Antron Brown has covered a lot of ground in drag racing, all of it at top speed. By the time he was a high school senior, he was covering the quarter-mile on two wheels at 160 miles per hour.
Over 10 years in the National Hot Rod Association’s Pro Stock Motorcycle division, he collected 16 wins and came close twice to winning the NHRA title.
He moved up to Top Fuel dragsters, claiming three championships in the Camping World NHRA series while regularly covering 1,000 feet of asphalt at over 330 mph — in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
He will be the first to say that success in the NHRA is a lot of hard work when the margin of victory is measured in thousands of a second. But losing and rebounding from a bad streak is even more work when it can take a year to regain a couple thousands of a second you lost — even when you are a three-time champion. Even when you drive for Don Schumacher Racing, one of the sport’s three powerhouse teams.
For the last four years, Brown has been like a heavyweight fighter on the ropes. He won only one race in 2018 — bad enough for a driver with 53 career wins, but it would get worse. In 2019, Brown went an entire season without a win for the first time in 20 years of professional drag racing.
He broke his losing streak in the last race of 2020 at a place where everybody wishes for good luck, Las Vegas. It marked the beginning of a good roll.
Brown has continued to find his stride so far this year, winning twice in eight races and making it to the final round six times. It’s put him in a distant second place behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel standings as the Camping World NHRA series begins three consecutive weeks of racing with its traditional “Western Swing” this weekend in Denver.
Brown’s arc from winning to losing in part reflects a complacency that can hit championship winning teams in any sport.
“We worked ourselves into a funk, something that top teams get into,” said Brown during an interview this week about his winless 2019 season. “We had all the parts and pieces and we changed a lot on the car.”
His arc from losing to winning again reflects the modern reality of drag racing. Although the sport was nurtured by innovators who were rewarded for developing unique equipment and their own speed secrets, success today is not about the parts. It’s about the people.
That is especially true since the NHRA began to standardize the specs for many parts in a cost-cutting move.
“Everybody has the same stuff now,” said Brown about parts and pieces. “Where races are won is in the pits,” with everyone on the crew contributing.
Like a Super Bowl team that loses its starting quarterback, Brown’s comeback took a hit when his crew chief of 10 years, Brian Corradi, moved on to John Force Racing after the winless 2019 season. But in a rebuilding effort, Brown elevated two people on his crew, Mark Oswald and Brad Nathan, to co-crew chiefs as the team searches for the right balance to hook up 10,000 horsepower to the clutch.
“We developed a new set of eyes and ears to look at the car in a different way,” Brown said.
Brown, who has a well-earned reputation for enthusiasm and exuberance, is confident his team is on the right track to make steady progress thousandths of a second at a time in the season’s stretch run.
“Our goal is to come out of each race gaining a round or two on Torrence so we can get closer to him before the Countdown,” Brown said of the final six races, beginning Sept. 10, when points from the regular season are reset for a run to the overall Camping World NHRA title.
Brown is also confident his streak of strong runs will continue at Sonoma Raceway, where he is a four-time winner, during the NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
“We have done well and won there,” he said. “We just have to stay on our Ps and Qs.”
But Brown’s plans are more ambitious than building a winning season. When the 2022 season begins, Brown will be a new team owner with a strong appreciation for how much drag racing is a team sport. His days are now filled with the organizational details of keeping his crew — soon to be his employees — organized, and with Zoom calls to raise the nearly $3 million a year it takes to field a Top Fuel race team.
“I’m in the middle of my driving career, but this is also something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Brown said.
It helps that he has been mentored by Don Schumacher, his current employer, since he announced his plans two years ago.
“Over the years I’ve watched him and he taught me a work ethic,” Brown said of his mentor. “You can beat resistance with persistence.”
After winning championships over 20 years as a driver, Brown said building his own team is the next step for a long-term future in the sport.
“Don Schumacher and John Force aren’t going to be in the sport forever, and I can grow something for the future and help people grow in the sport,” he said. “If I can blaze a trail and have other people see that it can be done, that would be a good legacy.”
NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma July 23-25
For the first time in two years, the NHRA will return to Sonoma Raceway July 23-25 as the series reaches the mid-point of a western swing that begins this weekend at Bandimere Raceway in Denver and ends at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona July 30 and Aug.1.
The weekend kicks off with a fan-favorite nitro session under the lights on Friday and continues with two qualifying sessions on Saturday and final eliminations on Sunday. Racing will be featured in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Robert Hight captured his 50th career Funny Car win in Sonoma in 2019 and joined Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) in victory lane.
As a thank you to loyal fans, the track is opening up Thunder Alley and the Sunday morning Track Walk free for all spectators. Thunder Alley is located in front of the main grandstand, at eye level with the race cars. Sunday’s pre-race track walk allows fans to walk the racing surface prior to final eliminations alongside some of the sport’s top racers.
NHRA Sonoma Nationals qualifying will feature one round at 6:30 p.m. (Pro Stock and Pro Stock Bike) and 8:05 p.m. (Top Fuel and Funny Car) on Friday, July 23. The final two rounds of qualifying will be on Saturday, July 24, at noon and 3 p.m.
Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 25. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 11 a.m. Saturday, qualifying at noon Sunday, and final eliminations at 1 p.m. Sunday.
To purchase general admission or reserved seats, call 800-870-RACE or online at sonomaraceway.com.
Ford Performance to be honored at Hillsborough
A special display of 200 cars and motorcycles chronicling the extensive history of Ford Performance will be a focus of the Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance this Sunday, July 18, at Crystal Springs Golf Course in Burlingame. A showpiece of the Ford collection is an iconic 1967 Ford GT40 MkIV.
Spanning more than a century of Ford’s history, the display “will offer Concours guests a first-hand look at the evolution and impact that the Ford brand has had, both on the racetrack and America’s roadways,” said Chairman Emeritus Rob Fisher. “We are deeply thankful to the owners of these magnificent cars for providing us with the opportunity to display them.”
The Ford display will include a dozen machines ranging from a 1915 Model T Speedster to Shelby Cobras and Mustangs, the Ford Boss 429 and other versions of the GT 40 from 1967 to the 2018 model.
In addition to special displays of this year’s honored Ford and BMW marques, the Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance will feature more than 20 additional “Automobiles of Distinction” groupings. Those will include American pre- and post-war, CCCA-approved Classics, American Sporting Cars through 1987, Vintage Motorcycles, two Ferrari classes, two imported sports car classes, Japanese cars, a preservation class, two Rolls-Royce and Bentley classes, Shelby GT350’s, imported passenger and touring cars, vintage race cars, and arcane and rare cars.
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