TOPEKA — Welcome to Schumacher City. Population … as many as 1,000, depending on the time of day.
Bring your appetite and a set of ear plugs.
NHRA royalty resides inside the hospitality tents between the garage areas of Don Schumacher Racing’s three Top Fuel and four Funny Car teams at Heartland Park Topeka.
Fans meander through the pits and watch Schumacher crew chiefs tune the roaring, 8,000-horsepower engines, while sponsors, who make it all possible, dine on gourmet meals prepared by an executive chef and his sous chef in kitchen trailers built specifically to cater to as many as 1,000 or more patrons each race weekend.
It’s all part of the aura — on and off the track — created by Don Schumacher Racing, now the dominant organization in NHRA racing.
“Racing for Don Schumacher, we have the best of the best,” Top Fuel driver Spencer Massey said of his boss. “The best team, parts, shop, equipment. … It’s quite amazing.
“Don wants the best, and that’s what he has when it comes to crew chiefs, drivers and everyone working for him. That’s why he’s been so successful.”
Indeed. A year ago, when Don Schumacher Racing’s Antron Brown won the Top Fuel championship and Jack Beckman won the Funny Car title, it marked just the second time in NHRA history that one organization had swept both Nitro titles. The Schumacher team also won the double in 2005 with Tony Schumacher winning the third of his record seven Top Fuel championships and Gary Scelzi winning Funny Car.
And through seven events this year, Schumacher drivers have won nine of a possible 14 Top Fuel and Funny Car races. Schumacher and Brown are running 1-2 in the Top Fuel standings. Matt Hagan, Johnny Gray and Ron Capps are running 2-3-4 in Funny Car.
“It’s really a remarkable year so far,” said Schumacher, 68. “But everybody has to remember it’s early in the year, and things change as we get into the hotter weather. The Countdown equalizes everything after the Labor Day race at Indianapolis.”
When Brown won at Gainesville, Fla., in March, it marked the 200th career win by Don Schumacher Racing, a total that has risen to 205, second only to the 218 by John Force Racing. And earlier this month, Schumacher, 68, became the 11th member of the drag racing community to be enshrined in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013, along with NASCAR luminaries Rusty Wallace, Rick Hendrick and Dale Inman.
“Without him and a couple other team owners,” Hagan said, “there’d be no professional drag racing.”
This is not exactly what Schumacher envisioned when he retired as a Funny Car driver in 1974 to run the family business his father founded, Chicago-based Schumacher Electric Corp., the largest battery-charger company in the world, employing 2,000 worldwide.
But once Tony turned 16, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a drag racer, and 23 years after Don Schumacher retired from racing, he founded Don Schumacher Racing and built it from one race team to seven cars with 120 employees.
As an owner, Schumacher drew upon the experience from his driving career, in which he won five races, including the 1970 U.S. Nationals.
“I’m a businessman and work hard at things,’’ said Schumacher, “and I just put my head down and try to do the right things for my employees, my teams, NHRA, the fans and for DSR.
“Every run one of my teams makes, I wish they could set a world record and be the quickest and the fastest out there. That’s the goal we have. “
That goal has been met, too.
The NHRA record holders in the 1,000-foot era of NHRA racing since 2008 happen to be Schumacher drivers. In Top Fuel, Massey set the record of 332.18 mph at Charlotte, N.C., in April 2012, and Brown set the elapsed time mark of 3.701 seconds at Reading, Pa. in October 2012.
Beckman owns both Funny Car records of 320.58 mph at Charlotte in 2011 and 3.986 seconds at Reading last October.
“Don’s done if from every aspect: driver, owner, crew chief,” said Beckman. “It’s very rewarding to be around Don throughout a season and gather some of his wisdom.
“He’s watched more nitro cars from the starting line than anybody other than the NHRA starter. He’s about as well-rounded in NHRA drag racing as anyone who’s ever been out there.”
Beyond his 11 NHRA world championships, perhaps Schumacher’s greatest accomplishments are the innovations he’s introduced to the sport: a roof-mounted escape hatch that allows drivers to quickly exit when fires occur and most recently, a revolutionary enclosed canopy for Top Fuel cars.
Three Top Fuel drivers — Brown, Tony Schumacher and Brittany Force —use the canopy, and it may have saved Brown from serious injury when his car was destroyed in a fiery explosion at Pomona, Calif. But he was able to walk away unharmed.
“Thank God that canopy is on our car because … it really kept the fire away from me,” Brown said. “I’m just grateful we had that thing on our car because I don’t know what would’ve happened if we would’ve had the (old-style, open cockpit) setup on the front of the car.”