Tony Schumacher realizes the days of winning 15 Top Fuel races in an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season may be over. But victories like the one a year ago at Route 66 Raceway and this past Sunday in Epping make winning just as gratifying for the seven-time world champion.
Schumacher, in his 10,000-horsepower U.S. Army dragster, delivered over the weekend at New England Dragway, winning his second race of the season in a day filled with dramatic side-by-side racing against an ultracompetitive Top Fuel field.
Schumacher edged out points leader Doug Kalitta in a thrilling final round and is well aware of the incredible levels the class has reached. He also knows the challenge ahead of him at this weekend’s 17th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries at Route 66 Raceway, but for the seven-time world champ, conquering a category that challenging is as satisfying as it has ever been.
“The class is tighter than I’ve ever seen it, and it’s awesome,” Schumacher said. “I haven’t driven my best, and these guys step it up against me. These guys are kicking my butt, and the competition is tough. You have to earn them and win them, and you have to dig deep to win them. Any one of us can be beat on any given day. It makes you rise up in the seat, it makes the fans enjoy it, and makes the team enjoy the wins. It’s very gratifying.”
Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock), and Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were also last year’s winners of the event that will once again be televised on ESPN2. The O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals is the 12th of 24 events during the 2014 NHRA season and marks the third of four straight race weekends for teams in the Mello Yello Series.
For Schumacher and his talented team, that’s a good thing because the U.S. Army team takes considerable momentum into Schumacher’s home track. The team moved to fifth in points after the impressive performance in Epping and has plenty of history on its side in Chicago.
Schumacher will be chasing his fifth win at the state-of-the-art facility, but none may top last year’s thrilling final round when his dragster exploded in a huge fireball when he crossed the finish line against Clay Millican. It ended up as one of the most spectacular victories in his career, and Schumacher, who now has 74 wins, finds himself returning to his home track on the cusp of what could be a season-changing hot streak.
“You go up and down in racing, and right now, we’re up,” Schumacher said. “It’s outstanding. It was intense. We’ve been working hard. We haven’t given [the fans] the Army car we’re used to seeing. We haven’t performed, but as a team, we know what we’re going through. We know the goal, and if we push through these hard times, it’s going to be amazing. We’ve got a great car, and we’re right there.”
With competition at an all-time high, Schumacher is also trying to stay a step ahead with an overhaul to a new six-disc clutch system. It remains a work in progress, and there have been bumps in the road, but the end result could make for a lethal combination when the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship arrives.
“We’ve got to find a way to win the Countdown, and running old stuff, it’s just not going to work,” Schumacher said. “We’re going to be ahead of it, and we’ve spent a lot of time forcing the issue.”
Schumacher has his work cut out for him trying to track down points leader Kalitta, who has been to an impressive eight final rounds in 2014. But Schumacher will be challenged by a variety of threats in Chicago, including Don Schumacher Racing teammates Antron Brown and Spencer Massey, reigning Top Fuel world champ Shawn Langdon, reigning Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, J.R. Todd, and Englishtown winner Richie Crampton.
Schumacher, though, knows what it takes to win, and he reflected on that when he shared the winner’s circle with DSR teammate and Funny Car standout Ron Capps in Epping.
“We have to drive better because we’re getting older,” Schumacher said. “These young guys are doing great, and it makes us have to be better than we ever were. We all have to be great every day to win a race.”
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 cherished face time with and get autographs from 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.
The race also will showcase the thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as well as the fan favorite JEGS Allstars competition.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, June 27, with sessions at 4:30 and 7:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, June 28, at 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, June 29.
To purchase general-admission tickets or reserved seats, call Route 66 Raceway, 888-629-RACE (7223), or visit www.route66raceway.com.