Photos: NHRA

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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Hunter McElrea wins Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship

IndyCar.com
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Hunter McElrea bested 18 competitors to win the third annual Road to Indy USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout on Sunday at Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Ariz.

The two-day contest featured on-track competition in Formula Mazda cars as well as interview sessions and assessment from a panel of judges.

“I can’t believe it,” McElrea said at IndyCar.com. “This is definitely the most exciting opportunity that I have had in my racing career. I cannot thank Mazda and everyone enough for making this possible for me. The fact that I am going to be on the grid next year thanks to them is a dream come true.

“They have given me the opportunity to prove myself in such a high level that I never even thought I would be able to reach. I have to thank Andersen Promotions, Cooper tires, all of the judges, everyone from Mazda, the Bondurant Racing School and the other competitors, who literally pushed me to the limit.

“I am just so happy. It is still sinking in, but I just can’t wait to get next year started, and I’ll be representing Mazda in that nice Soul Red USF2000 car.”

MORE: Michael Carter wins Mazda Road to 24 shootout

The 19-year-old McElrea was born in California, but reared in Australia.

As a result of winning the award, McElrea will compete in the 2019 season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

McElrea won the Australian Formula Ford Championship this year on the strength of 13 victories in 21 races.

Early competition resulted in a final field of six drivers that included Jake Craig, Michael Eastwell, Braden Eves, Flinn Lazier and Ross Martin. They competed in a qualification session and 30-minute simulated race. McElrea won that race.

“Today was an incredible day,” said Tom Long, Mazda Motorsports factory driver and one of the judges. “There was so much talent here for the shootout. Hunter McElrea just rose to the top when it was time to shine, but our decision was very, very difficult.

“In the end, given all of the circumstances, we were able to make a pretty good decision and we are really, really proud of not only Hunter but our whole team here with Mazda to be able to grant this $200,000 scholarship for his opportunity in USF2000 next year.”