NHRA: Schumacher’s season is almost heroic

The firesuit hung on the wall like a costume waiting for its superhero to pull it on. Nearby, Larry Dixon sat as cool as Clark Kent.

He is asked if it makes him feel like Superman.

“You better feel like Superman,” he replies, “or you shouldn’t put it on.”

Dixon, engaged in a classic Superman-Batman rivalry with Tony Schumacher, faced the media Sunday disappointed that he had finished second to Schumacher by the scantest of margins in the NHRA Full Throttle championship. “Two points could be 200, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We were in charge of our own fate and we lost.”

And Batman won.

Tony Schumacher is the sport’s ultimate superhero right now. After five seasons of winning championships, Schumacher had a new crew chief and a new team — all but one member joined Dixon’s squad in the offseason — but they extended Schumacher’s magical reign in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class with a sixth consecutive title.

New crew chief Mike Green deserves credit, but Schumacher’s influence can’t be underplayed.

Schumacher had always been free and easy with the credit for his success, and while they were winning five consecutive championships, the face of the U.S. Army team had become as much crew chief Alan Johnson’s as it had the driver nicknamed “The Sarge.”

But Johnson broke away, formed his own team, hired Dixon and almost everyone who helped Schumacher win all those titles. Johnson himself admitted that, with the deep pockets of Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani, the Alan Johnson/Al-Anabi Racing team was the New York Yankees of the sport.

Yet leave it to the new guard in old uniforms to take down the Yankees.

Schumacher took on a more active role within the team, became the motivating force, and in the end, point man in the Army of One.

One organization, six consecutive championships.

Say that slowly: Six . . . consecutive . . . championships.

“If you’re the best driver with the best car and the best team, you’ll win every single time,” Dixon said, laying the foundation for one simple fact: Schumacher’s five victories in seven finals in 2009, coupled with yet another title , make U.S. Army Racing the best team in the sport, pinstripes or not.

Still!

And that’s saying something. Cory McClenathan, who was beaten by Dixon in the quarterfinals and finished fourth in the championship, compared the two drivers who, he said, were the top two guys in the business.

“Larry is calm, cool and collected,” McClenathan said. “Tony is a guy who rises to the occasion.

“Technically, they’re equally as good.”

Superman, Batman. Six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other.

Schumacher did rise to the occasion, stealing away the No. 1 qualifying position from Dixon with the second-quickest (3.772 seconds) and second-fastest (320.58 mph) run at 1,000 feet in NHRA history; the three bonus points in the final round of qualifying gave Schumacher a two-point margin going into final eliminations of the Auto Club Finals in Pomona.

Both drivers were beaten in the semifinals. Dixon, coincidentally, lost to Spencer Massey, the young driver who replaced him at Don Prudhomme’s Snake Racing. Right after that Schumacher was beaten by his own teammate and eventual winner, Antron Brown.

Those swing points in qualifying proved to be the difference.

“After losing an entire crew last year, having to go through the adversity of building a new team, that one run last night was bone-crushing, weight-of-the-world pressure, and the U.S. Army team came through,” Schumacher said Sunday of his Saturday night special. “Unbelievable.”

It certainly was. And now, the sport’s biggest trophy is his, but he won’t be keeping it for long. Its destination is a display case where real heroes gather.

“This thing here is going to sit in Fort Hood for the families,” Schumacher said, holding aloft the championship trophy destined for the Army base where 13 were killed and 29 injured last week in a shooting spree. “I don’t think there’s any question about it. Those families, they deserve it.”

So, too, does  Tony  Schumacher.

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