KENT, Wash. — With four wins at scenic Pacific Raceways, eight-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher knows how to close out the legendary NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Western Swing with a bang.
Another win at this weekend’s 28th annual NHRA Northwest Nationals in his 10,000-horsepower U.S. Army dragster would tie Schumacher with Joe Amato for the most Top Fuel wins at the facility, and just as importantly, indicate that the current points leader is primed to defend his Top Fuel crown.
But if there’s anything Schumacher has learned over the years, it’s that it takes a special kind of mindset to succeed in Seattle and carry that momentum into the final two races of the NHRA regular season.
“At Seattle we’ve probably had more success than the first two races (of the Western Swing) put together,” Schumacher said. “We have a great car at that place, very fast, and the crowd seems to be building there. Hopefully we can go out and win it, and go off and try to win a championship. It’s a fast racetrack and there’s good side-by-side racing. It’s the end of a grueling session, so you can be the team that’s not thinking let’s get this over with, but thinking let’s close this out and do it right.”
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of the race at Pacific Raceways. Serving as the only major American motorsport that visits the region each racing season, it is the 16th of 24 events in 2015, meaning the playoff madness that is the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship is not far behind.
That’s a good thing for Schumacher, who went to the final round in Denver to open the Western Swing and advanced to the semifinals last weekend in Sonoma before falling to eventual winner and teammate Antron Brown. The result kept Schumacher as the points leader for the third straight race and by qualifying at Sonoma, Schumacher became the first Top Fuel driver to clinch a spot in the Countdown playoffs. With that momentum, he knows that everything is starting to come together at the perfect time. For a team that has 80 career wins, including three this year, peaking at the right time is seemingly an annual thing but Schumacher certainly appreciates the journey.
“It’s very comforting,” Schumacher said. “The most comfortable part about it is the changes we make reflect in the car. We’ve had seasons where we’ve made changes and it does the opposite, and you’re fighting that for a long, long time. Right now, it seems to be when we do something to the car it is fairly predictable. When we miss it, we miss it by just a little bit and that’s usually when we’re trying to go faster and we have the opportunity to do that. It’s a great time to get good. The end of the year is the premier time to peak, but it’s comforting going to the end of the year with a good car.”
That means performing well in all conditions, no matter how grueling of a stretch there is during the season. The Western Swing qualifies as a rigorous three-week stretch, but racing well in Seattle to end it can create major dividends to close the regular season in Brainerd and the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indy. Schumacher knows it can also give a massive boost to his team, led by crew chief Mike Green.
“I think just driving well gives them confidence to go into Brainerd and Indy,” Schumacher said. “We understand what it’s like to get there, how big those moments are and how good you’re going to have to be in those moments. That’s how you win those back-to-back (titles), going into it knowing you can do it. You show up knowing we’ve done this before and you just try to be a machine.”
Standing in the way will be a host of challengers, including last year’s winner Kalitta as well as Brown, who has a class-best four wins in 2015 including last weekend at Sonoma and has also secured his playoff spot. Others to watch are three-time world champ Larry Dixon, Brittany Force, Spencer Massey, J.R. Todd, Shawn Langdon, Steve Torrence, who knocked off Schumacher in the final round in Denver, and Richie Crampton.
But Schumacher is well aware of the challenge before him, not only to win in Seattle but also to try and put together back-to-back world championships in a Top Fuel class as competitive as it has ever been.
“I said it last year when we won one that’s it’s very, very hard to win one and it’s going to be even harder to win back-to-back,” Schumacher said. “We’re in the position to fight for it and that’s all you can ask for, to be in the position for the battle. I couldn’t ask for any more. I just have to go out and do my job because the car is running well and I don’t want to be the weak link.”