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AUTO RACING

Antron Brown in the hunt for NHRA top-fuel championship

The Don Schumacher Racing driver could become the first African American to win the title, a distinction he downplays: 'It's not me, I'm on a great team.' Season ends at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.

November 09, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Antron Brown has a habit of being modest when talking about his chances of winning this season's NHRA top fuel title.
Antron Brown has a habit of being modest when talking about his chances of… (Marc Gewertz / Associated…)

For a man who races a dragster at 300 mph in about four seconds, Antron Brown can be quite patient.

That's especially true when he's asked about the prospect that this weekend he could become the first African American to win the championship in the NHRA's most prestigious class, top fuel.

It's a question the 35-year-old New Jersey native gets asked repeatedly, and each time Brown gives a similar measured answer.

"First, it's not me, I'm on a great team," he said in an interview, referring to his Don Schumacher Racing crew. "I'm just a piece of that puzzle."

As for "looking at color and different stuff like that, I'm just American," Brown said.

Brown will try to seize the top-fuel title this weekend at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, where the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Full Throttle Series ends its season with the NHRA Finals. Three days of qualifying start Thursday and final eliminations are Sunday.

A six-time winner already this year, Brown is in third place in the top-fuel championship standings, 14 points behind leader Spencer Massey, a teammate.

Del Worsham, who's won seven times for the Al-Anabi Racing team this year, is in second place, two points behind Massey.

All three, along with three-time and reigning champion Larry Dixon, who's 44 points back, still have a shot at winning the title.

Drag racing long has had more diversity among its drivers than, say, NASCAR stock-car racing. One reason: It's easier and less costly for drivers to modify an everyday car or motorcycle and go drag racing to get experience.

Shirley Muldowney won the top-fuel championship three times in the 1970s and '80s. Drivers of Latino heritage also are among the NHRA's stars, led by brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon from Torrance, who each have won the funny car title twice. Cruz Pedregon is contending to win a third title this weekend.

"We don't see color" in the NHRA, Brown said, adding that if he wins the top-fuel crown, it would not be a trailblazing moment but "a tribute to our sport as a whole."

Team owner Don Schumacher said Brown is an exceptional driver, one who has innate quickness at the starting line, stays in strong physical condition, learns quickly from others and excels at keeping his 7,000-horsepower car in a straight groove on the drag strip.

"He's also driven to succeed ... and pushes himself to do that," Schumacher said.

Brown grew up around the drag strip. His father, Albert, and uncle Andre raced on weekends in drag-racing's lower levels in New Jersey, and the younger Brown helped build and repair the cars. Brown was a standout sprinter in school but also enjoyed motorcycles.

An early break came while Brown was in junior college. Troy Vincent, a defensive back in the National Football League, recruited Brown for an NHRA motorcycle team he was forming.

Brown rode in the NHRA's pro stock motorcycle class for the next decade, winning 16 races and twice finishing second in the title standings. The gains came from "hard work and dedication," Brown said. "My family didn't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at my racing career."

But he yearned to drive top-fuel cars, and his opportunity came in 2008 when he was asked to join the David Powers Motorsports team. "I was all over it, it's what I always wanted to do," Brown recalled.

Brown made the transition from two wheels to four appear seamless, winning twice in 2008 to become the first to win NHRA races in both the top fuel and motorcycle classes.

He won six more times in 2009 even as his team went through several ownership changes before finally being acquired by Schumacher, whose son Tony, Brown's teammate, won a record six consecutive top-fuel championships from 2004 to 2009.

Married, with three young children, Brown is described by Don Schumacher as "gregarious, happy, a character. I can't throw a negative word out there." That's the type of driver a team owner wants when seeking corporate sponsors to pay the racing bills, he said.

Being a champion doesn't hurt the cause, either, and Brown still has a solid shot to overtake Massey and Worsham for the top-fuel title because Brown has won the NHRA Finals in Pomona the last two years.

"They say good things always happen in threes," Brown said, "and I'm hoping they're absolutely right. I'm more excited this year than I have been ever in my drag-racing career."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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