Don't count out 8-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher just yet

Tony Schumacher hasn’t been in any NHRA Top Fuel races since last year’s season-finale at Pomona.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series hit the halfway point of the 2019 season this past Sunday at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

Yet something — more like someone — is still noticeably missing.

Tony Schumacher, the series’ Top Fuel king with an all-time best eight Top Fuel championships and record 84 wins, has yet to start a race this year. A victim of a last-minute pull-out of longtime sponsor the U.S. Army, Schumacher has spent this season on the sidelines after finishing runner-up in the 2018 championship.

Tony’s absence hurts more than just Don Schumacher Racing and the suits at Fox television who were counting on “The Sarge” to attract his army of fans to their TVs this season. That is not lost on Schumacher’s team owner — and Schumacher’s legendary racing father — Don Schumacher. Don, who still has drivers in contention for championships in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, admits this season has been harder than most.

“Without a doubt,” Don told Autoweek from his motor home at Norwalk last weekend. “That’s my son. He’s an eight-time world champion. He’s won more Top Fuel races than anyone in the sport.

“He’s the only reason I came back to the sport.”

Tony is more than just a perennial championship contender. He took on the persona of his sponsor, sporting a crew cut and taking on the moniker of The Sarge during his two decades of flag waving for the military sponsorship.

“Tony is Mr. Army. Still is,” Don said.

Tony raced with the Army colors 427 times for DSR since taking on the sponsorship beginning with the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in 2000 — a race he won. The relationship took an about-face last summer.

“We had very short notice from the Army that they were leaving,” Don said. “They notified us the first of August last year or maybe it was late July, that they weren’t returning. The week prior to that, it was, ‘Yep, we’re coming back. Everything is good.’

“They didn’t leave because of Tony, or the team or because the NHRA wasn’t doing a fantastic job for them. It was an upper-management situation at their advertising and marketing agency that they got crossways, and the Army decided to replace everything.”

Just like Tony was delivering results on the track, he and the DSR operation were doing their part for the Army off the track, according to Don.

“The recruits, the young people, are out there,” Don said. “It was our job to get the Army leads. It wasn’t our job to get people to join the Army. It was our job to get them leads, and then it was up to the recruiters to turn the leads into people joining the Army.

“I believe in the long run, they will be back in the NHRA. How many years that will take, I don’t know.”

As for a timetable for Tony’s return, Don isn’t saying.

“We’re still trying to find a sponsor,” Don said. “We’re working on things.”

Don ultimately wants the right deal in place, one capable of assisting in another championship effort, before putting Tony back out there. Don has also been reluctant to entertain the notion of any one-offs — one-race sponsorship deals — for Tony this season.

However, he might make an exception for the biggest race of the season — the upcoming Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals weekend, Aug. 28-Sept. 2.

“If somebody stepped up, yeah, I would,” Don said when asked about a possible one-off effort for the big race at Indianapolis. “I’d love to do the same thing we did with the U.S. Army the first race they came aboard in 2000 — win the U.S. Nationals.”

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