Speed + Smoke
Drag racer Tony Schumacher runs on nitromethane, but slows down for a cigar
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
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"It's overwhelming," Schumacher says about these days at the races. "People pulling, everyone needs something and you don't want to be aggravated, because if you are..." At which point Schumacher's cell phone rings. "No problem," he says, after listening to the caller "I have day passes in my pocket. I don't know who's here yet. We'll get it handled."
Putting his phone back in his pocket the man once dubbed The Fastest Man on Earth says, "I've always been very good at short attention span situations. But this is what I love about the cigar. You don't force it. It's the one thing I've found that you cannot rush. I can't outrace a cigar. I can't outfox it. This is the ultimate in enforced relaxation. You've got to have a moment of silence and get away. If you don't, you'll be angry all the time. You'll feel like you're getting pulled in all directions. Hey, I love my sister, and she wants to get together for dinner, but I've got to get prepared for the race. I tell folks, ‘The outcome of the party Sunday night depends on what I do this week.' For you all, it's 100 percent entertainment. For me, it's 100 percent work. So you've got to be able to take that time, smoke a cigar and then come out and say to everyone, ‘OK, I'm ready.' " Though typically he'll smoke one or two a day, Schumacher believes, "I could smoke a cigar any time except when I'm sleeping."
There's one qualifying race this Friday afternoon, an integral part of the lineup process leading to Sunday's elimination tournament. But Schumacher's speed is disappointing: a mere 5.25 seconds.
The following day, Schumacher looks back on what happened.
"It's all part of the game, all a matter of gathering data," he says. "There is never a point in panicking."
Seemingly undaunted, he and his team make their way to the track for the day's next qualifying race. Some fans cheer "You're number one, Tony!" He makes eye contact, takes time to sign more autographs and heads for his hot rod.
This race is much different. Schumacher bolts in at 3.772 seconds, the second quickest time in NHRA history. His speed of 320.58 mph clocks in as the second fastest in NHRA history as well. "Now that was a message," he says.
The fit between the U.S. Army and Schumacher couldn't be better. At each race, the U.S. Army hosts events for local high-school students. When Schumacher takes the stage, the old Army slogan "Be All That You Can Be" morphs into something along the lines of "at least attempt to be all you can be."
It's a message close to Schumacher's heart. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, Schumacher loved sports, fishing and most of all, hanging out in the garage taking cars apart and putting them back together. His father, Don, ran Schumacher Electric, a highly-successful automotive battery recharging business. Asked to recall what kind of child Tony was, Don pauses for five seconds, then says, "Oooohhh. Tony was a handful. He was a challenge, a very, very busy, fast-moving young man who was always doing stuff and getting into things."
If Tony was not necessarily a troublemaker, he concedes his focus was minimal, figuring with the family business always awaiting him there was little need to push himself. Says Schumacher, "Every day I'd ask myself, ‘What day am I going to try?' And every day would come and I wouldn't do a thing about it. I talk about this in my speeches. I tell kids that life goes pretty fast, and all of a sudden they're 35 and they never tried hard. I wish I'd have performed way better in school. The lesson is that when you perform well early on in life, it really carries. I was lucky to pull myself out of a tailspin and escape mediocrity."
Don had also been a racer, quitting in the early '70s, a time when auto racers were gaining speed but had yet to create a great many safety procedures. "You look at that time and you see a lot of guys were dying," says Schumacher. "But even though my dad was no longer racing, he had these friends who'd come by. I'd sit in awe. I just loved working with cars. And in time I got my chance to race."
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