During his amazing career, Tony Schumacher has rarely lost a first-round pairing at the season-opening race -- only twice in the last decade to be exact. The last time he failed to advance in the opening round of NHRA’s tradition-rich Winternationals was 2007.
His U.S. Army Top Fuel team quickly rebounded from that poor showing and raced to a semifinal finish in Phoenix and a victory in Gainesville. He went on to win the world championship title that year, so you can see why “the Sarge” isn’t too worried following his most recent first-round exit in Pomona.
Schumacher, a seven-time Top Fuel world champion and the winningest driver in NHRA history in the category, qualified 10th before losing a side-by-side race to eventual event winner Khalid alBalooshi at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals two weeks ago in Southern California. The Chicago resident comes to the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals, Feb. 21-23 at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, sitting outside the top 10 points standings and looking to get his season back in the groove.
Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) join Schumacher as the defending winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2.
The veteran driver knows that an early-round loss is bound to happen from time to time, and he isn’t ready to give up on the season strategy as set by his longtime crew chief, Mike Green.
“We were in our U.S. Army car at Las Vegas two days after Pomona, and we learned a lot,” Schumacher said. “Our qualifying will improve at Phoenix because it can’t be the way it was at Pomona. We can’t end up qualified that way [10th] and expect to win. We put ourselves in that spot. We need to go fast right off the get-go instead of catching up. Mike Green knows what he’s doing. We have a great plan, and we’re getting there.”
Schumacher also has some confidence on his side knowing that he has had plenty of success at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. With four victories, he’s the most prolific Top Fuel winner at the multipurpose motorsports facility near Phoenix.
“We set the speed record there last year and won the title,” he said. “We’ve always done well there and expect our plan to take a big step forward this year.”
His track speed record, a 329.91-mph blast made during his quarterfinal win last year, blew away the old mark by more than four mph.
“I'm not worried,” Schumacher said. “This team thrives on adversity. Mike has a plan that I know will work, and you don't change the plan when there are 23 events left in the season.”
Other Top Fuel drivers to watch include Pomona runner-up and top qualifier Doug Kalitta, defending world champ Shawn Langdon, two-time Phoenix winner Antron Brown, Spencer Massey, Steve Torrence, and Clay Millican.
John Force leads all Funny Car drivers with eight wins in Phoenix, and the 16-time world champ is off to a hot start to the season, setting both ends of the national record on his way to his seventh Winternationals victory and his 139th win. Capps, the defending Phoenix race winner in the category, made national highlight reels following a spectacular engine explosion during Friday qualifying in Pomona, and he wants to bounce back and pick up his first victory of the season. Past Phoenix winners Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Del Worsham, Robert Hight, and Cruz Pedregon and Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney, will all be threats to take home the season’s second Wally.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. is determined to win his sixth Pro Stock crown, but to do so, he will have to outlast a tough field of racers in the factory hot rod category, including teammate Allen Johnson and fellow competitors Jason Line, Shane Gray, V. Gaines, defending winner Enders-Stevens, and Vincent Nobile, among others.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds and enjoy some cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, Feb. 21, with the first session at 1:30 p.m. and the second at 4 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Feb. 22, at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 23.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series will be showcased during the event, featuring exciting side-by-side racing action.
NHRA and Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park are offering free general admission to children 12 and younger with a paying adult. For tickets for the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals, call 800-884-NHRA (6472) or log on to NHRATix.com.