SCHUMACHER NEEDS CONSISTENCY OF ?99 TO STAY IN THE HUNT

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JOLIET, Ill. ? When Tony Schumacher made his NHRA debut in 1996, he had no idea he was going to turn heads the way he did. Now, after a few seasons of competition, the driver of the U.S. Army dragster is considered one of the top young talents among all the competitors that do battle on the quarter-mile drag strip in 6,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragsters. Schumacher will have high hopes and expectations when he returns home for the fifth annual Chicagoland Dodge Dealers NHRA Nationals, May 30-June 2, at Route 66 Raceway. The $1.9 million race is the 10th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERADE Drag Racing Series. Being the son of Funny Car pioneer Don Schumacher was going to attract plenty of attention regardless of the individual. But, the shockwave Schumacher sent through the Top Fuel field was widespread, considering that he did it by advancing to the final round at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the most prestigious event on the NHRA circuit. After that performance it was to little surprise that in his first full season of NHRA competition in 1997 Schumacher scored two more runner-up finishes. Then, despite racing on a limited basis in ?98 (13 events), Schumacher managed to finish a career best 15th in the final standings and notch another runner-up finish, this time at Houston in the fall. By the 1999 season-opener, the rest of the Top Fuel contingent had taken notice of the younger Schumacher. The Long Grove, Ill., resident then stole the headlines two races into the season, at Phoenix, when he became the first NHRA driver to eclipse the 330 mph mark. The tone had been set for the rest of the year. Consistency paid off for the now 32-year-old, who after eight runner-up finishes over a brief career, scored his first event win (Dallas). Couple that win with the fact that Schumacher had advanced to the quarterfinals or better in 19 of 22 events, and had qualified for every event, and he had amassed enough points to secure the 1999 Top Fuel championship in his second full season of competition. After a disappointing season in 2001, Schumacher quieted any doubters by scoring the victory at Phoenix, his first win since the 2000 U.S. Nationals. It seemed things were falling back into place. With points leader Larry Dixon jumping out to such an impressive start with five wins and one runner-up finish in the first seven races, Schumacher will need that same kind of consistency that kept him in the championship race in ?99. After solid performances in the first five events, things took a turn for the worst when the Army team visited Bristol, Tenn., and left after a first round loss. With hope for improvement at Atlanta the following week, and the No. 2 qualifying spot, the results were the same as before? another first round defeat. ?We were all really down (following Atlanta),? said Schumacher. ?We truly had high hopes of going a bunch of rounds. It?s a shame we went out (in the first round) given how we had earlier in the weekend. We had one bad hot rod in qualifying. However, we didn?t get the job done when it counted most.? Dixon has nearly matched his win total from last year when he was the runner-up in the standings to Kenny Bernstein. At this torrid pace the championship race could be over sooner than expected and then it becomes a race for second place. ?I?ve said it once, and I?ll say it again, that the standings will all fall into place,? said Schumacher. ?We know what we are capable of. We just have to go out and perform. All is not lost by any stretch of the imagination. We can easily get back on course real quick. Of course, that will require a lot of grit and determination and I know this U.S. Army team has both of those qualities.? * SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying is scheduled for 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. on May 31 and will continue at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on June 1. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on June 2. * TICKETS: Tickets are available for the fifth annual Chicagoland Dodge Dealers NHRA Nationals. For further ticket information call (815) 727-RACE. Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster and at ticketmaster.com. * TELEVISION: ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 8:30 p.m. (ET) on June 1. ESPN2 will televise 150 minutes of eliminations at 8:30 p.m. (ET) on June 2.
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