Matco’s Brown overcomes fire, challenge from teammates to win NHRA Top Fuel championship to make American racing history
POMONA, Calif. – When Antron Brown started this week’s Auto Club NHRA Finals, the popular Top Fuel driver visited the NHRA Museum to arrange for tickets to be left for family and friends.
It was an appropriate way for the 36-year-old New Jersey native and Pittsboro, Ind., resident to kick-off the last of 23 events in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
The next time Brown walks into the impressive collection of NHRA drag racing history, he, too, will be part of the sport’s 61-year history as the first African-American to own a major American auto racing season championship.
“I never sat back and thought about it, but if I can be an inspiration for other kids out there – not just African-Americans, just Americans period – give them somebody they can look up to that’s positive that actually never settled in life for things that people told them they may not ever achieve,” Brown said. “Even some of my own family members told me that I could never be a professional racer. I even doubted myself that I would some day be a Top Fuel or Funny Car racer, because it just seemed to be so far out of reach.
“I’m just beside myself right now. I feel so blessed to be in this moment right now,” Brown said. “This is a big, huge moment. Don (Schumacher), I couldn’t be any happier than to be on one your race teams. You are a genuine and loving person and man. He always took me as one of his own family members. Every member of his family has taken me in with open arms. I’m just glad we could bring this championship to DSR. It feels incredible right now.”
Brown and his Matco Tools team wrapped it up Sunday at Auto Club Raceway, but they needed help to achieve the milestone.
If one fiery explosion on Saturday night’s final qualifying session wasn’t enough to deal with, a broken fuel line on Brown’s first run Sunday in eliminations ended his day and a fuel fire nipped at his legs and hands before he could get out of the cockpit.
The fire caused minor burns to his palms, and he watched the rest of the racing with bandaged hands. More painful, was watching his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher trying to complete another miraculous comeback at Pomona to win his eighth Top Fuel world championship.
After the 21st of 23 NHRA Full Throttle events, Brown led Schumacher by 136 but his U.S. Army teammate cut the lead to 67 points before eliminations began Sunday. The only way Schumacher could pass Brown would be to win his third event title of the year.
Schumacher couldn’t have come closer. He advanced to the championship round but his 3.753-second run at 325.53 mph wasn’t enough to catch Brandon Bernstein’s slower 3.762 (320.81) because Bernstein had a slight edge leaving the starting line.
“When you go through what we did today … there’s nothing you could do. I felt like a kid back in elementary school when it seemed like days were 30 hours instead of 24 hours. You are looking at people race and there’s nothing you can do about it. I would have rather it been where we were 20 points apart and Tony and I could race for it in the final. Instead of you depending on someone else to do what you want to do. You want to race for it.
Celebrating his championship with crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald along with assistant Brad Mason and the rest of Matco Tools crew helped him forget about the fire earlier in the day.
“Brad asked if I slipped getting out of the car because he saw me on the ground,” Brown recalled. “I told him no that I just stopped, dropped and rolled like I was taught to do if you catch on fire.
“I’m perfectly fine. By the grace of God, everything kept us right and tight. Hey man, everything happens for a reason. I just have a little burns on my hand.
“It was definitely a surprise. We weren’t expecting that fire in the cockpit. The flame was weird, because it didn’t come from back behind me, it came from down by my feet. It torched my feet and torched my legs then came up and torched my hands pretty good. The only parts that got singed were my palms where I steer the car and where I pull the brake. I had to hold onto the brake longer to get the car slowed down. You know the flames and fumes start taking your breath away. I didn’t want to go in panic mode, so I just stayed calm. Once I get the belts loose, I got out of the car as quick as I could. The Safety Safari was right there on point and got out there and hosed me down.”
He promised the crowd that the burns wouldn’t stop him from hoisting the championship trophy.
At the end of the night he kept his word to the point that he removed the bandages because he didn’t want his hands wrapped in winner’s circle photos that will live on forever.
And soon should be displayed in the NHRA Museum as a tribute to his contribution to drag racing history.
Event Winner: Brandon Bernstein (Morgan Lucas Racing.)
No. 1 qualifier: Shawn Langdon (Al-Anabi Racing) 3.730, 327.82 mph
Antron Brown, Matco Tools dragster
Qualified: No. 10
1st round: Spencer Massey (3.915 sec., 304.74 mph) def. BROWN (7.393, 51.68)
Session 1: rained out
Session 2: 3.804 sec., 321.27 mph
Session 3: 3.797, 325.58
Session 4: 3.842, 269.78
NHRA FULL THROTTLE STANDINGS
(Unofficial final standings; DSR drivers in CAPS)
1. ANTRON BROWN, 2,555
2. TONY SCHUMACHER, 2,548
3. SPENCER MASSEY, 2,505
4. Shawn Langdon , 2,450
4. Brandon Bernstein, 2,450
6. Doug Kalitta, 2,341
7. Morgan Lucas, 2,338
8. Bob Vandergriff Jr., 2,336
9. Steve Torrence, 2,300
10. David Grubnic, 2,260
2013 MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES OPENER
Feb. 14-17, 2013: 53rd annual NHRA Winternationals, Pomona, Calif.