NHRA

NHRA missing in action: Where is Tony Schumacher?

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While it has been a strong start to the 2019 NHRA season, something – or more precisely, someone – has been missing.

Five races into the season, NHRA fans have noticed big-time. They keep asking, “Where’s ‘The Sarge’?”

Indeed, where is “The Sarge” – a.k.a. Tony Schumacher, the winningest driver in NHRA Top Fuel history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins?

Schumacher has practically fallen off the face of the drag racing world. It would not be surprising to one day soon see his face on the side of a milk carton under a “Missing” banner. Or, maybe you might see his mug on a “Wanted” poster at your local post office.

Fortunately, nothing nefarious has happened to Schumacher. He hasn’t been kidnapped or taken hostage.

But the affable Schumacher, the cornerstone of the racing empire his father has built at Don Schumacher Racing, remains MIA. Instead of roaring down a 1,000-foot drag strip at 330 mph in his 11,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragster, the 49-year-old Schumacher sits at home in Austin, Texas.

He’s not retired. He’s not on strike. He’s not holding out for a raise.

Most importantly, Schumacher is not sidelined by choice.

Rather, he has become a victim of lack of sponsorship, the most high-profile driver in the sport without a ride or the corporate cash to run his dragster. After nearly two decades of racing proudly with U.S. Army backing, Schumacher is a victim, being held hostage from a lack of financing.

His father, as well as the rest of the DSR corporate team, has spent countless hours trying to find a way to put Tony back behind the wheel. But with five of the first 24 races of the 2019 season now history, it is looking more and more likely that – and very sadly, at that – Schumacher may not race again this year.

And if things don’t change, the longer Schumacher stays out, you can’t blame fans if they increasingly start to wonder if he may have competed in his last career drag race (last November’s season-ending finals at Pomona, California).

For the past two decades, Schumacher has been to Top Fuel what John Force has been to Funny Car: the winningest driver, the toughest competitor and the most popular driver in the class.

He was so synonymous with the Army that many fans believed he was an enlisted man when he wasn’t racing. He wore his trademark brush cut hair style with pride. He drove tanks, fired guns and visited troops all over the world, serving as an excellent ambassador for the sport.

But once the Army decided to pull out after the 2018 season and redirect its millions of dollars of sponsorship and engagement to other entities, everything that Schumacher had done for the black and gold simply and quickly vanished into oblivion.

And so Schumacher sits, waiting for a phone call or email from a new potential sponsor. So far, there hasn’t been one serious call, and with each passing race, one wonders if there ever will be.

Our goal is still the same,” a team spokesperson told NBC Sports. “We’re working toward finding a partner that can help us put Tony back on the track full-time and in championship form as soon as possible. At this time, we do not have any deals signed for Tony and his return date is (to be determined).

We feel that we have so much to offer a potential sponsor. Tony is the winningest Top Fuel driver of all time and is a marketer’s dream – well-spoken and an excellent brand ambassador both on and off the track as was evident during his nearly two decades representing the U.S. Army.

When a company aligns themselves with DSR, not only are they joining forces with the winningest team in NHRA history, but they’re aligning themselves with all of our corporate sponsors. … To any potential sponsor, we say ‘welcome.’ Now is the perfect time to get involved with NHRA Drag Racing.”

It’s not like Schumacher has forgotten how to win races. He won his eighth and most recent championship in 2014. From then to now, he’s won 12 races, albeit just one in each in 2017 and 2018.

But when it comes to 2019, he has goose eggs: no starts, no qualifying efforts, no final rounds and most importantly, no wins.

Although he has made a few appearances on NHRA TV broadcasts and also at-track public address announcing, Schumacher has done very few media interviews during his exile. It’s understandable. Would you want to talk about not being able to do what you love? Would you want to try and explain how the greatest driver in Top Fuel history isn’t racing, even when he’s still in his prime as a drag racer?

But he did tell NBC Sports: “I just love the sport. It hurts to be sidelined. In Houston we had an 18 car Top Fuel field, but every now and then when you have a 15-car field, it hurts to be sidelined knowing I could be there, I could’ve filled that spot. It’s a bit rough.

“I’ve been doing this a long, long time. I’ve done this for 20 years. I’ve missed my kids’ birthdays, I’ve missed so much of them growing up. I’m enjoying that now. I’m making the best out of an unfortunate situation.”

Some may think that with every race he misses as a competitor, he gets one race closer to just hanging up his firesuit for the last time.

But Schumacher said he has not given up on returning.

“We’ll be back out here,” he said. “I have faith we’ll put a nice deal together and we’ll come back out, I’m sure of that. We’ll win races and championships.

“But for now, I just keep booking things close to races. I booked the Phoenix Bike Week so I could be within four hours of the Vegas race if that phone call came in. I went to a wedding in Florida so I could be right by Gainesville if something came in.

“I’m not losing faith. I’ve got a great team; my dad, all of DSR. We have the best people out there looking, trying to find the right partner for us and until that time, I’m just going to sit on the sidelines and do some TV and announcing.”

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Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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