May 26, 2005

The Drag Racer Who Sold His Engine to the Army

For former rebel Tony Schumacher, an Army sponsorship means he's now a recruiter as well as a driver.

Eriq Gardner

WHEN TWO TOP FUEL DRAG RACERS REV UP their engines to begin the five-second journey down a quarter-mile track, you can hear the noise several miles away. But to get a real sense of the cacophony, you need to get as close to the nitromethane-burning engine as possible. Bring along a decibel reader, wait for the cars to start racing, and take a measure. You'll notice that it's about as loud as an exploding M84 Stun Hand Grenade.

Tony Schumacher's Car
Courtesy NHRA
Or look at it this way: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration prohibits prolonged workplace exposure to sounds above 115 decibels. Every couple of minutes at a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) race, tens of thousands of spectators are exposed to noises approaching 175 decibels.

But maybe the noise is why they come. Maybe that's why they've been steadily showing up since the 1930s, when young men with souped-up cars took turns racing each other. It sounds dangerous. Is it any coincidence that in the film, Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean wins his rivals' respect by literally crushing his dragster competition?

But that was then and the real James Dean is dead, having driven his new Porsche Spyder 550 into oblivion on his way to a race in 1955. Today, in the 50th year of the NHRA, you can still hear massive feats of engine horsepower. But you're not going to sidle up to the curb alongside Deanian rebels and archetypal miscreants. Drag racing has gone mainstream, with a five-year ESPN contract broadcasting races to millions. Even the most un-Dean of institutions, the U.S. Army, has come out to hear the racket. They've got their own car in the race.

THEY CALL TONY SCHUMACHER THE "SARGE." At 34 years old, Schumacher has one Top Fuel championship under his belt. On an October Saturday in Joliet, Illinois, he is well on his way to his second.

But something strange happens two days earlier. On the first day of qualifying (only the top 16 racers make it to Sunday), Schumacher gets a late start. Like the driver in the car alongside him, Schumacher goes through the normal pre-race routine: He presses his foot on the brake while tapping the accelerator pedal. The technique causes the rear tires to spin forward while the car stays stationary. A large plume of smoke and dust fills the air, and a sticky coat of rubber melts into the paved track. Three vertical amber bulbs light up in succession. On the fourth, a green one, the racers go.

Except on Thursday afternoon, the Sarge, usually one of the fastest off the starting line, gets a late jump. There's no time to recover, and before you can tie your shoe, Schumacher has finished near the bottom of the heap. That disaster, plus the fact that an autumn thunderstorm rained out Friday's competition, means that Schumacher is staring at a Saturday where anything less than the best will leave him on the sidelines during Sunday's final heats. As the crowd is reminded on the loudspeakers, the Sarge has not failed to qualify once all year long.

This circumstance would normally bother the Sarge, but the ultracompetitive Union Grove, Wisconsin-native has other matters to think about today. "Two thousand five hundred kids are coming here this morning," he says. "They bring them out and I'll give a speech."

"They" is his sponsor, the United States Army. Every week at a different NHRA racetrack across America, thousands of teenagers, slipped free tickets by men in fatigues, get a lecture from Schumacher on what it means to be an "Army of One." The slogan is plastered on Schumacher's dragster, and presumably in the minds of the 70 team members who support the U.S. Army's officially sponsored NHRA car.

"I'm a recruiter," says Schumacher. "I drive a race car and that's great, but I am responsible partially for [soldiers] going out there and doing what they do."

Today, Schumacher's got a good crowd to listen to what he and the U.S. Army term the "Yes Program." The Sarge talks to the students about teamwork. He tells them about commitment. He mentions the 4,000 different well-paying jobs the United States military offers graduating high-school students—including the one where you get to drive a top-grade car at more than 300 miles per hour—and tells them to think long and hard about their future. It's an enticing speech. Given the tremendous troop shortages due to deployments in Iraq and elsewhere, the Army hopes his speech rings even louder than the roar of his engines in the teenagers' ears.

The Army won't divulge exact numbers, but Schumacher's handlers brag that he is one of the army's top recruiters, responsible for talking thousands of kids into signing up on the spot. Top army brass declined to comment for this article, but it's safe to say that the celebrity dragster, who is often allowed where other army recruiters are forbidden, offers a marketing edge the Army considers worth millions.

TONY'S ENGINE DIDN'T ALWAYS BELONG TO THE US ARMY. When he was young, he shrugged off the advice of adults, including his father (drag racing pioneer Don "The Shoe" Schumacher), to stay away from the dangerous sport. (And, no, he's not related to Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.)

Tony Schumacher
Courtesy NHRA
Instead, Tony and a bunch of friends took several homemade street cars, of modest capability, and raced them in abandoned parking lots. He cut school and neglected homework. He ran from cops, and idolized his father. He knew what he wanted to do in life.

"I couldn't handle the thought of me sitting at a desk in an office," he says.

In 1996, a friend informed Tony that the Peek Brothers racing team in Denver, Colorado, was looking for a driver. Getting a good driving job in the business is about as rare as pulling a "hole shot," (when a racer wins purely on having a better reaction time than his opponent) but Tony wasn't discouraged.

Tony flew out to Denver in hopes he'd charm the Peek Brothers into giving him a shot. They let him drive the car, and were impressed enough to give him the job over Gary Scelzi, who went on to win three national Top Fuel championships in the next four years. Tony had not only talked himself into a job, but he had talked himself into a car with four times as much horsepower as any he had driven before, an automobile that went 0 to 100 mph in 0.8 seconds.

"I started thinking to myself, "All right, now I'm in trouble.' "

Tony's first professional race took place just three days later at Indianapolis, the equivalent of throwing a rookie cyclist into the Tour de France. Tony had barely enough time to get his official drag-racing license before he was thrown into qualifying heats. Tony, nervous as hell, finished exactly 16th during qualifiers, the "bump spot." In his first professional race, he had made it to Sunday by the thinnest of rubber.

Then something extraordinarily tragic happened. Tony was all set to match up against the legendary Blaine Johnson that Sunday when Johnson crashed his car during the final qualifying heat—and died.

"You're there in your first race and they are singing "Amazing Grace," because of a loss of a driver and here I'm supposed to race," Tony says, with tears in his eyes.

Still, life on the circuit continues. Tony finished as the runner-up in that first race. Blaine Johnson's brother, Alan, became Tony's crew chief. Tony showed everyone he could be professional in the face of death. Enter the US Army.

ACCORDING TO A 2002 U.S. ARMY RESEARCH PROJECT NOTE BY LIEUTENANT COLONEL GARY L. BLISS AT THE U.S. ARMY WAR COLLEGE in Pennsylvania, Army recruitment efforts have been hampered by policies at some high schools banning recruiters inside their buildings. Alleged recruiting violations may have played a part; most recently, recruiters were caught encouraging a student to get a fake high school diploma and to use use a detox kit to pass a drug test in order to enlist (Scripps Howard News Service). So the Army has started looking for ways to draw kids to them.

In 1999, the Army got Congressional approval (and over $200 million added to its budget) for more innovative recruiting. For instance, about $7.5 million went to create and distribute a computer game called "America's Army," which remakes the combat life of a special forces operative as entertainment. More than three times that went to sponsor various racing teams, from NASCAR to motor biking to drag racing. In 1999, the Army started its search for a NHRA driver to drive their promotional vehicle. In 2000, they signed Schumacher, who had just won the championship with the Exide team. The Sarge won't tell me how much his sponsorship's worth, but based on what sponsorships usually cost in the NHRA, it's probably somewhere in the range of $5 to $10 million.

The Army's role in race car driving is not without controversy. Pete Sepp, vice president at the National Taxpayer's Union, a limited-government advocacy group, says his organization has studied the value of the Army's $16 million NASCAR sponsorship, and found the benefits not worth the cost. (See this commentary by NTU policy analyst Drew Johnson.) "It's hard to imagine that the investment would produce a dramatically better return for taxpayers by putting an ad on a car that runs on straight track rather than an oval one," Sepp says.

That's not the only discordant note. A few of Tony Schumacher's peers wonder whether the Army's affiliation with the sport is in its best interest. (None wanted their comments attributed to them by name.) One competing team's crew team member says he misses the day when drag racing was associated with disobedience. Perhaps more seriously, another individual at a different team says there is widespread belief in the drag-racing community that perhaps Schumacher benefits from the technological know-how of the U.S. military.

Schumacher readily acknowledges the last concern. "There's nothing illegal about that," he says. "People wonder, if we can make an Apache helicopter fly, we ought to have people smart enough to come here and make a car run faster, and they have a point."

But Schumacher, whose team uses sophisticated computer software to analyze post-race telemetry readings (including cylinder temperature, drive shaft speed, how far and how long the front wheel lifted off the ground, clutch lock-up, and engine RPMs), also believes that he's entitled to surround himself with the highest-tech gadgets around. He also says he has an "unfair advantage," in that he has gone through basic training with U.S. soldiers, which has put him in tremendous physical shape. He points out that he did the push-ups himself, and that there's a huge advantage to having the might to control a steering wheel on a car that's dangerously close to careening out of control at top speeds.

There's one criticism, though, that brings tears to the grown man's eyes. The Sarge says he sometimes gets letters from the grieving families of soldiers he recruited. The letters are often angry and sometimes lay the blame for a son or daughter's death with the recruiter most responsible for pushing their kid into the armed forces.

"No American wants to see a soldier die," he says. "But we do understand that to be free is not free. And people are going to [send those letters]. We talk about it. It's a hard thing to go through. But it's my job and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world."

Asked whether he feels guilty about driving cars for the Army while others are out there dying, he responds, "Not at all. I'm not in the safest job in the world either, and I'm doing a job for them too."

On that note, Tony climbs back into his dragster. As the engine roars once again, and with thousands of prospective Army recruits watching, Tony races himself back into Sunday's competition. The next day, he takes first place. And the next week, he captures the NHRA championship title.

Eriq Gardner's ink-slinging can be read in numerous popular magazines of our day. You can e-mail him a bon mot during Parisian business hours at egardner AT codeandtheory DOT com.

Related on the web:

•A New York Times article (via about the Army's recent recruitment woes.

•An SF Weekly article about Jaron Nunnemaker, who rides for the Army in the Professional Bull Riders Association.

•The official site of the National Hot Rod Association. Watch a couple of Schumacher's races here.

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- Sports
- posted on May 23, 07
Onna Blanton

what diplomas do you need in high school? Also what type of schools should i go into? And how to start.
i'm 14. Female. Leslie Middle School. And 8th grade

- Sports
- posted on Mar 13, 11

Tony Schumacher isn't the only NHRA star who is sponsored by the Army, jut the latest. Don Prudome was sponsored before that.
My only question is why is my tax money being spent this way.

Article by Eriq Gardner

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