NHRA: Tony ‘The Sarge’ Schumacher still MIA but vows to return

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Tony Schumacher is too young to be a Where Are They Now? subject.

But the Austin, Texas resident, nicknamed “The Sarge” for his nearly two-decade run of being sponsored by the U.S. Army, has been missing in action from the NHRA circuit for well over a year.

It’s a conundrum, to say the least: Schumacher is the winningest driver in Top Fuel with eight championships and 84 national event wins.

Yet since the Army ended a 19-year run of sponsoring Schumacher following the 2018 season, the Austin, Texas resident hasn’t been back behind the wheel since due to lack of similar sponsorship.

Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher is still known as ‘The Sarge’ even though the U.S. Army stopped sponsoring his team at the end of the 2018 season. (Photo by Sam Morris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I’m a very positive dude, but it’s very frustrating,” Schumacher told NBCSports.com. “I’ve been blessed with the best racing career in Top Fuel, period, as well as the best moments.

“Not only did we win all these championships with some of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had, I’ve been blessed with so many great moments that even if I never drove a race car again, I’ve had the most fulfilling career.”

However, Schumacher is adamant that his career is far from over. He WILL be back in a dragster at some point, hopefully sooner than later, he insists.

“I plan on going back and doing a whole bunch more,” he said. “The big question is when? I wish I could tell you that.”

Schumacher’s return is primarily predicated  upon money. To once again become a race winner and championship contender, he needs a top-line sponsor that will step into the large multi-million dollar shoes that the Army left. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.

“Every single thing we’ve done has come up with a snag,” Schumacher said. “When is it going to come? I don’t know. Are we going to race in a month or two? I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll be there in a month or two, it’s going to take time to put a deal together. I don’t have an answer. We’re constantly working on stuff.”

That the most successful Top Fuel driver in NHRA history has been sidelined for so long is baffling. It’s not like he forgot how to drive: he finished second to Steve Torrence for the Top Fuel championship in 2018.

Not only is Schumacher a great ambassador for the sport and a fan favorite, his persona as “The Sarge” should be very attractive to potential sponsors – but a new deal still hasn’t happened.

Tony Schumacher is a longtime favorite with NHRA fans. (Photo by: Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He can’t even find a gig as a hired gun, driving for another team. Schumacher’s plight scares a number of his fellow big-name racers, who worry if he can’t find sponsorship, could that be their own plight at some point?

“I talk to John Force, Mike Salinas, Bob Tasca III and Steve Torrence all the time, and they all say they’re terrified that I can’t get a deal,” Schumacher said. “My opinion is I drove the Army car for 19 years and those are big shoes to fill for a sponsor.

“You ever watch a movie where one guy is the bad guy, the other guy is the good guy, this guy always has a smile and is known for comedies? Well, I’m known as The Sarge, that’s who I’ve been and I don’t know if people can see me outside that world, so who knows?”

Short of growing out his still close-cropped Army-style buzzcut, Schumacher says he spends countless hours on the phone and at his computer every week trying to put together a deal with a potential sponsor. While he’s had nibbles, they all have ultimately wound up being misses.

Part of the problem is Schumacher is somewhat hemmed in because the team he races for, Don Schumacher Racing, is owned by his father and with six other fully-funded Top Fuel and Funny Car teams, the types of companies father and son Schumacher can reach out to for potential sponsorships are limited.

“Part of our difficulty in putting a deal together is we already have a Pennzoil car, a Mopar car, a NAPA car, a Matco Tools car, so I can’t go to anything automotive to get a sponsor,” Tony Schumacher said. “If I had my own team, I could go to anyone I want and ask if they want to compete, but it’s not. We’re part of this big team and I think we’re blocked out of a lot of angles.

“Then some people say, why don’t you just take one of your teammates (out) and put yourself in. No, come on, man. My teammates have fought to get into those cars and worked their way up from wherever they came from to get in those positions. That’s not the way we operate at DSR (Don Schumacher Racing). I’ll sit out long before I’ll disrespect my teammates in any way like that – and my dad feels 100 percent the same way. That’s just not how we do it.”

Since he last hurtled down a drag strip in mid-November 2018, Schumacher has not been totally AWOL from the sport he loves. He attended a number of races last season and did several stints as a PA announcer at various tracks as well as several guest spots on NHRA telecasts.

Schumacher insists it’s a matter of when, not if he will return to the covered cockpit of his 330 mph dragster. Until then, he’s been building a start-up business of his own – a credit card processing company – that he’s pitching primarily to drag racing and motorsports-related businesses and teams.

“I have a ton of connections,” Schumacher said. “I’m good at driving a race car and in the process, I became a phenomenal public speaker. And in the process of that, I made connections. From sitting down and hearing the best generals in the country for 19 years talking about how important it is to communicate, that is my forte.

“Drag racing is six minutes a year (a combination of qualifying and elimination runs). But the connections and ability to get your point across and sell yourself and be positive and lead, you can have a company and be really smart and really rich and have no leadership skills whatsoever and that company will fall apart. People follow people who have been there and done it, understand it and done it well and right. That’s who people follow.

“It is a new profession. And even when I go back to driving again, this is going to be something that continually progresses and I’ll never stop doing it because I enjoy it.”

Tony Schumacher last climbed into a Top Fuel dragster at the end of the 2018 season. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Would Schumacher be interested in taking over Don Schumacher Racing, given that his father and company patriarch Don Schumacher is 75 years old now? The elder Schumacher also owns an international company called Schumacher Electric that employs over 2,000 people.

“I don’t know if I want to,” Tony Schumacher said when he’d be interested in taking over DSR. “I have a hard time even thinking about someone replacing me in a car. I love what I do but I don’t know if I could sit outside and watch. Watching is not my strength. My dad has never named me anything other than the driver. That’s on him to decide if he even wants me doing something like that.”

When he returns behind the wheel, at a time in the sport where drivers continue to excel into their 50s, 60s and even into their 70s like Force, the 50-year-old Schumacher was asked how much longer he’ll continue racing.

“I always have said I’m only going to do drag racing for 10 more years,” he said with a laugh. “The first day I started racing, I said I’d do it for 10 years. Then it was another 10 years and then another 10 years. So I’ll just say 10 years. It’s a good number.

“To me, when I get in a race car and I look at the race car next to me and I don’t want to be there anymore, I’ll know it. Right now, when I get in a race car and look over to the car next to me, he doesn’t want me to be there.

“That’s why I want to be there. It’s all about attitude. I look forward to coming back after a year or two out and doing exactly what we’ve always done: get back into it, put our nose to the grindstone and kick their butts.”

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SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”