Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – CHANDLER, AZ – After a year that did not meet the high expectations for eight-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, the veteran knew there needed to be some changes.
After an off-season that included a significant one, Schumacher, who finished eighth in the Top Fuel standings a year ago, appears to be quickly back in championship form.
The 83-time event winner was the runner-up at the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opener in Pomona, a strong start after Mike Neff was named the new crew chief over the winter. Heading into this weekend’s 34th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where Schumacher is a five-time winner in his 10,000-horsepower U.S. Army dragster, the longtime talent is already impressed with what Neff brings to the team.
“He’s an awesome dude, (and) he’s really hands on with the guys on this U.S. Army team,” Schumacher said. “He’s spends quite a bit of time talking with each and every one of the guys getting their feedback, looking for their thoughts and ideas on how to make our U.S. Army car faster. That really impressed me. There aren’t a lot of crew chiefs like that. I talked with my crew guys and they really felt part of the decisions that were made. We’ve got guys that are the best in the business and they really gelled early this season.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will once again be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 25. The race is the second on the 24-race schedule and it already appears on a better path than a 2017 campaign that did not reach the lofty standards Schumacher has on an annual basis.
The team won just won race in four final-round appearances, and none happened over the final 17 races of the season. That didn’t sit well with Schumacher or the entire Don Schumacher Racing organization, which prompted the move to add Neff, who has won world titles both as a Funny Car crew chief and driver. Plenty of season remains and Schumacher knows that big performances down the stretch will be what counts, but he knew the team couldn’t stand pat after 2017.
“We needed a change,” Schumacher said. “We were getting stagnant. We were letting cars beat us that shouldn’t beat us. To win a championship, you have to win every race you are supposed to win and half of the ones you should win. I think we had lost that for whatever reason. We just weren’t winning rounds for whatever reason, and we needed to make a change. We are all going to have to pull our weight. We are all going to have to do our job. I think it’s going to be awesome.”
Schumacher has watched Pritchett, who joined the DSR team in 2016, win the last two races in Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, a trend he hopes to change this weekend. His last victory at the facility came in 2015, but his memories at the facility go back much further. Those always come to mind when the NHRA Arizona Nationals arrive, where Schumacher will try to hold off the likes of Doug Kalitta, who won in Pomona, Steve Torrence, three-time champ Antron Brown and defending world champ Brittany Force to pick up his first victory since last March.
“It’s really the place where I kind of felt like I could do this,” Schumacher said of Phoenix. “Back in 1999, I had yet to win a race and we went out there and went 330 mph. That just set an awesome tone to want to go back and it’s always been fun racing there since. It’s the beginning of the season. Everybody was away from racing for a couple of months then we went to Pomona and you go through that shock and awe of being back in the seat and feel a little pressure. No matter what happened in that first race, you are kind of starting to get your mojo back. I just love going to Phoenix. It’s a great track, the temperature is great and the fans come out and pack the place.”
Hagan won the first two races of 2017 in Funny Car, and hopes to repeat that after a win in Pomona. He’ll go up against defending world champion Robert Hight, 2016 world champ Ron Capps, John Force, an eight-time event winner, 2016 event winner Tim Wilkerson and J.R. Todd.
Anderson won for the second time at Phoenix in Pro Stock a year ago, finishing second in points to defending champ and KB Racing teammate Bo Butner, who won in Pomona.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills. As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:30 and 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 24, also at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25.