Originally published 9-1-2006
On one weekend the careers of Blaine Johnson and Tony Schumacher intersected...
Many drivers look back on the first elimination-round passes of their professional careers as a bit surreal. But nothing could come close to the emotional swing that Tony Schumacher experienced in his first race in a Top Fuel dragster.
It promised to be intimidating enough for Schumacher because it came at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the National Hot Rod Association's oldest and most prominent race.
But 10 years ago, that first quarter-mile ride, which should have taken about 4.7 seconds, seemed to take an eternity.
Schumacher was the No. 16 qualifier. As such, he was paired against No. 1. But this time the No. 1 qualifier didn't pull up to the starting line. He had died two days before of massive head injuries from a top-end accident during qualifying.
So Schumacher had a single pass instead of getting to race Blaine Johnson, the 34-year-old sensation who was running away with the Top Fuel championship, owned the national speed record, and set a track-record 4.61-second elapsed time
on his final run. Gone was the likeable Californian whom veteran publicist Rick Voegelin called "a tiger in a race car." But little did anyone know just how much this rookie Schumacher, this rather overwhelmed 26-year-old from Chicago, would turn out to be the same kind of driver.
And Schumacher never forgot that moment, that tribute to Blaine Johnson. The Purdue University Choir was singing "Amazing Grace." Because his Peek Brothers dragster broke at the start of the pass, forcing him to coast down the dragstrip as if in a funeral procession, Schumacher said he could hear the hymn the entire way.
"Went to pull the fuel pumps out and they were locked up. Idled down the track. Couldn't have made the run anyway, man. It was just too sad of a day," he said.
"I ended up going to the finals. . . . Just a whole lot of small miracles, starting out with one that was sad.
"Ten years later," Schumacher said during testing at newly named O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, "I'm going to try to win this one for Blaine, for the Johnson family. I guarantee you, you won't see a beer going into my body this weekend, because I'm not going to let something outside jeopardize what we're trying to get for him, for all of us."
Schumacher, runner-up last year to Larry Dixon, has won this race four times in the past six years. This time, he said, "I've got an angel riding with me. It doesn't matter if I have a streak going. It's amazing. I would say there are certain special times where it doesn't matter what you do or what you say, you're going to end up winning that race."
And when Tony Schumacher is on a mission with his U.S. Army Dragster, he's like an M1 Abrams tank. He has some extra motivation for this 51st running of the U.S. Nationals, though. His crew chief is Alan Johnson -- Blaine's brother and his crew chief for four consecutive alcohol dragster championships and tuner of the family-owned Travers Tool Dragster that day in 1996.
Schumacher had wanted to give Alan Johnson the trophy at California's Infineon Raceway earlier this summer. He made it to the finals but lost to J.R. Todd. He said his crew chief "really wanted to win in Sonoma, because he'd won that 10 years ago with Blaine. He was very, very said when we didn't win that one.
"But you know," he said, "it's very hard to win one of these, no less pick your one. We're fortunate that we've had very good luck at this race track."
More important to him, Schumacher said, is "to win races that are special. The memory has to live through these guys, like his brother Alan and his sister and his mom and dad. That's most important."
Alan Johnson signed on with Schumacher Racing midway through the 2003 season. Together he and Schumacher have blazed their way into record books and won the past two Powerade Series championships.
Schumacher insists that he doesn't sell a product with his team's U.S. Army sponsorship, but rather a way of life. And because he has interacted so personally with soldiers in the United States and abroad, he carries a heartfelt burden for our troops. "But I've the strength from it, too. So that's good," Schumacher said.
Sometimes, when he tackles tough safety issues, he needs that strength.
Ten years ago in Indianapolis, Blaine Johnson hurtled helplessly inside his fiery, out-of-control dragster, its big rear slicks exploded and its rear wing ripped off while traveling in excess of 300 mph and ricocheting off one wall then the other. So, too, has Schumacher been trapped inside a disintegrating Top Fuel car -- twice. Again, at Seattle in 2005, his car snapped in two.
That's what keeps Schumacher vocal about safety issues -- that and the freshest memory of Darrell Russell, his great friend and fellow 2003 U.S. Nationals finalist. Russell was killed at St. Louis in a violent accident in 2004.
"They have the golf tournament every year, to remember Blaine. The guy was going to be the champion, and he was a great driver," Schumacher said. "It's unfortunate. You just never know when your time's coming. There's a reason for everything, and we hope we learn from it.
"Hopefully the people in charge of the safety specs listen to the crew chiefs who see what causes these cars to crash," Schumacher said. "I'm happen to be sitting with one of the smartest crew chiefs around . . . and Goodyear is working every
hour to make sure we're safer, and the chassis builders are, too. I still drive a car, so I have faith in the machines. But I've also been upside down a couple of times and lived through a couple of real bad ones, so I already have trust in that metal."
Schumacher acknowledged that we don't want to forget about his fallen colleagues, just because we might feel awkward talking about their fates.
"They did enough stuff where you should carry on their [memories]. If it had been a president, they'd have built some kind of monument or statue. But we're just little ol' race drivers and we've got to keep our golf tournaments up and let people remember the names, because they definitely deserve it," Schumacher said. "You hear Earnhardt every day still in NASCAR, but over here you sure don’t hear Darrell Russell and Blaine Johnson anymore. There wasn't that much stuff done [to honor them]."
Maybe Schumacher, who has been spectacular with his energy and his fearlessness and his big heart, can do that on this 10th anniversary of Blaine Johnson's all-too-sudden and soon farewell and his emergence from the fringes of professional drag racing.
Who better to help him than Alan Johnson, fierce and focused ("a machine," his driver calls him)? He has built a reputation as some record-setting mechanical maharishi.
Like fireworks in the night sky, Blaine Johnson's competitive spirit and remarkable talent seemed splashy and dazzling and impressive, always leaving the fans wanting to see more. His memory lingers, like the way fireworks burn out but their shadows remain so we can remember everything just a little bit longer.
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