CLERMONT, Ind. — Antron Brown traditionally has positive vibes going into the DENSO Spark Plugs U.S. Nationals, but this year’s running of the Big Go has an even brighter feel for the three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion.
Brown believes the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ biggest event has the potential to be a turning point for not only this season, but professional drag racing as a whole as the motorsports industry works to rebound from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This weekend’s U.S. Nationals will be the fourth race at Lucas Oil Raceway since the NHRA’s return to racing in July.
“I just feel like this weekend is going to be a breakout race for everyone,” Brown told SPEED SPORT during an exclusive interview ahead of the U.S. Nationals. “Like, the other races were good, but this is going to be one where it’s going to have a real feel to it … because we’re going to have a lot of people involved. We had fans at the other (Indy races), but we’re going to have all the sportsman racers back and everything else, but I do think we’ll have a lot more people in the stands than we’ve had the past few races.
“I think that’s going to be the thing that energizes everyone.”
Brown noted that while it has been important for the drivers and teams to get back to business at the race track, he and others have felt the impact of limited crowds and a lack of fan engagement in the pit area.
“That’s what’s been missing from the whole thing. You never realize the energy that you get from all the people that are there cheering for you and supporting you until you don’t have that presence, you know?” said Brown. “Our support, that’s very crucial when you come back to the pit area, that’s what gives you and the crew guys the energy at the end of your run, is when you see all the eyes on you, man. You’re in that moment and we feed off that. We thrive on that. And we’ve been missing that.
“Here of late, you look back and you only see five or six people behind you when you’re used to seeing that crowd,and not even being able to see the trailer across from you,” Brown added. “It’s been strange, no doubt.”
Brown was quick to add that this weekend’s U.S. Nationals will be different than any other running of the event in its 60-plus-year history, considering that teams have had three straight races at Lucas Oil Raceway to prepare for the historic event as opposed to just one test session the week of the race.
“It feels like we’ve been practicing for this race, to be honest with you,” Brown admitted. “We’ve been there numerous times … and I’m definitely not complaining about it because I live here in Indiana, so this is home, but it did feel a little weird where I was going to the race track and it felt like I was getting up and going to a nine-to-five job because I was going home to go to sleep, getting up in the morning and going to work, you know?
“It felt different in that aspect, but it was a blessing in disguise because I look at all the positives that we took out of it. I can’t tell you the last time that I slept in my own bed so much at home and got to see my kids and my wife as much as I have this summer,” Brown continued. “I became a normal father and not a traveling dad, I’ll call it, where I was going on the road and coming back home. So that was the positive thing that I really took out of it.
“But I am ready to get back to being how we used to be with traveling and doing the things that we do in going around and exploring the country like we always do; I think we’re all ready for that again.”
Brown noted that the stoppage of action due to the coronavirus this spring and how the season has resumed has given him a new perspective on the sport he loves and has supported for so many years.
“I always was appreciative of all the people. I’m a true fan of this sport and always have been. I’ll watch every class, even the sportsman races. But even I didn’t really realize that though I thought that I didn’t take things for granted, that you still do take certain things for granted,” Brown explained. “You think it’s going to be there always, and it’s not. And this year has given us all … me for sure, a wake-up call, but I think everybody a wake-up call where we’re not just showing up in the morning to go through the motions. I know I’m actually enjoy everything that’s around me now because it can go away just that quickly.
“It’s taught me to really go after every moment of opportunity that you have when you wake up for a new day, and to be the best version of yourself that you can be every day to be better and not the same.”
Brown and the rest of NHRA’s top stars will battle Sept. 3-6 at Lucas Oil Raceway, with final eliminations televised Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on FS1 before switching to FOX from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.