want to do.

“My main deal in me is that I always set my goals real high and I shoot for them and I try to overachieve them, and then when I fall a little short I look back and I feel like I’ve accomplished a great bit of stuff. I think that’s one key to being successful in life is that when you stumble and fall you dust yourself off and you give it another lick and you go at it even harder, but you learn from it and grow from it.”

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne