Drag racing lost a towering figure this month with the passing of Don Schumacher at the age of 79 after a battle with lung cancer.
It was his second major fight with the disease. In 2015, Schumacher overcame head and neck cancer and immediately returned to the drag strip.
Schumacher had two distinct, but incredibly successful careers in drag racing and was an important advocate and innovator in the safety side of the sport.
Schumacher was part of drag racing’s golden era throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, earning five NHRA victories in his first drag racing career, including the 1970 US Nationals. The ‘match racing’ circuit was where Schumacher found his niche, being paid to tour race tracks across the country with his ‘Stardust’ Funny Cars. From 1968 to 1974, Schumacher attended some 600 events to treat fans to his own nitro show.
An astute businessman, Schumacher could see the possibilities drag racing offered to the corporate world. His professionalism saw food giant Wonder Bread come knocking, and he set up a three-car team in 1973, one of the first examples of a corporate mega-team in the sport.
The team originally raced ‘Wonder Wagons’ – Chevrolet Vega panel vans built to resemble the delivery vehicles used by the Wonder Bread corporation. While the marketing was brilliant, Schumacher called the aerodynamics ‘desk-like’ and the bodies had to be ditched for regular Chevy Vegas.
At the 1973 US Nationals, drag racing’s biggest event, Schumacher debuted a revolutionary new Vega. Having learned the negative effects of aerodynamics courtesy of the wagons, Schumacher applied the lessons to create positives. The reborn Vega was lower than any other Funny Car on the circuit. The team reduced the height of the cockpit by nine inches, and features included a flow-through grille, aerodynamic blisters around the supercharger and front wheels, side windows and Moon-style wheel covers. The Vega won the Best Engineered Award for the event.
A young family and expanding business saw Schumacher leave drag racing in 1974, freeing him up to concentrate on the family business, Schumacher Electric. In the 23 years he spent away from drag racing, Schumacher Electric grew from a corporation turning over $7 million a year to a $200 million powerhouse, employing over 2000 workers internationally.
The company became the world’s leading manufacturer of battery chargers. Schumacher followed the mantra: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Don’s son Tony was a toddler when his father retired from drag racing but took an interest in the high-horsepower world in the 1990s. Starting as a sportsman racer, Tony’s break came when he began driving jet dragsters in exhibition races. This led to the Peek Brothers Top Fuel team calling on his skills, allowing Tony to follow his father’s footsteps into the professional ranks of the NHRA.
Don Schumacher was always a pioneer for safety. Funny Cars in the 1970s were renowned for extremely bad fires, so Don developed the first escape hatches for the fibreglass bodies. He also pushed forward the evolution of on-board fire extinguishing systems.
With his son’s safety in mind, Don decided to return to drag racing for a second career as a team owner. He and Tony hit the NHRA circuit together in 1998. Don’s business reputation and pioneering hospitality options made him a magnet for sponsorship. Their most high-profile partner was the US Army, whom Tony has represented since 2000. Though the end of the sponsorship was announced in 2018, the campaign has been regarded as one of the military’s most high-value recruitment tools.
The team expanded across two decades to include multiple Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, along with forays into the Pro Stock Motorcycle category and the Factory Stock Showdown Series, which the team won in 2018.
Ever the innovators, Don and Tony continued to develop more safety for drivers, such as jet fighter-like canopies for dragster cockpits.
Schumacher also used his team’s fleet of race cars to support various charities. For seven years, Schumacher, along with Terry and Doug Chandler, campaigned ‘giving cars’. The program enabled charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation to run their livery on top-level race cars at zero cost.
In more recent years, Schumacher turned his focus to growing Don Schumacher Motorsports, more commonly known as DSM Precision Manufacturing and DSR Performance, and in 2022, Schumacher stepped back from the pointy end of Top Fuel racing, handing over control of the team to sponsors Joe and Cathi Maynard, with Tony Schumacher staying on to continue racing in Top Fuel.
Other Schumacher alumni, including Ron Capps and Antron Brown, have formed their own teams, while Matt Hagan and Leah Pruett have joined Tony Stewart Racing.
1. As a Funny Car driver, Schumacher won five NHRA national events, was the AHRA Funny Car World Champion in 1973, and won approximately 70 per cent of his 560 match races.
2. Champion Funny Car pilot Ron Capps raced for Schumacher from 2005 to 2021, ending the relationship on a high by clinching the 2021 NHRA Funny Car Championship.
3. Don’s son Tony holds the record for Top Fuel championships with eight titles, including six in a row between 2004 and 2009.
4. Top Fuel racer Antron Brown (left) and Funny Car racer Tommy Johnson Jr (right) pose with Don in Las Vegas in 2017, after delivering their boss his 299th and 300th career wins.
5. Schumacher posing with Miss Winter Nationals and his Stardust Plymouth ’Cuda after taking out the AHRA Winter Nationals in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1973.