Photos: Auto Imagery and NHRA

NHRA: Tony Schumacher to qualify for 350th straight race at Atlanta, only track he’s never won at

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Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher is kind of lucky that he wears his hair in a buzz cut style, indicative of his nickname “The Sarge,” due to longtime sponsor the U.S. Army.

But there’s another reason where a buzz cut is apropos for Schumacher – at least once per year.

If he lamented all the times he’s visited Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Georgia, and drove away empty-handed, it’s likely Schumacher wouldn’t have much hair left, pulled out in constant frustration year after year.

Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher with his trademark buzz cut hair style. Photo: Bill Klingbell

We’ll get back to that in a minute. But first, check out a quick synopsis of Schumacher’s outstanding career on the two-lane. Schumacher, 48, has been the most successful driver in NHRA Top Fuel history. Among the high points of his career:

* He has won the NHRA Top Fuel championship a record eight times (1999, 2004-2009 and 2014).

* He’s won a record 83 national events in Top Fuel, as well as has made a record 149 final round appearances.

* He has a career-best elapsed time of 3.649 seconds and a career-best (and Top Fuel national record) speed of 336.57 mph.

Heading into this weekend’s NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, Schumacher looks forward to qualifying for his 350th consecutive Top Fuel race, a 15-year streak that dates back to May 2003 in Topeka, Kansas.

It’s a Top Fuel record that he set a long time ago, and one he continues to re-set each and every race he qualifies for every subsequent national event in his 11,000-horsepower dragster.

“When you are racing you don’t get too caught up in the numbers,” Schumacher said. “There will come a time to look back at them, but yeah, 350 is a pretty big number.”

He even admits a bit of superstition, given how he keeps extending the record race after race: “I don’t even like talking about it,” Schumacher said.

That’s understandable. Just two races ago, the winningest driver in NHRA history, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, failed to qualify for the race at Houston on April 22, snapping a streak of qualifying for 221 consecutive races.

Photo: Auto Imagery

In fact, Force holds the NHRA record for consecutive races qualified for with 395. Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson is the active leader in Pro Stock with 354 consecutive races qualified for (dating back to 2003), followed by Schumacher’s current 349 in Top Fuel.

“I know (350 qualifying efforts) wouldn’t be possible without a tremendous team around me,” Schumacher said. “My dad (former Funny Car driver Don Schumacher) built a great group of guys and our partnership with the Army has been incredible.

“We have had to step up in some huge moments just to make the field. I know even a few years back we weren’t qualified for the U.S. Nationals and went out in the final qualifying run and got the No. 1 spot. Antron (Brown) ended up knocking us to No. 2, but yeah being surrounded by a team capable of those moments is why we have a great chance at reaching the milestone in Atlanta.”

In fact, with the exception of failing to qualify at Englishtown, New Jersey in May 2003, Schumacher has qualified for 451 of the last 452 NHRA national events, dating back to 1998 at Reading, Pennsylvania.

Getting back to his buzz cut …

There’s one thing that has gnawed at Schumacher for the last 20 years: he has won just about every honor there is in the sport and has emerged victorious at every track on the NHRA national circuit, except for one.

Yep, you guessed it, Atlanta Dragway.

Photo: Auto Imagery

One of the fastest tracks on the NHRA circuit, Atlanta Dragway has been the biggest thorn in Schumacher’s side, unable to make it to the winner’s circle even once.

It’s a frustrating “milestone” for Schumacher, similar to how NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt came up short 20 times before he finally won the Daytona 500 for the first and only time in his career in 1998.

And the funny thing is Schumacher really likes Atlanta Dragway. He considers it among his favorite tracks on the circuit.

But the numbers for Schumacher there speak volumes:

* He’s competed in 20 previous events there.

* He earned No. 1 qualifier honors there in 2012 and 2017, reaching the final round both times – but lost to Steve Torrence each time.

* He also reached the final round there three other times, yet came up short each time: 2000 (lost to Gary Scelzi), and in 2008 and 2011 (lost both times to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown).

Now, facing a monumental weekend where he hopes to qualify for 350 straight national events, Schumacher hopes he can finally check off the biggest box on his bucket list.

“The problem with Atlanta is that track’s too long,” he says with a laugh, adding with another chuckle, “I was winning many times and the other guy passed me.”

But the Chicago-area native (Schumacher and his family now live in Austin, Texas) is so adamant about finally breaking that damning winless streak Sunday.

“We seem to specialize in the absolute must-win events,” Schumacher said. “And for my entire career, there haven’t been many must-wins in May. But this year, it’s a little different.

“We are in need of win in a major way. It’s been over a year now, something like 27 races since (his last win), we won the 2017 Gatornationals. That’s far too long (it’s the second-longest winless streak of his NHRA career) for this U.S. Army team.

“We’ve had some chances to win since last year, but we haven’t sealed the deal, similar to Atlanta over the years where we’ve had some great opportunities to win.”

The mission is simple, but it’s doing it that’s hard, as he’s seen time after time:

“We have to figure out how to finish the mission,” Schumacher said. “It’s time. I can tell you this: with this new energy surrounding this U.S. Army team, I go into every race thinking I’m going to win it. That’s just the way it is.

“Mike Neff (his crew chief) has brought something out of every one of the guys working on my car. And he’s inspired me to be better. It’s a good attitude team and I’m really looking forward to getting to Atlanta.”

And winning … finally.

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