Veteran TV commentator Bill Stephens was trying at a seminar to impress on National Hot Rod Association drivers that they use their on-camera opportunities to generate some excitement. He urged them to translate the passion they have for drag racing instead of lulling the viewers into some nicey-nice nirvana.
Stephens said many complain that John Force gets too much air time on ESPN broadcasts. But, Stephens said, “Maybe he’s giving them what they want.”
Jerry Archambeault, NHRA vice-president of public relations and communications, said one racer getting a lot of TV time because he’s intriguing, real, and emotional is Antron Brown. Deadpanned fellow Top Fuel driver Bob Vandergriff teasingly, “It’s because he’s black.”
(That he is a black driver, by the way, rarely enters anyone’s conversation about Brown. In drag racing — which for decades has been color-blind and gender-oblivious and has welcomed Hispanic and Asian racers, as well — the only color that matters is green.)
Brown giggled and high-fived Vandergriff.
And that is Antron Brown. He giggles like a schoolgirl and high-fives and hugs his competitors. He’s an undeniable favorite, even among his peers. But he has a kill switch he flips on when he straps into his 7,000-horsepower, nitro-burning Matco Tools / Aaron’s Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing. He’ll say, “We want to rip each other’s throats out and steal each other’s candy” at the starting line.
This father of three bubbles with joy almost nonstop about driving a Top Fuel dragster. His description of what it’s like inside the cockpit is detailed and riveting.
“The best way I can describe a Top Fuel car launching,” Brown said, “is that when you’re sitting inside that cockpit, it’s going, ‘Puh, puh, puh, puh and it’s rocking back and forth and side to side. Once you hit that throttle wide open, the butterflies extend fully and it gets all that nitro in there. You feel this sensation in your belly getting really light and you feel yourself floating up.
It floats you up at first where the tire hooks up and the car just curls up and you feel yourself going backwards and back and back. Then all of a sudden it feels like somebody hit you in the back with a sledgehammer. BOOM!” Brown said.
“Then all of a sudden you feel this rocket taking off, and just when you think you’re at your wits’ end because you can’t see and your vision gets tunneled at 150 feet, then all the power comes in and the clutch engages, and you go from being like this [sitting up straight] to being like this [forced down into the seat] where your head is down and your eyeballs are trying to roll into the back of your head,” Brown said.
“Everything’s going shaky, blurry, blurry, shaky, blurry, then all of a sudden it just clears up and you get beamed through this tiny hole like you’re in Star Wars, and you just went into warp drive. Then, before you know it, you’re hitting the parachutes and you’re at the end of the run. Intense, crazy, but we live for it every day.”
Brown can describe it that way because he has something almost as extreme to which he can compare it. He spent 10 years in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. He is the only NHRA professional competitor to make a transition from the bike class to Top Fuel competition, and so far he has 16 victories in each.
He got his start in the NHRA pro ranks with funding from five-time NFL Pro Bowl star Troy Vincent, the former President of the NFL Players Association (and current Vice-President of the NFL Player Engagement Organization, which enables players to be better citizens through personal growth and career development).
But the central New Jersey native, who passed up a college track scholarship from Long Island University, always had yearned for a shot in the Top Fuel class. His life took a detour through Miami and has wound up in the world’s auto racing capital, Indianapolis.
Today Brown is seeking his first championship and is a constant threat to the establishment. Actually, long before this fifth season in a dragster, he has become the establishment. DSR colleague Spencer Massey has dominated with three victories in the season’s first five races, but Brown won at Phoenix (Race No. 2) by beating seven-time champion Tony Schumacher. The trio has passed around the points lead, hogging it for DSR.
Already Brown has exceeded 400 elimination round-wins — no small feat, considering Schumacher is closing in on 600 and he has competed in 97 more Top Fuel races than Brown. But Brown pooh-poohs any comparison, despite being 8-2 against Schumacher, and three of those eight victories coming in final rounds.
“I’m just trying to catch up,” Brown said. “I’ve got 16 Top Fuel trophies. That man’s got 67. I’m just trying to catch up. They’re an incredible team, and you have to step up against an incredible team.”
With crew chiefs Mark Oswald and Brian Corradi tuning, Brown is stepping up against all of them. He hasn’t lost a first-round match-up in 31 events and has advanced to the final round in four of the season’s first five races (and was runner-up three times to Massey). Baytown, Texas, sportswriter Randy Cunningham put it this way: “Seeing his name across the elimination ladder has got to cause guys to just say, ‘Really? Seriously? What time is my flight home?’ ” . . . OK, all but maybe Massey.
As for the DSR dragsters not sharing the wealth right now, Brown said, “We have three strong cars, and we bow out against each other. That’s what really helps raise the bar at Don Schumacher Racing. We have a good, fun competition with each other, and that’s what pushes us to new levels to race with the other guys, because they’re coming, too.”
What Brown said he wants to do is be prepared for a brutal battle this fall when the six-race Countdown to the Championship begins. It might sound a bit early to be thinking about that, but hardly a day has passed since last November — when Brown missed out on his first series title — that it hasn’t been on his mind.
This early fortune is “a real huge statement for us, and we feel good,” Brown said. “But this is just a start. We all know it’s not how you start but how you finish. We came up short last year, and we want to keep on plugging away and overcoming adversity so we know what to do when that Countdown starts [after Labor Day].”
Brown is willing to work for what he wants. When he uprooted himself and moved to Miami to join Team 23 (for Vincent’s uniform number), he said, “In my mind, it was no time for failure. I moved away from New Jersey. I had to grow up. I had to grow up fast to actually take drag racing to that next level, where it was more than just a love for the sport, to where it was a job. But to be successful, I had to sacrifice some things in my life. And that was one of the things I had to sacrifice, being with family and friends, and put my whole focus on racing to get to that level to be competitive and win.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work, and I’m a workaholic,” Brown said. “People say I have a lot of natural ability, and I probably do. But I do know that my work — the effort that I put into my work habits — I put that at a high level. I never underachieve — I always overachieve. You’ve only got one shot in life. When you have that shot, you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got.”
Brown said an added advantage was that his team “believed in me. So that gave me strength. I kept my head down and kept digging and digging. I wanted to be the best driver I can be.
“My deal is that there are more than 20 teams in Top Fuel, more than 25 in Funny Car, more than 30 in Pro Stock, and more than 30 in Pro Stock Bikes. There’s only one champion each year,” Brown said. “So what sets the difference from a team that wins the championship from a team that doesn’t? Everybody wants to win a championship, but it’s few and far between the drivers who put in the work that’s necessary and put their heart and soul in to make it happen. There’s a lot of people who want it. But what are they going to do to break away from the pack to make that want into reality?”
Vincent’s influence surfaces even today.
He used to ask Brown, “If you want to be of championship caliber, what are you going to set aside? What are you going to do different? What are you going to sacrifice?”
Said Brown, “It goes far beyond sacrifice. You’ve got to go out there and give it all you have. Every second we’re on that racetrack, we’ve got to give it all that we have. You can’t leave nothin’ behind.”
When Brown won the February Arizona Nationals at Phoenix, he said he found his thoughts drifting back to his days as a youngster in New Jersey, where his family raced at the sportsman level, mostly at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown and downstate at Atco Raceway.
“I remember as a kid underneath the bleachers, playing in the sand, and saying, ‘Man, I wish I could race one of those nitro cars one day.’ It’s a big dream for me, where I came from.”
Drag-racing fans would be smarter to keep an eye on where Antron Brown is going.