Don Schumacher had no intention of returning to drag racing when he left the sport in 1974 to focus on his young family and expanding Schumacher Electric Corporation near his hometown of Chicago.
By then, he already had carved a niche in the growing form of motorsports as a pioneer in the marketing and safety of the new Funny Car drag racing category by competing nearly year-round throughout the country with a focus on guaranteed-pay match races.
After a 23-year hiatus from racing, Don returned with his son Tony Schumacher and began building what has become a drag racing dynasty.
As a driver and team owner, Don won five NHRA national event titles, including the 1970 U.S. Nationals, through 1974. Since his return in 1997, DSR has totaled 11 NHRA world championships and won its 200th event title on March 17, 2013, in the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
Those lofty on-track accomplishments are part of why Don was selected for induction into the prestigious International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 along with NASCAR stalwarts Rusty Wallace, Rick Hendrick and Dale Inman.
Don, 68, is the 11th member of the drag racing community to be enshrined in the Hall since it opened in 1990 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. He joins such drag racing luminaries as NHRA founder Wally Parks (1992), Don Garlits (1997), Don Prudhomme (2000), Shirley Muldowney (2004), Bob Glidden and Joe Amato (2005), Warren Johnson (2007), Bill Jenkins (2008), and John Force and Kenny Bernstein (2012).
“This is such a great honor,” Don said. “I was overwhelmed just to be nominated. This is really overwhelming.”
No one will be prouder at the induction than his son Tony, 43, who will introduce his dad at the ceremony, set for Thursday, May 2, at the SPEED Dome at the IMHOF.
“I’m very proud of him,” says Tony, who owns seven NHRA Top Fuel world championships and holds nearly every record in the category driving for his dad’s U.S. Army team. “He’s done an amazing job in a lot of areas. I think he could be in the Hall of Fame for a lot of things he’s done.
“I don’t remember seeing him race, but I remember Tommy Ivo parked in my driveway and Tim Grose stopping by. I’d listen to great stories from great people … meeting Raymond Beadle and watching Dale Pulde’s War Eagle Funny Car get painted in my dad’s shop behind the house.
“There are so many great stories and memories … watching ‘And they Walked Away’ and ‘Fabulous Floppers’ videos with my dad. As a young kid I saw a lot of cool stuff.”
And each left lifelong memories.
Don’s overall body of work in drag racing earned him selection on the first ballot by an international panel of motorsports journalists.
His mantra as a racer and businessman, who built Schumacher Electric into the world’s leading manufacturer of battery chargers, has been consistent: The harder you work, the luckier you get.
He was not eager to walk away from drag racing after the 1974 season but his priorities shifted. After spending much of his racing years on the road, he had two children – 5-year-old Tony and 1-year-old Tara – with another daughter, Samantha, on the way so it was time to stay home.
Don now has four grandchildren and a third daughter, Megan, a 21-year-old college senior who travels with Don and her mother, Sarah, to each NHRA event. Megan assists with DSR’s Social Media efforts.
Don’s family business also needed his full-time involvement, and he approached it with the same fervor that made him an innovative racing champion. When he took the reins of Schumacher Electric, which was founded by his late father Al Schumacher, the company employed about 400. Today, Schumacher Electric employs about 2,000 worldwide.
Don, nicknamed “The Shoe” early in his career, was at his driving zenith in the early 1970s.
The 2007 inductee into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame is remembered for an unequaled record in special events by winning about 70 percent of 560 match races from 1968 to 1974. He also won the 1972 Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars Championship for Funny Cars, nine International Hot Rod Association event titles and the 1973 American Hot Rod Association World Championship.
Don and the Stardust Plymouth Barracuda regularly set records comparable to his best run in 1974 of 6.18 seconds at 241.95 mph.
He was one of the first drag racers to bring a business-like approach to the sport. In addition to his partnership with the Stardust Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, he secured major sponsorship from Wonder Bread for a three-car fleet of “Wonder Wagon” Funny Cars that sported paint schemes to mirror the red, yellow and blue balloons of the bread company’s wrappers.
Upon his return to NHRA, he began attracting a long list of sponsors including several new to drag racing.
His concept of having hospitality areas situated between his teams’ pit areas attracted sponsors’ customers, VIPs and guests. In 2012, more than 30,000 guests visited DSR hospitality areas that increased attendance significantly at NHRA events.
Don’s success was not limited to board rooms and cockpits. As an owner and crew chief, his engine, clutch and aerodynamic advancements made his Funny Cars among the leading performers in the first decade of “floppers.”
“I was the owner, the crew chief, driver and mechanic,” he says. “I’d have one or two guys working with me mechanically, and that was it.”
Upon leaving the sport after the 1974 season, Schumacher remained a fan with no interest in returning as a competitor until the late 1990s when Tony decided to follow in “The Shoe’s” footsteps.
“When I retired from the sport in 1974 I didn’t plan to come back other than to go to races to watch and enjoy as a fan,” Don said. “I came back because Tony got involved in the sport and I wanted to put him in the very best equipment possible and in the very safest environment possible.”
Tony says his dad never encouraged him to pursue a racing career, but it was hard for Tony, who was 5 in 1974, not to become interested in drag racing.
“He never pushed it on me. When I had my first street car and I was 16, my dad said, ‘Hey, Union Grove opens today.’ I thought it was something on TV,” Tony says of the noted Wisconsin dragstrip. “It was cool; a simple statement and a simple start to racing.
“All my dad said about working on my cars was, ‘Keep the garage door shut, and if oil doesn’t leak out I won’t bother you.”
In the 1990s, Tony raced a 160-mph Super Comp dragster before being hired for two years to drive a 290-mph Jet Dragster. Then it was on to a 250-mph Alcohol Funny Car that earned an invitation from the Peek Brothers team to drive its Top Fuel Dragster in 1996 and 1997.
With nitro flowing through his son’s veins, it wasn’t long until Don’s passion was rekindled. With Don’s business savvy and Tony’s exceptional driving and public relations talent, the Schumacher duo showed enormous potential.
Don assembled a Top Fuel team for Tony in September 1998, and in its first full-time season the following year it delivered the first of 11 NHRA season titles to DSR when they won the NHRA Winston (now Mello Yello) Top Fuel world championship.
The following season, DSR partnered with the U.S. Army in what has been labeled one of the longest-running and most successful sponsorships in motorsports.
In addition to Tony’s seven championships, DSR has added four more with former driver Gary Scelzi (2005) and current drivers Matt Hagan (2011), Antron Brown and Jack Beckman reaching the pinnacle last season.
DSR is the only organization to have won national event titles in each of NHRA’s four professional categories: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. DSR also is the only organization to win two NHRA world championships in the same season in Top Fuel and Funny Car, and DSR did it twice (2005 and 2012).
When Don returned to the NHRA circuit it didn’t take long for him to realize how much the sport had changed.
“In 1974, we towed the racecar in a Chaparral trailer with a one-ton pickup. That’s how we went down the road,” he says. “Today, I have seven teams and about 120 employees with 19 tractor-trailers on the road. NHRA drag racing is a different world.
“I had what I needed to go out there and race, but it was a whole different world back then. We didn’t have computers on the car to gather data; we drove by the seat of the pants.”
The master machinists and fabricators at DSR headquarters, a 120,000-square-foot facility outside of Indianapolis in Brownsburg, Ind., makes more than 250 parts and all chassis used on DSR’s dragsters and Funny Cars at the facility that houses a CNC and machine shop, fabrication shop, clutch shop and room for 14 18-wheel racecar transporters to pull inside.
Although Don focuses on winning events and championships, safety always has been his highest priority.
When Don was driving, he contributed cutting-edge safety innovations for the full-bodied Funny Cars including a roof-mounted escape hatch that allowed drivers to quickly exit when all-too-frequent fires occurred. He also was the first to mount the lever to activate a fire suppression system on his Funny Car’s brake handle so the driver could apply both while keeping one hand on the butterfly steering wheel.
Two years ago, he began helping to fund a project to develop a protective, enclosed canopy for Top Fuel dragsters with U.S. Army crew chief Mike Green and James Brendel, who owns Hondo Boats and Brendel Safety Capsules in Riverside, Calif.
The concept first was tested in January 2011 on Tony’s dragster then improved a year later and approved for use in competition by NHRA in August 2012. The canopy, which is manufactured and sold through Indianapolis-based Aerodine Composites, debuted a few days later at the NHRA event at Brainerd, Minn.
The 2013 season opened with canopy units on each of three DSR Top Fuel Dragsters and another driven by rookie Brittany Force.
“We let drivers from other teams get in it if to see how it feels,” Don says. “I want to make these cars as safe as they can be and not just for Tony. The canopy takes safety in Top Fuel to a much higher level.”
And reaching higher levels always has been the aim of Don Schumacher.
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Honoring its first class in 1990, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony has enshrined more than 100 inductees from all forms of racing. A Hall of Fame induction is one of the greatest crowning achievements in motorsports. For information on how to be a part of this year’s induction ceremony (Thursday, May 2), call 256-761-4725. For additional information on the IMHOF, visit www.motorsportshalloffame.com or call 256-362-5002.
The International Motorsports Hall of Fame is located adjacent to the Talladega Superspeedway. The most competitive racing in NASCAR combined with a mix of southern hospitality returns to Talladega May 3-5 for the Aaron’s Dream Weekend. Experience the excitement as the superstars of NASCAR attempt to tackle the high-banks of ‘DEGA at 200 mph. Secure your tickets at www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or by calling 877-Go2-DEGA. This is more than a race…This is Talladega!