By Briar Starr, NHRA Staff Writer
In this edition of “first-seasons” where Kickin’ The Tires catches up with a motorsports figure past or present, we catch up with 8-time NHRA Top Fuel Champion and current NHRA Top Fuel veteran Tony Schumacher. Schumacher entered the drag racing scene as a rookie competing for the Peek Brothers during his rookie years in ‘96 and ‘97 before ultimately driving for legendary team owner and father, Don Schumacher in ‘98.
During this interview, Schumacher recalls how he got the opportunity to compete for the Peek Brothers which kick-started his career, racing for his father Don and having great success toward the latter half of his career, debuting at the U.S. Nationals in 1996, memories of winning his first race in 1999 at Dallas and so much more in this edition of first-seasons.
Prior to racing for his father Don, Tony raced for the Peek Brothers from 1996 to 1997 after competing in the Alcohol Funny Car class in the years beforehand. Schumacher recalls how the opportunity came about getting to race in Top Fuel for the first time in his career.
“I was running in Alcohol Funny Car in ‘96 and I blew the body off and I was out of parts, and pieces,” Schumacher said. “I called Steve Gibbs who worked at NHRA at the time and he said the Peek Brothers are looking for a driver. At the time, I was a Funny Car guy. The Peek Brothers had 100 resumes sitting on their desk and everyone wanted to drive for their team.
“I got a plane and flew down there and met with them, and eventually got hired. I tested with them the weekend before the U.S. Nationals. On Sunday, when we were done testing, Mike Peek asks me ‘do you want to go to Indy?’ I said, ‘Yes I do.” I went home packed my stuff and we arrived there the week after. Indianapolis was a hell of a debut for me.
“Two years later, my dad calls me and says he’s putting together a deal for his team. We started in ‘98 as a father-son team and it was awesome. The Peek Brothers were amazing people, but you didn’t know how long they were going to keep running.”
When Schumacher came into NHRA, he was 27 years old in ‘96. For the sport today, it’s considered relatively late as drivers are starting out younger and younger by making their debuts. However, as the Top Fuel veteran made his debut, he thinks no matter who you are, you need more time to be adept.
“I think everyone who steps into one of these cars needs more time,” he adds. “Honestly, we all thought we could do it. There’s a lot more to driving a racecar than just smacking the throttle. I barely had any experience when I made my debut. It’s not anyone’s fault, you just don’t have a clue. You’re just happy you didn’t kill yourself.”
Breaking into the sport as a rookie driver can be difficult at times, especially when you’re just making you’re just getting started. During those times, expectations can be hard to manage. The eight-time champion reflects how he set those expectations and if those ever changed throughout time as he got more experienced.
“I think those expectations changed throughout time,” Schumacher said. “I had no expectations at the beginning, it was just to be content and happy with what you did. Midway through ‘99, we never won a race. My expectation entering the sport was I would never win a race. In late ‘98, however, I thought to myself we could win a championship without winning a race.
“Before I won, we would go to the semifinals, and whoever was right behind me, would go out in the first round. When we got to Indy in ‘99, it was a crazy year because there were 10 cars that could win the race and come away with the points lead. We ended up beating Mike Dunn and got the points lead and never lost the lead for the rest of the year, and that’s how we won the championship. All I had to do was show up at Pomona and the championship was mine.”
For Schumacher, he competed in just four races in the ‘96 season and before going full-time in the ‘97 season. He explains that it was all of matter of timing in the way his schedule was laid out.
“Timing was the important part,” he said. “I would’ve loved to run full-time in ‘96, we just didn’t have the budget. The Peek Brothers were paying the season out of pocket. In my career, the Peek Brothers don’t get enough credit for what they did for my career. They were amazing people. They spent a lot of money on getting me to drive a car. If there is ever a story written about them, they are heroes in my books.”
Clearly, the U.S. Nationals in ‘96 was the start of Schumacher’s Top Fuel career. When he recalled what he was feeling heading into the event, he remembers being naive.
“I was naive,” Schumacher said. “What got me to the finals of that race was being naive. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea of the amount of pressure I should’ve felt for that race. I just hopped in and did it. I’m running Larry Dixon, Mike Dunn, and Cory Mcclenathan in the finals and these are legends to me.
“I went from an Alcohol Funny Car to a Top Fuel car a week later. It was crazy. I should’ve been petrified. Whatever my strength is, is not being nervous.”
Despite being naive at the time, Schumacher qualified for the event as the No. 16 qualifier. Continuing to reflect back on his first year in Top Fuel, he ponders when the feeling finally set in when he qualified for the biggest event of the year.
“When I qualified, it wasn’t a great run (4.900 at 295.56 mph),” he said. “However, cars like Shelly Anderson didn’t qualify. I was still so new back then that I thought it was great we qualified ahead of her. Again, I didn’t know the names of the sport when I came into Top Fuel.
“As for the event itself, I was happy we qualified for the Peek Brothers. I hadn’t made a full run yet in a Top Fuel car. I got licensed in Denver and we smoked the tires in every run. I hadn’t held my foot down long enough through the finish line. NHRA gave me my license because I drove a Jet Car at 300 mph and did Alcohol Funny Cars. I was good enough to just smoke the tires.
“The first time I got to the finish line, the dragster was blowing itself up, I still didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like. When I ran against Mike Dunn, both of us got off the Christmas tree and smoked the tires. I peddled it and got through the finals.”
After making the finals at the U.S. Nationals in ‘96, Schumacher had ups and downs like any driver in the sport. He thinks about whether or not he ever got comfortable with learning the dragster.
“I don’t think I ever got comfortable,” the JCM Racing driver said. “We got the ARMY deal in 2000 and I was just starting to become a good driver. The qualities I have now as a driver were the qualities I didn’t have back then. It took a long time to become a driver.
“Back in the day, NHRA was a different sport compared to now. The reaction times back then didn’t really matter. You would win races by half a car length. Nowadays, you’re winning a race by inches. Our races are just super intense right now.”
Three years after making his Top Fuel debut, Schumacher finally won his first race at the Dallas Nationals in 1999 against the late Scott Kalitta. The Top Fuel veteran recalls how special that day was to him.
“Leading up to my first win, I had got beat in the finals nine times before that,” Schumacher said. “I was used to losing and I was getting beat. I saw Scott’s car pull ahead and then I went faster. After that race, we had a handle on the championship. My crew chief Dan Olson was starting to get comfortable being a crew chief. We were getting better and better as a team.”
Following that first win, Schumacher would go on to score 85 more victories and 8 championships in his Top Fuel career. He answers what trophy means the most to him.
“Any of the 15 trophies when we won in 2008, that was a good year,” he added. “Every win got more difficult. Championship-wise, I’d like to say the year after ‘08, which was ‘09. We won championships in many different ways and they all have their special meaning. There’s not one of them in there that wasn’t easy.”
When continuing to think about his rookie years in NHRA, Schumacher says he only collects helmets to remind him how far he has come.
“The only thing I collect is my helmets,” the veteran Top Fuel driver said. “I love my helmets and have almost everyone. I have early ones from my Jet Drag and Super Comp days, it’s pretty cool. You can still smell where you were looking at those helmets.”
Despite some of his early troubles, Schumacher didn’t know what his future would hold and that he would go on to be one of the successful drivers in the Top Fuel class.
“Absolutely not, I did not think or had any clue of what the future would end up holding,” Schumacher said. “I had a beautiful career in racing and if my career ended tomorrow, it’s unimaginable what I was able to accomplish. I had great crew chiefs who helped me win championships. That’s a good career, to just be given a chance to be successful.”
As the interview came to a close, Schumacher ponds if he would’ve done anything differently in his career.
“Here’s the problem about changing stuff in the past, it changes the future,” he said. “I don’t know what you could’ve done to tell myself to be better. I needed to go through all the learning curves and needed to figure the stuff out the difficult. I sure liked where we ended up.”
Throughout Schumacher’s career, the Top Fuel driver has made 538 career starts, scored 86 career victories, and made 84 semi-final appearances along with 149 quarterfinals and 141 first-round appearances. Additionally, Schumacher has scored 88 career No. 1 qualifiers and has a win-loss record of 867-444.