Antron Brown enters the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil in third place, just 30 points behind Steve Torrence as he chases his fourth Top Fuel world championship. The New Jersey native knows how difficult earning that trophy will be, but that doesn't make the ever-optimistic Brown any less confident in his, and his Matco Tools Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel team's ability to get the job done.
"Man, I'm feeling a lot better because our car is doing what we want it to do, you know what I mean? We thought that we could have a breakout Indy where it like, you know, could just respond a little bit better but we just, you know, we raced Steve-O and the car should have ran a 3.73. We were trying to run a 73 or 74 and we actually just nuked the clutch out of it, then we fixed that problem and figured out what was causing it.
"And then we raced Billy, it was just too aggressive where we needed to back it down because the clutch was just too aggressive and we went out there and just hazed the tires. And we could have went down the track and nuked the clutch out of the car and beat them. So our main focus now is that we got it all where we need it to be and that we gotta keep doing what we're doing. And qualify, the main thing is to qualify well. If you qualify well you set yourself up in a good position and you make it better on yourself and give yourself a better chance to get your rhythm going. "
"Because once you get to that second round, you kind of find that niche rhythm and that's what it takes to win these races. You got to get in the rhythm, you want to have a good first run on the track where you don't get too greedy and try to drop low ET you just want to run a good lap that's going to set you up good for a second round. And that's the game plan if you could do that every round, every other round takes care of itself and you find yourself in the final racing for that race win. And when you do that, that's what sets you up to win championships and we know how to build, we've been there plenty of times. And now I just feel really confident in our team and feeling our team's in a good spot where the car's not all over the place. We're not fighting the power issue. You know, we're not fighting the clutch issue no more now we got both of them in balance. And now when they make a change the car it does what they want it to do. And that's a good feeling."
Brown got past defending world champion Steve Torrence in the second round at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals but failed to beat Billy Torrence, Steve's father, in the semifinals. Both Torrence's will race in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship opener, and are playoff racers, making things difficult for everyone wanting a taste of championship glory.
"Well, what it is, is that their combination has been solid, for the last three years. They had a great combination, you know, and I mean and honestly, I mean he was a car to beat not just last year but the year before that too. And we ran neck and neck with 'em that year that Brittany [Force] won the championship in 2017 like he won two more rounds of racing than we did they just won more races than we did, you get what I mean? We know how to do that. We know how to do and now you got to race these races like the Countdown when you guys use them to make yourself better.
"So you get to the countdown and you can run it with all you have because there are six races to win the championship. The first 18 are just to get you in. So it's great to win, been there done that. I've won tons of races in the first 18 and we still lost a championship, just like other teams have done. I mean, like leading over 300 points, and then you get zero come into the countdown. So my main focus is you got to peak at the right time."
"I believe Alan Johnson showed that with Brittany Force in 2017, you have to have a great six-race stretch. And that's what we're focused on right now. We're not focused on what we did before in the past. We are focused on what we've done and how we've grown to where we're at. And we Steve's car is a great race car. It's always been a great race car. And that's not going to change so if you want to win a championship it's definitely going to go through that team through him and his dad. His dad's also in the Countdown, he's got a great running car. His car, every time down the race track has probably been the best race car on the racetrack.
"Brittany Force's car has been really, really good. It's been fast at times. But then on race day, you can be I mean, they haven't shown... you know, being right on race day and knowing how to race on race days. That's the key function, and we know [Capco Contractors crew chiefs] Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana know how to do that. You know, and I mean, and our guys know how to do that. Now we just got to make sure we get in the right element where we can play with that like you'd be able to swing for the fences during qualifying. Getting that top-five qualifying position is the game plan. And that's how you're going to take them down, just get in there where you can get them in a second-round or semi-final round, and you have to be able to capitalize and take them out. You know, that's the key."
Both Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel cars will compete in the NHRA Countdown, but only one has earned a victory in 2019. Leah Pritchett earned a win at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, ending a drought for the Top Fuel contingent of DSR and giving a much-needed win for Pritchett, who has gone through her own ups and downs in 2019. Brown, on any advice he's offered up to Pritchett:
"Well, the thing about it, it's so hard it with anybody. I've talked to Steve-O. Tony and myself have talked to Steve-O, talked to Leah, like after like, you know, like even when Steve went through his accident, and then Leah's going through her problems on the racetrack. You could tell them everything that you went through what to do. But it's so hard until they live it, you get what I'm saying?
"Like I could say Leah: you know what, you can only do what you can do. So when she cuts a bad light or when she does this or that, I said, the reason why your lights are all over the place is because you're trying too hard. And she says, 'what do you mean, I gotta work on them.' You work on it, but it's hard to tell somebody that you got to get in that zone, where you just do it automatically and you do the same thing. Because when I go in there and I try all I do is mess it up. Because I work at it so much that I gotta get myself out of my own way. And that's my information I tell Leah all the time, is it get yourself out of your own way, and just do what you do that natural to you. If you cut .070 lights, that's what you cut. You can't make those .050s."
"You know what I mean? That's what it is. But if you cut a .070 light or a .068 every single time... that's gonna win you way more races than if you're cutting a .050 and then a .110 and then an .080 light and a .0110. But if you're consistent, then you can work on it. And it gives the crew chief a chance where, okay, she's cutting .068/.070s all the time. Now, if I tweak on this and tweak on that, then he picks the car up and then she goes .058, now, the crew chief knows he helped her out. That's the kind of relationship I had, you know, back in the day was with my crew chiefs with Mark and Brad or even when Brian Corradi was with Brian and Mark. I'd go out there and be the same every time, so if I went out and cut a .068 light, they'd be like, 'oh man I softened the clutch up too much and messed up AB's light because they count on me doing the same thing every time. And then they will make adjustments to help make the car better. Because they work on it. You know, I mean, so that's the hardest part is that like for them understand, I gotta get out of my own way for me to do better. And that's just like to relax, and just put your work in. And when you put your work in it does it. It does it on its own. We don't get you don't have to get yourself jacked up. You don't got to get amped up.
"I think it happens over time with experience. That's not something that I think anybody gets off the bat, you know, very seldom do you get that off the bat, because you have to go through those experiences to actually change your mindset that way. You got to kind of have that mindset that you race like you don't care. You get what I mean? Like, it's hard to say it that way. But you gotta race like, alright: not thinking about nothing, not overthinking it, keep yourself occupied. So when you get in the car, you're not thinking about all the stuff that's going to clear your mind, you got to do something to make your mind clear and free. You know what I mean? And I think what happened is when I lost different ways like I lost a lot of times by trying too hard like I had a dominant car for years, you get what I mean. And I threw races away to Larry Dixon, because at the time, you know, him and Tony who I was racing, and Doug Kalitta was the best of the best. You know what I mean? Like, if you want to win and do some special, you'd beat the three of them. Like if you beat the three of them, you'd done beat the cream of the crop, you get what I'm saying?"
[Editor's note: This is an early 2000s Top Fuel Triple Crown]
"So when I used to race them I'm racing hungry. I was racing Larry Dixon in Topeka, Kansas and lemme tell you I was gonna Light. Him. Up. I'm cutting him off at the Tree. Then we're going to outrun him down the track. I wanted to beat him every way you could beat him. You get what I mean? When he looked at the timeslip, I wanted him to know he was defeated, right? Well, you know what happened? I red-lighted. Out-ran him by like four-hundredths. I could have cut like a .110-light and still beat him. You know what? I kicked myself in the butt because it was like a track that I never won at. And that cost my team the race. Because I wanted to annihilate him and I wanted to do something different that was out of my zone. My zone was to go out there and not know who I raced, blank my mind out and hit the Tree and to be cold as ice. No feelings. No thoughts. Just go out there and throw down.
"And when I lost that race to Dixon, that's what brought me back. It brought me back around like, what the heck was I trying to do? I cut a .050 light the round before he was like a 70. What could I do different that was gonna make that better? What did I need to do that was better than that? I went to the trailer after the race and Brian Corradi, I'll never forget. He wasn't mad. He wasn't angry. I was mad at myself already. He says, 'AB, what else were you going to do? You are the best of the best, just do what you do.' And that has sat with me after that for a long time. So now when I go up there, my main thought process is just to calm down and relax myself and get into my known. And I think that's what helps you the most just remember just do what you do."