Schumacher: No AJ, no problem

February, 5, 2009

Tony Schumacher has something to prove. Hard to believe for a guy coming off his sixth NHRA Top Fuel championship in record form, winning Driver of the Year honors in one of the most remarkable seasons any drag racer ever enjoyed.

The 2008 season was his fifth consecutive championship, a year when he won 15 of 24 events in the U.S. Army dragster. Isn't that enough?

Well, no. Schumacher knows what people say behind his back: "None of this would have happened without Alan Johnson tuning his hot rod the last four seasons."

Johnson has moved on to run his own team, which debuts at the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals Feb. 5-8 at Pomona, Calif.

Some of Schumacher's crew left to join Johnson. So many NHRA followers wonder whether Schumacher's championship run will continue.

Schumacher seriously considered moving to Funny Car to see how he would fare in a new discipline. But he kept hearing all those doubters: "Tony can't win without Johnson.''

So Schumacher decided to stay and challenge Johnson's Top Fuel car, which veteran Larry Dixon will pilot. Mike Green is Schumacher's new tuner.

"I don't want to retire having never run a Funny Car," Schumacher said. "But I want to race AJ [in Top Fuel] first. I owe it to myself to stick with this. I want to show people [the success] wasn't just AJ"

Johnson encouraged Schumacher to stay in Top Fuel: "Alan told me, 'Please don't leave. We need that target,'" Schumacher said.

Schumacher spoke to reporters recently during the annual NASCAR media tour in North Carolina. He was far more interesting than most of the Cup drivers, who gave the usual "we're excited" about this upcoming season.

Schumacher loves talking about his profession. Trying to control a dragster going more than 300 mph in four seconds is a dangerous job, obviously, and Schumacher admits he has some fear.

"But it isn't the fear of getting hurt," he said. "It's the fear of getting beat. That what pushes you."

Schumacher did pinpoint one moment when he had some trepidation.

"I've had some bad wrecks but usually was fine when I got back in the car," Schumacher said. "When my wing broke off and the car became a flier over the wall, my crew told me, 'Don't worry. We can fix that.'

"But when my car broke in half, then my crew chief looks at me and says, 'I got nothing. I don't know why that happened.' Now that will scare you."

Schumacher said he fully supported the NHRA last season when it shortened the racing distance to 1,000 feet after Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Englishtown, N.J.

"The NHRA had to make a change," Schumacher said. "We had to come together and do something. I said, 'If we never win again because of this change, so be it.'"

Schumacher kept winning, posting 10 victories in the next 11 races. His accomplishments have made him the second-most-popular driver in drag racing to John Force.

NASCAR prides itself in its fan accessibility, but it pales in comparison to the NHRA. Schumacher signs hundreds of autographs in the pit area at every event.

"It can get overwhelming at times," Schumacher said. "But all I have to do is look at the guy [a driver with no fans at his pit area] over there. That's your option. You could suck.

"And let's be honest: I only work like 40 seconds a year, so I have some time on my hands. You know what they say. If all the dogs are lined up and you're not the lead dog, the view is the same."

Schumacher has enjoyed the front view for a long time. He's out to prove it can continue.

His name alone is racing legend. He loves it when people ask him if he's related to former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "I'll say we're brothers so maybe he'll give me some of that $100 million he earned each year. But seriously, I'd do this free. And I almost do."



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