CHANDLER, Ariz. – After a year that did not meet the high expectations for eight-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, the long-time NHRA veteran knew that changes needed to be made.
And after an off-season that included a significant adjustment, Schumacher – who finished eighth in the Top Fuel standings a year ago – appears to be back in championship form.
The 83-time national event winner was the runner-up at the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opener in Pomona, marking a strong start after Mike Neff was named the new crew chief over the winter.
Heading into this weekend’s 34th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where Schumacher is a five-time winner in his 10,000-horsepower U.S. Army dragster, ‘The Sarge’ is already impressed with what Neff has brought to his team.
“He’s an awesome dude, (and) he’s really hands on with the guys on this U.S. Army team,” Schumacher said. “He’s spends quite a bit of time talking with each and every one of the guys, getting their feedback and looking for their thoughts and ideas on how to make our U.S. Army car faster. That really impressed me. There aren’t a lot of crew chiefs like that.”
“I talked with my crew guys and they really felt part of the decisions that were made. We’ve got guys that are the best in the business and they really gelled early this season.”
Sunday marks the second event on the 24-race NHRA schedule, and the year already appears to be going down a better path than the 2017 campaign did for Schumacher.
The team won just one race in four final-round appearances, and none of those final rounds happened over the last 17 races of the season. That didn’t sit well with Schumacher or the entire Don Schumacher Racing organization, which prompted the move to add Neff, who has won world titles both as a Funny Car crew chief and driver.
Now, plenty of season remains and Schumacher knows that big performances down the stretch will be what counts.
“We needed a change,” Schumacher said. “We were getting stagnant. We were letting cars beat us that shouldn’t beat us. To win a championship, you have to win every race you are supposed to win and half of the ones you should win. I think we had lost that for whatever reason. We just weren’t winning rounds for whatever reason, and we needed to make a change. We are all going to have to pull our weight. We are all going to have to do our job. I think it’s going to be awesome.”
Schumacher has watched Leah Pritchett – who joined the DSR team in 2016 – win the last two races in Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, a trend he hopes to change this weekend. His last victory at the facility came in 2015, but his memories at the facility go back much further.
Those memories always come to mind when the NHRA Arizona Nationals arrive, and this weekend Schumacher will try to hold off the likes of Pomona winner Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence, three-time champion Antron Brown and defending champion Brittany Force as he seeks his first victory since last March.
“It’s really the place where I kind of felt like I could do this,” Schumacher said of Phoenix. “Back in 1999, I had yet to win a race and we went out there and went 330 mph. That just set an awesome tone to want to go back and it’s always been fun racing there since.”
“I just love going to Phoenix. It’s a great track, the temperature is great and the fans come out and pack the place.”
CREDIT: NHRA Communications