CLERMONT, Ind. — By the way he’s talking heading into this weekend’s Denso Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals, you’d never know Tony Schumacher sat on the sidelines for a year and a half.
The eight-time NHRA Top Fuel champion and all-time class wins leader, with 83 national event victories, is as confident as ever that he can chase — and possibly capture — a record-extending 11th U.S. Nationals triumph during the crown-jewel event of the professional drag racing season at Lucas Oil Raceway.
It’s the same kind of quiet swagger that Schumacher carried throughout his days of dominance in the NHRA’s top division, before the U.S. Army ended its sponsorship of Schumacher’s dragster following the 2018 season and left the driver known colloquially as “The Sarge” scrambling to pick up the pieces.
Schumacher isn’t worried. Not at all, in fact. He knocked off the rust during the NHRA’s return to racing at LOR earlier this summer and he and longtime crew chief Mike Green are aiming high for the Labor Day weekend showcase near Indianapolis.
“Believe it or not, it was super easy, getting the band back together,” Schumacher told SPEED SPORT during an exclusive interview in advance of the U.S. Nationals. “Mike came over and I got in the car and went right down the race track … quicker, you know, than we probably expected. He came from (John) Force’s car, and they used different parts and pieces, but we had Mark (Oswald) and Brian (Corradi) from Antron (Brown)’s team say, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. This is how we’re doing it.’
“Really, it was a group effort among those three people. And then we made some changes, because Mike runs his stuff a little different than Brian and Mark, but we made some changes and made four good runs down the race track. So that was encouraging,” Schumacher continued. “I’m not sitting here, two or three days away from Indy wondering if I’m going to make it down the race track; I’m going to Indy with absolute confidence that I’ve won it three times with Mike and 10 times in total, and I’ve got a group of people that are absolutely capable of winning it. That’s what I’m packing for.
“I’m packing my winning clothes because I’m excited to get going and prove what we can do.”
Schumacher added that, when it came to the time he spent sidelined between the end of 2018 and his return this summer, he wasn’t sure exactly how the cards would fall — or if they would at all — to get him behind the wheel again.
One thing is for sure, though. Schumacher didn’t expect his comeback to be on the heels of a global pandemic.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. It, it was a really strange little ride,” admitted Schumacher. “When the Army left, it caught us off guard … and we had an immediate replacement, we thought, and that fell apart and it kind of left us sidelined, you know? It wasn’t what we wanted; it was just the way it went down.
“I think that I’d just been labeled ‘The Sarge’ so long that it just took a little time for someone else to go, ‘Oh, you know what, we can do this,’” Schumacher added. “Those are big shoes to fill, you know; the Army deal was a big, big, big deal. And I didn’t want a quick little one- or two-race thing, but certain situations presented themselves so nicely that I couldn’t resist it. Here, we’ve at least got six races.”
Schumacher will compete in the final six races of the abbreviated season, beginning this weekend.
Will that stretch run lead into a full-time opportunity for 2021? Schumacher certainly hopes so.
“I want to definitely be back out here full time, not bouncing around,” Schumacher stressed. “This is difficult. I got in that race car a couple of weeks ago, and when they started that thing, I said, ‘Man, this thing is loud and violent.’ It had been a year and a half since I hit the gas, and it was quite the eye-opener, even for me. But after I did the first burnout, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this,’ and it was fine from there.
“My goal is to get in, do the job correctly for the next six races, and give back to some of the people who are out watching right now that we’ve reached out to (for backing). I think it’ll work out well.”
As for coming back from the sidelines, Schumacher had perspective on that front in his closing remarks.
“Old (Mike) Tyson a long time ago was funny, where he was fighting and some dude said to him … I can’t remember who the fighter was, but he said he had a plan. And if you remember Mike’s response, he went, ‘Everybody’s got a plan till they get punched in the mouth,’” Schumacher recalled.
“There’s good and bad with everything, I guess. My team got that punch in the mouth, so to speak, with needing to find sponsorship at the time that we did, but we’re back. We’re here and ready to go now.”
Schumacher 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.