The Sarge is returning to active duty.
Eight-time NHRA Top Fuel Champion Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher will climb back behind the wheel for the first time in 20 months when NHRA resumes its 2020 schedule July 11-12 and again July 18-19.
Both races will be held – with fans in attendance – at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis as the NHRA returns to competition after a more than four-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schumacher, son of team owner Don Schumacher, has been sidelined since the end of the 2018 season when a nearly 20-year sponsorship from the U.S. Army came to an end.
It was that same sponsorship that led to the younger Schumacher gaining the colorful nickname of “The Sarge,” complete with a military-style buzzcut hair style that became his trademark.
Unfortunately, Schumacher — the winningest driver in Top Fuel history with 84 career wins — was unable to find full sponsorship to continue his program, so he’s remained inactive since the Army marched away.
Still, Schumacher — whose eighth and most recent championship was in 2014 and whose last win was at Bristol, Tennessee on June 17, 2018 — is ready to get back in the saddle again.
“I’m pumped up,” Schumacher told NBC Sports. “I’ve been looking forward to this and the opportunity to do it at Indy, my most successful track you know ever, and to do it two weekends in a row. Just a whole lot of great things came together, so I’m really looking forward to it. To be able to get in a race car and go fast again after a year and a half, it’s a beautiful moment.”
Schumacher has not been behind the wheel since the season-ending race at Pomona, California on November 11, 2018. He plans to shake off the rust in several test runs at Lucas Oil Raceway on Thursday, July 9, two days before the race gets underway.
“I’ve made an awful lot of laps there,” Schumacher said. “I’ve made so many laps for so many years that it was so natural. I’ve driven that race car enough times where it ought to come right back and be 1,000% natural, you know. It’s just super cool and it’s just a great opportunity.”
While Schumacher’s legion of fans will likely be excited he’s returning, there is a bit of a caveat: for now, it’s just for those first two races at Indy. He has nothing lined up after that, not even for the annual U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.
But at the same time, Schumacher is hoping his performance in those two races will convince one or more sponsors to come on board and get him back on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit on a full-time basis.
Given that there have only been two races held thus far this year – before the pandemic hit – Schumacher could still end up in contention for the championship if funding is found for all of the remaining 17 races left on this season’s schedule (that includes the two races next month at Indy).
“I’d love for someone to step up but I don’t want to lose focus,” Schumacher said. “One thing in 200 speeches a year I did was tell kids do not think about next year and forget to enjoy right now.
“I want to make sure that I’m spending 110% of my time focused on the first race, and then the following week, I’ll focus on that. I’ve been blessed right now with an opportunity to run my favorite race of the year twice in a row with an incredible company on the side (Global Electronic Technology), people who care about racing, so that’s pretty bad to the bone.
“If things pan out and later somebody comes up, so be it, I’m always looking forward to that. But I’m not going to lose touch with reality and the reality is I’ve got two races to go, I’m going to have a great time and I’m going to do it.
“I’m getting into a car I haven’t seen in a year and a half. My focus has to be disciplined. I’ve got to go out and win this race. I’ve been missing this. I’ve won at Indy 10 times and I’ve got a chance to add a little bit to something that’s going to be very difficult for anyone to ever reach.”
Schumacher admits that as each day, week and month has gone by since his last race at the end of 2018, there were times he wondered if he’d ever ride again. But he also has never lost hope that something would eventually come through, even if it was later rather than sooner.
“You always wonder,” he said. “For me, I was like, okay, man, do I just leave it that it was the Army car and we’re done? But I’ve had so many good calls with so many big sponsors, and felt something would come up, something’s out there and it’s big.
“I’ve always said that God’s always got a big plan, waiting for the right moment and the right thing. In time, the right thing and a long-term deal might come up. But right now, we’re just going to kick ass, win Indy twice and have an opportunity to do something I’ve longed to do for the last year and a half.”