Top Fuel title contenders discuss championship shootout
Thursday, November 01, 2012
After 22 races crisscrossing the United States, the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series will return to historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona for the season-ending event Nov. 8-11. The three Top Fuel racers at the head of the pack all come from the Don Schumacher Racing stable. Points leader Antron Brown is still looking for his first NHRA championship. He suffered just his third first-round loss of the season at the most recent event in Las Vegas. Tony Schumacher is in second, 65 points behind after his runner-up finish in Las Vegas moved him from third to second in the points, and Spencer Massey is 70 back, sitting in third after a second-round loss at The Strip.
Q: Antron, you had some momentum, but with your early exit from Las Vegas, talk about the rare first-round loss for you guys?
Brown: It was a little disheartening because we struggled all through qualifying, and we got our first lap down the track, and everything was fine. We weren't very aggressive. We just wanted to go A to B, and afterwards, we had some electrical problems, and we had it fixed at the Friday night session because it burned our computer out of our car, and it continued on Saturday. So we actually found out what the root cause of it was, and then we found out Saturday night, so we replaced everything on our car brand new, and we came out for first round, and we had a brand-new part malfunction where our control module box just didn't work, and we had no clutch. So we stepped on the gas, and the clutch never moved; we never got no clutch, so we lost first round.
It was one of those fluke deals where all these things that were going wrong, we were still just trying to fight to stay there. We wanted to race. When we went out first round, it kind of took a little wind out of our sails because that's the worst feeling in the world just to sit there and watch everybody else race and collect points. We know how great our teammates are. We know how great their cars are. We know how good their teams are. We know what kind of drivers they are. Tony is a seven-time world champ. Spencer has been there running for the championship each and every year; he just missed it last year by like two-thousandths of a second to be a world champ. We know how good they are, and to sit on the sidelines and watch them race and you're out and you can't do anything about it, everybody else was there with the drama just looking at us and saying, "Are you hoping your teammates go out?” No, I want my teammates to go out and race, and if they get beat, they get beat. I'd rather be out there racing with them and control my own destiny rather than looking at other people because to go against our teammates is like for somebody to beat them is very rare because of how great their cars are.
Q: Tony, talk about your weekend racing to that runner-up finish.
Schumacher: Other than the disappointment of it being a runner-up finish instead of a win, it was fantastic. It's textbook end of the year for the Army car. I've said it so many times: You can run as good as you want, but some of the cars that are ahead of you have to falter, and that weekend was one of those weekends with the team, they did. And he's way out there. It's one of those disconcerting things. I don't want him to falter because there are other teams out there, like [Shawn] Langdon's, that could have passed him. However, I do want to win a championship, and unlike some of the other teams out there, we don't all race for the same company. Matco is Matco, Army is Army, and yeah, I have Army on the car and Antron has Army on the car, but we're both trying to do it for ourselves, and we understand what it takes, but we want most importantly to have that 1-2-3 finish.
I want to be No. 1, Antron wants to be No. 1, and so does Spencer. We are doing what we can do, but it was textbook for us to have the door opened up early on and to be able to go out there early and try to win. It was unfortunate for us to get beat in the finals. That was a tough one. We could have closed the gap by 45 points, gained some points in qualifying, and just a round and a half or two rounds, and we dropped the ball. Have to work a little harder in Pomona.
Q: And Spencer?
Massey: Basically, I feel the same way, just as Tony said. We had an opportunity to kind of gain a little ground on the massive points lead that Antron had after Reading, and we kind of dropped the ball second round. Obviously, anything can happen come Pomona. Tony has done that in the past like he was just talking about, in 2006 and then again with “Hot Rod” Fuller. But you never know what can happen. This is why it's NHRA Drag Racing. Whenever you talk about our Don Schumacher Racing cars have been 1-2-3 in points all season long and very few first-round losses for all of our dragsters, it's hard to even imagine Antron going out first round like he did this past weekend and just the same as what happened to our FRAM/Prestone car in Reading, where we lost first round, and I had to sit back and watch Antron go to the finals and gain a huge points lead on us.
You know, you can write it out on paper, but it would never happen just like you'd always imagine it happening. That's why it's so crazy out here racing, how we're racing right now. It's very, very close, not only in the points, but each and every race, every round, every incremental of the dragstrip; every part of the race is very, very close, and any split second, anything can happen, anything can malfunction. A team can step up that's never even won a round, they can come in at Pomona, qualify, and take one of us three out early. Anything can happen. I mean, that's why you can never say never, but there again, you've got to have all your ducks in a row whenever you're sitting in a situation like Tony and ourselves. You've got to have everything fall your way, and we started to see that opening up in Vegas, but then again, we didn't capitalize on it; we lost second round, the car just didn't run quite as well as we expected it to win. Bob Vandergriff went on to have a great day and won his second event, so it was awesome to watch him run back down that dragstrip, but I really wish it could have been that FRAM dragster in that winner's circle, just like Tony wishes it could have been his U.S. Army car. It's one of those things. But that makes us that much more hungrier going towards Pomona toward the finals. We want to win.
Q: Can you all compare your emotions and thoughts for the first eight rounds of the season to the last eight rounds of the season that you're looking at right now?
Massey: My first eight rounds of the season obviously started off at Pomona whenever we went on to win the Winternationals, and then to go to Phoenix and be able to just have fun, it's a little bit different, obviously. The last eight rounds is pressure. It's the Countdown. It's the end of what we've been dreaming about doing all season long, and that's getting to the points of going for this Countdown, going for the championship.
Right now, the last eight rounds in the Countdown is tougher than you could ever imagine. Everybody wants to win that big prize, wants to win that trophy to get that world championship, and even though we are all teammates, we all have the great same sponsors, we hang out before and after each run because we all have the same great hospitality, and we're all great friends, we still want to beat each other. We still want to get all our guys to live and breathe to do this, to try and go for this championship. And what makes it even better is that we get to race against our teammates. That means Don Schumacher has put such a great organization together that he's going to have a champion in both nitro classes. I don't believe that's ever happened with Don Schumacher before. That's unbelievable.
But going back to the first part of the season, the first eight rounds, boy, you're just wanting to get back out there and start racing again. You want to get back in the groove because you've been sitting around the entire off-season just wanting to get out there, wanting to get strapped in that race car and feel that power and make some more runs and try and win some more races. But let me tell you, it's highs and lows; I wouldn't have it any other way but sitting right where I'm sitting right now and having this pressure because that means we have a chance for that championship.
Schumacher: I think for us, [we] absolutely love the end of the year. The last eight runs, two races, have always been our best. They've always been the ones where you had to win, where we performed the best for whatever reason. In the beginning, I always said if you want to see me drop the ball, take the pressure away because I let my guard down. But when it's time to be really, really good, we're good at that.
The end of the year is what it's all about. It's what we race all year for. It's what we expect to be good at and we're required to be good at because unfortunately [Doug] Kalitta and “Hot Rod” both sit there and hope I lost. I don't think anyone wants to live that way. I always wanted the ball in my hands for the last shot, and I always wanted to sit in a seat and have to win to be the champ, not hope someone else loses. And I think Antron is in a really good spot right now. He's ahead of us, but he's not that kind of guy. He does not want to have to watch someone lose; he wants to close the deal, just like we do. At the awards banquet, we all want to be on that stage. Langdon is back there a ways, and he's got a mathematical chance, but he's going to have to get past all three of us, and that's not going to happen. It used to be where there were one or two good cars, everyone else was fighting for third and fourth. It's different. There's a lot of great cars. He's not going to go that far and we're not going to get beat. He's got his issues ahead of him. But this is a pressure cooker. This is what it's all about.
Brown: Just like they say, at the beginning of the year, the first eight rounds everybody is kind of just jelling. Everybody is trying to get in their groove. That's what our team did. We were just working hard at it, and we were just trying to come up with a consistent -- not just consistent but fast -- package to go along and compete with the cars that we have because if you look at the competition we have in our class this year, everybody is in the .70s. Everybody. Before there were like four cars that could run .70 -- our three cars and maybe the Al-Anabi car. And now you have over 10 teams that can run .70s.
You go back to Reading, in the later rounds, like you go to the last eight rounds to give you an example, in the first eight races, Tony, Spencer, and myself, we ran like five .70s at one event. I remember one event distinctly, I think it was Pomona, we all ran an .80 with a three, and the exact same deal when we were 1-2-3 in qualifying. Other cars were close, but they weren't near us. Even when you went to Reading, I remember distinctly I ran a .75 with an eight, which is the quickest pass ever I made in the history of my career, our team, and we qualified seventh. That tells you the difference of how everything just stepped up this year, especially once we got into the Countdown.
And when we go into this last race, this one had set ourselves up with a chance to win. We are going in better than we did last year. Last year, we went 18 points behind. This year, we're going in with a points lead, and our main deal is we want to race here. I want to do what we did in Vegas and do it all over again in Pomona. I want to race. So we'll go out there and try to qualify well, and I just want to be competitive throughout the whole race event and just continue to just go into race day taking it one round at a time like we did all year long, and that's what we're shooting for. We stayed out there and tested Monday, and we made four great runs in testing, and we just want to carry that on to Pomona so we can continue with Tony and Spencer, Langdon, and the rest of the whole field because we don't have to worry about each other anymore. That's what we did at the beginning of the year; we just worried about each other because you look at the stats, the only people that we lost to in those was our own teammates. Now you see in these later rounds everybody else is definitely picking up the slack, and they've been taking us out. They've been taking each and every one of us out, being very competitive, and they're right there. That's just how tough our class has gotten.
Q: Tony, you've won championships in a great number of different ways. Although it looks like this year, this has been the most competitive that you've ever been. Can you talk about how this year's championship run compares to any others that you've had?
Schumacher: I think, and I've said it all along, it is the best class of cars that has ever been put together. There are more great cars than we've ever seen, the great drivers, the teams. And like I said, silly season didn't happen again for the second year in a row. We didn't see at Indy where everyone fires people and new people come on. We seem to have all found a pretty good home between the drivers and the crew chiefs, and the battles are incredible. There's nine or 10 cars that are extremely good. The guy that stands on the podium at the end is going to be well-deserving of the Full Throttle championship. That's it. Because it has been as difficult as anything I've ever seen. I've had to drive better, Antron, Spencer, all of us have had to drive better. [Khalid] alBalooshi, a new car, great car, world champ car, beaten down because he's new, because his lights were a little off, just a little off, he got beat, what, 10 first rounds, 11 in a row, because that's how good everybody is, and he had an amazing car. That's how good it has become. All the drivers with the experience have had to rise way beyond what we've had to rise before. alBalooshi is a great guy. I'm not saying anything wrong. I'm saying experience is paying off right now. It is incredible. I told the guys last weekend, it has been a number of years since we've seen something so good, such high class of racing. We're not seeing games played on the starting line; we're seeing good, solid, wicked, difficult races.
Q: Is there any championship in your past that this compares to at all?
Schumacher: A couple of them. I came back from 336 points the year before the Countdown. That was simply amazing. It wasn't nine cars, but Kalitta was so hard to beat. And then when I showed up at Pomona in '07, I was in fourth place, and I think I was 65 or 70 points out of the lead. To win that, not only did the points leader, “Hot Rod,” have to go out first round, but I had to get around, I think, [Brandon] Bernstein and [Larry] Dixon, and Antron had been up in the points pretty good for most of that year, too, where he was at last year. But it was incredible. I have lived some great moments, and I can only say that at the end of my career, I will be able to look back and think there have been very few years that haven't been extremely gratifying. This will be at the top of the list if we can pull this off. Or if Antron does it or if Spencer does it, I will guarantee you, because theirs isn't going to be a first. It's going to be incredibly gratifying for the amount of work and dedication they had to put into this year.
Q: Tony, you come down to the last race here, and all the nitro competitors for the title are from Don Schumacher Racing. I mean, that's remarkable. What does it say about your dad's organization to be able to do this?
Schumacher: I think he's put together good teams, good combinations, and we saw this shift with [Jack] Beckman and [Ron] Capps, with the crew chiefs, everyone was up in arms, you can't do that. But look at them now, they're four points spread apart going into the last race. We're fairly good at moving people into the positions they need to be at to keep us on top. But all that being said, if you could go back to our shop, you'd see guys in our fab shop late at night, and you'd see guys in our machine shop late at night. They're not getting paid extra to be there late at night. We found those people, the people that it takes to make a championship team, to make perfect cars, to make fewer mistakes. And because the organization is so good, they don't want to leave. They don't want to go to other teams, and we've made it possible to have just that group around you, and I've always said it, the people you surround yourself with are going to be whether you win or lose, and we've got the right people right now, and hopefully we keep them a long time.
Brown: Well, the coolest part is that at DSR, you have the best of everything. You look at Tony's team, Mike Green and Neal, and then you look at Spencer's team with Todd and Phil, and then my team with Mark and Brian. This off season was so crucial because I live right down the street from the shop, and when I'm in the shop, I see all those crew chiefs in a room this off-season, and they all worked together, and they all talked about what they worked together on is what they wanted to develop for this next upcoming year.
Our new race chassis that we run right now is built in house. They all worked on that, and everybody puts in their input in it. Mark coming down there from Louisiana, he threw his deal in it, then Todd had his ideas, and Neal had his ideas, and then Mike had his ideas, and everybody was just collaborating with it together. And then Norm, our head fab guy, they collaborated on it, and we had these new parts come out. Tony goes out to the racetrack and performed flawlessly. He just starts ticking people off, and then we brought ours out and started going on a rampage with Spencer and made it to numerous final rounds against each other, like all three of our cars. And that's just a testament on how great this organization is about innovation.
Look at the enclosed cockpit, all the stuff that we have. We do our own blocks, our own cylinder heads, our own rods. And what happened is it's not that we were getting bad parts from everybody else, but if you want to go out and win championships and you want to run against Al-Anabi, Alan Johnson who makes his own stuff, you have to innovate beyond that edge to make your stuff better. Your quality is better, so our part failures are less. We're going A to B without blowing up engines because things went wrong. We capitalize on that stuff and make fewer mistakes, go downtrack more, and that's what Don has orchestrated there at DSR. That was his decision. And Tony mentioned also, just collaborating together and making it happen for all of our race teams, including our Funny Cars. That's why I think you see all seven of our race teams this year have done so well. They've all worked together and developed all this new innovation and taken things to the next level.
Q: Because you all have been in this position more or less several times before and you see Tony on a regular basis, I just wondered, Antron and Spencer, if it bothers you that Tony Schumacher himself gets more excited and giddy at the end of the year when the competition is like that. Does he throw you for a loop?
Schumacher: I hope I do.
Massey: It gets me wound up towards the end of the year, and Tony has been doing this his whole life. He's won numerous championships, and it gets him wound up, but I love seeing him get wound up. Watching Tony get wound up and listening to him talk, that's what gets me going as well. We're a team and we push each other, we make each other better on lights. We make each other want to win even better because we're racing against each other. If we can beat the best of the best, I'll know that I've really accomplished something. Not only am I getting to race beside Tony and Antron, I'm getting to race beside them and getting to try and kick their butts. They're my teammates, but still, I want to win. And it's awesome. Tony, you're a great dude, and you have a lot of fun, and that's what I love about you. You love to want to win, and you have that in you, and I like to have that in me, too. It's awesome, man. It doesn't scare me or anything; it just makes me want to win even more.
Brown: Yeah, and the thing about it is me and Tony go back a ways with this deal, even when I wasn't racing Top Fuel. One thing about it is up at the Don Schumacher camp, they were literally like for five years racing Pro Stock Motorcycle, and I watched Tony win numerous championships, come from behind, dominate, win 15 races one season. And my deal was always I was a student. I always sat back and looked -- what makes people so great? This guy is making history all the time. What is it that he's got over everybody else? And then when you see him talk, like we always do meet and greets. He goes through his epic stories and talks about his battles out there and what him and his team have achieved, and the one thing that you can see is that he lives for those moments. Like when the pressure is on, how do you rise to the occasion? If you ask him how he looks at the high-pressure-stakes situation, he says, “I just do what I do. I go in and give it all I've got. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Schumacher: The truth is big moments are learned from big opportunities. I say it, and I love that movie Miracle, and I've lived by it because if you can't get good at the end when you have to be, there's other jobs. If I was a team owner, I would handpick people that are good at the end because we're going to all get beat at different times, but you handpick drivers, and that's what we've done, we've picked guys that are great at the end. Yeah, they haven't won their championships yet, but they're going to. Spencer had a .045 or .050 light with all the pressure on him the last race. He's got it. The car didn't get down the track fast enough, and they got beat by a little bit, but he didn't drop the ball. So I'm sure not counting on anyone dropping the ball. I think if I did anything wrong in my career, it's taught two other people that I've got to race against too well. I wish I could go back and take back all those fun statements. The truth is beating easy guys isn't fun. Beating really good guys, that's what life is about, man.
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