- Published on Tuesday, 12 February 2013 22:20
NORWALK, Ohio – Antron Brown leaned over a race track wall and gasped for breath.
A fuel system leak shot nitrous and flames into the cockpit of Antron Brown’s Top Fuel dragster during the first round of eliminations on the last race of the 2012 National Hot Rod Association season at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.
A round win would have made the rest of the race a Sunday afternoon drive to pick up his first Top Fuel World Championship trophy.
Instead, each breath labored long.
“The reason why I had to get out of the car so fast in Pomona, when the flames came up, the nitro and flames came up, it took my breath away, making me gag,” said Antron Brown during an NHRA news conference. “That’s why you saw me bending over the wall, because the nitro fumes got to me.”
Through the highs and lows, the worst part of the unfolding day involved the effect on Antron’s family.
“When I got that car on fire, I never saw my son cry like that before,” Antron Brown said. “He cried because he thought his dad was hurt. And when I saw him crying so bad, I gave him a hug and everything else. I said, ‘Anson, I’m alright. I’m alright.’
“And then the coolest part of it was once they picked me up to go back to the trailer, he looked back up at me and said, ‘Dad, when can I get my Junior Dragster?’ I’m like, ‘It’s all good!’”
The ride back to the pits allowed Antron Brown to reflect on the season.
Since all three Top Fuel drivers on the Don Schumacher Racing Team – seven-time World Champion Tony Schumacher, Spencer Massey, and Antron Brown – piloted the season to viable championship bids, owner Don Schumacher said, “Just fight for it.”
“He gave us all the necessary tools to make these teams go to the next level,” Antron Brown said. “As drivers we didn’t want to lose each other, so we press on each other, so you see how we just elevated to a new level, and that’s all that happens back there in that DSR shop.
“I mean, you’ve got so many people out there that’s running strong, it’s just incredible. Twelve different cars could win a race this year by just a drop of a dime, so to do what we do has been an amazing, amazing year.”
With his hands bandaged to prevent swelling and infection in the burns, Antron watched the rest of Championship Sunday unfold from the sidelines.
“You want to race for it,” Antron Brown said. “You don’t want to stand on the sidelines waiting or hoping for somebody to lose, because it doesn’t happen that way, and especially when you race one of our cars from our stable.
“These cars are strong,” Antron Brown said. “They broke world records before. They’re used to winning races. So when I went out first round and Spencer was still in and Tony was still in, you have two of the favored cars that can win a race. When you’re looking at something like that, the odds aren’t in your court.
“I tell you what, I felt like I was a kid back in elementary school when the days felt like they were 30 hours long instead of 24 hours long,” Antron Brown said. “You’re looking at people race and you can’t do anything about it.”
In order to snatch the championship from Antron, Tony Schumacher needed to win the race at Pomona.
In the final round, Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army Team lined up against underdog Brandon Bernstein.
“I saw both of them stay lit up all the way down the race track,” Antron Brown said. “I saw Tony’s car getting ghost, and I saw Brandon’s car getting ghost, and I thought, ‘This is an incredible drag race right now.’ I expected one of the cars to actually smoke the tires because the conditions get so good, your window gets real small in these types of conditions and you might not make it down. And we’ve all been there before.
“So I saw both of them go down full way, and I said, ‘Oh, my god, this is a drag race. Check this out.’ And then I saw the light come on and my deal was I saw Tony’s .75 pop up. I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s got it.’ I looked over and saw Brandon’s win light on. It’s like, ‘Brandon just won?’ And I’m like, alright, it’s like, mixed emotions.
“Then I thought about our team,” Antron Brown said of his Matco Tools crew and crew chiefs Mark Oswald and Brian Corradi. “Our team just won.”
Brandon Bernstein won the race on a final-round hole shot, lifting Antron Brown to his first Top Fuel World Championship, as well as the honor of being the first African American to win a major auto racing championship in North America.
“It just felt good,” Antron Brown said. “I mean, to win a world championship the way this competition has been this year in Top Fuel is incredible. And then to run and compete like we have been competing all year long is a phenomenal job by all the teams.”
Now the reigning Top Fuel World Champion, Antron Brown opens the 2013 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series defending his title in Pomona at the same dragstrip where fire blistered his hands and left him gasping for breath a few months ago.
“Definitely when we pull in there, I’m just going to remember back a little bit of last year,” Antron Brown said during an NHRA news conference. “But last year now is pretty much done and over with. So we’re back at work, just like usual. We’re putting those hours in. The effort is definitely going forward. We want to contend for a championship again, and we want to defend our title.”
In addition to breaking down the Matco Tools dragster for regular off-season restoration and repair, the crew installed an enclosed cockpit and new safety features.
Other than losing peripheral vision on the side, Antron Brown liked the enclosed canopy during testing.
“It was really easy to jump in it and go after it,” said Antron Brown.
Also this week, Brittany Force, daughter of 15-time Funny Car World Champion John Force, launches her rookie season in Top Fuel dragster at her home track in Pomona.
“Top Fuel pound-per-pound is a rough category,” Antron Brown said. “When Brittany comes in, she’s going to be on a great team. Her dad is going to give her the best equipment. Dean Antonelli has tuned that race car. They ran good in testing. When they come out, the car is going to be capable, she’s going to be capable of driving it, but now she’s going to have to line up against some of the fiercest racers in the business. She’s going to have a lot more work cut out for her than when I first started.”
In the midst of launching a new season and winning awards such as the newly announced “TheGrio’s 100” award, check out the full story at www.shoeracing.com, Antron Brown intentionally commits to his family.
“This upcoming year I have another hobby,” Antron Brown said. “My son Anson is getting into Junior Dragsters. Another couple weeks, got the enclosed trailer coming. I’m going to turn into a crew chief, and watch him go down the race track, and make the calls on his race car.”
Anson’s Junior Dragster is sponsored by “Daddy, Inc.,” Antron Brown said. “It’s definitely going to be sponsored by me. It’s all about having fun, no pressure. He loves it. He watches YouTube videos of Junior Dragsters all the time.
“The craziest part of it is that my son is a John Force fan. He would rather race a John Force Funny Car than a Junior Dragster,” Antron Brown said. “I said, ‘They don’t have a class for them. You have to race dragsters like Daddy.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, Daddy.’”
For information about the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, check out the www.nhra.com.
Watch Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, Spencer Massey, Don Schumacher Racing, Brandon Bernstein, John Force and Brittany Force, as well as other stars of the NHRA, July 4-7, 2013 during the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, part of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. We recommend buying tickets and lodging in advance. Click here for information.