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.
“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.
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.”
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.”