The first two days of the 34th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals have gone almost perfectively for U.S Army Racing’s Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and his nine-man team. The eight-time NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world champion has been the class of field through the first two days establishing new track records for time and speed Friday to earn his 85th career No. 1 qualifier and sixth overall at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Arizona.
With premiere conditions Friday and Saturday, all three of the U.S. Army Racing drivers established new personal speed records en route to qualifying for Sunday’s elimination rounds. Leah Pritchett qualified fourth in the field and Antron Brown will chase his fourth career NHRA Arizona Nationals event title from the eighth position on the ladder.
It may only be the second event of the season, but the new combination of Schumacher and crew chief Mike Neff look to already be in championship form. Schumacher, who clocked speeds of 334.65 mph and 336.57 mph Friday, closed qualifying with the only run in the final session under the 3.70-second barrier with his pass of 3.686 seconds at 332.34 mph. The pole, his first in Phoenix since 2015, continued Schumacher’s streak of qualifying inside the top-four to 20 consecutive events at the facility.
“It’s been an excellent weekend so far for the U.S. Army Racing team,” said Schumacher. “The U.S. Army car is extremely good. Mike (Neff) is comfortable. He’s calm and cool. He knows what the car is doing and he’s enjoying it. He backed the car down on that last run and it did what it was supposed to do. The conditions for the last round should have produced a better run than we put up Friday, but the track is just extremely good and it’s eating the cars up. They are blowing through the clutch. You hit the gas and it just chews that clutch up. Teams were trying, but they weren’t getting it done. We didn’t make the run we wanted, but we made a run quicker than everyone else did. We earned the three points, kept the number one spot and it was a great couple of days of qualifying.
“Now, we turn our focus to winning the race. I think tomorrow is going to be a great day. I think the fans are going to be the biggest winners. I think they are going to see an awesome race. NHRA and Mello Yello are doing a great job. This is the greatest show on earth and I’m excited to out here surrounded by an incredible U.S. Army team that is ready to go get that trophy.”
“The Sarge” is looking to become the only six-time winner of the NHRA Arizona Nationals in Top Fuel and will face Greg Carrillo in the first round.
Brown made two consistent runs Saturday in the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR. His run of 3.712 seconds in Saturday’s first session was slightly better than his run of 3.717 seconds on Friday night, but Friday’s speed of 333.66 mph remains the fastest speed of his NHRA career. The three-time Top Fuel world champion closed out qualifying with a lap of 3.785 seconds at 313.88 mph.
“It was good to come out and go faster than we ever have speed-wise Friday night,” said Brown, the 2009, 2012 and 2014 Phoenix winner. “Unfortunately, the run was just off a bit from what we wanted. We’ve been trying all weekend to go somewhere between 3.69 and 3.70 (seconds) in the U.S. Army/Matco Tools Dragster, but the track has been better than what we expected. When a track is this good, you’ve got to give it all. It’s tougher than a slicker track, because this track here will break you down because it will get so tight. When it’s tight, it’s very edgy on the starting line. And the trick is to get off the starting line. Once you make it 60 feet, it’s game on. I know (co-crew chiefs) Brad (Mason) and Mark (Oswald) are doing everything they can. Tomorrow it’s about being consistent. Going down the race track every time. With these conditions, everyone is going to push it and run hard, so we’re just going to try to be efficient and effective and see where it all shakes out.”
Brown takes on Mike Salinas in the opening round. The two have met twice before with Brown winning both races, including their first-round matchup last November in the season finale. Brown has won nine of his previous 10 opening-round races at Wild Horse.
Pritchett made significant progress Saturday in her quest for a third consecutive Arizona Nationals Top Fuel triumph. The driver of the DSR/Mopar/U.S. Army Dragster made the best pass in Saturday’s third qualifying session with her lap of 3.679 seconds at 334.15 mph. She wasn’t able to make a full run in the final session and coasted to the finish line with a lap of 6.066 seconds at 106.24 mph.
“The team put in some long hours Friday night trying to figure out what was going on with the car,” said Pritchett. “They worked deep into the night. We had some new issues to deal with in Friday’s qualifying runs and all the work to fix them paid off in Q3. We weren’t necessarily looking to put the strongest number on the board, it was more about just making sure everything was working right. As it turned out, we accomplished both. It’s a testament to this team’s ability to overcome adversity. This weekend didn’t start off the way we hoped it would, but everyone dug in and through great teamwork and leadership we are feeling good. We finally feel like we have our hot rod back. Getting down the track today was the important thing and it ended up being one of the most impressive runs when you consider the track conditions were the hottest we’ve had all weekend. The good news is that its great preparation for what we expect on Sunday and provided us a baseline to start with tomorrow. There’s just a great feeling coming to Phoenix between the fans and finally getting back into our rhythm. We wanted to come back here and get a handle on our racecar first and foremost. Now, we can attack tomorrow trying to get it back into the winner’s circle.”
Pritchett begins with a first-round matchup against Troy Buff. The two have only met once in Top Fuel competition with Pritchett turning on the win light in the opening round of last April’s 18th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at The Strip in Las Vegas.
Elimination rounds are set for at 1 p.m. EST Sunday with FS1 providing three hours of coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m.