Schumacher struggling in 2001

There is an old saying about there being no such thing as an overnight success. For the most part, that's true. But there have been several instances in recent years of success coming to certain professional drag racers with what seems like uncanny quickness.

Gary Scelzi's Top Fuel championship in his first year as a pro is one example. Matt Hines winning his first championship in only his second full season in Pro Stock Motorcycle is another. Jeg Coughlin won his first Pro Stock crown in only his third full year in the category, too.

And at the U.S. Nationals in 1998, Tony Schumacher and his legendary dad, Don, debuted a brand-new, fully-sponsored Top Fuel team. Just over a year later, Tony was the 1999 champion.

But those days must seem a very, very long time ago for the former champ as his 2001 season remains in a puzzling tailspin.

Last year, his horrific crash at Memphis took away any chance he had at defending his title as Scelzi staged a powerful second-half surge.

Before the 2000 season, there had been plans for the team to expand to a three-team effort - with two dragsters and one funny car. But when the Schumachers acquired new sponsorship, they decided to add just the funny car, driven by Whit Bazemore, and stick with the lone dragster, driven by Tony.

Now, with more than half the 2001 schedule passed, the strange reality has hit hard, namely, that the Top Fuel half of Team Schumacher is locked in a frustrating spiral of lukewarm performance and inconsistency. As the Fram Autolite Nationals gear up this weekend in Sonoma, Calif., Tony and Co. have collected no national event victories, a single final-round appearance and a stunning total of seven first-round losses, the latest striking last weekend in Seattle.

"If we knew what the problem was, we'd certainly fix it," Schumacher said. "We refuse to give up and Dan (Olson) is the kind of experienced tuner that will turn this around before long. Ask anyone out here and they'll tell you that if you've been racing for very long at all, you're going to hit a slump, and we've hit ours."

Crew chief Dan Olson, the veteran tuner who has worked for such teams as Eddie Hill and Bob Vandergriff Jr., has a technical explanation for much of the trouble the team has found themselves in this year.

"We've had to switch from an older clutch disc to a new batch and it's been a struggle getting them to be consistent," he said. "But we're all in the same boat because everyone will have to switch to the new ones when they run out of the old ones. When that happens, things should even out."

But with the championship race now moving into the stretch run and Schumacher fighting to remain in the top-10 in points, catching the frontrunners is clearly too much to ask.

Schumacher is an experienced racer who knows what it takes to get back to the top. Although his championship was won in only his second season with his own team, Schumacher worked his way up through the ranks, starting in doorslammers, then alcohol cars, and even a jet dragster before landing the driving job with the Peek Brothers in 1996. There, Schumacher showed flashes of talent with the under-funded Top Fuel team.

So, his climb to a second championship is in many ways no different than his first. It will require all of Schumacher's patience -- and his inherent skills. His team is a first-class operation with the necessary components in place to win another title and to remain in contention for years to come.

How long this current climb to the top will take is open to conjecture, but for Schumacher, who has already experienced the unmatched thrill of winning a championship, it can't be over soon enough.