Speed + Smoke
Drag racer Tony Schumacher runs on nitromethane, but slows down for a cigar
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
Not even four seconds. That's the duration of Tony Schumacher's competition. Burst off the mark like a jackrabbit, fly down the thousand-foot raceway at nearly 320 miles per hour, cross the finish line in one piece and feel what Schumacher calls "the complete adren-aline rush, as if every time it was the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, two out with the bases loaded and you've got to step up and deliver."
Welcome to the world of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), where Schumacher's the leading top-fuel drag racer, the equivalent of the heavyweight division champion.
Speed and competition make the 40-year-old Schumacher willing to repeatedly strap himself into a car and engage in a sports event where a paramedic enters the playing field and a helicopter sits at the end of the track should it be necessary to fly a driver to the hospital. Here's Schumacher sharing the joke that isn't a joke: "You're paying me for the one time my car is broken in half."
The memories of what happened in Memphis on October 7, 2000, are crystal clear. That was the day Schumacher flipped his car, broke his left leg in seven places, dislocated six fingers-and was racing 10 days later. As Schumacher's wife, Cara, says, "That was wild. Pretty scary."
But risk pales when matched against Schumacher's passion. On a crisp Friday afternoon in November at the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona (a track located one hour east of Los Angeles), Schumacher is there for the Top Fuel Championship-the last race of the season. His compact 5 foot 8 inch body is coiled, primed for three days of racing as he hopes to finish out atop the point standings for the sixth year in a row. Though Schumacher won't be racing until nearly 4:00 p.m., he's been on the grounds since 8:30 in the morning.
During these race days, there are talks with Schumacher's pit crew, time with his family, and hours of interaction with the public. With an omnipresent black Sharpie, Schumacher will sign more than 1,500 autographs a day, scribbling his signature on hats, T-shirts, magazine covers, posters, scraps of paper, hot dog wrappers, photographs and anything else fans bring to this daylong tailgate party punctuated by four-second, deafening bursts of screaming engines and off-the-charts speed.
During his down time, there are speeches-he gives 200 a year, enjoying talks with everyone from CEOs to students to garbage collectors. Of the latter he notes, "The irony is that we're both professional drivers. The only difference is that I'm reminded of danger every minute. They're not, and that can lead to something awful simply in the line of doing a good job."
Now Schumacher makes his way toward the large hospitality tent of his sponsor, the U.S. Army. As one fan after another approaches-sign, take a photo, recollect a past race-Schumacher is living up to his nickname, "The Sarge." His eye contact is nonstop, uniquely compelling given that his left eye is brown and his right eye is light green. "I've always loved being around cars, always loved this life," he says. Soon Schumacher reaches the tent but instead of dashing inside, he lingers outside the ropes, signing, posing, signing, posing. After hanging outside the tent with fans for 15 minutes, Shumacher heads toward the tent's buffet with a parting wave, kindly shouting out, "I got to eat, guys."
Waiting his turn in line, Schumacher grabs a paper plate, offers another to the person behind him, asks the server for a piece of chicken and begins to sing the opening lines of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain": "Just yesterday morning/they let me know you were gone." As sponsor guests approach and ask for his signature, Schumacher's shift from knife and fork to Sharpie is seamless. Pointing to the fans milling through the suite and on the grounds, Schumacher says, "It's all for them. I owe them the best possible effort, all the time. It's my job."
He's now sitting behind the U.S. Army's two large trailers in a tiny passageway wedged in between the back of two other sponsor trailers. Schumacher has just lit up a Graycliff Purple Label Château Grand Cru. He calls the Graycliff "mouth watering," and remembers first trying the red and blue labels on a trip to the Bahamas, when Schumacher met Fidel Castro's former cigar roller, Avelino Lara. At the 2007 ESPY Awards, he had his first Purple Label Graycliff. "There are thousands of cigars I like," Schumacher says, including the Winston Churchill, the La Gloria Cubana, Fuente Fuente OpusX and many of the other brands fans often bring him at NHRA events.
"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."
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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