Tony Schumacher will have a hard time coming up with an encore to the incredible finish in 2006 when he won his third straight and fourth overall POWERade Series championship by winning and setting a national record on the final pass of the season. Tony Schumacher will have a hard time coming up with an encore to the incredible finish in 2006 when he won his third straight and fourth overall POWERade Series championship by winning and setting a national record on the final pass of the season.

IMG_3482schumacher.jpgQ. So Tony, what do you have in store for NHRA fans as an encore in 2007?

I would love to have an answer for you there. You know, I’m almost happy that we’re switching over to a new format for a change, because I’m not really sure how you do it.

When we won a few years back, we had won 10 races and it had never been done before. Well, that was a real unique way to do it. Then nine races the year after that. And then to do it, just to be a part of what we did last year, was fantastic.

And you know I wish I could tell you how we’re going to pull something off like that.

But in reality, you know, it was unheard of. And it was so exciting that I just can’t come up with a solution. I don’t think you can sit back and say here’s an exact perfect script that would be better than last year.

So I guess we just show up in Pomona and try to win the race like we do every year. And we try to win the next race. We go to Phoenix, do the same thing. And just kind of see how it lays out and go for it.

Q. Tony, how do you avoid the kind of slump like you had in the middle of last year? And particularly as it relates to this season with the Countdown to the championship, you really can’t afford to get yourself into too much trouble with one of those slumps. So how do you see one of those coming and how do you avoid having it happen to you again this year?

 Our slump was created by changing over to a new tire and it just caught us off guard. It was very unfortunate. If something like that happens, you can get yourself into a bit of trouble.

I’m not sure, because of the new format, it would have been any worse. To be honest with you, we’ll probably spend more time now early trying things out to get ready for the last two races. I mean they’re the ones that are going to make you the world champ.

We have to stay in the middle of the pack until then. Alan Johnson, we’ll show up at Pomona, and try to win the race. Throughout all of it, we’ll do a little bit of testing and make sure that when we get to the end we’ve got the car that’s performing the best with a combination performing the best and we’ll try to win the last two races, period.

Q. Tony, with some of the schedule changes and in particular I know at Gateway Raceway outside St. Louis, running in obviously the heat and humidity of late June and you’re coming here early May, just talk about that.

 What we do when we go to a racetrack, you have to remember Alan Johnson has won that race in all different scenarios. I think some of the day races, some of the night races.

So in reality what we’re going to do is look in the notes and figure out what conditions it now plays into. It does change. It’s not a night race. It’s not really going to lend into us being that hot but at night condition. We’ll have to go back into the books and say what conditions do we have now and race it a little different way.

But all in all, I don’t think it matters. Because what race do, we really go to where they haven’t scraped a track or grouted a track or the conditions are a little different. We just have to kind of adapt to it.

If you’re going to adapt to any race in the world why would you want to do it with anyone but Alan Johnson. He’s the best at looking at the situation, evaluating a racetrack, making changes to the area and the conditions and making the car run perfect.

Q. With former DSR Funny Car teammate Whit Bazemore now running against you in Top Fuel, do you see him as potentially another rival in the fact that you guys used to be teammates or is it he’s another opponent another driver I have to go out and compete against that’s going to try to prevent me from winning another championship?

I couldn’t care less who runs. Whoever is in the other lane I’ve proven you can have anybody in the other lane whoop you and you can go off and beat anyone in the other lane, too. So you just have to stay in the car and here’s a great example: JR Todd running last year. I probably didn’t give him all the credit at that time. I got beat on a hole shot.

It was an unfortunate situation because with a little bit of hindsight anybody could have had a better light. You do what you think you need to do at the time. And you can’t let your guard down. These guys are all too good. The cars are running all too close. He has a nice tune­up, knows how to drive a race car. The fact is we’ll have a lot of battles. The fact that Whit was a teammate? He drove a funny car, we may have been on the team, but we never had a chance to help each other. So we’ll put up our dukes and battle it out.

Q. How important is continuity in your crew, particularly in a sport like NHRA where there can be a lot of movement within the crews throughout the year?

 Our guys have been with me for a long time. Joe is what used to be a flying guy, he’s getting himself married right now, and he’s going to take some time off.

We had one other guy that decided to stay home and work more in the shop. But we’ve had the same group, same group of people. It is a tight knit group. These guys can test, learn things and keep it quiet.

The hardest part we have is we have so many teams, I think we have nine teams or seven teams now it changes.

Too many people on other teams going and leaving and going to another team. Fortunately for us Alan Johnson can hand you his tune­up. You’ve got to be good enough to use it and adapt to it again when the weather changes and that’s awful tough to do.

So just getting a little information doesn’t do it. You have to understand it and make it work.

Q. You were really quick this last weekend at Firebird in preseason testing, what changes have you and Alan made to the car over the season to get it so quick right out of the box?

 First of all we were really quick at the end of the year. It was easy to pull the car out and go fast. No tire changes, no motor changes, it was all the same. We got some new pipe underneath me and that was about it.

Couple changes that Alan has been working on, which obviously I’ll never, never talk about. But the car’s fast. It’s quick. The 4.44 I shut off at 1280 feet, a little bit early, and probably would have run a 4.38, 4.39, a good run in Phoenix.

The air conditions were terrific. The track was prepared very well and we knew going in you kind of had to give it everything. It was very, very seldom that you saw a car smoke the tires. It was all a tire shake this weekend which meant the track was prepared well and we had something good to race on.

Hardest part about Phoenix in testing is you’re running so fast and it’s a very short shutdown. Getting used to that when you’re going two football fields a second will catch your attention. Good way to break yourself in after two months off.

Q. Do you expect some more records in both elapsed time and top speed?

 I would think we’ll go out there and do it, a year with no changes, we can go update parts and make them quicker. We’re not going to be knocking the numbers off a great deal, but they’re going to come down.

We missed the world record last year in Reading, Pennsylvania by a few thousandths, even in Vegas by a few thousandths. And set it in Pomona, California, the place where only one world record in Top Fuel had ever been set. If we can do that, we’ll chip away at it a little bit.

Q. Two questions. How much simpler is it with just one Top Fuel team now at DSR; and secondly, I mean how much urgency is there now when you just have 17 races to get it right as opposed to 23?

 Two good questions. I’m happy we just have one car. We can stay focused. Mostly, all of our hard test sessions that we’re learning data from, we’re not having to share it with another car that has potential to beat us. That’s probably the hardest part about having a team. Unless you’re sponsored by the same company and you’re working towards the same goal it makes it difficult.

Last year I got beat up in the first race by Melanie with our own tune­up. I think our guys are much more comfortable testing putting in that effort without sharing that information. So that’s on one side of it.

Seventeen races? I think we have to stay in the top eight. We’ve got a car that’s obviously in the last three or four years capable of staying right at the front. So you know we’re going to go out there, we’re going to hit it hard. Not let our guard down. We’ve really got to change our format a little bit and make sure we don’t make mistakes at that last two events, which is kind of cool, because our team is to me the best on the planet when it comes to only having a little time to get something done.

They’re really good at pulling off those big races. And if you had to put a group of 10 people together to go into a, here you go you’ve got two races to win a world championship, which group would be better than Alan Johnson and his team. His guys can suck it up better than anyone I’ve seen.

Q. Tony, fans don’t always understand what happens behind the ropes. You have had a ton of success. What’s the best way, if there is a way, what’s the best way to handle success?

 That’s a good question. I think for me growing up the best way and everyone probably does it different is, I’m very lucky that I can wake up in the morning and get to drive a race car. And every day you have to remember that.

And I think what helps me the most is our team, our team is great at watching kind of at the ropes. The kids come up, the smiles on their faces, knowing that you’re doing something more positive and a little bigger than just you going out and getting a trophy and trying to earn a living. That’s not what it’s about.

The guys we’ve put together, the reason they have success is there’s 10 people not doing it for a paycheck. They do it because they love racing.

I think that’s what keeps a great group of people together. Nobody wants to be the weak link and it makes it where they understand that they’re gifted. They’re a lucky group, very lucky group to be able to do what they do.

And you know I think that makes it easier. The best thing in the world is when a dad comes up and says: “You know my kid gets up and jumps on the bed and says “I’m Tony Schumacher.”

I have the same question: “After he says that, what does he do?” Because unfortunately there’s some people that jump on the bed and say I’m Dennis Rodman and kick their sister.

They need to have a positive attitude and they need to come across. You don’t find too many positive role models anymore that smile and look like they enjoy what they do.

Any time I start to change I hope somebody kicks me in the butt and keeps me back there because I love racing. I think John Force is the same way. I’ve spent a lot of time watching how he does it and handles it. He gets up, wakes up and thinks anything this day has I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I think it forces you to stay focused.

Q. Tony, just want to know, you’re going to be solo on the Top Fuel side at Schumacher Racing. Is that a benefit for you or a hindrance not having that feedback?

 I’m as happy as I could be. I said it a few minutes ago. It’s great to have a teammate; Melanie did a great job. The team did a great job. But Alan Johnson he’s the best there is in the business. And to give that information away I’m just not that happy about it.

I like being by myself. We can win a championship by ourselves. We’ve done that before. And you know it’s great ­­ either way, you know, if we had to pull another team together, I would have been okay with it. But I’m sure if you asked each one of my guys off the record or individually they all would say they’re much happier to spend the energy and effort and testing and not be giving that information to another team who, like in this case, has left. Melanie. And hoping they’re gone.

Wait a minute, we put that tune­up in the car. Like I said, fortunately, you have to understand everything Alan Johnson is thinking about to make it work.

So it’s not always so easy for a crew chief to get a little bit of information and take it off on his own.

Q. So it’s less of a distraction, then?

 I think it’s great. I don’t want another car that can run 4.42, to be honest with you. The only person that can set the record is if it’s Alan Johnson. I’d hate to have that other car out there. It’s hard enough to beat three Kalitta cars right on my tail. And Dixon and Bernstein. Great cars out there, Cory Mac’s running fantastic.

I hate to add the other car that can beat me in the lane next to me and we’re tuning it. Because I ran Melanie twice last year. Once she beat me. And once I beat her. It wasn’t like anyone was laying down. That last run, they were blowing it up and still ran a mid­50 something.

And we set the world record. So it’s kind of hard to say anyone was laying down for anyone. That was good racing.

Q. Tony, your answer can’t be “everybody.” Who are you most concerned about in Top Fuel this year? As you look at the landscape, who are the guys that you’re eyeballing as the ones that are going to be your chief competition?

Just Kalitta, man. He’s bad to the bone. He’s the guy. And we’re going to butt heads and race all year. He’s such a fantastic driver. We’ll have fun. They’ve got three fast cars. They know how to use each other. And this year and last year even, you’d watch one car go out and another car run real similar. That’s often difficult for a team to do.

Usually you get three different cars. The drivers weigh a little different and the cars react different. But they’ve got a pretty good handle on it and they’re tough. Plus, I’m going to say this to the end of time: Doug Kalitta is a phenomenal driver worthy of a championship.

Last year we pulled one out. We took it away from him, but he’s still a great driver and he’s going to earn his championships. And it’s my sole purpose to keep him from that because I need to earn another championship for the Army. That’s the one I fear the most. When he pulls up next to me, I will always drive the best because he’s going to give me everything he’s got, and he’s as good as they come.

Q. Given your unique sponsor situation, I know last year in St. Louis it was one of the time you carried a Purple Heart from a fallen soldier that his family asked you to carry. How does that affect you emotionally, a lot of times when you know you’re dealing with a family when it means so much to you and they pin such high hopes on you winning a race that weekend and having a success that weekend, how does that affect your emotional state as you go into a race weekend like that?

 That was fantastic. It was a Marine that had lost his life. And it was his brother that had given it to me. That one there was very special, because, you know, I drive for the Army and that’s great. But soldiers, the Marines and all these guys that are out there fighting, when a brother comes up, how hard that’s got to be. We all understand that, how hard it has to be to grow up with someone and lose them.

It was his birthday on Sunday. And you win round after round and you hadn’t won a race all year and get in the final and be so close.

It was a tough one because, boy, you pulled it off and you’re so close. And being able to give them that Purple Heart back, put on that mantle after winning a race, is so awesome. It was very intense. I said my prayers before that run and I was very fortunate to give that back.

As exciting as it was, it would have been just as rough to give it back to him if we didn’t win that one. It plays a part. Once the car starts, you change your attitude and you kind of are more focused and forget about that stuff. But when you’re sitting in the lounge, it’s cool.

People have to understand that’s just good to be a part of. As a human being, you know, your life is full of great moments and tough ones. And it’s great to be a part of it.

It’s kind of like that last run there. And whether we had pulled it off or not, being part of something so important and so big was fantastic. A lot of times people they don’t know my background with the Army. But I get to get in much deeper and feel I’m not selling tools and I’m not selling beverages, I’m out there selling the United States Army and I get really tight with these families and people.

So it’s pretty awesome. It’s a big honor. I get to drive a car, and fortunately been able to give them three world championships, and there’s just nothing – there’s something special about that. Like I said at the end of the year, when a Black Hawk circles in Baghdad wondering if we’re winning a championship or not, makes it just a little bigger. Adds a little weight of the world on you but it makes it bigger.

Q. Tony, I’ve got a couple of questions. You’ve already mentioned Doug Kalitta and I presume you would include yourself but who are the other two guys you would expect to see in the final four?

I think you’ll see Bernstein in there. And, man, the other ones are tough. Good question. You know? Problem is it’s not that the one guy is, there’s another guy out there that’s so good. It’s that there are seven or eight or five or so at least that are so good. It’s going to be in a battle for that position. I mean Dixon’s always going to be right there. Good car. Good crew. Been doing it a long time.

Cory Mac’s car is running extremely well. You know, JR Todd is running good if he’s going to run all the races. It depends. Depends on if some of the cars rise up or the majority of the cars go through a slower phase.

I’ll put Kalitta in there. Kalitta’s in there and there’s three cars right there. So it’s going to make it tough for other people to squeeze in there.

Q. Do you see that this is the toughest field in history maybe?

I don’t go back far enough to know history. I’m 10 years into this thing and it’s been tough every year for me. But it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be hard because you took away being able to come back for 22 races and you’re going to make it crunch time down to the 2. I don’t know. I really am excited to see how this whole thing turns out.

It’s really difficult to make the call whether people are going to like it or not. Going down to the final eight in the field for a championship, but two races with four, we’ll have to watch how it pans out.

Q. The other question is just about a driver’s mentality. I’m sure it doesn’t matter who you line up against these days, that you’re so focused on what you’re doing. But a lot of guys, a lot of drivers are going to have to face Ashley Force in a funny car. What goes through your mind the first time you face a woman or a particular woman?

 Oh, I’m sure by the time she’s running, she’s made a lot of laps, spent a lot of years doing it. I think that’s pretty cool. I think the concern for any driver is that they’re just going to hop in without enough laps. And maybe hurt you ­­ or even make you look stupid. You hate to get beat by someone, they hop in and there they go.

She, in my opinion, probably paid more dues than most of the people out there that have had a chance to drive a fuel car. That’s to me just the way it is.

Her father has put her in that car. She’s been in the Super Comps and Alcohol for years and driven Funny Cars for a few years testing and testing. That’s pretty cool. Who has really gone through that much?

So by the time it’s time for her in Pomona to step off a clutch, whoever is on the other side better respect the fact she may give them a whoopin’ just the way it is. She’s going to have a fast car, driving a car straighter than a lot of people who have been driving for years. She had a great teacher.

I’m sure she’s going to screw with a lot of the guys. I’m sure it’s going to bother some of them. I’m not sure which ones.

But you know there will be a couple of guys up there thinking their manliness is getting jeopardized. It’s pretty cool. And she’s going to take ‘em out, too. That’s not one of them things they go, “oh, there’s a girl driving in the other lane.” There’s a girl in the other lane that can give you a whoopin’. Makes it tough. Hard to call home and say you got beat by a brand new girl.

Q. How good is she going to be for this sport?

Fantastic. Hopefully she goes out there and everything is very good and she drives a car like she does. She’s a very attractive girl. Very well spoken. She’s got a great leader in her father and teachers with Eric Medlen and Robert Hight, you couldn’t have been dropped in a better pile there. It’s just fantastic.

She’s good at what she does. The only thing that would concern me if anything happened if she got hurt it would be hard on the sport.

But I think the equipment we have at NHRA is the best. The Safety Safari, best in the world, maybe twice as good as anywhere else.

And you know our safety record’s fantastic. So I don’t think we have to worry about that. I know her mom and her dad are very concerned, like mine are, about every time you make a run.

But in reality I think she’s going to make this sport much, much better. Way more positives coming out of that by far than any negative you can think of, and I can’t think of one.

Q. It’s hard enough to win back­to­back titles. And now essentially you’re trying to do a double back­to­back going for your fourth consecutive title. Do you feel different pressure going for four in a row (something that’s never been done in NHRA Top Fuel history)?

 I personally couldn’t care less. If we pull it off, it’s going to be fantastic. But really the reason our team’s probably been so successful is we don’t let that get to us. I mean when the – and I joke about it all the time. When the light goes on, go.

Capps, remember a few years back, I’m throwing up before the round, how do you handle it? I said, man, you’re such a good driver. And there’s nothing you can think about in the next hour that’s going to make you better.

It’s a reaction sport. When the light comes on, you have to trust yourself, leave the start line, and you know you’re going to keep the car straight.

If you can just remember that and remember how much fun it used to be and not let that weight of the world crunch you, which I’ve been put in more crunch spots than anyone ever. If you can get by that, it’s fun. If you get to the end, you’re one of the guys still standing, fantastic.

And we’ll see which of the four drivers at the end can suck up the pressure and do it really with one shot, because whoever wins Vegas goes into Pomona with the weight of the world on them again.

If you’ve won that race and you can stay ahead of the rest of them, you’re going to be the POWERade champ. And I think that’s pretty intense. Most of those guys have probably never seen that pressure before. It’s going to be fun.

Q. I have one more question. You always talk about the magic of Alan Johnson. If there was one piece of magic that he does best, what is it?

That’s a good question. I think the one piece of magic that he does best is shut the other lane off, which is extremely hard to do. We’re not going to race the other car. But Alan does it. I mean that car will go out there first round and run a 45 against when you’re No. 1 qualifier. He’s the best at doing that.

And you know maybe you wouldn’t win that race if you didn’t have the data from that first round. I think that’s extremely difficult to shut out who is in the other spot.

And man that’s a piece of work. I’ve been with different crew chiefs and I’ve heard people say, well, we’re just going to run ­­ we’re going to run whoever is in the car. You want to go through tire shake. Why don’t you qualify number one and try to run the number 16 car the way he’s going to run it. You can’t do it.

Alan is a magician at being able to stay focused on the race track. That’s it. And he helps me that way too because he says if you try your best every time it’s not going to make so much difference when you get to that big round. That carries a lot of weight there.