Volume X, Issue 9, Page 54

The Fighting Illini Guy

gotta say, I’m real late on this one. Tony Schumacher has been an accomplished fact for quite a while: the best Top Fuel racer of this decade and, as sacrilegious as it sounds, equal to the best in NHRA history. Yet if you’ve read any of my borderline psychotic drivel, you would hardly know he existed. A nod here and there, you know, “Schumacher won Top Fuel again with a steady job behind the wheel, and greatly aided and abetted by tuning wizard Alan Johnson”, and then on to other things. If anyone’s been taken for granted in this sport, it’s Schumacher. At least by me.

I think it’s possibly a disease with those of us who have a lot of bleacher experience. The good old days were always the better old days, and to a large extent, that’s true. In the 1960s and 70s, the competition was twice what it is now, if for no other reason than that there were a helluva lot more competitive cars.

There were no governors on the cars, or at least not to the degree now, meaning that every week you could see a world record effort. Now, according to National Dragster, you’ve got passes made in 2003 that are in the Top Ten of ND’s “Best Runs”.

Throw in the fact that there were a lot more than three or four guys who really sprang from the gut, and a case can be made for the past.

I mean it’s not like you’ll see ESPN shots of Schumacher throwing back a tab of Oxycotin washed down with a flask of Robitussin.

Schumacher appears to many as what we in the Recovery House call a “normie”, as in Normal. He arrives to work on time, has a conservative look, gets along well with his fans, and looks like he’s in a great marriage… And he’s one helluva race car driver.

At the bottom of the screen on ESPN’s wrap-up of the US Nationals, they note that Indy was Schumacher’s sixth national event win in a row, and 52nd career win. While there were more tough cars in, say, the Garlits or Muldowney era, current stars like Doug Kalitta, Larry Dixon, Cory McLenathan, Brandon Bernstein, Doug Herbert, and Rod Fullers provide a stiff argument.

Not only that, but to boost Schumacher as a driver, the cars, for the most part, are relatively the same. No 1971 Don Garlits rear-motor alongside John Wiebe front-engine disparity in these days. The whole thrust of NHRA’s fuel racing agenda is parity. Close competition, so the pressure on the driver hasn’t lessened in the modern era. In fact, if anything, it may have increased.

If I had to compare Schumacher to anyone in the older era, the Winston years, one of the first drivers to cross my mind is the late Lee Shepherd. Schumacher is the more talkative of the two, and a tad younger, but his brutal efficiency mirrors Shepherd’s. At first, neither car stood out; Shepherd’s Camaro Pro Stocker was milk white, and Schumacher’s dragster was basic black. While sitting, the cars were virtually devoid of personality, except in the key area (W-L).

Between 1981 and 1984, Shepherd and the Reher-Morrison entry did not lose more than eight races per season. If memory serves me well, the team went an incredible 31-4 in 1983 or 1984 (round wins), and that was against guys like Bob Glidden, Frank Iaconio, Warren Johnson, and “Butch” Leal. There are more races won, but at the conclusion of the Englishtown, NJ, race, Schumacher tipped in at an incredible 31-6.

Both cars filled the Oakland Raiders’ honcho Al Davis’ order of “Just win, baby,” and they have with awesome consistency. The fighting Illini (Tony and dad Don are from Illinois) have put it together.

The recent news of Alan Johnson’s hook-up with a Middle Eastern businessman/financier, and $11 million for calendar 2009 may change things. I’ve heard that the ultra-lucrative Army deal might be gone from Schumacher Racing. Could Tony Schumacher and Alan Johnson still be a team next year?

Unless Schumacher and Johnson have gone at each other with steak knives when off camera, they make a super duo. In fact, the best driver/crew chief duo in Top Fuel, as if you didn’t know.

With such a pair, it’s not all that far-fetched to see Schumacher in the 70+ win category by the end of 2010, and with a couple of World Championships tucked away.

And that’s not all that bad when you consider the other “Black Car” that he’s sorta emulating. My lips are sealed, but his initials are D.G. 

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