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What Makes NHRA Legend Don Schumacher Tick? We Asked Him

Last week, as part of a track test of the new Don Schumacher Racing Performance crate motor, the DSR 1150, pushing a whopping 1,150 hp in both a Dodge Durango SUV and a Dodge Demon, I was able to interview Don Schumacher. A millionaire several times over (estimates put his net worth at around $50 million), Schumacher, 77, is a legend in the drag-racing business. Competing himself in the 1960s, he amassed several wins in the Funny Car category when the likes of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Shirley Muldowney were racing. Now he owns venerable Don Schumacher Racing, which recently celebrated two decades, and which has sponsored a plethora of blue-chip drag-racers over the years.

Recently, though, a number of his staples have left. Among them are Leah Pruett, who married former NASCAR racer Tony Stewart and defected to his new team; Antron Brown, who founded his own team, AB Motorsports; and Ron Capps, who also started his own team, Ron Capps Motorsports. Schumacher’s remaining driver is his son, Tony, not a bad guy to still have around. With eight NHRA National Championships in the Top Fuel category, Tony is a bonafide legend, too. We sat down with Don at Indianapolis Raceway Park for an interview. Following are edited excerpts from a longer conversation.

Jim Clash: Describe the dynamics of today’s NHRA.

Don Schumacher: I pretty much call everybody in this sport family. That’s the way the NHRA is. Even though you’re competing against each other on the starting line, and you want to beat them, when the chips are down you want to be there for them in every way possible. I feel that way about [son] Tony, Matt [Hagan], Leah, Antron, Ron. I’m here to help the best I can to keep NHRA vibrant, to keep its sponsors happy.

Clash: You, in a sense nurtured the stars who recently left DSR. What are your feelings about that? Are you, like, a proud father watching them go off on their own? Angry that they’ve left? A combination?

Schumacher: I’m a very competitive individual, so that’s difficult to clearly answer. I do feel like a proud father but, yet, I have thoughts and feelings that are, “Darn.” I love to win, set records, get championships. The only reason I raced myself was to win. I’ve been blessed to have the best in the world working for me, and I’ve accomplished more than I ever would have guessed in this sport.

Clash: Talk a bit about your career.

Schumacher: I raced back in the sixties and seventies with my own Funny Car. I never expected to have a second one, but my father pushed me. Then I ended up having three, then a fourth that I raced in Europe. When I stepped away from the sport and took over Schumacher Electric, I hated the change from racing, running around the world, the euphoria of the win and the crush of the defeat. Now it was dealing with the corporate world and customers. When I was able to reorganize my head and priorities to where I looked at my competitors in the electronics business the same way as my former racing competitors, it changed for me. I wanted to beat them every time I went up against them, like when I was racing, and experienced tremendous growth with the company. I’ve had a wonderful life.

Clash: Where did that competitive fire within you come from?

Schumacher: Had to have come from my genes, my parents. I was competitive as a kid. I hated how competitive I was as my own children grew, when I played games with them. I have a very difficult time losing, even now to my grandchildren. It just isn’t in my makeup. My dad was a professional gambler, a risk-taker. He and my mother were bookies in Chicago. You didn’t play pool against my dad, didn’t bowl against him, sit down at a poker table with him. But my dad was also great at business. I mean, for a man to take $2,500 of his own money and $2,500 from a partner’s to form Woodward Schumacher Electric in 1947, then grow it to amazing levels, that’s something. At times, I sit here and think back, think you can’t do that kind of thing today. But entrepreneurs are still becoming billionaires, day in and day out. Look at my son-in-law and my daughter, Megan, and how much they’ve grown the machine-shop side of my business.

Clash: There’s your son on the race track, Tony, too.

Schumacher: Tony has won eight world championships. It’s hard to say if anybody in Top Fuel will ever surpass that, but every record is broken. And I’m sure Tony’s will be also. The [American] dream is still alive.

Clash: Regarding the machine shop side of your business, DSR Performance. When your son-in-law, Chad, came to you with the DSR 1150 crate motor idea that we’re going to test later in a Dodge Durango and Dodge Demon, what did you think?

Schumacher: I thought, “Yeah, that’d be cool but I’ll be surprised if we actually do much with it.” But I let Chad have the leeway to go ahead, the old saying, “give them enough rope and see how they do with it [laughs].”

Clash: How much capital did you invest in it?

Schumacher: We have a tremendous amount of machinery and equipment already in-house, so we didn’t have to go too much outside. I wouldn’t even put a number on it.

Clash: If you had to guess.

Schumacher: No more than $10 million, but more than $5 million.

Clash: So you took a gamble. How do you feel about the finished product?

Schumacher: I didn’t really gamble on the product, but gave the okay to my son-in-law and daughter to see if they could accomplish what they were talking about doing. As far as the product, I’m amazed. Earlier today was the first time that I actually drove the Durango with the 1,150-hp motor in it, and it stunned me, and we’ve won hundreds and hundreds of drag races! Just driving it at a normal speed, the sound and the shifting, is impressive. But when you step on that throttle at the racetrack, that’s something else. I know that you’ve driven 253 mph in a Bugatti, and pulled 9Gs in a fighter jet, Jim, but I’ll be very curious to hear how this experience compares [laughs].

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