Tony Schumacher’s dramatic side-by-side NHRA Top Fuel final-round victory at Houston against reigning champion Steve Torrence perhaps was as symbolic as it was thrilling.
Schumacher had gone on a tear that netted him eight series crowns and an all-time class-best 84 victories before that. But between victories No. 84 and No. 85 were 26 races without Schumacher in the mix. He sat out the entire 2019 season after his 19-year U.S. Army sponsorship vanished. And when he returned, he uncharacteristically wasn’t a factor in eliminations.
By then, Antron Brown had announced his intention to separate from their Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) organization and operate his own Top Fuel team. Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. knew their so-called “giving car” gigs were winding down and that they had no replacements in the pipeline. Tony Schumacher picked up two July deals with Global Electronic Technology as his sponsor, sat out another race, then returned for a six-event deal to close the season with a different sponsor, different (but familiar) crew chief, and a different dragster. But he still doesn’t have a program secured for next year.
Despite the sport’s four-month coronavirus-caused layoff, DSR’s Funny Car quartet didn’t miss a beat. The Fab Four – Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Tommy Johnson Jr. – took turns winning races and leading the standings and collaborating for a winning streak of 13 races dating back to October 2019. Then along came Schumacher’s victory, the first for DSR in Top Fuel in 17 races (since Leah Pruett’s triumph at Brainerd, Minn., last Aug. 18). Schumacher and Johnson shared the podium at Baytown, Texas, last weekend for DSR’s 66th double-victory in the nitro ranks.
Suddenly, DSR looked like the powerful machine it had been. Schumacher reminded Torrence, who races like an M1 Abrams Tank: convincing and invincible, who commanded the class for the past decade or so. And only three – Tim Wilkerson at Gainesville, JR Todd at two Indianapolis races, and John Force at the Winternationals that seems like ancient history today – could spoil the all-DSR Funny Car final-round festival this year.
But DSR’s 2021 plan was uncertain – until Don Schumacher himself shared a peek with Dragzine on the eve of the Dodge NHRA Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
I plan on doing my best to run four Funny Cars next year. And we’re looking at going forward and doing everything that we can do [with the same four drivers]. – Don Schumacher
“My plans are to run four Funny Cars next year and hopefully three or four Top Fuel dragsters. I’ll definitely be running two. I hope to keep Tony out there racing. We’re working very hard on that,” Schumacher said.
Mid-year brought another huge change to the team owner who’s zooming in on his 76th birthday Nov. 4.
“I sold the majority of Schumacher Electric,” he said. “I still own a large chunk of it. It was just time. I mean, yes, it was my life for a lot of years. But with 2,000-plus employees – probably 21-22-hundred employees spread out in China, Mexico, Belgium, Italy, Australia, and Fort Worth and Brownsville, Texas – it was the right thing for me to do as I continue to change my life. There really weren’t any factors, except it was just time.”
Schumacher was quick to say, “Everything is good. My health is good. It has no effect on the racing organization at all. I am the creature I am. And I am not the kind of person that can just sit down on the chair and put my feet up and watch TV 12 or 18 hours a day and then go to bed. So I am sure I will exert my energies in the racing organization and our Precision Manufacturing and Machining operation and other things in my life as I go forward. It’s going to free me up a lot – which I look forward to.”
(Earlier this month, the Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered company announced its new Don Schumacher Racing Performance Parts, a full-service online shop for racing and production vehicles.)
Furthermore, he said, “We’re looking forward to 2021. The changes that are taking place on this whole pandemic and such – hopefully it will get things going in a more normal direction, whatever that is, in early 2021. I do not believe we will ever be back to 2019, because everything has changed so much in this world and will continue to be changed for a long time.
“I think it was exciting for Camping World to step in. I think it was for multiple years, but I’m not part of those negotiations. I wouldn’t know if it’s a one-plus-year agreement or if it took the place of the total Coca-Cola/Mello Yello contract and goes into a multiple-year agreement. I think it’s a great series sponsor. We all look forward to them being intimately involved in all aspects of the sport as soon as they can get everything figured out, which I’m sure will be long before the first race of next year,” Schumacher said.
Entrepreneur Brown won’t break away just yet, Schumacher said: “He’ll be with me for one more year, at least.” That, he said is because of “this whole COVID situation and the number of races we’ve had in 2020 and unknowing what the future is really going to be with the COVID situation and how that’s going to continue to affect sports – not only motorsports but all sports.” He said, “We’re going down the same road we’ve been going down, and Antron will be driving for me.”
Schumacher still approves of the job Pruett is doing. She made a serious bid for the Top Fuel title and fell from contention only after the frightening, chassis-breaking accident she rode out at St. Louis and ultimately a holeshot loss at Houston. But Don Schumacher’s yardstick measures intangibles, too. He said, “Oh, my – you have no idea how gritty she is and what a strong competitor she is and what a hard worker she is. She has really stepped herself up this year, and I’m really excited about what we’re looking at in 2021.”
So she’ll return for DSR when the season kicks off in March at Gainesville, Fla. And though he said Ron Capps and Matt Hagan “are solidly in place,” he did reveal that “both Matt Hagan and Leah will have numerous primaries [primary sponsorships] done by different companies.” That’s the same as this season, because, Schumacher said, “It’s always a challenge to get enough money to run these race cars. You have to work very hard to fill every race up and get as many people involved as you can. It’s very difficult today to rely on just one company to be a full-year sponsor.”
My plans are to run four Funny Cars next year and hopefully three or four Top Fuel dragsters. I’ll definitely be running two. I hope to keep Tony out there racing. – Don Schumacher
Pro Mod champion “Stevie Fast” Jackson’s name has popped up in rumors that he’ll join DSR, but Schumacher denied that rumor.
“Oh, I would love to have him drive for me. But I’d have to find a sponsor and put things together,” Schumacher said. “I think he’s a remarkable personality, a remarkable driver, and I think the world of Phil Shuler and his whole group over there that brings him to the level that he’s at. Stevie Fast is a unique individual, and he deserves to continue to excel at whatever class that he wants to get into. And he will excel because of his personality and his ability. But I do not have a program going together with Stevie Fast for next year. But if one comes forward, I will definitely do that.”
He said he’s seeking funding for Beckman and Johnson: “I plan on doing my best to run four Funny Cars next year. And we’re looking at going forward and doing everything that we can do [with the same four drivers]. I hope so. That’s what I’m working towards. They would be my guys. They have been my guys, but we have to work forward, sponsor-wise and accomplish what we’re working real hard on.”
Beckman told Dragzine, “I am going back to work in November” to his former job as an elevator technician. “I have reactivated my union membership. Hopefully, I find something to keep driving, but I can’t afford not to have a paycheck,” he said.
“I still love what I do for a living,” Beckman said. “We’ve still got a great car and a great team, and if Vegas is my last race, I want to go out holding a Wally trophy in my hands.”
The same goes for Johnson, who is locked into a battle with Beckman and points leader Hagan. They enter the finale with Hagan leading Johnson by 42 points and Beckman by 43. He said he’s carrying “lots of mixed emotions” but said, “Honestly, I’m happy. We’re coming into this last race with a shot at the championship. And I’m happy that we even got a season, because it looked like maybe after the second race of the year we wouldn’t have a season at all. We’ve had a great year and would love nothing more than to be able to cap it off with a win and have a few things go our way and maybe sneak away with the championship, as well.”
A title for either Beckman or Johnson would provide a huge deliverable to a potential new sponsor.
For Capps, the only immediate uncertainty could be whether his trusted crew chief, Rahn Tobler, will stick around one more year and defer retirement. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done together,” Capps said. “It’s been fun. When he talks retirement, I don’t like hearing it. He’s mentioned it a few times here and there. Don’s always tried to bring him back. He doesn’t want him to go.”
Asked if he plans to come back to the NAPA Dodge team for 2021, Tobler said Thursday morning, “As of right now, yes.”
Buoyed by new possibilities and the emergence of Camping World’s influence, Schumacher said, “I am working very hard to keep everybody on the racetrack and hopefully to keep Tony out there full-time and possibly even add another Top Fuel car.”
Schumacher declined to reveal just who might drive that fourth car, although speculation has focused on three-time champion Larry Dixon and 2019 NHRA top rookie Austin Prock. Instead, the team owner coyly said, “We’ll deal with that as we go on forward.
“We’ve got a long winter, so we’ve got a lot of months to work at it,” he said. “I will continue to do the very best I can for all of our fans, all of my sponsors, all of my team members, and family – I feel every one of them is a part of my family. And I look forward to continuing to work with NHRA and the Professional Racers and Owners Association [PRO] and keep the sport going as strong as it possibly can.”