When three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown branched off from Don Schumacher Racing and built his own team for the start of the 2022 season, he knew he was taking a big bite of something he wasn't yet sure how to chew. But through the faith of his partners and an incredibly strong team digging deep alongside him, Brown hit the ground running and finished No. 2 in the nation. Last season, he recorded another top 10 finish in a year that brought him right to the edge of a milestone.
"It's a lot of work, without a doubt, but the thing is, I've been very fortunate with all of the people who make up AB Motorsports," said Brown. I think that's the most special thing about it. When we first started out, there was a lot going on, a lot of moving parts, but every person involved pitched in. We pulled together and stayed true, and we didn't give up on each other. We pushed each other to be better. Right now, AB Motorsports is in a really good spot because we're still growing, but we're light-years from where we started."
While thriving in his own career as a Top Fuel driver hasn't lost top priority, Brown invested in the future of NHRA Drag Racing and launched AB Motorsports Accelerate late last season with Angelle Sampey as the first participant in the program.
Future AB Motorsports Accelerate participants may include Brown's children, beginning with son Anson, and even, occasionally, stretch outside of drag racing to encourage youth who have expressed an interest in racing. The bottom line, for Brown, is providing aspiring and established racers with the tools to reach beyond their initial goals and to keep striving.
"I was pushing Angelle to do something different, to elevate herself in the sport," said Brown, who raced alongside Sampey in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category before moving up to Top Fuel for the 2008 season. "I said, 'Why don't you try to drive a fuel car, take the necessary steps?' She wasn't too willing at first, but then she fell in love with it – and that's what it's all about. Giving people the opportunity to explore things they didn't even know they wanted to do. Once they fall in love with it, we try to give them the necessary tools to move ahead."
Sampey found her footing rapidly in the dragster, and in her national event debut in the class, she raced to the semifinals. At just her second race, Sampey qualified No. 1, and the very next weekend she was runner-up in the regional meet at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Next season, she will race 14 national events and select NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series regional races in the Michalek Brothers Racing A/Fuel dragster.
"[Angelle] became a strong contender with a structured and strong race routine, and she's a true professional, on and off the racetrack," said Brown. "She's been a championship rider, now we're just trying to help her become a championship driver."
The camaraderie between the two stretches back to 1997, when Brown was going through the Pro Stock Motorcycle program at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School. The program was led by George Bryce of Star Racing, and Sampey was then riding for the team in NHRA competition. Brown and Sampey developed a friendship, but they raced against one another fiercely once he licensed and entered competition. Sampey won three consecutive championships from 2000-02, and Brown was right there with her, finishing just behind in the No. 2 position in 2001.
The two joined forces in 2003 under Brown's Team 23 banner, and midway through the season, they officially secured an important partnership with the U.S. Army for both of their Suzukis. Brown's current success with his own Top Fuel team reflects the lessons he learned as a scrappy racer early and how he and Sampey built relationships with partners.
"I think the best moment that we shared in racing was our first year of teaming up before we had a big sponsor," said Brown. "We were living race-to-race, and we had to fight to survive. She was on the computer putting deals together, and she did a lot of creative stuff under our Team 23 banner. Angelle, myself, my crew chief Mark Pieser, we all dug in and worked hard to make that thing go. I remember like yesterday. When you have everybody pulling the rope the same way, you can make some amazing things happen."
There were more lessons to be learned as they came to represent the U.S. Army team visiting schools and speaking to young people about the future.
"It wasn't just about recruiting people," said Brown. "It was about giving them a bigger, better vision for themselves. We were just sharing with them what the mission did for us. That whole time being part of the U.S. Army, it got me to see things in a different light. I always used to see myself as happy just where I was, but they gave me the vision not to settle, to move forward. That's what gave me the push to go out for Top Fuel or Funny Car."
With the steady focus of a champion balanced with a fun-loving, optimistic spirit, Brown has never finished outside of the top 10 in his career, whether he was riding a Pro Stock Motorcycle or competing in a thunderous, nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster. He's three times been the Top Fuel champion, and this past year, Brown recorded a characteristic top-10 finish with an incredible milestone in sight: his 75th national event win. Brown's 74 wins have him holding at No. 12 on NHRA's all-time wins list, which spans both Pro and Sportsman drivers.
Only three currently competing nitro drivers are ahead of him on that impressive list: Funny Car driver Ron Capps enters the season with 76 wins, Tony Schumacher is starting the year with 86 Top Fuel triumphs, and Funny Car's John Force has an astounding 155 victories.
"Without a doubt, I'm thinking of that 75th win, but my goal this season is to get over 80," said Brown. "We've got a couple of different announcements coming with some new partners, and that's very exciting. But you know, we're just staying tried and true, and we're going to keep on pushing."