Schumacher and Co. livin' the Army life and loving every minute of it
By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com
Currently a distant eighth in the Winston championship points standings, 1999 Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher and his U.S. Army team will be the first to tell you that they aren't happen with their results this season. One semifinal appearance and a pair of first-round losses just doesn't cut it when you're used to being on top.
At the same time, it would be impossible to argue that "Sarge" and his U.S. Army squad haven't excelled to new heights on the sponsorship development side of the business. Between races the group stays on a dizzying tour of Army-sponsored activities, helping Uncle Sam sign up new recruits while also motivating the grunts in the field to push themselves to be the best.
And make no mistake about it; the entire team is having the time of their lives. Consider their schedule of activities from the last few months which included: A visit to the Pentagon, a tour of Fort Knox, a look-see in an Apache helicopter, a parachute jump with the Golden Knights, weapons training at Fort Benning, a twirl in an Abrams tank simulator, lunch at West Point, and passes to the storied Army/Navy football game.
Searching for seatbelts
"This is a plane they use specifically for jumps so they left the big, back doors off," said Schumacher, who had to miss the jump under doctor's orders but went along for the ride anyway. "I'm buckled in with just a lap belt and the rest of the guys are each strapped to members of the Golden Knights.
"We get up to the correct altitude and the green light comes on. These guys are up and out the doors in no time at all. I was sitting right by the door so I watched them all go. It was very cool.
"As soon as the last pair jumped, it's just me and the pilot and co-pilot left. The pilot looks back, gives me a thumbs-up, and turns the plane on its side. I'm looking straight down several thousand feet and the only thing holding me in is this little lap belt. I didn't even have a parachute. I was wishing I had the harness from the Army dragster.
"We go into this steep dive. I can tell you this, that plane is a lot better at going down than going up. We were pretty close to beating the guys to the ground. It was awesome. No one stopped smiling for days.
"I'm going back. As soon as doc says my leg can handle it, I'm jumping."
Ready, aim, fire
"We were given a tour of the facility by Todd Graves, who won a bronze medal for the United States at the Sydney Olympics," said Schumacher. "Of course, he and the rest of the army sharpshooters who competed in the Olympics spend the majority of their time at the gun range so he took us there and showed us all the various weapons the Army uses.
"We shot the air rifles he used in the Olympics. They are super accurate, lightweight guns. Very cool. Then we shot a bunch of different handguns. But, of course everyone's favorite was the M-249 assault weapon. It's fully automatic and absolutely amazing. It fires 200 rounds like that (snaps his fingers.) We were having so much fun I didn't realize until later that the gun bruised the heck out of my shoulder. It's got quite a kick."
Tank rides and meeting the brass
"We watched them do maneuvers in the M1/A1 Abrams, which is the Army's main battle tank," Schumacher said. "What a sweet machine. We were allowed to crawl around in them and then they let us into the tank simulators to do a mock battle. That was a kick. They also let us in the M2 Bradley tank, one of the older pieces that they still use."
Leadership is a big part of the Army experience so Schumacher and Co. also spent some time with the men and women in charge.
"Sergeant Major of the Army Jack Tilley, the highest-ranked enlisted soldier in the Army, invited us up to the Pentagon," Schumacher said. "It's hard to describe the feeling you have in that building. You can definitely sense the importance and the power of the place.
"We met every high-ranking official in the Army division. They really rolled out the red carpet for us."
The group was then shuttled north for a stop at West Point, the Army's primary educational facility and officer training location.
"The history of West Point hits you the minute you arrive," Schumacher said. "Just watching the students go from class to class is impressive. There's a code of honor there and it's something that's very special.
"As crazy as it sounds, my biggest memory of the place was watching them feed 4,000 kids in eight minutes. It was like clockwork. If these are the leaders of tomorrow, and they are, we're in great shape."
The real mission
"We are constantly visiting high schools and colleges everywhere we go," Schumacher said. "We talk about our experiences with the Army, which is much easier to do after you've experienced it yourself. Believe me, I'm much more animated when I talk about firing an assault weapon now than I was before I did it first hand.
"We talk about teamwork and what it takes to win in drag racing. Most of the stuff we do at a race can be translated to what it takes to accomplish other goals these young people might have, whether they're in the Army or not.
"It's easy to motivate a kid when you're standing in front of the Army dragster and their jaw is on the ground. You can appeal to their need for speed. You can appeal to sense that any goal can be reached. You can talk about technology. There are no boundaries.
"Plus, aside from the obvious financial help, this deal has taken our team to a new level. We have the best sponsor in all of racing, no doubt about it. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. We all are, really.
'I'll tell you this, when you see all the weaponry, training, and gung-ho recruits in action, you feel so much better about your country. These guys are the best in the world and they stop at nothing to stay on top. We went to a lot of places to motivate the troops but they did a great job of motivating us as well."
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