Top Fuel drag racer Tony Schumacher has told folks for a dozen years that his racing partnership with the U.S. Army is matchless because he's not hawking motor oil, razor blades, automotive parts, and consumer goods. "I'm promoting a way of life," he says proudly.
The Army asks its recruits: Can you rise to the challenge? It promises A World Like No Other and an experience of "pushing the limits" and "infinite possibilities."
What a perfect fit Schumacher and the Army have proven to be. In his own world like no other — with speeds topping 320 miles per hour in 1,000 feet in the quickest-launching vehicles on the planet — Schumacher has proven again and again he can rise to the challenge.
And when he makes statements such as "I'm sure not going to risk my butt to be average," it's a jolt to recognize that he isn't a soldier officially. But Schumacher, who's far more than average, he has that American soldier's mentality and is the perfect and genuine spokesman for Army values.
So it was reassuring to learn, in the wake of Tuesday morning's news that the Army has decided not to renew its sponsorship with NASCAR's Stewart-Haas Racing as a primary sponsor of Ryan Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet, that they are planning to re-up with Don Schumacher Racing and seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher.
John Meyers, director of the marketing support element of the Army Marketing and Research Group, offered some positive hints Tuesday afternoon about what might be in store for DSR, at least for the coming year.
"We are seeking agreement with Don Schumacher Racing," Meyers said in a phone conversation with SB Nation. "Right now we're at the concluding stages of that and should have an agreement very soon. The Army is seeking to continue the relationship with Don Schumacher Racing into fiscal year 2013. We hope to have that tied down pretty soon."
He said he was not privy to the exact time frame in which that might be finalized, but he did say, "I would hope days rather than weeks."
Meyers said an agreement is not in place yet, "but I have full confidence that we will get all the i's dotted and the t's crossed contractually."
The announcement regarding the Army's withdrawal from Stewart-Haas sponsorship came almost one month ago to the day after DSR learned that the new owners of the FRAM-Prestone-Autolite brands will not continue sponsorship of the Don Schumacher Racing dragster that current points leader Spencer Massey drives. So naturally, Brownsburg, Ind.-based DSR sat a bit closer to the edge of the seat, wondering what impact that NASCAR news might have on its longtime U.S. Army partnership.
The drag-racing community until recently had thought DSR might be immune for at least awhile from such speculation following the U.S. House of Representatives' 281-148 defeat in February 2011 of Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum's proposal to ban motorsports marketing from our Armed Forces. But McCollum has re-introduced the measure this year, seemingly oblivious to Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley's detailed and logical explanation of why those partnerships are necessary and how the resources are allocated.
So with heightened drama between reality at the racetracks with recruiting results and the capriciousness on Capitol Hill with a pork-barrel-bloated Congress, DSR nail-biting resumed Tuesday with the Army's decision regarding Stewart-Haas.
Even team owner Don Schumacher, whose entire racing operation since 2000 has embraced Army values and celebrated them in almost-incalculable ways, said in a phone conversation early Tuesday with SB Nation that he doesn't know what effect the NASCAR-related news will have on his teams. (Anton Brown's dragster also carries the Army logo along with its Matco and Aaron's signage.)
"I have no idea," Schumacher said. "We don't know any more than what has been put out there publicly by the Army at this point. All we're doing is preparing our race cars to head to Denver [for next weekend's Mopar Mile-High Nationals] to perform as we normally do and try to win races.
"There are people above the people I deal with --the Pentagon, Congress -- so I have no knowledge or intuition of what's going to happen," he said.
Schumacher said he had not spoken or received or exchanged e-mails with Meyers as of Tuesday around noon. "Nor have I gotten an e-mail from him or anybody with the Army at this point," Schumacher said.
This latest wave of uncertainty is nothing new for Schumacher.
"It's always a concerning situation, but I know NHRA and DSR does a great job for the recruiters and the Army brand," he said. "Am I concerned about what's going on in the political arena? Sure, it concerns me, but I know that we have done a great job for the Army.
"We will continue to work very, very hard to continue to perform for them in recruiting, appearances, race wins, and winning championships. And that's all we can do," he said.
Schumacher said gauging its recruiting efforts at the racetrack can be a complex process, because "it isn't necessarily easily to track it all the way back to the racetrack or a high-school visit or a college visit that Tony makes with the show car, because the people in between want to take credit for it. It's very difficult to trace that connection directly back to the race car / race team," he said.
Nevertheless, Tony Schumacher and DSR have become synonymous with the Army since the Labor Day weekend 2000 unveiling of "The Sarge," the black-and-gold U.S. Army Dragster at Indianapolis just before the start of the U.S. Nationals. Since then, they have done so much more than just host hundreds of ROTC students, recruits, soldiers, and Army brass at the races.
They have gone to boot camp. They have rung in the new year with soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. They have parachuted with the Golden Knights. They have laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. They have visited Fort Hood, Texas, in the wake of a shooting and presented one of Tony Schumacher's seven series-championship trophies. They have joined the Army on occasions joyous and somber. They have lived the Army values.
Said Tony Schumacher once, "People tell me, 'Oh, the Army -- I couldn't do that.' Well, thanks to them, you don't have to. You ought to love them even more for that."
This association, Don Schumacher said, is "such a personal thing to Tony and really, the whole team. Every crew guy out there, myself included . . . being involved with the U.S. Army is very, very special. We've gotten to go places and do things and see things that I wish every citizen would do because it would give you a whole different feeling about these soldiers and what they're doing for us and how committed they are to us -- whether it's a soldier who's working out of a computer center here in the United States or the guy or the lady on the front line overseas. It is a remarkable relationship.
"Tony is a true professional at it. It comes from his heart. Nothing's made up there. Nothing's a script that he studies. It's really what's in his heart," Don Schumacher said. "And it's the same way with every guy who's on that team. He has certainly got his heart involved with the U.S. Army. And that is where it comes from -- it comes from his heart."
Receiving a "discharge," of sorts, would be a terribly sad occurrence, Don Schumacher said.
"It'll be a very difficult day for all of us in the sport of NHRA drag racing, if that transpires," he said. "But we all are aware that they were in the sport previously with Don Prudhomme years ago and they stepped away for a number of years and they've come back. The U.S. Army is such a special part of DSR that I hope they're on board with us for the rest of our careers."
The consensus in drag racing is that the partnership has been a perfect fit.
"We think so, too," Meyers said. "That's what our metrics show. That's why we hope to get that agreement finished here shortly."
Massey understands Don Schumacher's position, although his FRAM/Prestone relationship is nothing on the order of the Army partnership with his colleague. The Army is promoting a way of life, and FRAM/Prestone is promoting a specific product. Still, the principles are the same.
The young driver learned about the business of drag racing the hard way when sponsorship evaporation forced Prudhomme's retirement and cost him a year from Top Fuel competition. So his word carried weight when he said a couple of weeks ago, "Our team and DSR cannot control the business environment ,and we only can control what we do. We're having a great season and will continue to do everything we can to represent all our partners along with FRAM, Prestone, and Autolite the way great sponsors deserve."
Massey said he was "surprised" to hear June 15 during the race at Bristol, Tenn., that FRAM would not be involved after this season.
"I've enjoyed our partnership with them. We're disappointed, but it gives us an added incentive to win this year’s NHRA Top Fuel championship so we can share it with our friends at FRAM," Massey said. "We finished second in points last year and almost won the championship, and this year we’ve won [four] titles and become the quickest and fastest Top Fuel Dragster in history."
Don Schumacher said he was "saddened" to receive word of the FRAM sponsorship decision but said, "We plan on continuing to put everything we have behind each of our seven professional teams, including Spencer Massey and crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler, and their entire team to not only win the championship this year but to continue running that team in 2013.
"We pride ourselves at DSR on having several of the longest running relationships with great sponsors in all of motorsports. We offer unique opportunities with our full-service hospitality staff and equipment, along with in-house marketing, business development, graphic design, and public relations departments. And our fabrication and machine shops rival any in our industry."
DSR's longest-running marketing partnership is its 13-year stretch with Gates Belts and Hose, and the Army is second in longevity with 12 years. Matco Tools has been aboard for 11 years, Oakley for 10, Mopar for nine, Freightliner for eight, and Valvoline for six.
Both NAPA Auto Parts and FRAM have been DSR affiliates for four years, and Die Hard has been with the organization for three. Aaron's and Service Central are celebrating two years each with DSR.
Schumacher has not shown his hand regarding negotiations with a potential partner to replace FRAM and its associated brands. All he will say about that is that "I'm working on things, and 'closeness' is somebody's perception. When I have something, I will make an announcement, and until then, I'm just working on it as hard on it as I can.
"Everything else is fine, to the best of my knowledge," he said. "Actually, six of my seven teams are up for renewal in 2012, going forward to 2013. Some of those renewals have already been committed to. Everybody's comfortable with where we're at what we're accomplishing, and I'm comfortable with where we're going. I don't anticipate any real challenges or problems."
He, of course, said he wouldn't rule out any turn of economic events. "But just like we saw with the FRAM acquisition . . .things change," Schumacher said. "That could happen with any one of our sponsors."
He said he and his marketing team will "continue to work hard at attracting new sponsors and additional sponsors and renewing with the sponsorships we have. I'm blessed to have the crew chiefs and drivers and teams I have around me for my teams to perform at the level that my teams are performing at."
Tony Schumacher calls it "a gift to be inspired by the greatest men and women in the world.," the U.S. Army soldiers.
The rest of circumstances, he knows, is beyond his control.
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