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Speed + Smoke

Drag racer Tony Schumacher runs on nitromethane, but slows down for a cigar
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010

(continued from page 2)

His debut came in 1996, in Indianapolis no less. Seven days after receiving his competition license, Schumacher was the last qualifier to get into the MAC Tools U.S. Nationals race. His opponent was set to be No. 1 Blaine Johnson, but Johnson was killed in an accident just prior to that run during a qualifying race. Schumacher went on to finish second in that competition losing to Cory McClenethan. Later that week, he opened a fortune cookie and read words from premier clutch shooter Larry Bird, that became a personal mantra: "In the closing seconds of the game, I always wanted the ball in my hands for the last shot."

It was around this time when Schumacher began to smoke cigars. His grandfather had first given him a Pierogi when he was 20 years old. Soon enough, Schumacher headed to the local Walgreen's to buy a box of five cigars whose names he can't even remember, forcing himself to relax while smoking one.

But not for another decade did cigars really begin to make a major impact on Schumacher's life. Coincidentally, 2006 was also the most remarkable time of his racing career. Far back in the points standings mid-way through the year, Schumacher rattled off four wins in seven races, but still looked out of contention when he arrived in Pomona to close out the season. Then, in the final leg of the final race, Schumacher set a national elapsed time record to claim the title, an effort quickly dubbed "The Run."

As Cara says, "That's what Tony lives for. He needs that edge. He loves that adrenaline. If he didn't have racing, he'd be bored. So when he's at home, he's either got to get with the calendar with what we're doing as a family, get back to the racetrack or go outside to his ‘Man Shack.' "

Whether it's Cara calling it the "Man Shack" or Tony dubbing it the "Doghouse," it's a self-contained gazebo he's built outside his Chicago home, a place with no TV or stereo but where Tony will often have a friend over, smoke a cigar, reflect on what has happened and consider what's to come. He admits that after spending an average of 230 days a year away from home, "I've only got a few more years of this in me. I always said that when my kids get old enough to start playing baseball it will be time for me to put my ego aside, make time for them and get into the family business."

Can a man who has lived the highs of Tony Schumacher content himself by selling battery chargers? According to his father, that will be a difficult transition. "To step away from what he's doing and step off into the business will not be that easy." But according to Schumacher, "I'll be selling battery chargers, but I'll also be talking about the miracles we pulled off, about
the incredible accomplishments of this team." Don't think his love of speed will let up. Often at home, Schumacher loves going for a ride in his black Corvette. Naturally it's a convertible, the better to unwind with a cigar.

The 2009 campaign wrapped up on Sunday, November 15, and was extremely close. Schumacher came in to Pomona just two points ahead of his greatest rival, Larry Dixon, who in the last year had hired away most of Schumacher's pit crew from under him. Just the day before, Dixon had set the all-time national speed record of 321.58 mph. All signs pointed to a Schumacher-Dixon final. But an unexpected upset for Dixon in the semis caused him to hand Schumacher the title, $500,000 and his sixth straight and seventh overall championship-a trophy "The Sarge" dedicated to the victims of the recent tragedy at Fort Hood. Sunday's victory celebration, which saw Schumacher lighting up an OpusX, stretched into Monday morning and continued to Monday night's awards banquet in Los Angeles.

But then again, Schumacher has always known how to make the most of his time. When the U.S. Army was considering sponsoring a race car driver, Schumacher knew what he had to do. Whipping out an electric razor, Schumacher shaved his head, boarded a plane, came to the meeting with the potential sponsor and said, "Don't ever say I won't do anything for this team."

A two-hour meeting rapidly turned into a fast-paced celebration of a new partnership. As he has his entire life, Tony Schumacher took time at breakneck speed.

Joel Drucker is the author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.

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