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NHRA Top Fuel - Championship Battle Heats Up For U.S. Army Duo

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MADISON, Sep. 28, 2012: Just one-third of the way through this year’s Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, the U.S. Army NHRA Top Fuel driver duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown are still a long, long way from being able to say “mission accomplished.”

But as the NHRA’s version of the playoffs takes Schumacher and Brown to Gateway Motorsports Park in the St. Louis suburb of Madison, Ill., for this weekend’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals and round three of the six-race Countdown, so far, so good.

For each of the last three weekends, one or the other of the U.S. Army drivers has hit town in first place in the Top Fuel standings thanks, among other factors, to a level of engineering and teamwork on display at the racetrack that is reflective of the Army’s leading-edge technology and the powerful, realistic training of its Army Strong Soldiers.

Last weekend, it was seven-time Top Fuel champion Schumacher who brought the points lead to round two of the Countdown at the Texas Motorplex on the outskirts of Dallas after Brown opened the Countdown at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, N.C., in first place. Schumacher’s exit from the Dallas event in the second round of eliminations, coupled with Brown’s final-round victory over Spencer Massey, vaulted Brown back into the points lead as the series heads to St. Louis, albeit tied with Massey while Schumacher sits just 24 points back in third.

This weekend, it’s a welcome return by Schumacher and Brown to the facility just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis and the famed Gateway Arch after a one-year hiatus by the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.

Schumacher, whose next Top Fuel win will be the 70th of his career, is a two-time winner at Gateway, including the last time the series visited in 2010, when he also set the Top Fuel track record speed of 318.62 mph. He’s looking to join Gary Scelzi and Doug Kalitta as the only three-time winners at Gateway, which began hosting NHRA events in 1997. Schumacher also advanced to final-round competition at Gateway in 1999 and 2008.

Brown, whose victory at Dallas last weekend was his series-leading fifth of the season and the 36th of his career (15 in Top Fuel and 21 in Pro Stock Motorcycles), scored his lone Top Fuel win at Gateway in 2009. He also advanced to the Pro Stock Motorcycles final in 2005, and was top Pro Stock Motorcycles qualifier in 2001 and 2004.

Having both tasted success on the eastern shore of the Mississippi over the years, and both jockeying for position atop the Top Fuel standings week after week as the 2012 Countdown marches on, Schumacher and Brown have just one, simple message for each other and their fellow drag-racing counterparts this weekend – “Meet Me in St. Louis” and find out what it means to be Army Strong.

TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:

With four events to go, you and the U.S. Army team are right in the thick of the championship battle. It’s a position you’ve been in many times before. Do you feel that gives you an advantage over the others who are fighting for the championship?

“I would say it helps, but it also gives everybody else a little fire in their belly because they’ve been so darn close to winning championships so many times and they really want it. But I also would say from a team standpoint that, yes, we are in a good position with our championship-winning experience. It doesn’t just fall on any one of us. Each and every member of the U.S. Army Racing team plays a vital role in the success of the car on the track. It just like every Soldier we represent out of the 1 million Army Strong Soldiers around the world, no matter which of the more than 150 career options he or she chooses in the Army, each one is vital to the success of the mission. We just have to keep working hard and see how it plays out here in the Countdown. I’d rather be where I’m at much more than where any of our competitors are at. We picked up 10 points on each of those guys who were ahead of us at Dallas last weekend just because of where we qualified. We can get more in St. Louis this weekend, but so can they, so we’ll have to be very careful and go out and play our game right. Qualifying is very important right now. It’s going to take an Army Strong effort from the time we hit the ground right on through the weekend.”

Being a two-time Top Fuel winner at St. Louis, including the last time the series raced there in 2010, what is your approach as you head back there this weekend?

“You know, it really doesn’t matter where we’re racing or what has happened in the past. It’s crunch time right now. There are four races to go, 16 rounds left. We look at it like we’ve got to win them all. We’ve just got to dominate. Step one will be qualifying in the first run so you can go really fast on Friday night. Then, just take it from there and do what you know how to do. It’s all about refusing to, lose, just like the Soldiers who are the strength of our Army which, in turn, is the strength of our great Nation.”

You had the points lead heading into last weekend’s round at Dallas and, despite exiting in the second round of eliminations, you’re still just 24 points behind your teammates for the lead. Any special thoughts on that?

“It’s all good. What it all came down to last weekend was just timing. We’ve all had that chance at different times where weather conditions or something played a part in moving us around in the seeding order. It was just a little disappointing that we made such a great run Friday night, took the No. 1 qualifying spot, and ended up being penalized because of it. It turned out we made our run at the worst time. We go out and run fast and then someone sneaks out there the next morning and takes that top spot because the conditions were more ideal. That cost us the points lead and, at the end of the day, a few points can determine championships. But it’s OK, really, because we’ve all had those moments and good luck and breaks and all that stuff. We just went out there and didn’t do what we had to do to win that (elimination) round. We ran slow, our lights were a little off, the whole thing was just a little off. We’ve just regrouped and we’re ready to go to St. Louis and kick their tails.”

ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster:

St. Louis is a track you haven’t been to in a couple of years. How big of a factor is that going to play in this championship?

“It can play a big factor because we’re going to have to have the right weather to go fast. Looking at the forecast, it’s going to be low- to mid-70s and that track’s always been good, but we haven’t raced there since 2010. I’ve got all the confidence in the world it’s going to be good, but they’ve got to bring a track that’s been just sitting there for a couple of years up to the level of the tracks we’ve been racing on everywhere else, great tracks like Charlotte and Dallas, so that’s the only thing in question. That puts even more of an emphasis on the things we as a team can control, like the mental, emotional and physical strength like no other that we can bring to the table, the defining attributes of the U.S. Army Soldiers we so proudly represent. Everybody’s got to race the same track. Everybody’s got to go out there and stay poised and just give the track what it can handle and see where that puts us once all is said and done.”

You’ve raced a lot against your teammates in pressure situations over the years, including in the final last weekend against Spencer Massey. Does it get any easier?

“We’ve been going back and forth all year in the points. Now we’re tied for the points lead with four races left. We’ve got a slugfest to the end and keep on doing what we’re doing. It never gets easy. If somebody tells you they block out who they’re racing, they’re lying to you. You know who you’re racing and you know what you have to do. You can tell things when you race certain people. I don’t know why it is but, whenever I race somebody, they have their career-best light and they do their best when they race me. So I just wish they’d do that to somebody else and give me a break (laughs). You know who you’re racing and you know what kind of game you’ve got. But you don’t want to throw it all away at the starting line. At Dallas, the driver didn’t have it at the starting line so I’m glad the team pulled me through and that’s what a team is all about. I can see us doing this a lot the rest of the way against a whole host of great drivers and teams. There are so many great cars out there right now. There’s going to be some tough racing to the end. Everybody’s got their work cut out for them. It’s going to be like a crapshoot to the end.”