NHRA: ‘The Sarge’ looks to mount a charge in Las Vegas

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In a sense, The Sarge has been temporarily busted down in rank.

A year ago, U.S. Army-sponsored and eight-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and teammate Antron Brown were both ranked near the top of the point standings heading into the annual spring race in Las Vegas.

Things continued to go right for Brown, who went on to win the 2015 Top Fuel championship, following Schumacher’s 2014 crown.

But 2016 hasn’t exactly started out the way the two Don Schumacher Racing drivers had hoped for. Brown enters this weekend’s Denso Spark Plus NHRA Nationals ranked 10th in the standings, while Schumacher is two places higher in eighth.

They’ve both struggled during the first three races on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, leaving Brown 102 points behind series leader Brittany Force and Schumacher 96 points back.

But if there was ever a good place for both drivers to get back on track and rally their troops, it’s definitely this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Schumacher has won eight different times at The Strip in his Top Fuel career, while Brown has won twice there. In total, the pair have reached the final round in Sin City 17 different times and have combined to earn the No. 1 qualifier spot 13 times (nine for Schumacher and four for Brown, who was the last No. 1 at Las Vegas in last fall’s return race there.).

“We always seem to have a great racecar for Vegas,” Schumacher said. “This is a great team and we certainly know how to knuckle down and get the job done there.

“It’s a great race to go to for a lot of reasons. It’s different than most other places we go to, and my crew chiefs seem to find the handle on that track better than others. We don’t have a ton of momentum going for us this year, so far, so we’re just looking forward to a bone-crushing weekend on the racetrack there once again.”

All told, neither Schumacher nor Brown have advanced past the second round in any of the first three races of 2016 and have a combined 4-6 won-loss record in Sunday final elimination rounds.

But that’s not a big concern for Brown, who clinched his second career Top Fuel title in the fall race at Las Vegas.

“We’re not where we want to be in the standings at the moment, but there’s certainly a long way to go and absolutely no cause for alarm,” Brown said. “Our main focus this year is to keep working to constantly improve and get better at every race. We’re still a work in progress, as is the case every new season. We’re always building. Our main focus is to be No. 1 at the end of the season.”

Still, there are 21 races remaining on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule, giving both drivers plenty of time to get back into the upper echelon of their class. To that end, they even stayed an extra day after the Gatornationals two weeks ago in Gainesville, Florida, to try and work out the kinks.

Schumacher isn’t letting the slow start rile him.

“If you look back at my championship seasons, it seemed more often than not that we always struggled in the early part of the year, except for ’08, when we were just awesome from beginning to end,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “Last year, we were so strong at the beginning and then ended up struggling at the end of the season when it matters the most.

“What we have going on right now is just a slight case of adversity on Sundays and it’s really no big deal. … To have the kind of luck we’ve had on Sundays so far this year and still be sitting in eighth place – heck, we’ve only won two rounds and we’ve had a car that was capable of winning all three events – speaks to the fact just about everyone has been struggling to at least some degree.

“Hey, anybody who’s watched us closely for the last 20 years knows they have never seen panic in me or my team. Even if we finish dead last, it’s still the greatest job in the world and I get to wake up every day and represent the U.S. Army. We’re doing everything at the racetrack the way the Army preaches – overcome adversity by adapting and adjusting. We will come out on the winning end of this.”


DENSO SPARK PLUGS NHRA NATIONALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 17th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals, the fourth of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in three categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships. The race also will feature competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series.

WHERE: The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas. Track is located approximately 15 miles north of downtown Las Vegas off Interstate 15.

WHEN: Friday through Sunday, April 1-3

SCHEDULE:        

FRIDAY, April 1 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m.

SATURDAY, April 2– LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:10 and 4:05 p.m.

K&N HORSEPOWER CHALLENGE at 1, 4 and 5 p.m.

SUNDAY, April 3 – Pre-race ceremonies, 11:15 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at noon

TELEVISION:      

SATURDAY, April 2, FOX Sports 1 (FS1) will televise one hour of qualifying highlights at 11 p.m.  (ET)

SUNDAY, April 3, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying highlights at 9 p.m.  (ET)

SUNDAY, April 3, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage at 5 p.m. (ET)

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Richie Crampton, Top Fuel; John Force, Funny Car; Erica Enders, Pro Stock; Enders, K&N Horsepower Challenge.

MOST VICTORIES: Larry Dixon, 4, TF; Tony Schumacher, 4, TF; Robert Hight, 3, FC; Greg Anderson, 3, PS; Jeg Coughlin, 3, PS; Kenny Bernstein, 2, TF; John Force, 2, FC; Cruz Pedregon, 2, FC; Mike Edwards, 2, PS; Erica Enders, 2, PS; Allen Johnson, 2, PS.

MOST K&N HORSEPOWER CHALLENGE VICTORIES: Greg Anderson, 4; Kurt Johnson, 4; Jeg Coughlin, 3; Bob Glidden, 3; Warren Johnson, 3; Larry Morgan, 3; Bruce Allen, 2; Erica Enders, 2; Allen Johnson, 2; Jim Yates, 2;

TRACK RECORDS:            

Top Fuel – 3.722 sec. by Antron Brown, Oct. ’15 and 332.67 mph by Shawn Langdon, Oct. ’15.

Funny Car – 3.931 sec. by Tommy Johnson Jr., Oct. ’15 and 325.92 mph by Del Worsham, Oct. ’15.

Pro Stock – 6.559 sec. and 210.28 mph by Erica Enders, Oct. ’15.

NATIONAL RECORDS:    

Top Fuel – 3.680 sec. by Antron Brown, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.879 sec. by Jack Beckman, March ‘16, Gainesville, Fla. and 331.45 mph by Matt Hagan, Nov. ’15, Pomona, Calif.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C. and 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

NHRA MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS STANDINGS

Point standings following the third of 24 events

Top Fuel: 1.  Brittany Force, 251; 2.  Clay Millican, 210; 3. Doug Kalitta, 205; 4. Steve Torrence, 199; 5. Terry McMillen, 178; 6. Leah Pritchett, 166; 7. J.R. Todd, 157; 8. Tony Schumacher, 155; 9. Richie Crampton, 153; 10.  Antron Brown, 149.

Funny Car: 1.  Robert Hight, 280; 2.  Ron Capps, 279; 3. John Force, 221; 4.  Jack Beckman, 205; 5.  Courtney Force, 201; 6.  Del Worsham, 189; 7.  Tim Wilkerson, 183; 8.  Chad Head, 162; 9.  Alexis DeJoria, 119; 10.  Matt Hagan, 118.

Pro Stock: 1.  Jason Line, 337; 2.  Greg Anderson, 331; 3.  Bo Butner, 233; 4.  Drew Skillman, 205; 5.  Chris McGaha, 161; 6.  (tie) Jeg Coughlin, 160; Allen Johnson, 160; 8.  Vincent Nobile, 138; 9.  Alex Laughlin, 121; 10.  Erica Enders, 97.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1.  Eddie Krawiec, 129; 2.  Hector Arana, 99; 3.  Andrew Hines, 79; 4.  LE Tonglet, 74; 5.  Chip Ellis, 62; 6.  (tie) Michael Ray, 52; Jerry Savoie, 52; Jim Underdahl, 52; 9.  Angelle Sampey, 35; 10.  (tie) Scotty Pollacheck, 33. Melissa Surber, 33.

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.