Original article: https://www.ibj.com/articles/breaking-barriers

Antron Brown sat in his chair pondering what had just been said to him.

Matco Tools President Tim Gilmore had stared at Brown and thrown down the gauntlet.

“You’ve said you wanted to own your own [NHRA] team, so what are you going to do about it?” Brown recalls Gilmore—who presides over one of Brown’s racing sponsors—saying two or three years ago.

Determined to grip his own destiny the way he has a drag-car steering wheel for decades, Brown decided to do what he’s always done—put his foot to the floor and go where none had gone before.

While the National Hot Rod Association is more diversified than most racing series, Brown, who is Black, has ripped through numerous race barriers with the series, which holds its biggest annual race—the U.S. Nationals—each Labor Day weekend in Clermont, just west of Indianapolis.

Now, Brown is ready to roar through yet another barrier—and arguably the most significant.

Brown, 45, announced this year he is leaving the comfy confines of drag racing superpower Don Schumacher Racing after this season to roll out AB Motorsports in 2022.

That move will make Brown, who lives in Pittsboro and will base his team out of Brownsburg, one of the few Black team owners ever in the 70-year-old NHRA— and one of the few Black majority team owners in any motorsports series. He will be the only Black owner in the modern era of Top Fuel or Funny Car racing.

Schumacher, realizing the gravity of the move, has supported it every step of the way.

“Antron is going to do a great job out here,” he said. “He’s committed to it, and we’ll be there with him every step of the way that he wants us there.”

There’s been a small movement of Black owners into motorsports recently.

NBA legend Michael Jordan last fall became the first Black principal owner of a NASCAR team in nearly half a century. Previously, NASCAR had had only one Black principal owner, Wendell Scott, who drove from 1961 to 1973. Former Cleveland Cavaliers center Brad Daugherty had been the only Black owner in NASCAR’s modern era. He is a partner at JTG Daugherty Racing.

In December, African American business leader and former team manager Rod Reid announced the formation of Force Indy, a race team set to compete in the 2021 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, a feeder series sanctioned by the IndyCar Series.

But Brown’s move into ownership could arguably be the biggest. He’s the first Black driver-owner in the modern racing era.

“I think it’s fantastic that Antron is crossing over to ownership,” said Paul Doleshal, group manager of motorsports and assets for Toyota North America, one of Brown’s sponsors.

“It’s the absolute right time,” he said. “This is good for Antron and good for the sport and good for society.”

Barrier breaker

In 2012, Brown became the first Black champion in any major U.S. auto racing series when he won NHRA’s Top Fuel title. To quell any doubts about his abilities, the New Jersey native and longtime Indiana resident repeated the feat in 2015 and 2016.

His 52 career Top Fuel wins rank third on the all-time list, ahead of such legends as Kenny Bernstein and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

Walking through the door that Brown opened, J.R. Todd became the second Black NHRA series champion in 2018, when he won the Funny Car title. NHRA’s top classifications are Top Fuel and Funny Car.

“It’s difficult to underplay what Antron Brown has done for motorsports as a whole and drag racing in particular,” said longtime Indianapolis sports marketing consultant Milt Thompson—who can hear the roaring engines at Clermont’s Lucas Oil Raceway from the front porch of his house.

Brown has “shown a whole generation of people—minorities and otherwise—what’s possible,” Thompson said.

“Seeing a Black role model, whether a schoolteacher, race car driver or president of the United States, is just so important [for Black young people],” Thompson said. “They will see Antron owning a team and they will realize that door is open to them, too. His status as a team owner matters. It really matters.”

Brown, it seems, has been preparing for this his whole life.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, and growing up in a rural area outside the city, Brown was driving engine-propelled vehicles almost as soon as he could walk.

His father, Albert Brown, served in the U.S. National Guard for more than two decades and also helped run the family septic business. But his love was racing cars. Albert and his brother, Andre, were accomplished sportsman drag racers.

Growing up near two drag racing tracks, Antron started riding motorcycles when he was 4 and entered his first race at age 12.

He competed in his first street motorcycle race at 18, because, he said, “that’s what I could afford. I couldn’t afford to race cars.”

Dreams born early

Two early-life experiences shaped his racing career—and his life.

When Brown was a small child, his dad and uncle used to have him steer their drag cars in and out of the trailer.

“I was the only one small enough to get in and out of the car when it was in the trailer, and I could squeeze out of the trailer,” he said. “As I was sitting in the car and steering it into the trailer, I pretended like I was driving the car down the racetrack. I really could see it.”

His dad and uncle have long been huge supporters of his racing career, as has his mom, retired postal worker Judy Brown. “She has always had my back—and side—forever,” Brown said. “She helps out with so much, not just with racing, but with family and life. I don’t know where I would be without her.”

A trip to his first national drag race in 1986, at the age of 10, opened his eyes to something else.

“I was in awe,” Brown recalled. “I loved everything about it.”

The wild-looking drag racing cars, revving engines, a sea of fans and the world’s top drag racing drivers were all on display. But there was something else.

“The access,” Brown said. “It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. I saw opportunities. The drivers were right in there interacting with the fans. It seemed like a world where anything was possible.”

Drag racing legend John Force made a huge impression on Brown.

“My biggest inspiration is one of the true American-made stories, John Force,” Brown said. “He used to be a truck driver in California. He was living in a trailer home. Now the man is a living legend. He never stops, and he’s won so many races.”

It also registered with Brown that Force, a 16-time NHRA champion, has opened many doors for aspiring drivers through his team ownership.

At 72, Force is still active with his team and even gets behind the wheel of a drag racing car. Force’s daughters, Ashley Force Hood, Brittany Force and Courtney Force, are also accomplished drag racers.

Help from family

Early on, Brown caught a break when his cousin Tommi Hendricks married NFL star defensive back Troy Vincent.

Vincent, now the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, “mentored me through all my years of racing and taught me to be a professional and about the business of sports,” Brown said.

Vincent also was the original sole owner of Brown’s first racing team, Team 23 Racing, which competed in the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle division. Brown raced motorcycles from 1998-2007, before jumping to Top Fuel in 2008. Brown later owned part of Team 23 before it was acquired by Don Schumacher Racing.

Winning races—and championships—was never enough for Brown.

By the time Matco’s Gilmore challenged Brown, the drag racer had already been thinking about ownership—even planning for ownership—for several years.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted, to be able to control my own destiny,” Brown said. “I’ve always had this desire to pick the people going the same direction as me and form a team. I just want to open up the doors and show other people what they can do in this sport.”

Brown might be opening doors for his own children. All three—daughter Arianna, 19, and sons Adler, 16, and Anson, 13—have raced in Junior Dragster ranks and have shown interest in continuing. Brown’s wife of 21 years, Billie Jo, manages all the kids’ racing activities and also helps with Antron’s.

“I’ve tried to teach my children one main thing,” Brown said. “You have to put the work in.”

Broad appeal

Brian Corradi isn’t surprised by Brown’s success.

“Antron is unique and special in a lot of ways,” said Corradi, who is Brown’s crew chief at Don Schumacher Racing and will be a part of AB Motorsports. “The whole team goes over to his house for dinner. We hang out. Antron treats his team like family. And so do I. Because that’s what they are.”

Brown and Corradi, who began their working relationship in 2009, are devout Christians and host a Bible study each Friday in the crew chief’s hauler.

“We don’t force it on anyone, but it’s a big part of our life, and we want to share,” Corradi said. “It’s all part of fostering a team and family atmosphere.”

Brown shares with fans, too.

“The fans absolutely love him,” Corradi said. “He gives them his most valuable resource—his time. If he’s at the track, he’s always shaking their hands, signing autographs and bullshitting with them. He is never seen pouting because he got knocked out of an early round. He treats the fans special, and they really are to him. He loves the fans, and that’s why we have so many.”

Brown’s broad following includes everyone from schoolchildren and their teachers to old-school mechanics, factory workers and executives. “He draws in people from all walks of life,” Corradi said.

Toyota’s Doleshal is confident many of the traits that make Brown so popular with fans will help him as a team owner.

“Antron is one of the very best when it comes to fan engagement and making everyone feel special,” Doleshal said. “That is a true talent and something we really like on the Toyota corporate side. He’s just a great person who shows genuine concern in who you are and what you’re going through, no matter what.

“Because of that, Antron has a lot of appeal to sponsors, even outside of motorsports,” Doleshal added. “The way he relates to people and he takes time to understand them is really appealing on the sponsor side. I guarantee you, he’ll make every one of his sponsors and partners a part of his team and family.”

Funny Car future?

The leap to team ownership doesn’t mean Brown isn’t focused on winning races as a driver, Corradi said. “We have unfinished business on the track.”

Brown and his crew chief are eyeing a fourth Top Fuel title—in the Funny Car division, one in which Brown has little experience.

“It would be great for his legacy if he could win championships in Top Fuel and Funny Car,” said Thompson, the local sports marketer. “It’s not easy to excel in those two different disciplines.”

Corradi has no doubt Brown can make the jump, even though he’s no spring chicken.

“Antron is one of the very best drivers I’ve been around,” he said. “Not only does he know how to handle the car, he has a mechanical mind and can give the crew great feedback to get everything dialed in.”

Brown’s former crew chief, Mark Peiser, said Brown has one of the “fastest reaction times” in all of drag racing.

And he’s in great physical shape. “With respect to his physical fitness, he is that of a 30-year-old guy,” Doleshal said.

Brown was formerly fast on another kind of track. He excelled in football, basketball, and track and field at Northern Burlington County Regional High School in Columbus, New Jersey. He was fast enough in the 100-meter dash to qualify for the 1996 Olympic trials.

As he moves forward at his usual breakneck speed, Brown can’t help but glance in the rearview mirror.

He thinks about the days driving his dad’s drag car into the hauler—and the dreams that drove him then. He thinks about all the support of his family and the many fans that never saw color. He thinks of the kids at the myriad schools—including many in the Indianapolis Public Schools system—he has visited over the last 20 or so years.

“The funniest thing is when you are announced at a school and brought out on stage, there is a lot of shock and surprise at my being Black,” he said. “A lot of eyes are opened. It’s a real privilege to be a part of getting those kids to step up and realize their dreams.”

Brown is hopeful that his run as NHRA team owner will become an important part of that narrative.

“I hope people will say, ‘Hey look at what happened in drag racing,’” Brown mused. “Here’s this guy who came from rural New Jersey and went from racing Pro Stock bikes to Top Fuel, then he won races and then won championships. But he didn’t stop there.

“It took him 10-plus years of planning and working, but now he’s a team owner. He realized his dreams. And so can you.”•