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t was a different world when Tony Schumacher rolled out in the Army Top Fuel car for the first time, at the 2000 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
September 11 was an unthinkable that became reality the next year. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq followed. Suddenly, many of us looked at soldiers in a much different – I hope, a more appreciative – way.
Schumacher already had fought to the first of what now are six NHRA Top Fuel championships when he got word he was a candidate for the prestigious Army sponsorship.
“They (marketing agency) had come down to 12 teams,” Schumacher remembered during a conversation with me earlier this Full Throttle season. “Then they narrowed it down to three teams. We were one of them. The Army showed up (around the Sonoma race) to tell us we were not going to get it. I walked into the meeting with my head shaved. I was not going to let anyone else drive the Army car.
“My dad (Don) puts together an incredible team, so the plan was laid out. But closing the deal is when I walked in there and said, ‘I’ll do anything for my team. Don’t forget that.’”
So “Sarge” Schumacher not only got a sponsor. He got the responsibility to help recruit volunteers who would be willing to die for America.
“The U.S. Army car – that’s the point. It’s so much bigger, the vision of what it was going to bring was incredible. I’ve said it a million times: You’re as good as the people you surround yourself with. I appreciate the Matco tools distributors. I appreciate the people that make Budweiser. But these are U.S. Army soldiers. The training, the discipline, the values of those people are what matters. It didn’t matter if it was war or not. You’re still recruiting people who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for their country.
“You can’t fake sell the Army. You can ask someone to drink a beverage. So what if they don’t like it? I’m asking them to put themselves in harm’s way for us. Now that we’re in the middle of battle, people ask me the same question, ‘How can you ask kids to do that?’ I’d be standing right there next to them if I could. I love what they do. If I could go back to high school, I would leave high school before college, to fly helicopters.