As the National Hot Rod Association's Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour moves to Phoenix this week for the Arizona Nationals, reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown has the slight uncertainty of a completely new Matco Tools Dragster but the absolute surety of two things.
The DSR chassis is safe and strong. And more important, his trust in God is unshakeable.
This Arizona Nationals brings memories of triumph and tragedy. Brown won this race last season, almost two years to the day after his freak accident that sent him atop the wall sideways, upside down, and on fire. It also killed a female spectator hit by debris when a huge rear slick tire flew from his car.
Brown, a spiritual and thoughtful man as well as one of the sport's most popular competitors, has formed a friendship with the woman's family. But no racer, in his heart of hearts, want such memories near the surface.
Since then, Brown has experienced a fiery accident in Oct. 2011 at Reading, Pa.; another fiery crash last November at Pomona, Calif., that burned both of his hands and toasted his feet the day he later clinched the series title; and again this past Sunday in the season-opening Winternationals.
By the grace of God, Brown has walked away from all of these incidents relatively uninjured, save for a headache and some bumps and bruises and the superficial burns that healed quickly. He characterized his aches and pains at Pomona as "ain't nothin' we can't get over." And that has been Brown's motto, with an addendum: "Ain't nothin' we can't get over, with God's help."
Brown doesn't brood. He processes the cumulative effect of the crashes in public view.
First, he wants people to know that "the good Lord never gives you something that you can't handle. He is an able God. He always pushes us to our limits, without a doubt. He pushes beyond when we feel we cannot go any further. He pushes us to another realm. He uses us to show those around us in His plan. Without a doubt. I'm a firm believer of that."
Second, Brown insists the fabrication specialists in the Brownsburg, Ind., shop keep producing sturdier, more secure race cars.
"This latest incident, you have a lot of people who say stuff about stuff they don't know, and it's just that they aren't educated enough. We at DSR have worked hard at making these cars safer," he said. "And, unfortunately, you never know how good it is until you put them through the test. The good Lord above sure put it through a good test to show everyone. I can tell you everything on the car did what it was supposed to do. Through all the incidents we've had, we've gotten better because of them."
Brown's spiritual journey has deepened because of them, as well. Returning to Firebird International Raceway or to Pomona or Maple Grove Raceway at Reading strikes neither fear nor sadness in him.
"Honestly, we just take life inch by inch," he said. "I never think about the day as a whole. I never think about a race as a whole. I just try to live life by the moment. I go hour by hour and then day by day. You learn the experiences we have in life shapes us into the people we are today.
"Ten percent of life is what happens to you. Ninety percent is what you do with life when stuff happens to you," Brown said. "This is why I choose to live life one step at a time. I pray. I pray throughout the day. I gain strength from above not just to make my life better but those around me. That's what it's all about to me."
So what kind of person have these on-the-edge incidents made him?
"It's made me not to look into tomorrow. I'm a person who concentrates on the here and now. Making an impression on those around me and help to motivate others more towards God. I want those who meet me to know God has control of my life," Brown said.
"Do I get nervous? Do I get scared? Yes, I do. The one thing being nervous and scared does is bring me closer to my Lord and Savior. He gives me the strength and courage to overcome the obstacles. These incidents only confirm His presence to steer me through the dangers in life," he said.
"He's not just a spare tire I put on every time I hit a bump in the road. I only want Him to steer me in the direction He chooses to lead me. This is how God has molded me in these incidents," Brown said. "It's God, Family and Work. This is my GFW."
He said he and wife Billie Jo never have questioned whether these accidents are a sign he should quit racing.
"We've never discussed the accidents in the manner of if I need to move away or stop driving," he said. "Drag racing is part of our life's journey. It may knock you down at the moment, but all it does is build you up and make you stronger for the experience."
What if daughter Arianna, 11, or sons Anson, 8, or Adler, 4, asked him to stop driving for fear he would be seriously injured?
"My children know my spirit. They know how I feel and what I am going to do. My deal is my work isn't done [here on Earth]. It's not over until God says it's over," Brown said. "God will let me know, 'Antron, this is the end of your journey. I have no more work for you to do.'
"Through all my talents at the racetrack, this goes well beyond that," he said of his life's purpose. "To uplift others, share my faith with them, help them to be closer to God is what my life's work is really about. Winning drag races is what I do for a living. That's my competitive nature instilled in me. Through this is the outreach to everyone I meet in life. That's what it is really all about."
And through these incidents, although they're fiery and harrowing, Brown said he knows the hand of God has been directly on him. "Without a doubt. I'm a firm believer that God never gives you more than you can handle and everything's for a reason.
"Alot of people always try to keep things in their own control. They tend to say, 'I did this or did that.' " As for his ugly crash at Pomona last week, he said, "The thing about that is there was nothing I could do. I was along for the ride. And God had me in his hands. He had control of the whole outcome. He was driving that race car. I had no more control. I could have turned the steering wheel and pumped the brakes. It wouldn't have made a difference what I did. I came to a stop in the sand trap. How else can you explain that?"
For that, and for the expertise of the fab shop, Brown said he is grateful.
"I'm just counting my blessings that it didn't hit the wall dead on, and while I felt it when it struck the wall, the way it happened, it hit the wall and rolled off. Had it have been a direct hit, there most likely would have been some serious back injuries," he said. "I have some bruising on my spine because of the impact, no fractures or problems with discs. Everything looked normal (on X-rays). It's easy to fracture your lower vertebrae in a situation like this."
Each situation begets improvements, he said.
"Take for instance Pomona last year, when our car caught on fire because of the broken fuel line. The engine didn't blow up. The car just caught on fire because of the fuel line when it backfired. When the car caught on fire, the flames came up through the bottom of the foot box and burned me like a torch. It went through a couple of layers, but the worst part was not the burns to my hands. I couldn't breathe. The nitro fumes were going right to my lungs.
"Because of this we were able to learn to seal off parts of the front and worked hard to seal off as much as we could. When you have a massive explosion as we did [at the Winternationals], you're not going to keep everything from getting to you. No way," Brown said.
"If you look at the bottom of this car you will see where we have made numerous improvements. I didn't get any fire on me. I had singes on my boots. That was it. There was no discoloration. There was a big flash of fire when we had the massive explosion. But that was it," he said.
"I was still able to breathe. But once the fumes began to come into the cockpit from the vents on the front of the car, I was still able to breathe because of the fresh-air system. Everything we learned from last year, we were able to incorporate and it paid off this time," Brown said.
He has begun to echo Tony Schumacher in extolling the virtues of the once-scoffed cockpit canopy.
"The canopy was built like a tank. You have those who say, "Ah, it's just a skin.' They compare it to like a body skin on the car. Anyone who watched the crash knows every body skin, including the mud flaps, flew off of the car. It was gone. The only thing which remained intact was the cockpit," Brown said. "The carbon Kevlar weave is over a quarter-inch thick. There are other parts on the canopy where it's even thicker. It's reinforced with the intention of sustaining an impact. The windshield is over a half-inch thick. For those who call it a skin are simply not educated about it.
"If they say they are, then I challenge them to sit in their open cockpit and let someone hit the top of it with a sledgehammer and then sit in mine and do the same. Which one would you want to be in?" he asked. "I think we need to educate them more, because I want to see more people walk away from incidents like mine. God uses different things for examples and maybe He used me as one to show people there are safer ways to do this."
He said "it's s hard to tell" if he had fire inside the cockpit, under the canopy.
"When you look at the slow-motion video, you wonder if it was really inside. Or was this the fire on the other side? Or was it a quick flash inside? I have no idea. If it came inside, [you have to wonder] why there are no burn marks inside," Brown said.
"When you look at the video in slow motion, when the car comes around, the flames are wrapped around both sides of the cockpit. So if you are looking at a picture where you can see through the camber of the glass, I have no idea whether it was inside or not," he said.
This new iteration of the Matco Tools Dragster, he conceded, never has been down a dragstrip. "But I know the great job our guys do in our shop. We'll take it one lap at a time, and we get four laps in qualifying. We can get back into our routine. We're feeling pretty good about going back out there. We have to start off one step at a time with qualifying and hopefully we can ramp back up to where we were last year.
"We won't be going there in test mode," Brown promised. "We'll be going there in race mode and make the right moves so we can contend for the win."
God's mission for Antron Brown continues.
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