Waste Management, North America’s largest trash-collecting and recycling giant with 21 million customers, periodically presents safety seminars for its more than 40,000 employees. And NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher twice had the honor of being the featured speaker.
Before his first engagement, at Rockford, Ill., Schumacher scratched his head for a minute.
“What am I going to say to them that they can relate to?” he asked himself.
It might have seemed he had nothing in common with the folks who drive garbage trucks. But he quickly discovered their bond.
Schumacher opened his speech by telling them, “I drive the fastest thing in the world. You drive the slowest thing in the world. We’re both professional drivers. I drive a 12,000-horsepower, 2,000-pound car. You drive a 64,000-pound, 32-ton truck. Before I do it, I say a prayer, because I know the dangers. I get in my car and there’s a guardrail, a helicopter, and a paramedic. All these signs: Better pay attention, right? You might get in your vehicle and get complacent, put your headphones on.” And he was on a roll, one that only Tony Schumacher can deliver even without a script.
The Army, we were partners – still are. I got to watch people enlist, basic training, got to see the graduations, got to watch them go overseas and come back, got to see it all. I got to feel like I was doing something for my country and [with] the partnership, doing something for them.
He said, “It tuned out they freaking loved it!” Schumacher has spoken to employees at such corporate powerhouses as Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. And he said, “There’s so many companies out there that I want to talk to. I like to think I’m an outstanding speaker. If you’ve got a great company and you need somebody to go out and motivate…”
Plenty of people wanted to talk to him when word became official that the U.S. Army was dropping its sponsorship of his dragster. “There were so many people in the beginning who said, ‘I’d love to be on that car.’ It is an insanely great car and an insanely great team to be on.”
But a serious offer hasn’t panned out yet.
Schumacher counted his blessings: “I’ve got three beautiful, healthy kids. There’s bigger things out there. I don’t want to sit for a minute, not because of the money. It’s because this is my life and passion. And I don’t want to miss a moment of it.”
And he remained hopeful, saying, “I like to think we’ll get something sooner rather than later.” But he didn’t venture any predictions.
One thing is certain, though. He knows what he wants in his next marketing partner.
“I want to help build the company. That’s what we do. As a driver and an educator, that’s what we do. We build companies. It’s not just about the ‘Yeah! This is fun!’ The entertainment part of it, the fans – whole other side. Love that part. The Army, we were partners – still are. I got to watch people enlist, basic training, got to see the graduations, got to watch them go overseas and come back, got to see it all. I got to feel like I was doing something for my country and [with] the partnership, doing something for them. So the next [relationship], I want it to be the same. I hope we’re not just going to randomly take whatever’s thrown at us. I like to pick the right thing. I want somebody I can be a team with.
“The business-to-business [aspect] is the most important part of it. It’s the reason I’m here. I don’t get to just send a car down the racetrack. I’m not here to show off. What we do is make businesses grow. That’s why these companies are here. It just takes somebody who says, ‘I never thought of it that way. I thought it was just about racing.’ We’re on the track, literally, for six minutes a year – it’s the fastest sport in the world. But the build-up is what it’s about, the business part of it. That’s what we’re all about.”
One major question fans seems to keep asking is “Why don’t you put ‘Schumacher’ on the race car?’” That frustrates Schumacher.
“That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about sending a car down the racetrack,” he said. It’s about the partnership. Bringing a car out here and sending it down the track will just show everyone that ‘Eh – he’ll do it. He’ll be fine. See? The problem’s solved.’
“The problem isn’t solved,” he insisted. “The situation is still at hand. We need to put a name on the car. And we’re working with everybody out there to do it. And we’ll see if we can’t get it done. “You know, I’ve been through so much. They say don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff. There will be something great. God has always laid something beautiful on the plate, if you wait patiently. It’s in his time. It’s not in your time. I want it yesterday.”
Schumacher said he wasn’t sure how many sponsorship-procurement folks are on the job for him right now. “I’d like to think 10,000, but probably two or three,” he quipped.
But he said, “We want to help people who haven’t been here get here. It’s good for the whole sport. People say, ‘Big teams like Don Schumacher Racing are killing [the sport]. Really? I see a lot of sponsors out there that would not be here if my dad wasn’t here and if John Force wasn’t here. We are drawing them here. And guess what? Hopefully in the next week or two we get something, and then there’s three or four other ones that have been looking that maybe a Scott Palmer-type gets. We’re always going to be out and soliciting, trying to get partners and sponsors. But Scott Palmer, he doesn’t have the budget to send out the marketing people that we do to reach companies that have never thought about [drag racing]. Those teams are going to benefit from us drawing them here.”
Schumacher said he wasn’t sure as the offseason morphed into the preseason whether he should travel to Pomona or remain at home near Austin, Texas during the weekend of the Lucas Oil Winternationals. But he decided to go to California and, as he put it, “shake a lot of hands, kiss some babies. I wasn’t sure if I should come out. And I said, ‘Man, maybe if I stay home, it looks like it’s a bigger problem. And it wakes some people up. But Summer [girlfriend Summer Penland] said, ‘The fans deserve you to be there.’ So that’s what I’m out there to do: support my team, and other sponsors that are here.”
The people out there that have thought about racing, now’s the time. We are available. This business-to-business deal that we do at DSR is second to none. If you want that opportunity, now is the time.
Today is a long way from 2009, when he earned his sixth consecutive and seventh of eight total championships. But he’s the same enthusiastic brand ambassador he always has been.
Dec. 11, 2009, wasn’t the balmiest day at Killeen, Texas. But several thousand people had gathered there at the Army base that just 36 days before had withstood the trauma of the deadliest mass shooting on an American military base. A radical terrorist Army-major psychiatrist gunned down 14 individuals and injured more than 30. On hand for the “Fort Hood Community Strong” event were Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, the Zac Brown Band, singer Nick Jonas, comedian Dana Carvey, and beloved Shari Lewis ventriloquist puppet Lamb Chop – and newly crowned NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher. He was there to present his gleaming championship trophy to the soldiers he had developed such a bond with through the years.
Before he was invited to the stage, six astronauts presented Fort Hood and III Corps and Commander Lt. General Robert Cone with the U.S. flag that had traveled aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis and flown over the International Space Station. So Schumacher had an amazingly tough act to follow.
That didn’t faze Schumacher. When the emcee introduced him, the crowd erupted in cheers so loud it sounded like he was at his family reunion. In a sense, he was. The audience yelled and screamed and clapped at length – and Schumacher hadn’t opened his mouth yet. And when he did speak, he sent an electricity through the gathering. Schumacher was authentic. He was energized. He was energizing. He spoke their truth. In the presence of singers and performers, he was the rock star. More importantly, he was them.
And he said he knows he can give that same passion to a new marketing partner.
When an individual has that special clout, that genuine magic, to generate more awe than astronauts who have lived and worked at the International Space Station and command more attention than recording artists and famous comedians, not to mention the cutest, sweetest sock puppet ever, companies would be wise to consider partnering with him.
“The people out there that have thought about racing, now’s the time. We are available,” Schumacher said. “This business-to-business deal that we do at DSR is second to none. If you want that opportunity, now is the time.”