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NHRA: Tony Schumacher to make milestone 500th start this weekend

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There’s the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.

And now there will be the Tony Schumacher 500.

Schumacher will make the 500th start of his illustrious Top Fuel drag racing career at this weekend’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis.

No other driver in Top Fuel history has made 500 starts.

“As a 16-year old, I never imagined I’d be able to do this for so many years,” said Schumacher, the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history.

The son of legendary racer and team owner Don Schumacher, Tony began his Top Fuel career in 1996 with a runner-up finish at the NHRA U.S. Nationals.

Now, 22 years, 499 events, eight NHRA Top Fuel world championships, 84 event wins and soon-to-be 20 consecutive Top 10 finishes later, Schumacher’s career is – as his PR person so aptly put it – “One jam-packed highlight reel.”

One moment in one race stands out above all others in his career – the 2006 World Finals at Pomona, California – for Schumacher during his career.

He had to win the race and set the national record in the final round to win the championship.

“People expect me to say it was ‘The Run,’ but that wasn’t it,” Schumacher said. “It was the moment before ‘The Run.’

“It was that moment when we were sitting on the line, looking at the mountains in Pomona knowing we had the biggest task ahead of us, but knowing we had nine guys capable of accomplishing that task.

“To this day, it is one of my favorite memories. Before every huge accomplishment, there’s a moment, and that one was just awesome.”

While there have been seven other NHRA drivers that have reached 500 starts, none have ever done so previously in Top Fuel.

Schumacher’s teammate at Don Schumacher Racing, 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps, is among those seven other drivers in the 500 Club. Capps will make his 527th career start this weekend.

“That fact that we’ve lived this for so many races, 499 of them, is incredible,” Tony Schumacher said. “This is a sport where it’s hard to stay relevant. So many teams have come and gone over the years.

“We had a beautiful sponsorship for a long time (the U.S. Army has sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years, but this will be its final year backing his Top Fuel efforts, as well as those of teammate Antron Brown), a championship contending car every year.

“It’s been an awesome array of people, from Dan Olson, my first crew chief at DSR, to Alan Johnson, Mike Green and now Mike Neff; all of these incredible people helping to produce wins and championships.

“That’s what helps us stay alive in this sport. We’re constantly fighting to be No. 1; you can only be average for so long. If you’re just average, you’re not going to survive out here. You need to win championships.”

One race into the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Schumacher comes into this weekend tied for second with Clay Millican in the Top Fuel standings, both drivers 50 points behind series leader Steve Torrence.

While Schumacher has a record eight championships, it’s been a while since his most recent title in 2014. The Austin, Texas resident and Chicago-area native is bound and determined to earn No. 9 this year.

“I get it has been (nearly four) years (since his last title), and trust me, it seems like a drought,” Schumacher said. “But when you think about it, we’ve had an amazing record, and we’ll keep adding to it.”

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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”