Representing the Army is a big responsibility, but NHRA Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher is proud to be a part of it.
By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003
GAINESVILLE -- The driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster has been in intense situations on the track. But none compare to flying in a military aircraft at night with the lights off through the mountains to Afghanistan.
"I walked in the back of the C-130 and there were two soldiers back there with night vision looking out the window," said Tony Schumacher, who drives in the NHRA. "I said, 'Hey, what are you guys doing?' and they go 'Looking for missiles.' I said, 'Okay, I'm going to go sit back down and buckle up.' That's their job, they were just back there making sure that when you're flying through the mountains that no one was shooting at you."
For Schumacher, who will race in this weekend's Gatornationals in Gainesville, that's part of his job as an Army representative. Schumacher, 33, recently joined Gen. John Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, for a weeklong trip to bases in Afghanistan and Kuwait. NASCAR drivers Jerry Nadeau, Geoff Bodine and Gary Lewis were among those who also made the trip to spread holiday cheer to Americans stationed there.
For Schumacher, who is third in the Top Fuel points standings, the experience was unforgettable. He sees some correlations between military life and operating a race car.
"When you drive a race car at 330 miles an hour, you know about teamwork," said Schumacher, who advanced to the final at the 2000 Gatornationals. "But when you meet those guys, they're one of the very few people that can 100 percent relate to what you do. Because what they do is all about teamwork, too. They're in very intense situations."
Schumacher has started feeling more like an enlisted man than a civilian. He has jumped out of airplanes, driven tanks, shot weapons and gone through other training since signing on to promote the Army.
Schumacher signed to drive for the Army in the summer of 2000. He was driving for Exide Batteries, and the Army considered many teams before choosing Schumacher.
"It was great for me, because if you could drive for anyone in the world, who would you rather have behind you?" he said.
Schumacher thinks his team was chosen because of the expectations the Army has for its representatives. He said the Army pays careful attention to how it is represented, and he takes his role seriously.
"Pride, teamwork, and all that stuff is great, but appearance and how you talk to people and what you stand for is extremely important to them," Schumacher said. "Because, in reality, we're not trying to sell a beverage or we're not trying to sell auto parts. We're trying to sell a soldier into putting boots on and becoming a team player.
"That's something that not only do you have to want to sell, but you have to be very comfortable with." Schumacher is known as "The Sarge," although his car first earned the nickname.
"When you have 150,000 spectators at every race, they're going to call me something," Schumacher said. "That came from sergeant, which is the highest-ranking enlistment you can get if you just walk in and sign up for the Army. The sergeant is the backbone of the Army."
Schumacher said the experience visiting troops is something that everyone should witness. Schumacher had dinner with Gen. Keane in Washington, D.C., several weeks before the trip when he expressed an interest in meeting the troops.
"A lot of those people I advertised for," Schumacher said. "Whether it was by my word of mouth, talking them into doing this or explaining what it was about. Or they just liked it on TV and they're a Tony fan. It doesn't matter, they're still there being a soldier. I asked them to do that, so for me to go over there and see everything was important to me."