In this special edition of The Ultimate, we sat down with legendary NHRA Funny Car driver/owner Don Schumacher. Don Schumacher Racing has the most team wins in NHRA Drag Racing history. DSR has over 336 NHRA national event titles and 17 world championships. Schumacher, a native Chicagoan opened DSR in 1998 in Brownsburg, Indiana. Currently the team has seven drivers, most notably are Antron Brown, a three-time world champion, and son, Tony Schumacher an eight-time world champion. Collectively there are nearly thirty world championships under the Schumacher family name.
A racing pioneer, Schumacher is credited for his innovations on a roof-mounted escape hatch that allows drivers to quickly exit when fires occur. He was also the first to mount a lever to activate a fire suppression system on his Funny Car. This device allows drivers to apply both the lever and brake while the driver keeps one hand on the butterfly steering wheel. He also helped fund a project that has put a protective, enclosed canopy on top fuel dragsters. Schumacher was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America on March 12th, 2019 along with Indy Car driver Dario Franchitti and NASCAR legend Tony Stewart.
Where was your first NHRA Funny Car win?
Wow, I think it was California. Oh wow, I really can’t remember when it was because it was back in my injected Funny Car days when I ran in the Midwest circuit, which I was successful in. I couldn’t tell [you] which racetrack it was at. Whether it was U.S. 30, or Rockford or Union Grove or Oswego, or it was probably here in the Chicagoland area, because that is where I raced the most early on.
What choices and decisions did you make that helped Don Schumacher Racing become the racing dynasty it is today?
I’m a businessman. I’ve always considered myself hard working. I’m willing to put in whatever hours and effort that is necessary to accomplish the next level of success.
What is the scariest experience you had in drag racing?
Watching [my son] Tony crash in Memphis, TN in 2000. The car came apart in the lights. The wing broke on the car. The roll cage that Tony was in almost impacted a tree. And it was just a scary time and a scary moment. He came out of it with numerous broken bones in his one leg, and factures, dislocated fingers, a concussion, and broken teeth. It was catastrophic, but Tony came through it in the long run.
Who has been your toughest competition in Funny Car?
Who else than John Force?
What do you think about your reputation and would you say that reputation is accurate?
You would have to ask someone else what my reputation is, because I don’t even think about that. There are not many people outside of my team members and my family that know the real Don Schumacher. How I work and the efforts I put forth and the things I try to do and accomplish for my team, my drivers, my family, but also [for] the sport of NHRA. I try to do the right thing for the sport and every competitor out there. I try to help a lot of competitors to keep the sport as robust as possible. And I don’t think a lot of people know that and I certainly don’t have a reputation for that. Because I kind of have a reputation of being a real hard-core brutal businessman that looks at the sport strictly as that, and I think that is an inaccurate characterization of Don Schumacher.
What drove you to return to racing with your son Tony after a 23-year long hiatus?
I always [have] loved the sport. My heart was always in the sport, and Tony wanted to go [into] NHRA drag racing. He worked his career from a Chevelle I bought him when he turned sixteen that he couldn’t drive on the street. All he could do is race with [it.] You know, it just went from there. He built his own super comp car. Then he got a ride driving a dragster here out of Chicago with the Odyssey team. Then he got his own alcohol funny car and decided to step away from that after spending all the money he could get his hands on. Then he got a ride with the Peak Brothers out of Denver, Colorado. I always loved the sport and wanted to have Tony in the safest and best equipment as possible. So, as the Peak Brothers decided to get out of the sport, I was able to put together a sponsorship with Exide Batteries and got back into NHRA drag racing with a top fuel car that Tony started driving in 1998 [on] Labor Day weekend. Then in 1999 he won the NHRA world championship.
Where did you nickname “The Shoe” come from?
It actually came out of Orange County, CA at one of the match races. I set some new west coast records. I ran quicker and faster than anyone had run out there, and the name Schumacher was just too long, so they used just Shoe and that turned into a nickname for shortening my name and my driving abilities. Both things kind of reflected on the nickname they ended up giving me out there.
For all that DSR has accomplished, what else is there left to be done?
To continue to build the sport of NHRA drag racing during these different times today, with the millennials, and the I don’t [know if] it’s the Z generation… I don’t even know what the name of the newest generation is, but their attention to cars and motor sports, or sports overall, is much less than the previous generations. It’s a difficult task to continue to get them involved in the sport and to get them to come out and experience the most extreme motor sports in the world.
What is an errand or chore in your daily life people might be surprised to learn you do yourself?
HA! I do everything pretty much myself, whether it is making my own coffee or helping my wife, Sarah, make the bed in the morning. I drive myself to work. I answer my own phone at the office. I don’t have a secretary. I never have had a secretary. I’m really just a normal guy that has been blessed with success.
What is the most daring thing you’ve done outside of racing?
Ha, you name it [and] I [have] pretty much done it. I went bow and arrow hunting and killed grizzly bear in Alaska in the early sixties, which really isn’t a real popular thing any longer, and I wouldn’t kill an animal today. That was a different time and era. I’ve jumped out of airplanes and sky dived in the late sixties. You name it. I travel extensively. I go hundreds of miles offshore in my fishing boat. There is really nothing that frightens me. The one little thing that has always frightened me are spiders. Why that is? I can’t answer that. I mean, I don’t kill them and I’m not fearful of grabbing one and throwing it out in the back into nature, but they do scare me. But there is nothing else that has ever scared me in my life beside that.
What are your off-track hobbies?
Number one is family. Really number two is our dogs. We have four wonderful dogs that I love to death. Golf, saltwater sport fishing or fishing period. Any outdoor activity I thoroughly enjoy. I’m not an indoor person. I love my work. I spend a lot of time at the computer dealing with business, both at Schumacher Electric and Don Schumacher Racing. That’s really my loves and my life.
What feelings did you get when you found out you were going to be enshrined into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America?
Really just overwhelmed by even being considered for something like that. It isn’t something that I’ve ever thought about or imagined prior to being notified that I was on the ballot. It just amazes me that I was even considered for that.
What words of encouragement would you give an inspiring upcoming drag car driver?
Work longer and harder than your competition. Always have a smile on your face. Always have the fire of competition in your belly. You always want to beat the guy in the other lane next to you. And always put your arms around any fan that wants to take a photograph or be with you. Remember the fans are the ones that pay your bills. They are the ones that cause the sponsors to come out to the races and get involved.
You can catch NHRA racing this weekend as they return to Route 66 Raceway. Don Schumacher and DSR will for sure be there. Tickets are still available at route66raceway.com
Another great feature, Will!
Thank you Joe