AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN FORCE, ANTRON BROWN, TONY SCHUMACHER AND MATT HAGAN
The following is are excerpts from a teleconference featuring 15-time Funny Car world champion John Force, 2012 Top Fuel world champion Antron Brown, seven time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher and 2011 Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan previewing the Western Swing which begins at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals July 19-21 at Bandimere Speedway in Denver.
MODERATOR: The NHRA is 13 races into the season and featured a stretch of four consecutive weeks of racing. Next up for the NHRA Mello Yello drag racing series is the grueling stretch of three consecutive races known as the Western Swing, which will begin in Bandimere Speedway, July 19th - 21st, for the running of the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.
The first driver joining us today is 15-time Funny Car world champion John Force. John, thanks for joining us today.
JOHN FORCE: Good to be here.
MODERATOR: In the four consecutive races we just came out of, behind the wheel of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, he went to the finals three times, won the event in Bristol, was the number one qualifier twice, and moved from ninth to fifth in the points. John, talk about that stretch of races we just came from and what you and your crew chief have found so far this year.
JOHN FORCE: Well, we've just been struggling all year with a lot of changes. You keep staying after it. Of course, naturally the Schumacher Funny Cars and the dragsters are really hot. Cruz was hot, but he's struggling like me now. It was good for our team, for Castrol, Ford, all the studies from the engineers that go into your program, they pay us big money, as all sponsors do, and that's to deliver. To get on a roll and be in three finals, my daughter got one, I got one, then [Matt] Hagan got me the last time. We're holding our own. Not where we want to be, but we just keep trying.
Q: Concerning Top Fuel canopies, an owner's perspective, but also you're putting your daughter in one of these cars. This is the most visible addition to driver safety. How do you feel about this? Has Brittany spoken to you? Does she love it or does it get in her way?
JOHN FORCE: Number one, she likes it. I owe the thanks to Don Schumacher and his teams. We work hard, the Ford engineers, to build safety. The Funny Cars, chassis, a lot of things were changing. We were never in the dragster business. The Schumacher team came up with a canopy. After we witnessed that, then the Antron crash, Schumacher, we were able to get a canopy. We put it on the second car we built. We had to make changes to make it fit. We looked at it as the future. We believe it's better. I talked to Schumacher, the driver, and without a doubt he believes in it. Even though we're changing some chassis around, we have to make it fit, but we're going to get another one on order for the other car. We just purchased a Top Fuel car from Steve Torrence. He had a used car. We're struggling with ours. We wanted to look at that. So we're trying to get the canopy to fit on it. Yes, we plan on sticking with that.
Q: John, as you were coming up, was there a point in your rise that you said, ‘I can do this?’ Did it kind of happen to you along the way that it finally started to fall together for your wins?
JOHN FORCE: The wins?
Q: I'm talking about when you got a moment, I know I can be a champion as well as anybody.
JOHN FORCE: I thought I could be a champion playing football. I lost 27 games, nine a year for three seasons as a quarterback in my high school. I had polio as a kid. I was hampered a little bit. But I was never going to go to college and be a great player. But I always believed. I got a racecar to do the running for me. At the end of that, I've always believed that I could do something. If I didn't, I wouldn't do it. I don't think I could be a preacher, so I should not attempt to do it. Might try to change my ways, but ain't going to be a singer because I can't sing. I drive racecars because I believe I can win.
Q: You mentioned the safety of the racecars. Quick comment on the speeds that you go, the safety, your advice to average people out there, fans and citizens on the highways about speed and safety.
JOHN FORCE: I tell any kid or adult I run into, put on your belt in your street car. At the end of the day, these cars are running over 300 miles an hour, the dragsters are running faster than that, 330. NHRA works hard. In the old days, cars ran 200 or 250. Market share areas that we're in, the town has grown around, but we have to be there because of Coca-Cola, Mello Yello, the sponsors want to be in those markets. Even Pomona has a railroad track on one end and a golf course on the other. The only way to ensure safety, keep the insurance companies happy, is to shorten. That's why they went to a thousand foot. They not only did that with the pros, but they addressed with the Top Fuel and Funny Cars, restrictors, ways to slow the cars down with ignition. But drag racers find a way to go faster no matter what you do to them. It's a continual, you know, technology that you can't build new products right now. They don't want anything out there. They want everything left alone to hold us where we're at. At the end of the day we want to give the fans a show, but be safe. NHRA works on that and so do the race teams.
Q: John, can you compare the three races that you have upcoming, what are the individual challenges to each event, and is there anywhere where they're identical, where you don't have to work too hard to be ready for it?
JOHN FORCE: Funny Car, I've won the Western Swing. I sweeped it in '94, when it was Denver, Sonoma, Seattle. Denver is going to be high altitude, hard to make the cars run up there. That's why the crew chief makes the most money, more than the drivers. The crew chief has to figure out a way to make up for the altitude. That's going to be a tough one because you have to change a lot of parts, compression, a lot of things to make that happen. Sonoma, even though you're at sea level, we usually get into the heat. On a racetrack it can be really tough to adapt to. Then you get the night sessions. What we looked at is, how do you go there and win the race?
We did a lot of match racing, even though the crew chiefs like Mike Neff, that era, I'm pretty old, none of the kids on this call go back as far as I did, Schumacher's dad. The technology from the year before, they'll all adapt. That could be anybody's race there at Sonoma. Seattle, you're up in the trees. Another racetrack, the heat gets on it. I hope NHRA, and they always do, they try to satisfy the pros. Then you have Pro Stock. They want it a little bit different. It seems to change week-to-week. But the racers get on them on tracks where we want to run good and we struggle without really good prep. Understand I'm not a crew chief. I'm a driver. I really don't know the tune-ups of these racecars anymore. I'm not that much in it. I wish I had a Robert Hight or Mike Neff that drove to explain it to you, but I do the best I can.
Q: You've been great for the sponsorship and the growth of the NHRA. It appears now you have a daughter who has done something which can be extremely fascinating in the growth of the NHRA. How do you feel about her exposure in the ESPN Magazine?
JOHN FORCE: Well, it's like I am with my children and you have to be a father and you have to be a boss. My kids do wrong in the racecar, I get after them. They're still my children and I love them. Just like [Don] Schumacher loves his kids, or Antron's [Brown] dad loves him. When this issue came up a few years ago, they didn't want me because I was cute, but because I was broken up, they wanted to put me in how I recovered. It was kind of embarrassing to me. I was never pretty. I don't have a body like [Tony] Schumacher and [Matt] Hagan and Antron [Brown]. So I took my hits. I went and did it, but I felt it could give more exposure for my sponsors, Traxxas, Mac Tools, Brand Source. I did it, took my hits. But the reactions were pretty good. A lot of fans wanted autographs because of the ESPN issue. They came last year. It all started because Courtney was saying, Dad, I struggle with this Funny Car, my muscles are hurting. I said, Get in the training. She got into it last year. I go into the gym all the time just to keep my body moving. My daughter got into it. Then ESPN came in and said, Hey, we'd like to use her. She felt, because it's my first year, I'm a rookie, I want to establish myself as a driver. I'm not really a sex symbol, I'm a racecar driver that has to be in shape, like any of the female drivers or the male drivers. She went after it hard. Turned it down the first year. Came back this year, leaned on us, mom. I said to mom, ‘We got to look at it as a business. It will be great exposure for the sponsors.’ Went to each sponsor, got approval. Courtney wanted to do it this time because she was really working out, hitting it hard. She's a pretty girl, attractive, got a great physique. They really do it and do it right. It's not Playboy or those types of magazines; it's really about an athlete. Other athletes have done it. I was just told that she got the front cover nationally, and if they sell worldwide, she's the one individual that's going national, they picked her even over the quarterback of the 49ers, got his name somewhere, Colin Kaepernick from the 49ers, she had 78% of the votes, and she's number one. He was behind her quite a ways. So she's going to go nationally with it and you'll see it everywhere nationwide. It's working so far. Did we get a few hiccups? Yup. They there were people that said, ‘My kids watch it, they love Ashley, now we don't know.’ Eight-year-olds don't come in and buy ESPN Magazine off the rack. What they do is watch us on TV. I didn't know it was going to be on TV Sunday. I was shocked when I was told it was on TV. Once again, it's exposure. My daughter is very proud of what she's done, the way she looks. I thought it was done - what's the word - I don't know what the word is, but they did it right. It's my kid and I'm going to be proud of her as a father. As an owner, got us great exposure so far. I think it's a positive note for NHRA and all the sponsors and I'm going to stick by her no matter what anybody says. We made that decision and we moved ahead with it.
Q: Where did they get the nostalgic dragster in the ESPN Magazine and did Ford get upset?
JOHN FORCE: It is to promote your sponsors is why we do it. ESPN, they do it their way, just like [Eric] Swaringen, the producer at ESPN, he made a decision to put it on to promote the magazine that was coming out a week later, this Friday. I think he put it out as teasers. At first, I didn't understand. I was like, ‘Wow’, when I saw my kid, because I had not seen the pictures before. I'm a dad so I don't really want to look. I started getting the calls. Yeah, a few negatives on TV because of kids watching. But I have to look at the big picture. The world has changed. We have to go to market different. As long as they do it with good taste. I was excited. I thought the nostalgia wasn't about showing Funny Cars or dragsters. Somebody said, ‘That Mustang, she ran out of gas in the middle of the desert.’ That was the whole idea, to fit anybody that has a street car, loves the desert, loves nostalgia. They do it, you don't have a say, and they pick the pictures. So far, so good.
Q: I never hear anybody talk about tires. You hear NASCAR talking that Goodyear brings this tire to this track, that tire to that track. Do you have that same situation at NHRA, different tires to different tracks?
JOHN FORCE: We run pretty much a standard tire. A lot of safety has gone into the Goodyear tires. There's other brands in our categories of drag racing. In the Funny Cars and dragsters, I can't think of anybody that doesn't run a Goodyear. The technology for safety, I don't think it's a different tire every week. Maybe one of the other boys, Hagan or Schumacher should answer that. I know we run the same stuff, we buy them in advance, take them from race to race. I don't think there's a tire for high altitude or heat. I think it's basically the same tire.
Q: You talked about the differences between the three tracks on the Western Swing. When you said you get to Sonoma, heat is a big factor. The best qualifying times are usually set on that evening qualifying session on Friday. How do you set up for that? On Sunday when you race, it's going to be hot. Big change.
JOHN FORCE: That's tricky. But let's face it, they do that session because people are working on Friday, I assume. They say if you're going to get to the races when you get off work, they can't have it at 1:00 in the afternoon, so they drop it into the evening. They also do it because of the heat. Sometimes in some of these tracks, it was so hot back there racing at Norwalk, you know, it just would have been a struggle, even though on race day we were still in the heat, but we still had some runs that were in the heat of the day. We were able to find a balance. You're right. Sometimes you run good. It scares me when I'm low ET, next day in the morning it starts to get warm. Luckily you have the early run on Sunday to get a tune-up at most of the tracks. Some tracks do run at noon. Starts putting you into the heat. These crew chiefs out here are pretty good, the best, and they do adapt these cars.
Q: How do you deal with the three consecutive race weekends back-to-back? Those have to take a toll on you.
JOHN FORCE: I've been on the road for about six, seven weeks. I'm back here in Indy right now. I can't get home. It was my daughter's birthday, Brittany, my wife's birthday. They celebrated yesterday. I sent flowers. I have to stay and get work done. A lot of changes at John Force Racing, trying to make these Funny Cars and dragsters better. Have some new stuff before we hit Denver. If we're going to fight this fight and race against the bad boys out there, we used to be the leaders. You know what I mean, everybody was chasing us. We had the bullet on our back, the target. But not anymore. We're fighting to get back up there. That's why the three races in a row, it felt great to be in there. We're working on Robert Hight's Auto Club car right now, Courtney's, and especially the dragster. I like the races right in a row because you get into a groove mentally. Your whole preparation is right. I don't vacation hardly at all. When I go away, I come back with a couple weeks off. I'm really kind of lost. It takes me a day to get in it. You just have to rest. The boys and the gals, the team on the road, you have to give them downtime. When we come home with a week off, we say, everybody is off. We were unable to do that this week with the changes. I stood in front of the teams yesterday, ‘Guys, whatever you did, three or four straight, I know you're all trying to get home to your families, new babies, but I need your help. We’ve got to pull some overtime.’ They all stood behind me. I even had to talk to a few of the wives. I know they were coming, I have to change it, it's my fault, don't be mad at them. We're a team, a family, like all the others at NHRA, and we do what we have to do.
Q: John, when you come to Bandimere Speedway and stuff like that, what are your thoughts when you think about your early times in Colorado at Bandimere Speedway, carrying on? When you come back, what's the nostalgia for you?
JOHN FORCE: First time I came over that mountain it was snowing. I knew without a race I wouldn't have any money to pay the hotel rooms. Now that's changed, because I have major sponsors like Auto Club and Castrol, Ford, Brand Source, Freightliner. I'm really a fortunate guy. I'm able to do it right. A lot of the teams are still struggling with budgets, trying to make it to the next race. I remember being there with my dad, he's passed now, John Bandimere, he was a kid like me, his and my dad sat on the hill and talked about their two crazy kids, one trying to run a racetrack, one trying to drive a racecar. Neither one of us had a clue. I look at your daughter, how little she was, my daughters, playing on the side of the hill in the dirt, running around there, playing at the racetrack. That's where we come from. There's bad times when I crashed, there's good times when I won. I love going back. It's a beautiful facility. The fans open their arms to us. The media is great. It's really a tough deal on that mountain. There was one year there I ran top speed, I was faster than the dragsters. That don't happen very often. For some reason our deal went right, for a few moments we were up there with our big brother. It was a great feeling. A lot of those dragster guys were telling me that was pretty cool. Never done it since, but we keep trying.
MODERATOR: John, thank you very much for the time out of your busy day. We'll see you at the start of the Western Swing there at Bandimere Speedway next weekend.
JOHN FORCE: Want to tell you in the media and NHRA thank you for having me on. I want to say good luck to the other drivers, not that they need it, they're pretty dang good.
MODERATOR: Next up we do have Antron Brown. Thank you for joining us this afternoon.
ANTRON BROWN: Anytime. Thanks for inviting me.
MODERATOR: Antron has two wins this season and one number one qualifying position. He's led the points so far this year, earlier this season. The flipside, he's had five first-round losses in the last six events. Antron, how much of a rollercoaster season has this been for you and your guys?
ANTRON BROWN: It's been one of those deals where we've just been fixing issues, different problems, different gremlins biting us. I guess from running so many laps that we do from the previous years and testing, we're finally seeing some other things we've been working on biting us. The luck has been going the other way this year. We've just been attacking it with a lot of hard work, keeping our head down. We're not going to quit. We saw some light at Chicago, which was two races ago, where we made it to the semifinals. The last race we went out and we went through all the rounds in qualifying. Definitely at the turning point. Lost a close first-round match-up against [Khalid] alBalooshi. The Western Swing coming up with the three races in a row has always been real good to us. We go out to Denver, do well. Sonoma, we win a lot. We pulled off a Sweep back in '09 in Seattle. Our idea is to get out to the Western Swing and turn everything around and be ready for the Countdown, and hopefully we can use this Western Swing to get back on the positive side of things.
Q: Mr. Force said winning the first one is tough. Winning the next one is really tough. Talk a little bit about repeating the championship.
ANTRON BROWN: Well, it's going to be really, really tough. As you can see, our class just gets stronger and stronger each and every year. It's a dogfight just to be in the top 10, to make the Countdown. I guarantee you, we have anywhere between 14 and 16 cars on any given Sunday that can win a race in Top Fuel. Everybody is cutting great lights, putting a consistent package together. With that being said, coming off last year from winning the championship, trust me, nobody is cutting our Matco Tools car any slack. We just got to step up and we have to be better than what we've been. I know [crew chiefs] Brian [Corradi] and Mark [Oswald], our whole team and crew, we're putting our heads down. We've been taking all the bumps and bruises, and we can feel that turn is coming up where we have to have that kind of turn come up. If not, our main goal is to focus and to contend for another championship. It's definitely going to be 10 times harder than it was last time because everybody is throwing their best shot at us.
Q: I asked John Force as an owner of a Top Fuel car, the subject is the canopies on Top Fuel cars, only because it's the most visible addition to driver safety. Everybody sees the canopy. Especially you and Tony, you've been through some rather tough moments with canopies on your car. Do you love this thing or does it get in your way?
ANTRON BROWN: Let me tell you something. That's not even a question anymore. If any car I ever drive, the decision is all up to me, that's all I would ever drive from now on. It's definitely a lifesaver. It's just like anything else, we're racing racecars that go over 330 miles an hour. Funny Car has been fully enclosed for a while. Big Daddy came out with a fully enclosed cockpit years ago. It kind of went back to would you rather be in a convertible or a hardtop? After my accident in Pomona, it raised some eyebrows. I guarantee you by the end of next year, they'll build other cars where they'll transfer over to it. DSR and John Force Racing, Brittany [Force] being in one. We're all about safety, going fast, contending for championships, but we want to do it in a safe way and walk away and see our families Monday after a Sunday race. I was very blessed and able to do that, what happened to me after Pomona. I definitely love the canopy.
Q: Could you explain the differences between the next three tracks that are coming up. What is it that made it possible for you to win all three in a row four to five years ago?
ANTRON BROWN: We came real close to doing that again last year. The thing about it is, all three tracks are different. There's nothing alike about them. When you go to Denver, Denver is all by itself. It's the only racetrack we race at a high altitude where it's hard for our nitro cars to make power. You're using 30 percent of your power at Denver. That makes it tough on the crew chiefs. You have less oxygen, so you can't burn as much fuel, have to cut the fuel back. You cut the fuel back, you have less power. It can get hot up there. When it gets hot up there, it makes it even worse. Then you go from a place where you can't make power, to Sonoma, you're at sea level, back to making killer power because you're at sea level, and it also gets cool out there because you're by the ocean. You have to make good power, have nighttime qualifying at Sonoma where you can get close to setting the ET record, run some mid to low 70s on Friday night. Then you leave Sonoma where you have great conditions, you go up to Seattle, you're still close to sea level up there. But Seattle gets hot that time of year, it gets humid, muggy. You're not halfway in between them, but you come to a racetrack where you're racing almost like at a, I would say, a Bristol, Tennessee, or something like that, where you get decent air, good air, but then it gets muggy. So you have three different environments. What makes it even more taxing is that our crew guys are driving from track to track, out there working. It's like a marathon of races where you have to maintain, not to be worn out and try to stay upbeat, keep your mind right and focus while you're being tired and trying to get the job done because it's back-to-back-to-back. That's what makes the Western Swing so grueling, all the climate changes, then the car for the crew chiefs to tune them, then for all your crew members, the drivers and the crew chiefs, what they go through mind and body set of all the atmosphere conditions, too. Then trying to put all that together and maintain focused and do your job on Sunday and get those round wins. It makes it taxing and grueling to win the Western Swing, almost impossible. Yet we were able to get it done back in '09.
Q: Did you have any major adjustments after you ran some laps there in the Virginia area in a stockcar versus a dragster?
ANTRON BROWN: Adjustments?
Q: Did you have to adjust when you got back into your Top Fuel car?
ANTRON BROWN: No. Me driving a Top Fuel car is like a duck going back into water again. Doesn't make a difference. It's a part of me. I mean, I'm a drag racer. This is what I do week in and week out. Getting back in my Top Fuel car was like me being back at home again. There was no adjustment at all, trust me.
Q: I know you're getting ready for the Western Swing. I notice you started to climb in behind different steering wheels. I know NHRA is near and dear to your heart. Have you been on a motorcycle since you went Top Fuel? Are you looking at other forms of motorsports?
ANTRON BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I have been on some different street bikes, playing with my dirt bikes at home and stuff like that. At the end of the day, I love every realm of motorsports, from motorcycles to all different sanctioned bodies, IndyCar, NASCAR. Don't make a difference. Like always, when you step on the gas of a nitro car, there's still nothing quite like that. You know what I mean? That's what I mean. I love everything out there. If NHRA let me, I'd race all four professional categories, trust me.
Q: Have you been on another Pro Stock bike to try it again or you've moved on from then?
ANTRON BROWN: Hey, trust me, it's always in me. I haven't been on one. I did a couple burn-outs when Don had some Pro Stock bikes when I was driving Top Fuel. I did a couple burn-outs to scuff some tires in for him. But, no, I haven't been on one in quite some time. Still watching them. The class is definitely very competitive right now for sure, too, with everything that NHRA and the class has done, it's very competitive.
Q: You swept the Western Swing back in 2009. Where do you rate that as far as your accomplishments? How important is the Western Swing because you're coming down to the Countdown to the title? It's an important three-race swing, isn't it?
ANTRON BROWN: Absolutely, absolutely. When you go out on the Western Swing, gets everybody in gear. Playtime is over. Everybody is really buckled down. They start finalizing what they're going to run in the Countdown, whether it's clutch disc or anything like that. Getting to the nitty-gritty. When they get the team, the driver, crew chief wants to get in the groove and get that symmetry going on. After the Western Swing, we have Brainerd, then we have the U.S. Nationals, then right after that we're right into the Countdown. This Western Swing can build you some momentum and give you some confidence. When you go into those races, you're ready to be in attack mode for sure. The Western Swing has a big, big part of that.
Q: Antron, you mentioned when you were describing the differences between the three tracks that Sonoma always has been a good track for you. What is it about Sonoma that makes you a winner? Something about your driving style, crew chief setup? What's your secret at Sonoma?
ANTRON BROWN: I think it's one of those tracks that really just goes with our setup that we have in our racecar as a team as a whole and the mindset when you're in Sonoma. When you get out there, you're in Napa Valley, it's like a breath of fresh air. It's one of those racetracks where you're more relaxed. The fans are incredible where they come by your pit, pump you up, push you and your team up, and it gets you going. When I go to Sonoma, I always take a deep breath, take it all in. I always have a lot of energy up there. You go up there, you kind of feel good. It's like the air out there, the weather, it makes the car run good, but it also makes your human body feel good. It's just the atmosphere around you that really makes our team really gel and do well in Sonoma. It fits the way we run our car, too, a lot.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Antron, for joining us today. We'll let you get back to your afternoon and will see you next week in Denver.
ANTRON BROWN: Sounds great. Thanks for having us on. Look forward to seeing each and every one of you soon.
MODERATOR: Next up we have Tony Schumacher. Thank you for joining us. Tony has raced into six final-round appearances this year and won three of them. Tony also has swept the Western Swing in 2008.Tony, this year we've seen the Top Fuel points lead swap hands back and forth, including last weekend in Norwalk. How tough has that Top Fuel category been so far this year?
TONY SCHUMACHER: Well, it's been tough the last couple years. There's just a number of good cars. Lately there's five or six really good cars, whereas maybe the beginning of the year or even last year, there were eight or nine. It's not that they're not all good cars, it's just there's five that have been finding a way to win. The tune-ups, we've had a little more time with them. Like I said at every press conference, the silly season hasn't happened in the last couple years. The teams have stayed together with the drivers and crew chiefs, even the sponsors. We just had more time to get closer, and the racing has been great. If I was a fan, and I am, if I was paying money to see a race, I would want to come to an NHRA race right now. Anybody can go out and do a great job. I got beat by someone I grew up with, the first guy I ever had a T-shirt from, the Golden Greek [Chris Karamesines]. He went out and ran a 3.95. I got beat. Qualified phenomenal, got my butt handed to me. You don't wake up in the morning on Sunday, no matter who you're racing, and feel confident. Man, there's some great cars out there.
MODERATOR: Was that a surreal moment when that happened in that somebody you've looked up to all those years, a legend in the sport, does that make you shake your head a little bit?
TONY SCHUMACHER: It's definitely racing. I was very caught off guard by it because the conditions were good, cars were running in the 70s. We have a car that runs in the 70s. We struggle when it's hot out. We ran our second qualifying where we ended up in the second spot, was from those perfect conditions, the night run. We had conditions very similar. When that thing went out there and smoked the tires, I thought, ‘We're going to win anyway.’ When I saw him go bye, ‘Oh, my God, are you kidding me?’ This was not the right time. We went out and won Chicago. We had a nice points lead. Let's maintain it, win two in a row. But I got it handed to me. What a great guy. There was nothing I could do other than walk over and shake his hand, I would love to see you go out and win this race. Is he going to do that three more times? Probably not. It's been great to see it. The man has been doing it for a long, long time. I can remember the drawer when I was three or four years old that I opened had the T-shirt, the Golden Greek, my dad's shirt, his shirt. Just awesome. Again, I bet he was more upset than I was because he doesn't have the big money, hard to get back for that second round. In reality, to beat our car is something that's exciting. You watch guys go out and beat the Army car. They jump up and down like they won a championship. I said it in the morning, I said, Man, I wish I was running a Kalitta car because you know how to rise to that occasion, get pumped up, get ready, do all your stuff. You don't exactly know how to run the Greek. Apparently I do. You go out, race him, then you put your car on the trailer and go home. He gave us a whooping, man.
MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions for Tony.
Q: Tony, speaking of the Army sponsorship, could you talk a little bit about what the hospitality means? Also, if you have a comment on our troops that are deployed.
TONY SCHUMACHER: Sure. We've been deployed for a long time in a lot of different places. It's such a special partnership. As much as I do love Matco Tools, all the other sponsors on the sides of the cars, it's the U.S. Army, a phenomenal deal. We do so many events over almost 14 years, on Fridays we invite kids from all the high schools, colleges, vocational schools to the racetrack. We give them a free ticket in, we give them a little speech. I'm not saying, You got to join the Army. I'm a racecar driver. I do say, Be part of a team. Figure out what you want to do, find people that are similar that want to do that job and get yourself around the right group the people. I kind of say it sarcastically, but you're as good as the people you surround yourself with. If you're around five guys that aren't pulling their weight, you're going to pull yourself down. The Army is so good about the man or woman next to them, it makes it easy for me to speak because I've been blessed to be around them, a strength like no others. Saturdays, we do centers of influence, the mayors, fire chefs, principals, invite them into the trailer because they are influencing our kids. We talk about teamwork, leadership. It's our job to build the building blocks to help these kids grow. They're going to be the strength of our nation and we need them to be strong, team players. More than themselves, they need to be out for helping our country. That's what our country is based off of, great kids growing up and doing great things, building a great nation. For all the soldiers, I drive the Army car, but every branch is necessary and incredible. I've met guys and gals from every branch of our military, spent time with them. I know for families at home, it's harder for you guys. When you're out there deployed, you know what you're doing, you know what's happening, but for the people at home it's difficult at home. Similar to racecar drivers, my wife waits for a phone call when there's a crash, and it's unfortunate sometimes they get it quicker on Facebook. We're proud of them. I don't think there's a person in America that's not proud of what they do. For those of you listening overseas, stay strong and do your job. We love you, guys.
Q: With the speed you go, the safety factor, all that, could you comment on that compared to speed on the highway, what your comments would be to young people about speeding, safety.
TONY SCHUMACHER: I say a prayer. I put on a fire suit, I get in a roll cage. I do all those things in preparation for what I'm going to do. I'm very aware I'm in a dangerous job. People on the highway get lackadaisical. Driving down the road, changing radio stations. Hopefully not texting. I'm a Harley guy. I don't like to pull up to somebody where they're texting, drifting all over the place. As a professional racecar driver, it's our job to be prepared. I wish everyone on the highway would understand the implications if you go out and make a mistake, there are lives at stakes. I think Wally Parks founded NHRA to get people off the streets and get them on a racetrack where it's safer. If we get in a dangerous situation, we put ourselves there. On a highway, you're jeopardizing other people. You just have to stay off the street when you're doing that stuff. It's not necessary. There's places you can go out and race. NHRA makes it available for anyone that wants to go fast, put on a helmet, go down a racetrack.
Q: Tony, veteran drivers never say they've learned everything. They always say they're learning something new year after year after year. What's the biggest thing you've learned this year that has helped you?
TONY SCHUMACHER: Oh, that's a really good question. I learned that losing by a couple thousandths of a second the last race of the season does not make me smile. I've learned that you need to dig. I can joke and say that, but if I had to do that run last year against Bernstein 100 times, I wouldn't have done it any better. I had nothing left to give. It makes you dig. Each year I find that being around great people, and I use it in my speeches, but I love driving a Top Fuel dragster because of the nine people that work on my car. Many of you heard my speech. It is a great car, scary car, goes very fast. But what makes it great is when they say, Here we go, we're going to start the car, I can look at those nine guys and know they're capable of that moment. If I had to start my car with my five high school friends working on it, it would be terrifying. I learned this in a speech. I've eliminated 'we have a problem,' and I've changed to 'a situation.' If you don't have a parachute on, that's a problem. If you run a racecar, 300 miles an hour, with my five friends from high school working on it, I have a problem. When I show up at a race, there are obstacles and adversity we have to get to. But because of those nine guys, it's just a situation, something we have to figure out and accomplish. It's a very different situation. I tell the kids and I tell people, almost never, I've used the word, I've got a problem, but in three days, it's gone. It's fixed because the people I put myself around are capable of fixing it. It's like that in any job. If you're a boss of any company anywhere, it's good advice. If you hire the wrong people, possibly you're going to have some problems. If you put the people in place that are good at producing the results, which it's your job as a boss to hire the right people, put yourself in a situation, not a problem. I see something coming, Wow, this is something we have to get through. I know we have people that can do it. It's calmed me down a lot this year.
Q: Tony, you've been pretty much the leaders when it comes to safety with the canopy, a lot of other different ideas. Are you working on anything in the future? Is there another area you're looking at or you're pretty happy with the package you have?
TONY SCHUMACHER: Never happy. I love it. I would never drive any other car. We're always working on something. We're putting more like a Formula One insert into my car to keep me away from the reverser. I'm just waiting to see what the guys I race about say about it. It's inside, in my cockpit, but somehow they're going to say it's aerodynamic, makes my feet faster or something. It's just ridiculous. We're 100% going to add weight to my car because we're putting weight in there to protect my legs. All we're doing is trying to make these things safer. I'm overly surprised we haven't had other cars get in a canopy. We're not making money off it. Antron proved that thing worked phenomenal. You hate to use Antron, but he was the one that used it first. I don't remember which one of our cars, one of them hit a bird two races ago I think in Chicago, it was a pretty messy thing. But you hit parts and pieces without a canopy and you're going to get hurt. The inserts are going to be beautiful. I'm not sure when we'll have them on. But to protect your legs, to protect your hips, the rest of your body in a crash, to keep it from banging against each other, that's the next stuff.
Q: Do you think we're going to stay at a thousand feet for you guys?
TONY SCHUMACHER: I believe we will. The situation for us is a thousand feet. I don't think we can separate some tracks at a quarter mile which we own the land, can make them longer, and some tracks that have no capability of that. The fans, they're seeing great racing. We all wish it was longer. We all do. I mean, I haven't talked to any driver that doesn't hope or wish we could go back to quarter mile, but we understand that the situation is just not there. We can't. There's no land at some big tracks to do that. We need a shutdown area. Our cars are going extremely fast. We were always racing to a thousand feet. After a thousand feet, our stuff was blowing up anyway. What you're seeing now is better, closer races. It's safer. I'm going to knock on wood here, but we haven't had a catastrophe in a while. Safe racing is great. We have accidents and things happen, but to have that shutdown area where it's not absolutely disastrous like some of the ones we've seen in the past is very important.
Q: I'm a Vietnam vet. How often have you been able to get over to see the guys in Afghanistan and what are your thoughts when you get to see the guys?
TONY SCHUMACHER: I haven't been over there nearly enough. Mostly at the bases. Seattle, we go to Fort Lewis. They're leaving and coming back. I can see more people. When you get off to Afghanistan, Iraq, there's other countries that we've got a lot of troops in, you don't really get to see that many of them. It's nice, but they're off doing their job. It's nice when they come home, it's a welcome home. It's fantastic. At the last race, it was beautiful. I had a Vietnam vet, had a purple heart and a silver star. Actually now that I think about it, I got beat on that run, but at least I got to carry them. Felt bad giving them back, didn't go 330 miles an hour. The guy was cool, walked up, was a Vietnam vet. It's so nice to give back to people. Nowadays, our soldiers come back, they're heroes. At that time it was difficult. To be able to carry a medal, something that that man earned was a blessing. If you stand in my ropes, you look out at the pits, you see the Vietnam war, the Korean, that's the Army car, home base for those guys. It's phenomenal to have them out there. I invite them in. Come on in, get some water, sit down, watch my guys. If there's anybody in the world that deserves to come into our pits, it's any veteran of any war. They have served our country. You all know me. I don't fake this stuff. This is just good old reality and the American way. When I flew over there, I got to go to Afghanistan, right before we were at war in Iraq. I flew with General Keen. Our drivers go off to Germany, different places. Most people don't have the opportunity, I want to fly to Iraq, see what is going on. It is a big trip, something you plan for a while. You're stuck in small places. You're in some areas. It's pretty intense and pretty unique.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Tony. We will let you get back to your afternoon. We will see you at the start of the West Coast Swing next week.
TONY SCHUMACHER: Sounds great. Look forward to getting there guys.
MODERATOR: Our final driver of the day is Matt Hagan who has three wins this season, two runner-up finishes, along with two number one qualifying positions. Matt has been in a dogfight this year in the entire Funny Car class, as all the competitors have been. He has been leading the points standings since the Englishtown event. Going into the Western Swing, do you see yourselves coming out the other side still holding on to that Funny Car points lead?
MATT HAGAN: You know, absolutely. I think we've got one of the most consistent racecars out here. I guess to say because of Dickie Venables, the guy is phenomenal. He's the baddest crew chief I've ever worked with, the most consistent. I think the points show how consistent our car is. We have a 100-point lead on everybody. I think as long as we keep working hard, digging deep, just keep our heads down, I think this thing will turn out the way we need it to in the end.
Things change fast. They're going to reset the points pretty soon. As nice as it is to have that nice of a lead, have a race on everybody, it changes quick. So we understand that and we know once they reset these points out here, it doesn't really matter, you have to start all over and make the next six races after that count.
MODERATOR: We've seen some teams get hot this season, then cool off. Another team will pop up for a couple of races, then cool off. Your car has been consistent. How nice is it to be nice and steady as we get into the second half of the season?
MATT HAGAN: Yeah, definitely. It's definitely about going rounds. We've been to five or six finals. We'd like to win them all you're in, but that's hard to do. As Tony was talking, it's very, very competitive out there. I think the thing for us is just keep going rounds, keep accumulating points, making sure that we're doing everything that we can, giving it our all. It's just like when you play sports, you put your body out there 100 percent. We have to put it out there 100 percent on the racetrack. It's going to be tough. The Western Swing is always tough. I'd like to sweep The Swing. It's very possible. I think Denver is going to be the toughest challenge for everybody and us. We're going to go up there with a new variable. Dickie has taken this team. We haven't even had a test date yet. We rode into Pomona not knowing who is doing what. He's really just been a great leader and been able to turn this team into something that has been a very productive, winning, championship-quality team.
MODERATOR: We'll take questions for Matt.
Q: You won a championship. You appear to be on a path to repeat as a champion this year. Talk about the difference between the struggles of winning that first championship and what you face now to make it happen again.
MATT HAGAN: Absolutely. I've won a championship, I've lost a championship. We came out and couldn't even win a race after our championship. We've had the highs of highs and lows of lows. What I've learned and realized is it takes everybody doing their part. From what NHRA said last year, I was the second or third best leaver in the class, but if you don't have a racecar beneath you, doesn't matter how well you leave. Everybody has to do their job. Can't be a weak link. It's hard to win a race, to put it in perspective. Championship is a whole 'nother level. That's what we do. We hop in the racecar, pull that helmet on, you get focused. That's what your ultimate goal is. I think for us, just knowing that the car has been so consistent this year, Dickie has a really good handle on it, I feel like we're going to continue to be consistent the rest of the year. For some reason, Dickie, it doesn't seem like he's one of those guys that gets hot, then cold. He constantly seems to be rubbing on this combination. We fed it a couple of new clutch discs to see how that goes, got enough stuff to run the rest of the year now. Everything went really well. I'm excited to crawl into the racecar every weekend. We got a great group of guys. That's the thing, our guys, I hear all these drivers talk. Doesn't seem like they give their guys any credit. As much as I like to be patted on the back, I got to go back there and look at those eight or 10 guys that are making it happen. It humbles me, because without them I can't do it, that's for sure. They're make or break on the team. We have such a core group of guys right now that have won championships, only a couple guys on our team that don't have rings on their fingers. I can just see it in their eyes, they're hungry, they can taste it, have that burn in their belly. That fires me up to pull my helmet on, stay focused. Everybody that comes up against us on the starting line, I just want to go up there and do my job, make sure I don't let anybody down. It really drives me and pushes me to the next level.
Q: If you look at the next three events, not as a team but as a driver, which one excites you the most and which one is the most challenging, in your opinion?
MATT HAGAN: Well, obviously hands down challenging is Denver just because the way the cars have to run up there with no oxygen. Being a mile high, the car sounds so bad, if it's sounding like that at sea level, you would shut 'em off. Up there it's a whole different ballgame. One of those deals where everybody throws their number in the hat and sees what happens.
You know, I think that Dickie, he has a lot of notes, very knowledgeable, been out here a long time racing. That will play into our advantage of hopefully having some data and stuff to look back at, combinations to work off of when we do get up there. When you do get down to Seattle, it's nice to be down there at sea level. But it does take a little adjustment going all the way up from a mile high, then Sonoma, then Seattle. A lot of stuff is changing. At sea level these cars run well as long as we have some good weather.
MODERATOR: A lot of people have talked about the cars, what the cars do and don't do in the thin air. Your fitness regime, people are talking about that. You're in the weight room. How does this lack of oxygen in Denver affect you as a racer and your preparation for the event?
MATT HAGAN: Yeah, you know, it definitely can take a toll on you physically and mentally. It's just one of those things. What's going to be pretty cool, they have a deal up there in Denver, it's called the MusclePharm. I'm going to get in there and do some working out. All the MMA fighters, they train up there, football players. I'm pumped up about getting in there early, getting a few workouts in, get focused on winning that race.
Q: This is really about your fifth year racing pro. From the very beginning you came out of the gates doing pretty well, won your first championship in 2011. What do you think has been the most important thing to stay at the top, keep doing well, winning races? Can you pinpoint one thing?
MATT HAGAN: Yeah, you know, 100 percent it's the people I put around me. Last year we struggled so much. I don't think everybody was coming to work giving 100 percent. It showed on the racetrack. It's sad because we had done so well in the past. It just kind of seemed like after we won the championship, it was kind of like, Whatever, who cares. I don't think it was like that for everybody. But it was one of those deals with, you know, it was just very, very, very, very frustrating. There was a lot of times you just felt helpless. I have been able to keep good people around me. Don Schumacher has kept some good crew chiefs around me, good core guys. Like I said before, as much as I like to pat myself on the back, say what a great job I've done, it's really 100 percent about the people around me, them working so hard. It drives me to the next level, like I said, to keep me motivated, keep my game elevated. The worst feeling in the world is when you go back to the trailer, I've done it before, because I've let people down. You did something crazy up there that you knew you shouldn't have done, it was out of your control, some of that stuff sometimes. But still, you know, you own it when you mess up. You go back there and you look at those guys and say, Hey, guys, you busted your hump out there, we have to move to the next one. That's the worst feeling in the world. I kind of refuse to let that happen. Whatever it takes out there, you put on that helmet, get focused, dig deep, make it happen out there.
Q: What do you like best about racing in Sonoma?
MATT HAGAN: Sonoma is just awesome. I'm going to come in early. The venue, the wine stuff, the wine tasting, I'm going to try to get a limo, hang out, enjoy the atmosphere, some of the wineries that are close to the track. Really kickback and enjoy myself. It's just such a beautiful place, the Napa Valley is incredible. It seems like my teammate Ron Capps does so well there, we're going to have to try to beat up on him this year. We need to go out there and I want to sweep this Swing. That's part of it. We need to get out there, get focused, maybe not drink too much wine, more about driving the racecar.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Matt, for taking time out of your afternoon. We'll let you get back to your day.
MATT HAGAN: Cool. Thanks, guys. Got to get back to the hay field.
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