Brown has eyes on the prize

POMONA, Calif. -- Diversity is nothing new in the NHRA.

Shirley Muldowney won her first Top Fuel championship 35 years ago. Funny Car veteran Cruz Pedregon was the first Hispanic champion 20 years ago.

The NHRA is way ahead of the curve in all motorsports, a shining example of how anyone of any race or either gender can reach the top at the highest level of professional drag racing.

That's why Top Fuel racer Antron Brown's possible achievement this weekend is so extraordinary. Women and minorities have competed and won in drag racing for five decades, but Brown is on the verge of history in 2012.

Brown is close to becoming the first African-American to win an NHRA championship, a bit surprising it has taken this long for a black driver to reach this moment in a sport known for its diversity.

But Brown's possible title is bigger than just the NHRA. If he holds on this weekend and claims the crown, he will become the first African-American to win any major motorsports championship.

British driver Lewis Hamilton was the first black driver to win a major racing title as the 2008 Formula One champ.

Brown is the first African-American to come close to a major auto racing title.

How can that be? How could it take this long, four years after the United States elected its first black president, for a major racing series to have a black champion?

I don't know the answer other than a lack of participation for black drivers in motorsports. This is no indictment on the NHRA. In fact, the organization should be applauded.

NASCAR and the IndyCar Series haven't come close to seeing a black driver who could compete for championships. And both series are a long way away from it happening. Neither league has an African-American driver competing at the top level right now.

Even in the NHRA, Brown is the only full-time black competitor this season in Top Fuel, Funny Car or Pro Stock.

When you talk to him, it's easy to sense Brown is a bit uncomfortable with the entire storyline of first black champion. He simply wants to be the champion. His skin color really doesn't play into it for him.

But he gets it. Brown understands the significance of the accomplishment.

"I'm just an American," Brown said. "I don't really look at color and stuff like that. But I'm a kid from New Jersey who had a dream to do this. If it helps anybody else change their dream or their story, I'm all for it. I love it. I embrace the sport and that's where I stand with it."

Brown has four generations of his family here this weekend, including his three children, his parents, an uncle and his grandmother, who bought him his first dirt bike when he was 4. His wife, Billie Jo, also is here.

"This is huge for the kids," Brown said of daughter Ariana, 10, and sons Anson, 8, and Adler, 4. "I think they're more fired up about this than I am."

Winning the title is not a done deal. Brown has to out-race his two Don Schumacher Racing teammates -- seven-time champion Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey. Both Schumacher and Massey are 70 points back after qualifying on Friday.

"I don't want Antron to falter," Schumacher said. "However, I do want to win the championship. We're both trying to do it for ourselves, and we understand what it takes. I want to be No. 1. Antron wants to be No. 1, and so does Spencer."

Barring someone setting a national record, Brown will win the championship if he qualifies and wins his first-round and second-round matchups Sunday regardless of what his teammates do.

That might sound simple, but Brown lost in the first round at Las Vegas two weeks ago, which opened the door for his pursuers.

"It is what it is," Brown said. "That's drag racing. The bad part is we've let these other guys back in it, but that's OK. Things happen for a reason and this is all part of it. We're going to give it our best shot and give it all we got."

In Brown's case, that's a lot. At 36, Brown is one of the best all-around athletes in drag racing. When he was 21, Brown qualified for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter dash.

He won 16 NHRA events over 10 seasons in Pro Stock Motorcycle before making the move to a Top Fuel dragster. The transition was a complete unknown.

No one had attempted such an unusual switch in racing classes, two disciplines that have almost nothing in common. It's a little like saying a guy racing trucks in NASCAR could move to Formula One and be successful.

It took Brown only four events to earn his first victory, which came in Houston in 2008. He has finished in the top 5 in the standings in all five of his Top Fuel seasons. Brown won six events in 2011 and has six wins this season, advancing to the final round in 11 of 22 races.

"We've just been very fortunate and I'm trying to stay humble," Brown said. "You've got to be humble. If not, this sport will humble you and make you cringe. That's why I just keep the same attitude I've always had. You can go from hero to zero in our sport."

Brown is close to becoming a hero for many people. As he said, he's just an American. But as a black American, he can do something no one has ever done.