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.”
Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.
Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.
Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.
Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.
Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).
“It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.
“It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”
In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.
“We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.
“We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”
Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).
In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.
It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.
“We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.
“We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”
Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).
In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).
It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.
“It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.
“Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”
NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).
TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.
PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.