Just when it seemed like the Army Racing trio of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher, Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett were gaining traction on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel competition, it quickly slipped away Sunday during elimination rounds of the 49th annual NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.
Schumacher entered the day on a mission to become the fifth driver in Gatornationals history to score back-to-back victories but fell in the second round when he couldn’t overcome an electronic malfunction. Brown pedaled his way into a second-round matchup with teammate Pritchett, which he won on a holeshot, before immediately losing traction in his second semifinal appearance of the 2018 NHRA campaign.
Schumacher, the eight-time Top Fuel world champion and reigning Gatornationals champion, opened Sunday with his best run of the weekend aboard the U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) – an effort of 3.717 seconds at 329.26 mph – in his first-round victory over reigning Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force. Next up was his first meeting with Shawn Reed in the second round and while staging the car, Schumacher, the five-time Gatornationals champion, was dealing with an electronic malfunction inside the cockpit. A wire shorting out led to bigger issues, including a small cockpit fire, and he wasn’t able to make a clean pass. His run of 4.604 seconds at 200.77 mph wasn’t enough to defeat Reed.
“We had an electric issue right when I staged the car,” Schumacher said. “I’ve never had that happen before. I hit the gas and the timers never worked. I smoked the tires because none of the timers were doing anything. I pedaled it once. Pedaled twice and I wasn’t going to catch him, so I shut it off. That’s when I saw the smoke and small fire inside the cockpit. I smacked it and put it out with my hands, but just like that our day was over. It’s frustrating to have something like that happen. We worked hard all weekend to put ourselves in a good position today and that showed in the first round when we made our best pass of the weekend. This U.S. Army team won’t quit. We all want to win so bad. We’ll get back after it and just keep plugging away. This was a great weekend for the fans of NHRA and we were just hoping to make Gatornationals history today. We’ll have to come back next year and try again.”
Brown, meanwhile, had trouble in his first-round matchup with Audrey Worm, losing traction in the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Racing Dragster for DSR, but he was still able make it down the track fast enough to illuminate the win light with his run of 5.162 seconds at 191.05 mph as Worm also smoked her tires. Brown was machine-like in the second round with a run of 3.793 seconds at 324.20 mph to edge Pritchett in the round’s closest race. Unfortunately, his run for a second Gatornationals triumph ended quickly in his semifinal race with Richie Crampton when he smoked the tires right at the hit and was forced to lift. He settled the car back down, but his lap of 6.132 seconds at 196.62 mph wasn’t enough to claim the win.
“We’re going rounds and picking things off one at a time,” Brown said. “Our Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota team is starting to get our feet under them. We’re taking it one step at a time and it’s coming. We just need to keep improving. It was tricky out here today. The track got hot. It just kept getting worse and worse. We were trying to keep up with it and we were getting close. We made a good lap in the second round and then we backed it off for the third round. We just didn’t back it off enough. We’re going to be fine. We just need a little bit of time.”
Pritchett saved her best performances in the Papa John’s Pizza/FireAde/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR until Sunday. She defeated Terry Haddock in the first round with her best pass of the weekend running 3.735 seconds at 321.50 mph to advance to second round for the second consecutive event. With a spot in the semifinals on the line, Pritchett lined up next to Brown seeking her eighth victory over her U.S. Army Racing teammate. She made a quicker pass, but Brown’s advantage off the starting was the difference.
“We are still making progress,” Pritchett said. “I feel like we have our gremlins out of the way. Our hot rod is back, and it showed it on the track today. I take the blame for losing to my U.S. Army teammate Antron Brown. He came out stronger. It’s extremely frustrating. I missed it. I’ve been on it all weekend in both cars and missed it when it counted most. We win together as a team and it feels great. The highs are high and the lows are low. Having to sit on that for two weeks waiting for Las Vegas isn’t going to be fun, but we get to switch gears and put ourselves in the four-wide mindset. This has been an exciting, very high-paced weekend in Gainesville. I’m disappointed it ended early, and on my shoulders, but we’ll bounce back.”
Crampton scored his eighth career Top Fuel win and his first Gatornationals victory when Reed, who made his first career final, couldn’t make a pass because of mechanical failure on the burnout.
After three rounds of the 24-event NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series for 2018, the top-10 drivers the Top Fuel standings are:
1. Steve Torrence (217 points)
2. Antron Brown (210 points, -7)
3. Clay Millican (204 points, -13)
4. Tony Schumacher (198 points, -19)
5. Doug Kalitta (182 points, -35)
6. Richie Crampton (163 points, -54)
7. Scott Palmer (161 points, -56)
8. Leah Pritchett (147 points, -70)
9. Brittany Force (117 points, -100)
10. Terry McMillen (116 points, 101)
Next up is the 19th annual Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway April 6-8. FS1 will carry Sunday’s elimination rounds live in a three-hour show beginning at 6 p.m. EST.
TSC PR/Photo Credit NHRA Media