Brown's Top Fuel debut off to roaring start

POMONA, Calif. --Antron Brown raced and won in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class of the NHRA POWERade series as somewhat of a non-celebrity. In fact, it was usually the people around him who enjoyed greater public awareness status than he did.

In 1998, he embarked on his professional motorcycle drag racing career when his cousin, Troy Vincent, who at the time was a star defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, put the resources together for Antron to race competitively with his Team 23 effort. Vincent's jersey number on the Eagles was 23, and his notoriety as a celebrated member of a popular NFL team seemed to dwarf Antron's still-emerging image.

When Antron and his cousin-in-law, Angelle Sampey (at that time Savoie), both moved simultaneously to Don Schumacher's U.S. Army-sponsored bike team in 2003, Angelle had already won three consecutive POWERade championships (2000-02) while racing with George Bryce's Star Racing and was one of the most sought after, photographed, and interviewed personalities in the sport.

Antron toiled tirelessly as a fan-friendly racer, flashing his radiant smile and conducting his professional career with style and warmth. And although commanding the spotlight was never a priority for the upbeat drag racer, it was only a matter of time before the right situation presented itself and Brown would be given a larger share of the NHRA stage.
That time is now.

Late in 2007, Brown was offered the vacated seat which Whit Bazemore had occupied in one of two Top Fuel Dragsters owned and campaigned by David Powers. Antron made the giant leap from two to four wheels with uncanny poise and talent as he successfully completed his NHRA Top Fuel licensing procedure shortly before the 2008 season fired up this weekend at the 48th CARQUEST Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.

On Friday during the second qualifying session of the event, Brown jumped to the No. 1 qualifying spot with a brilliant 4.495-second, 330.07 MPH charge -- easily the quickest and fastest runs of his new driving career.

"It was a great run," Brown said. "I can't say enough for my entire Matco Tools team. I owe everything to [crew chief] Lee Beard and my guys. Our goal was to qualify in the top half of the field. Our team is more than capable of that. My guys have made this transition so easy for me.

"I've got to work on cutting good lights and we'll put those good numbers on the board. I'm just stoked to be part of a phenomenal race team."

Brown understands the increased exposure his switch to Top Fuel is generating and he welcomes it happily. But what really ramps up his enthusiasm is the position he now finds himself in after competing in a category where seven-figure budgets and hoards of exuberant fans are unheard of.

"It's definitely a whole different environment," said Brown, who won 16 NHRA national events aboard a string of Suzuki race bikes. "Look at the people I'm surrounded with. Lee Beard is tuning my car and they don't come any better than him. 'Hot Rod' Fuller races beside me and he came that close to winning the championship last year. The Matco Tools people really support us 100 percent and the whole team really believes we can have a shot at the championship this year.

"I realize that there aren't a lot of first-year drivers in this class who wind up in the situation I'm in so I have to pinch myself sometimes. I learned a lot about racing and made a lot of friends when I was racing the bikes but racing in Top Fuel has been amazing and I'm still new at this."

Being famous is also something Antron is getting the hang of. So far, so good.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com