A drag strip isn’t the first place anyone would expect to hear the gospel standard “Amazing Grace,” but Tony Schumacher could hear it all the way down the quarter-mile during the 1996 U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
Schumacher was representing the Colorado-based Peek Brothers, who had hired him only about a week before to drive a Top Fuel dragster for the first time (save for a few licensing runs). He had squeaked into the field of the NHRA’s marquee race in the 16th and final starting position.
As such, he was paired against the No. 1 qualifier. That was Blaine Johnson, the 34-year-old sensation who was running away with the Top Fuel championship and had set a track-record elapsed time on his final run.
But on this occasion, the No. 1 qualifier didn’t pull up to the starting line. Johnson died two days earlier of massive head injuries from a top-end accident during qualifying. The sport also lost bike pioneer Elmer Trett the day after Johnson’s death, so the two fatalities at this single event made the weekend a profoundly somber one. Schumacher, in his NHRA debut, was left with a solo pass.
The Peeks told Schumacher, “We owe Blaine Johnson everything we’ve got,” although they knew their 26-year-old rookie driver wasn’t focused in the Monday-morning melancholy that Labor Day.
“I was crying. Everybody was. It was like, ‘I can’t drive. How can this be happening?’” Schumacher said. Nevertheless, Schumacher had planned to stand on the gas to show he had been ready to give Johnson a competitive challenge. But he couldn’t.
“I went to stage the car and the fuel pumps wouldn’t turn on, which is almost physically impossible,” he said. “You can’t tell me there’s not bigger powers there. The Purdue choir singing ‘Amazing Grace’ on the starting line while I was getting buckled in was overwhelming.”
The mechanical failure forced Schumacher to coast down the drag strip as if in a funeral procession.
“Everyone thought I idled down the track — and I did — but I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said. It set a precedent. Funny Car’s Robert Hight did the same, deliberately, as a show of respect, when he found himself in the same sort of situation during 2008 at Englishtown, N.J., following the qualifying-day death of Scott Kalitta.
Schumacher said, “I ended up going to the finals … just a whole lot of small miracles, starting out with one that was sad.” He lost that final-round matchup to Cory McClenathan. However, he said, “It was a monumental moment in my career. This place (Indianapolis) was my welcome mat to drag racing.”
Little did anyone know this young kid would become the same kind of driver as Blaine Johnson, the legend he never got to race — affable but intense, self-assured, relentless. Who knew he would end up winning 10 U.S. Nationals, more than anyone in NHRA history, more than his heroes “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Hoosier favorite Bob Glidden?
Schumacher’s dad, Don, surely didn’t. He had no clue this wild child he sent to a military academy in Wisconsin as a teenager — this Alcohol Funny Car racer and jet dragster driver he said “spent all of the money he could get from me and his mom and running up his credit cards” — would win eight Top Fuel championships, 83 races and become The King of Indianapolis.
“He blew it up at Martin, Mich., and I said, ‘That’s it. He’s done.’ And the Peek Brothers just happened to be looking for a driver. I never thought in a thousand years Tony would be able to go out and get that job,” Don Schumacher said.
But he did, and after two seasons with the Peeks, Don Schumacher returned to drag racing after a 24-year hiatus because he “wanted Tony in the safest car I could put him in.” That kick-started Don Schumacher Racing to more than 300 NHRA victories. And Tony Schumacher’s career flourished, especially at Indianapolis.
Maybe the biggest development in Tony Schumacher’s career came during the 2000 U.S. Nationals, when the team announced its marketing partnership with the U.S. Army. Schumacher won his first U.S. Nationals trophy that weekend, defeating final-round opponent Gary Clapshaw.
“I saw that light and said, ‘There you go.’ That was the start of it,” Schumacher said.