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The top team in top fuel is nearing end of the line

November 14, 2008|Jim Peltz | Peltz is a Times staff writer

Tony Schumacher is the Tiger Woods of drag racing, having recently clinched his fifth consecutive title, and sixth overall, in the sport's premier top-fuel class.

Given that domination, his rivals might think Schumacher approaches each race without feeling much pressure.

But Schumacher said it's quite the opposite, because he knows Alan Johnson prepared his 300-mph dragster.

"It's the highest level of pressure" because Johnson "is as good as it gets" in a crew chief, Schumacher said before Thursday's first round of qualifying in the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, the season finale in the Powerade Series.

"You know you've got a car that can win, and you're the last guy to touch it," Schumacher said. "I don't think other people have any idea how hard that is."

But another driver will soon find out. Johnson is leaving Schumacher next year to start his own team, so this will be the last race for one of the most potent driver-crew chief combinations in National Hot Rod Assn. history.

"We've certainly had a great run here," said Johnson, 50, who lives in Santa Maria, Calif. "I wouldn't trade the last five years for anything. But there are more challenges out there."

There are still challenges this weekend, in fact.

Johnson and Schumacher hope to break two season records set by Greg Anderson in 2004 -- 15 overall event wins (Schumacher also has 15) and 76 individual round victories (Schumacher has 74).

If so, much of the credit goes to Johnson, who is respected for blending his knowledge of engine technology, his driver's abilities and track conditions to generate the most speed. "When you've got Alan Johnson and that team on your side, you're oozing confidence" as a driver, said rival driver J.R. Todd.

Todd had the fastest top-fuel qualifying run Thursday at 3.851 seconds down the 1,000-foot track at Auto Club Raceway at a speed of 308.14 mph. Schumacher had a failed start and shut down his U.S. Army dragster about halfway.

In the funny car class, Mike Neff had the fastest run at 4.105 seconds, or 299.13 mph.

Qualifying continues today and Saturday, with final eliminations Sunday.

Schumacher drives for his father's team, Don Schumacher Racing, which hired Johnson in 2003. Johnson previously had guided Gary Scelzi to three NHRA championships and, before that, he and his brother Blaine ran a team. But Blaine Johnson was killed in August 1996 in a crash during the U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis.

What makes Johnson stand out? "He understands the car, the fuel, how everything flows, how it works and then, when you have this massive power, how to make it work through the clutch" when the driver hits the gas pedal, Schumacher said.

Johnson, in turn, gave credit to his crew. "As long as they put that car together every time exactly the same, and I can go out there and adjust [the engine] for track conditions and atmospheric conditions," he said.

Then he puts his faith in Schumacher's reflexes.

"No matter who we're going to race against, I know he's going to be off the starting line at least the same time as the other guy," Johnson said. "He knows his car is going to the finish line. He can just do this thing."


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