This weekend Don Schumacher's worlds mesh for a feast of family, friends, and fierce competition at the O'Reilly Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill. And his drivers, as scorching-hot as the temperatures are forecast to be, said they hope they can deliver him another Wally trophy, to run his number to at least 184 and maybe even 185. He is pictured here with daughter Megan.He comes from tough stock, Don Schumacher.
His dad, Albert, found his groove as a bookie in post-Capone, post-Nitti Chicago. Before that, he worked as a transformer winder in Grand Rapids, Mich., doing nothing glamorous yet everything precise -- all while developing a knack for gambling. At once common and extraordinary, Al Schumacher was like one of the voices in Studs Turkel's classic book "Working," which saluted blue-collar contributions. And he passed his steely-eyed shrewdness to young Don.
"The Don" grew up in a flat above a tavern in a working-class neighborhood where his dad and mom ran the bookmaking operation. Then the family moved when he was 12 to Park Ridge, near O'Hare International Airport -- where Don Schumacher still lives when he isn’t in Stuart, Fla. Out back in the garage there, as a teenager, he was preoccupied with his hot rods, calculating his career on the quarter-mile.
It started at U.S. 30 Drag Strip at Gary, Ind., and spiked with Funny Car records and a reputation as one of the sport's cagiest match racers and most clever innovators (with roof escape hatches, in addition to engine, clutch, and aerodynamic improvements). After his nearly 20-year hiatus, it has reached another crescendo with a seven-car NHRA nitro team that's on a tear right now, more innovation, and finalist status for the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Class of 2013.
He got his big break as a driver when dad Al helped work a sponsorship deal for the Plymouth Barracuda with his contacts at the iconic Las Vegas casino and hotel "Stardust." Later, with backing from Wonder Bread, he campaigned a four-car fleet of Chevy Vega "Wonder Wagon" Funny Cars.
Today, when Don Schumacher -- who also used to own a jewelry store in California -- isn't overseeing his three Top Fuel dragster and four Funny Car teams, he continues to build Schumacher Electric Corporation. It's the Mount Prospect, Ill.-headquartered company for which the late Al Schumacher years ago abandoned bookmaking. ("One day he won $2500 and loaned it to a man starting a battery-charger company," Don Schumacher told Car & Driver magazine's John Phillips in 2004. "When that guy up and died, my dad found himself in the battery-charger business.")
Meanwhile, at Brownsburg, Ind., Don Schumacher Racing thrives as a model of professionalism and championship proficiency -- and nine NHRA championships (seven in Top Fuel, two in Funny Car). His is drag racing's equivalent of the IndyCar/NASCAR Ganassi or Penske megateam.
This weekend Don Schumacher's worlds mesh for a feast of family, friends, and fierce competition at the O'Reilly Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill. And his drivers, as scorching-hot as the temperatures are forecast to be, said they hope they can deliver him another Wally trophy, to run his number to at least 184 and maybe even 185.
"It would be very cool to get Don a Wally at the event so close to his home," Top Fuel racer Spencer Massey said. "That would be really awesome to be able to hand Don a trophy on Sunday afternoon."
Funny Car's Ron Capps said, "That would be a bonus. Everyone knows that it is Don's hometown and the amount of people he entertains there is cool. So when you can win with all those people there, it's just extra special."
His Funny Car colleague, Jack Beckman, approached this 11th race of the year -- and first in a string of five events in six weeks -- through an historical filter.
"Southern California was the hotbed for Top Fuel, but Chicago and the Midwest was the hotbed for Funny Cars," Beckman, driver of the Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger, said. "Chicago was the mecca. Guys could live there and be within half of a day from five tracks.
"Just think about it: Back in the early seventies Don ran three Funny Cars out of dad's garage. You hope to last long enough to win a Wally (trophy) at every NHRA track, but Chicago is high on my list because it's in Don's backyard and it always will remind me of all the Funny Car history of that area."
Jack Beckman is inspired by the empire Schumacher has crafted in racing aloneBeckman is inspired by the empire Schumacher has crafted in racing alone, with a 120,000-square-foot shop that builds its own chassis and showcases a sophisticated CNC and machine shop, fabrication shop, and room for 14 18-wheel race-car haulers to pull inside and allow teams to work on the cars in between in a racetrack-like setting. But modern trappings aside, Beckman marvels at what Schumacher accomplished without all that, with simply his passion.
"Sometimes we complain about racing back-to-back weekends, but think about what Don and team's like the Chi-Town Hustler or 'Jungle Jim' Liberman did," he said. "In the summer, they'd race three or four days a week and at three different venues. And there were only a few NHRA national events for them to go to. And they'd go there, hoping if they won it would increase their booking value for match-races.
"It's always nice to wax nostalgic," Beckman said, "but we probably wouldn't have jobs today were it not for what real racers like Don did 40 years ago. And I bet they had a heck of a time doing it."
How could Don Schumacher not be having a heck of a time right now?
His dragsters are 1-2-3 in the Top Fuel standings. Son Tony -- whose interest in the nitro headliner class spurred Schumacher to return to the sport ("If he's going to do this, I want to make sure he's in the best equipment possible," Dad said) -- leads Massey by 40 points and Antron Brown by 90.
Schumacher's Funny Car drivers cracked the John Force Racing domination code from the beginning of the season (when JFR won the first six races). DSR drivers have won the past four: Capps at Atlanta and Bristol, Beckman at Topeka, and Gray at Englishtown, N.J. Although JFR has controlled the points lead all season, Capps has sliced Robert Hight's lead to 73, No. 4 Gray is dogging third-place Mike Neff within 21 points, and Beckman is only 12 points behind Gray and the Service Central Dodge.
Massey's Prestone/FRAM Dragster is the quickest and fastest in NHRA history, and Capps' NAPA Dodge Charger is quickest ever among Funny Cars. The two recorded their milestone elapsed times within minutes of each other during Friday night qualifying at Englishtown just two events ago.
Massey leads the Top Fuel class with three victories, and Capps has advanced to six consecutive Funny Car final rounds since Don Schumacher teamed him with crew chief Rahn Tobler and assistant John Collins.
Tony Schumacher broke his 32-race winless streak at Bristol, Tenn., on Fathers Day, joining Capps in a double-up winners celebration for DSR.
"Heading to Joliet for the next race — I couldn't ask for a better situation," Tony Schumacher said. Having just gotten that first win of the year and retaken the points lead, that’s what you want to bring with you to your home track. I can't wait to race in front of my family and friends. It will be hectic, but very enjoyable."
Don Schumacher left racing in 1974 to concentrate on Schumacher Electric Corp., which had about 400 employees at the time. These days, as the worldwide leader in the manufacture of battery chargers and annual sales of $150 million, it employs 2,000 worldwide, including at plants in Matamoros, Mexico (just across the border from Brownsville, Texas), and in Wujiang, China (near Shanghai).
But what's happening at Route 66 Raceway is his focus this weekend.
Son Tony said, "It's hectic, that’s for sure. It seems no matter where you turn, someone is tugging at you for something or another. But, I wouldn't have it any other way. I only get this chance once a year, so I try to make it a fun deal. As long as you stay focused on the job at hand, there shouldn't be any issues. I've won 68 races in my career, but the events I've won at Route 66 Raceway carry a lot more meaning, for obvious reasons."
Here's a rundown of what's happening with each of the DSR teams:
Antron Brown, Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster:
"I can't wait to get to Route 66 Raceway. Given our performance in Bristol, I know we will come out strong there. We’re right there mixing it up with the big boys every weekend and that’s all I could ask for," he said. "More importantly, we’re battling in the standings with my Don Schumacher Racing teammates, and that’s very exciting. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing our way this weekend. “I think it’s a neat place. It has its own character in that you feel like you are racing in a modern baseball stadium. For sure, it's one of the better facilities we go to on the schedule."
How could he not like it? He won at Route 66 Raceway in 2000 and 2001 in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. He hasn't won a Top Fuel Wally here, and he hasn’t won in 11 years. He Hasn’t won here since he and wife Billie Jo were expecting the oldest of their three children, daughter Arianna, who'll be 11 this Nov. 14. "Man, it was a long time ago when I won there," Brown said. "Heck, my three kids weren't even born yet!"
Spencer Massey, FRAM/Prestone Dragster:
This always-smiling 29-year-old loves to be at the racetrack, whether he's racing, pitching in to help a sportsman-racer friend's crew, or just hanging out. Last weekend, he was at Tulsa, trying to help buddy Chase Copeland win an NHRA divisional race in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. "Just being at the track makes me happy. Any time I can be at a racetrack it's my happy place," Massey said. His cheerful demeanor belies just how much he wants to trounce every other opponent. "Not only would we like to get another win under our belts, but we really want to get back around our teammate Tony for that top spot in points," Massey said. "I know you just need to be at the top spot at the end of the season when all is said and done, but I love seeing my name with a '1' in front of it at any point in the season."
Route 66 Raceway is where he scored his first NHRA victory, in 2009 (after winning the IHRA Top Fuel championship)."It's always nice to go back to a track that you've won at. You never forget your first win. I beat Antron (Brown) in the final there in 2009. I doubt I was thinking then that he would one day be my teammate."
Tony Schumacher, U.S. Army Dragster:
"It feels great to finally get a win that a lot of people were pretty much anticipating. I joked about the fact that I may have lost my trophy muscles," Schumacher said. "We had been running well all season long, so we all felt it was only a matter of time. I hope we can reverse our old streak and start building a winning streak, but you can’t take anything for granted in this sport. We definitely have a racecar quite capable of tearing off a few wins in a row. To be honest, I just want to see us continue to perform with consistency." If he wins this Sunday, Schumacher will tie legend Kenny Bernstein for the most victories at Route 66 Raceway.
Jack Beckman, Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger:
Beckman and crew chief Todd Smith are coming off a successful weekend at Bristol, Tenn., where Beckman qualified third, reached the semifinals, and set top speed of the meet (313.66 mph) in his opening-round race against Tim Wilkserson. The team came away in fifth place. So Beckman needs to go just a couple of steps further than he did a Bristol and did at Joliet last season. He started fourth and also advanced to the semifinals. The Topeka winner needs to hold off DSR mate Johnny Gray and leapfrog John Force Racing's Mike Neff if he is to challenge DSR' Capps and JFR's point leader, Robert Hight.
Ron Capps, NAPA Batteries/Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund Dodge Charger:
His NAPA Auto Parts Honorary Crew Member this weekend will be retired U.S. Army Sgt. Robert "Rob" Dickey, a native of Capps' San Diego area who lives in San Antonio. Dickey, 35, is a drag racer who can share his memories with Capps of legendary Carlsbad Raceway in Southern California. Dickey, a husband and father of five, will be at the Route 66 Nationals courtesy of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which has provided more than $120 million in support for the families of military personnel lost in service to our nation, and for severely wounded military personnel and veterans. Intrepid has helped Dickey adjust to life after a land mine in Afghanistan on Sept. 6, 2010, forced surgeons to perform a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg and partially remove part of his left calf.
"We're so focused on getting to the track and doing everything we can to win and taking care of our sponsors that we tend to forget a lot of time about what goes on in the outside world," Capps said. "The best thing about having a great sponsor like NAPA and an owner like Don is being able to do a special car like the one we'll run this weekend and to really give something back to someone who has given so much more than we could ever imagine. Our car this weekend will touch a lot of people when they see it, and they want to cheer for it because of what it represents. It's always special to run a car like that, but to put that car in the winner's circle and have Rob there with us would mean more than anything."
His traditional blue and yellow NAPA Charger will sport a special paint scheme to bring attention to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and NAPA's "Get Back, Give Back" campaign that runs through July to encourage consumers to apply all or part of their rebates from NAPA battery, starter, or alternator purchases to Intrepid. Consumers can receive up to a $25 rebate on their purchases. NAPA will donate $1 per consumer rebate redeemed. Martin Truex Jr. and his Michael Waltrip Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup entry will field a similar look on the No. 56 NAPA Toyota in the July 7 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnny Gray, NTB/Service Central Dodge Charger:
The veteran drag racer is realistic in his expectations. "Let's leave [top two ranked drivers] Robert Hight and Ron Capps out of it, because they're kind of in a league of their own right now," Gray said. "But it's such a tight, tight battle between third, fourth, and fifth. Boy, it's just fun to go. Mike Neff is third, and if he stumbles, I'll get around him in this NTB/Service Central hot rod. If I stumble, Jack Beckman is going to go around us. If Jack and I both stumble, well, Neff is going to get points out ahead of us.
"Right there in that little area, we're just having a ball trying to play leap frog and hop back and forth in points. My goal this weekend is to go out, get around Neff, and work ourselves up into third."
His crew chief, Rob Wendland, earned a victory at the facility driving a Top Alcohol Dragster in 1999.
"Anytime your crew chief has had good success at a racetrack, that gives him confidence going in. And most any driver will tell you that the more confident the crew chief is, the more confident you are when you sit down in the car," Gray said. "You never know until the weekend is over, but we really should perform well and have a great weekend. Lynn and Cynthia Parker from Service Central will be there to cheer us on, and it should be a good time for all of us. We are extremely excited."
Matt Hagan, Aaron's Dodge Charger:
The team has yet to make it past a second round through 10 races this year. But, Hagan said, "We're close to breaking through." He improved to 11th place in the standings at Bristol and is 45 points out of 10th place, the final spot to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship field that will be determined after the U.S. Nationals on Aug. 29-Sept. 3 at Indianapolis. "That's our next step," he said. "We're closing in on it."
As proof, he has qualified in the top half of the field at four straight races and in the quarterfinals at Bristol, his 4.140-second elapsed time was quicker than two others winners that round,, but it wasn't quick enough to beat teammate Jack Beckman's 4.100, quickest of the round.
Hagan has fared well at Route 66 Raceway. He won here in 2010, setting the track E.T. record at 4.022 along the way. Last year here, he was No. 2 qualifier (but lost in a first-round upset to Dale Creasy Jr.).
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