After more than 18 years of service to the U.S. Army, “The Sarge” has ended his tour of duty, so to speak.
Sunday’s season-ending Auto Club Finals was the final race of nearly a two-decade sponsorship by the Army of NHRA Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher.
Since debuting with the Army colors on his dragster at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in August 2000, Schumacher – nicknamed “The Sarge” for his military-style crew cut and drill sergeant-like leadership within his team as well as in the sport – earned seven of his record eight Top Fuel championships, 80 of his 84 career national event wins and 748 round wins.
In their 427th and final race together, Schumacher took the Army out in style Sunday, reaching the final round before falling to newly crowned Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence. In addition to his seven titles carrying the Army banner, Sunday also marked the second time Schumacher finished runner-up in the season standings as well (the other time was 2015).
The Army’s sponsorship was one of the longest and most noteworthy in NHRA history, serving as a platform that recruited countless thousands of soldiers. Unfortunately, the military branch decided several months ago that it would be ending its primary sponsorship of Schumacher, as well as associate sponsorship of teammates Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett, at the end of the now-completed season.
To his credit, Schumacher played the part of “The Sarge” to the hilt. He looked like a drill instructor and took part in countless Army-related activities in his career.
“I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq, jumped out of planes, I’ve driven tanks, been to the hospitals, I’ve done all the weapons training and basic training,” Schumacher said. “With the exception of going into combat, I really feel that’s been part of me.”
While some speculated that the Army’s departure might also mean Schumacher’s retirement (he turns 49 on Christmas Day), that can’t be further from the truth.
In fact, Schumacher told NBC Sports over the weekend that he plans on racing for many more years to come.
“I guess we’ll drive for another 10 years,” he said. “I’ve always said 10 years is a good number, it’s high, it’s long, it’s even. It’s perfect.
“I’ll just keep going 10 years and every year we’ll add a few more to it. I figure this: some day I will realize there might be something else for me, but right now I can’t fathom a desk job or doing something else.
“I wake up every morning and I love doing what I do. Over 200 speeches a year for the Army, over 19 years, I’ve said it so many times: find what you love; it’s the only way to be great at what you do.”
Where Schumacher goes from here in terms of sponsorship remains to be seen. The team he races for, Don Schumacher Racing, owned by Tony’s father, is actively searching for a replacement to fill the Army’s shoes.
“I think effectively after 19 years, there’s an opening for a world champ team, a really qualified world champion,” Tony Schumacher said. “We’re always in the battle at the end.
“And I think there’s a lot of people out there watching and saying this is a team that’s potentially a great team to jump on board, it’s just never been available in almost two decades.
“It’s a great opportunity and I’m enjoying what I’m doing. When I was younger and my kids were young, I said I’d retire when they were playing baseball. Well, they’re through with baseball and love racing, and so I’m just happy to be doing what I wake up every day wanting to do and being very successful at it and looking forward to the next chapter of my (life and) sponsorship.”
A lifetime of memories to look back upon
One thing that will never change in Schumacher’s mindset is memories of the thousands of soldiers he met during his tenure representing the Army.
“I think if you could go back 19 years to Sonoma, California, when I shaved my head because I knew the Army was looking at several teams and was going to make a decision in the next few days, I could never have imagined how many people I’d meet, how impactful they’d be, how our team would be affected by them,” Schumacher said. “I know everyone says the partnership is ending, but the funny thing about soldiers is the name may not be on the car, but once you’re part of a group like that, it just doesn’t end, you’re always there. We’ve built some forever-lasting relationships.”
And even though he may let his hair grow a little longer now – but hopefully, not return to the mullet he used to wear in his pre-Army days – Schumacher will always be known as “The Sarge.”
“I think I did a really exceptional job being The Sarge, I wanted to be and fit that role correctly, and I really felt for a long time that I was as much a part of it as anyone there,” Schumacher said. “That was a gift for me, to have seen it from so deep within and to have felt like I was such a part of it, was just awesome.
“There’s a Marine term, Semper Fi, that means ‘always faithful’. No matter what branch you drive for, it’s the truth, a good hard fact.
“Once you’re embedded in the military, it’s not just the colors, but it’s the people. That’s what you get embedded in. You understand there’s a way of life, there’s a dignity, there’s a bunch of core values and once you’re that person, you’re that person.
“No matter what they call me or what colors are on the side of the car, they’ll know we have a stout loyalty and a great team effort that we’ve formed over 19 years and have built that person, built a better man than I was before, a more successful family man, a more successful driver, a more successful teammate. I’ll always be that guy, no matter what the nickname may be.”
And as for the potential of bringing the mullet back?
“I look at pictures of when my hair was long before and I can’t believe I didn’t get my butt kicked every day,” Schumacher said with a hearty laugh. “It was a terrible haircut. Maybe I will, but it’s going to be different than it was. I can’t believe I had friends back then.
“My girlfriend makes fun of me every day and says, ‘What, are you going to do, become a hippie?’ You know, we live in Austin (Texas). … I don’t know what look I’ll have to morph into. We’ll see.”
Returning to a more serious thought, of his lengthy service to the Army, Schumacher said it’s the soldiers that most inspired him.
“Over 19 years, the amount of friendships that we’ve meant to each other, the team building we’ve done, the Army car and the pride of our success and the military and what they’ve done, the strengths they’ve taught us, that’s the most important thing people have to recognize,” he said. “My nine guys have changed over the years, we’ve had a couple sets of nine guys and they’ve always learned to build a set of values they may not have had before.
“People keep asking about how we keep winning with a new team, and it’s about the soldiers. We get to look at them and the inspiration we’ve gotten from them. And hopefully, over the 19 years we’ve provided them with some too.”
But one memory, in particular, stands out, otherwise known simply as “The Run” (video below), when Schumacher pulled off what many consider to be the greatest comeback in NHRA drag racing history.
“I remember back in 2006, sitting on my roll cage, about to get in the car for the greatest run in the history of the sport, and I heard from a recruiter standing next to me that there was a helicopter in Baghdad circling around, waiting to hear if we had pulled off the greatest run,” Schumacher said. “To know we were that connected that far away and were that important at that given moment to that helicopter is something that will stick with me forever.”
Now that his ‘enlistment’ is up, where does Schumacher go from here?
Now comes the next chapter of Schumacher’s career. You might call it civilian life of sorts. But no matter who his new sponsor is, Schumacher will never forget what the Army has meant to him and what he’s meant to the Army.
“I’ll tell you this: no matter what (sponsor) name will be on the side of the car, I’ll go at it 100 percent,” he said. “I think we all know that.
“We’ve seen it, people don’t change their colors. I think our effort and our energy that we put into being The Sarge – and I call that the whole team – it was the backbone of the Army, the enlisted soldier, is what that car represented and what I represented.
“Whatever is on our car in the future, we’ll give it our all – mullet hair (if need be) and all.”