Racing legend Don Schumacher is driven to dominate, improve the NHRA

Eight-time NHRA Mello Yello Series Top Fuel Dragster champion Tony Schumacher might be in line for a bigger role in the family business when his dad retires.

To that, Tony smiles. 

His dad, Tony says, isn’t going anywhere. Don Schumacher, 74, still has plenty of Wallys to win and championships to chase. And don’t be surprised if the patriarch of the Don Schumacher Racing empire has another racing innovation on the drawing board.

“He is going to work forever,” Tony says. “What’s the point of retiring from something you love doing? People retire to fish. If you’re a professional fisherman, do you retire and still do the same thing?

“My dad, he loves the business. He loves getting up every day not knowing what the day is going to hold, but knowing he’s got this killer mind and a group of people who are so good at what they do that something’s going to pop up that’s going to make some more money.”

Don Schumacher dominated the match-race drag racing scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Don Schumacher’s journey to 17 NHRA championships, 339 Wallys (NHRA race-win trophies) and a successful business has been anything but the straight-line path. And, no, racing was not the family business when Don was growing up in Chicago. His parents were both bookies.

“That was something that was very normal in Chicago when we moved there in ’47,” Don Schumacher said. “We lived above my grandparents’ tavern. Mom and Dad were bookies there. My dad had already started Woodward Schumacher Electric, which was making custom transformers for the radio and TV industry. Nobody could make enough of them. The radio and TV industry was just exploding at that time. 

“My dad, undoubtedly, he was incredibly good with numbers. To run a book and to gamble the way he did, you had to really know and be able to work with numbers. He was really a numbers guy, and that carried him into business, and it was a very successful business.”

As a 16-year-old who had yet to change a spark plug, Schumacher was more concerned with driving his Bonneville fast than he was following in his father’s footsteps. A supercharged competitive streak fueled his early days of match racing in the late 1960s. 

Team owner Don Schumacher has helped Antron Brown win three NHRA Top Fuel dragster championships.

“There were a number of tracks around the Chicagoland area,” Don said. “After the Pontiac, I got a Oldsmobile and was in the process of changing it into a gasser. I had started winning and started to learn what I was doing and such and had started taking the car apart, taking the transmission apart. 

“At that time, you could go to the dealership and get a hard-cover book that told you about all of the parts in the car, how to take it apart, how to disassemble the transmission – we’re talking about the mid-‘60s. I did that and I took my car apart in my mom and dad’s garage. They were traveling at the time, so I had the garage all to myself.”

The young Schumacher had the situation well under control, even then.

I took paper cups and wrote on the paper cups where every nut and bolt came from,” Don said. “I took it apart, ordered a TorqueFlite transmission from a racing guy in the Chicagoland area. I had gotten the parts together and sent them up to the Golden Commandos in the Detroit area to build me a 426 Hemi fuel-injected motor to run in the gas class. I was 18.

“It was just what I had a passion to do.”

DSR’s Jack Beckman won the Funny Car championship in 2012.

Schumacher made his way from his first races in Gary, Indiana, to the California hot-rod scene—winning match races from Chicago to the West Coast, helping pay for food and parts. He even tapped his parents’ gambling connections to get the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas to sponsor him.

“It was a hotbed for Funny Car racing at that time,” Don said. “You’d go to the manufacturers’ meet at Orange County and there’d be 40 Funny Cars there. It was just an incredible time. That was really the beginning of my career. I won a lot in 1967 and spring of ’68.”

In 1974, he returned to the business world and Schumacher Electric. Today, it focuses on batteries and chargers.

“When I was 5, he quit racing, so from as far back as I can remember, he was in a suit and tie running a company,” Tony said. “When I got older and started looking at photos of him on fire falling out of a car, I was thinking, this is a bad dude! He drove a Funny Car back in the day when Funny Cars killed at lot of people.”

Don returned to the sport in 1998 as team owner for son Tony’s Top Fuel dragster. Tony won the championship one year later.

Antron Brown’s Matco Tools dragster sports one of Don Schumacher’s innovations — a canopy that covers the driver’s cockpit on Top Fuel dragsters.

In addition to all the wins and championships, Don was the driving force behind several innovations, including the escape hatches in the roofs of Funny Cars and fire-suppression systems triggered by a lever attached to the brake handle. Schumacher, a cancer survivor, also pioneered protective canopies for dragsters. 

On the business side, he was among the first owners to seek out corporate sponsorships and run multicar teams. 

Don had no idea his adventure as a young man would lead to a career having such a profound impact on the sport.

“I don’t think a young man, even today, really says, ‘That’s my long-term goal,’” Don said. “I turned 16. I got a car, and I drove it faster on the street than I should have. I didn’t really identify with being competitive at that stage, but as I got involved with it, yes. I am a very competitive individual. 

“As a father, I feel bad that I’m even competitive with my children at times. It’s something inside of you that you really kind of have to reel in when you’re with family and such.”

DSR’s Matt Hagan is a two-time NHRA Funny Car champion.

Tony sure knows all about that competitive side.

“He’s 10 times more competitive than I am,” Tony said. “No matter what me and him do. We could play baseball, and if I was 4 years old, he would be throwing fastballs to make sure I couldn’t hit it. He’s brutally competitive.”

Today, DSR’s all-star lineup includes Top Fuel dragster drivers Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett, and Funny Car pilots Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan. Don is proud that all six active drivers are part of championship-caliber teams within the organization.

“If you can turn any profession into your passion, to where you’re willing to work longer and harder than the competition, you will be successful,” Don said. 

Tony, the winningest driver in Top Fuel dragster history, is on the outside this season after losing his Army sponsorship. He is working on a sponsorship for a full-time ride for 2020, and don’t be surprised if he finds his way into a car for a one-off yet in 2019.

DSR’s Tommy Johnson Jr. is currently third in the NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car standings.

Seeing Tony on the sidelines has made this a difficult season for Don. Tony, while disappointed to not have a ride, understands the dynamics.

“When I’m there, there’s three top Fuel Cars and four Funny Cars,” Tony said. “Yes, my dad owns them all, but when Antron wins, it doesn’t pay my bills. When Leah wins, it doesn’t pay my bills. When I win, I don’t pay their bills. We are unique teams. We work together. On race day, we’re still there for each other—until we race each other.” 

As for communication between Don and his team of championship contenders, Don picks his spots.

“Don will tell you if you’re doing a good job,” Beckman, the 2012 Funny Car champ, said. “It won’t be with a hug or with tears or anything like that, but he will not let you go on struggling without letting you know that he knows that you are struggling—and it needs to end. He gives us everything we need to win a championship, and never are any excuses allowed to come back to him. Never. And I get it.”

Adds Tony: “He makes 400 parts for our race cars right there in our fab shop because no one else in his mind could make them good enough. He makes them a little better, a little lighter, a little stronger.

And you know who benefits: our teams, our people, our guys and girls who get to drive for him.”

Ron Capps has been part of the DSR stable since 2005.

Capps won the Funny Car championship for DSR in 2016. He’s raced for Schumacher since 2005.

“Don was one of the first to make it a business,” Capps said. “My ultimate goal is to own a team someday, and there’s nothing better than to be able to watch what Don does and see how Don handles his employees and the people around him. He lets us do our thing. 

“He’ll come up and let us know if he’s not happy with how we’re running, but really, all these years, he’s never tried to tell me how to do my job. He’s someone to emulate as a team owner.”

Don said that there’s no such thing as a pecking order among his drivers and teams at DSR.

“If you’re going to have a multicar organization or a multifaceted business with different companies and managers at each company, you have to be able to put together the right team of people or it will eat itself up and tear you apart,” Don said. “I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to be able to put a group of few chiefs together who will work together, that have unbelievable passions for winning and accomplishing things.

Tony Schumacher, right, interviews DSR teammate Leah Pritchett for FOX TV earlier this season.

“They are all very driven individually, but in my organization they’re willing to share everything with each other —  even if causes that other team to beat them. It took a long time, a lot of looking at the right people, to put this together to accomplish that. Nothing in life is easy. Nothing just falls at your feet. This group of people didn’t just show up looking for a job.”

And, thankfully for the NHRA, Don Schumacher is still in the game and has no plans to step away from his job.

“Here’s something cool about our team,” Tony said. “We expect the person we’re racing against to be the best. It doesn’t bother us to help another driver. We want to be the best, and we want our sport to be the best. So when the fans pay the money, they get the best show on earth. I’ve had people walk up to me after a race and say, ‘You know what, I paid $60 for a ticket and I feel like I owe more money.’ That’s cool. That’s what our sport is. 

“It’s a phenomenal family sport, thanks to guys like my dad.”  

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