Top Fuel Driver Trio Celebrates U.S. Army’s 243rd Birthday, Father’s Day at Bristol
BRISTOL, TN – Even before the U.S. Army Top Fuel driver trio of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher, Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett takes to the track at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway for this weekend’s 18th annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, they will already have two reason to celebrate as they’ll help recognize the U.S. Army’s 243rd birthday during trackside ceremonies Saturday, then commemorate the great American tradition of Father’s Day on Sunday.
Those two annual staples on the NHRA Mello Drag Racing Series schedule aside, each of the highly competitive U.S. Army drivers will look to add a third reason to celebrate this weekend – in victory lane Sunday afternoon.
Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) have marched through Sunday eliminations to Father’s Day event titles at Bristol twice in recent years – 2010 and again in 2012 – to give the most decorated driver in Top Fuel history the joy of handing the Wally winner’s trophy to his father, who owns the team he’s driven for the past 18 seasons and counting. From his No. 1 qualifying position, “The Sarge” beat Brandon Bernstein in the Bristol final on Father’s Day 2010. He beat Doug Kalitta in the Bristol final on Father’s Day 2012. They were the second and third times in his illustrious career that Schumacher was victorious on Father’s Day, the first coming at Columbus, Ohio in 2000, when he beat Joe Amato in the final.
The eight-time Top Fuel world champion and his U.S. Army team have enjoyed consistent success on Fridays and Saturdays, having reeled off nine consecutive top-five qualifying efforts, including the No. 1 position for the third time in that span last weekend in the series’ return to Virginia Motorsports Park near Richmond.
Sundays have been another story altogether for the U.S. Army team, however, as Schumacher is still seeking his first event title of the season. Bristol just may be the cure for his and the team’s Sunday ills, however, as the Schumacher-Army combination is the winningest in the Top Fuel ranks at the scenic track nestled in the hills of Northeast Tennessee. Schumacher has five career Bristol victories, one runner-up and three No. 1 qualifying efforts heading in the weekend.
Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster team for DSR, meanwhile, hit town seeking their first Bristol event title. It’s the only track of the 21 on the Mello Yello Series schedule where the three-time Top Fuel world champion has yet to score a victory. But, after a modest breakthrough last weekend in Virginia that saw Brown reach the semifinal round for the first time since the Las Vegas final in April, he and the team feel they’re poised for their first win of the season, as well.
Pritchett and her Papa John’s/FireAde/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, who scored the first win of the season for the Army at Atlanta last month, a year ago nearly scored her fourth victory of 2017 at Bristol. She dropped a cylinder early in her Top Fuel final matchup against hometown favorite Clay Millican, who crossed the finish line half a car length ahead for an emotion event title that was the first of his career. It was by far Pritchett’s best performance in five career visits to Bristol and she, too, feels this could be the weekend for another win.
Qualifying for the 18th annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals begins Friday with FS1 providing one-hour qualifying shows live Friday at 6 p.m. EDT and delayed Saturday at 9 p.m. FS1’s delayed broadcast of Sunday’s elimination rounds is set for 7:30 p.m.
TONY “THE SARGE” SCHUMACHER, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing
You qualified No. 1 for the third time this season last weekend at Richmond. What will it take to break through for the Army team’s first win of the season this weekend at Bristol?
“We have been qualifying well and that’s a really good indication of how prepared this U.S. Army team is week in and week out. I talk to a lot people about the importance of preparation. I’m fortunate to work with an incredible group of guys led by (crew chief) Mike Neff and (assistant crew chief) Phil Shuler. Those guys are the best in the business and they are looking at everything we are doing so that we can be in the best position on Sunday. We’ve proven through performance in qualifying that we have one bad-to-the-bone machine. We’re consistently bringing out the best in our competition. Sometimes they take their best shot and move on and sometimes they get us. That motivates all of us to get better. This U.S. Army team will never quit. We’re excited to see what we can do these next few months, starting with Bristol.”
You’re helping the Army celebrate its 243rd birthday at Bristol this weekend. What does that mean to you?
“I’ve said it before many times, but I feel like I’m living the dream. I get to drive the baddest car there is and do it with an incredible group of guys and represent the Army Soldiers who protect our country. The strength of our Nation is our Army, and the strength of the Soldiers is our families. This is what makes drives us to achieve every day of the year. We’ve had such a great relationship with the Army, and being able to celebrate another birthday carrying their colors is always huge. Yes, winning this weekend would be a great way to cap what should be another great American weekend.”
How special is it for you to race on Father’s Day?
“This race on Father’s Day, it couldn’t be more perfect. It’s always perfect when Larry Dixon is not here (laughs). Don’t take that the wrong way. I love Dixon and he’s a good dude, but it used to seem like he always won on Father’s Day. I’ve been fortunate to do it a few times in my career, as well. We have another great opportunity to win on a great day like this and to be able to present the trophy to my father. That would be fantastic, especially after the drought we’ve had.”
ANTRON BROWN, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing
You left Richmond last week feeling like things are finally turning around after reaching the semifinals there. What are you expecting this weekend at Bristol?
“It was great to reach the semis at Virginia, but we were capable of winning that race. It was a great boost to the team, no matter the outcome, though. The car did the same thing every time. It didn’t do exactly what we wanted it to do every time – we weren’t trying to run an 86 (3.86 seconds) in the second round, like we did, we wanted to run an 82, an 83, and pick on it so we could be better for the semis when we knew we were going to be running with somebody who’s trying to run an 80 flat. With that being said, we made quality runs and the car was doing what we wanted it to do. We figured some more stuff out and the guys just kept after it and they never quit, they never gave up. And now, we see some light at the end of the tunnel. So, going to Bristol, I guarantee everyone is going into it with a great deal of confidence. I have a great deal of confidence – always have in these guys. We just never quit. And now, this is all a positive, confidence-booster for this team. We’re going to come out of the box swinging at Bristol. And we’re going to swing harder in qualifying, shoot for No. 1. And then we can set our own fortune and luck. We’ve been fighting this fight and we learned so much through all this agony we’ve been through. That’s when you do your most learning, when you’re struggling. And I think we’ve learned enough and we’re ready to move forward and make the good times roll, again.”
Any special thoughts as DSR helps the U.S. Army celebrate its 243rd birthday at Bristol this weekend?
“I’ve been proud to help represent the U.S. Army for a long time, dating back to my Pro Stock Motorcycle days. It has been apparent all along that the mental, emotional and physical strength like no other displayed by our Soldiers is inspiring to all of us, and it has always played a huge part in our drive to be successful. Only the strongest wear the colors of the U.S. Army, and the Army NHRA partnership provides Americans a platform to experience the speed, power, teamwork and technology that drives that strength.”
What does it mean to you to race on Father’s Day?
“The significance of Father’s Day and racing for me is that every day is Father’s Day. Drag racing goes back four generations in my family. It’s always been fun, but it also can teach you so much. It goes back to what my grandpops instilled into my dad and uncle and they instilled that into me. Now I try to take those same morals and values and instill them into my children. Every time we come up and race on that day, it’s another one of the life lessons we learned out on the racetrack. What racing teaches us is that not every race day is going to be a perfect day – it never is – and those not-so-perfect days are the ones where we learn to lean on each other and we grow from it and share the love and bond to go forward and we grow in life. My kids all have raced Junior Dragsters from an early age and they’ve learned those life lessons. You’ve got to put the work in. My son learned that firsthand. If you’re struggling, you’ve got to go test. If you want to get better, you’ve got to test to get it right and, by working hard, my son Anson (13) won the Junior Dragster championship last year. The funny thing was his speech at the championship when he got up and said, ‘Well, Dad, since you’re not going to win a championship this year, at least you can celebrate mine with me.’ It’s pretty awesome to see what my kids accomplish and the things they do. It’s amazing to just enjoy that time with them and watching them grow into young adults. They’re still kids and teenagers, but to see how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time and how racing has been such a crucial factor with them because they saw firsthand that when you put the work in Monday through Thursday, the results show up on the weekend. The things they’ve learned growing up around racing will help them succeed in whatever they decide to pursue.”
LEAH PRITCHETT, driver of the Papa John’s/FireAde/U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing
You seem to be fond, like most NHRA drivers, of racing at Bristol. What’s on your mind as you head back there this weekend?
“It’s Bristol, baby. I always look forward to running at Thunder Valley. We’ve got some good track history and data there, with a runner-up finish last year. We have a fair amount of momentum happening right now, and even though Bristol presents a unique and difficult atmosphere for tuners, making as much Mopar power and putting it to the track is what I’m looking forward to for this team.”
You’ll be helping celebrate the Army’s 243rd birthday at Bristol this weekend. Your thoughts on that?
“Like I said back in January when we made the announcement back in January, this is one of the most prestigious partnerships of my career and for our team, and it was a privilege to join the Army’s longtime and very successful duo of Tony and Antron and creating the U.S. Army trifecta. It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to represent the Soldiers who serve and enable us to do what we love. This year’s newest chapter in my career carries the prestige and the honor with my two teammates of representing Soldiers around the world. Our goal is to win on the track for my team, win for the Army in the communities we visit, and represent the U.S. Army with our entire heart and soul.”