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Don Schumacher’s Legacy Lives On at Route 66 Nationals

Photos by Krista Zivcic/KZ Photography

Family, friends, and former drivers and employees of the late iconic Funny Car driver and team owner Don Schumacher gathered over the weekend to pay their respects during Schumacher’s home race, the NHRA Route 66 Nationals at Route 66 Raceway outside Chicago. The weekend included a Celebration of Life ceremony hosted by the Schumacher family, as well as a special tribute paint scheme on the JCM Racing Top Fuel dragster driven by Don’s son, eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher. Former Don Schumacher Racing drivers Antron Brown and Matt Hagan closed out the tribute weekend by sweeping the nitro categories.

On Friday morning, the Celebration of Life took place in a special Schumacher family hospitality tent along the staging lanes. With opening remarks by NHRA on FOX lead broadcaster Brian Lohnes and a moment of silence led by Racers for Christ chaplain Eddie Baugher, the ceremony also included the unveiling of the Don Schumacher tribute livery on son Tony’s dragster. The look was inspired by Don’s 1970 U.S. Nationals-winning ’70 Plymouth Funny Car. A roster of current and former drivers who drove for Schumacher at some point in their careers took part in an autograph session after the ceremony. The lineup included Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, Spencer Massey, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and Angelle Sampey. They all spoke on Schumacher’s impact on their careers. 

Schumacher’s influence on the sport wasn’t limited to the drivers that raced under the DSR umbrella, and people like fellow Chicagoland racer TJ Zizzo made it a point to mention that. In Zizzo’s pre-race press release, he shared what Schumacher meant to his small independent Top Fuel team.

“Don Schumacher is one of the major reasons Zizzo Racing is still getting to do what we love at the highest level,” said Zizzo. “He was a great friend and mentor. His impact on racing and the Chicago business community was massive. I think about him every day, and every time I go into the shop, I am thankful for every opportunity, every conversation, and the words of encouragement he gave me and our team. He was one of the iconic figures in our sport and this weekend will be a celebration of his generosity and impact.”

Zizzo had another opportunity to thank Schumacher on Friday evening when he ended the day as the provisional No. 1 qualifier. He maintained that spot through Saturday’s two sessions, claiming his first career No. 1 qualifier. Zizzo made the quickest pass of the session in three of the four qualifying sessions. 

TJ Zizzo – NHRA photo

“Today has been a dream,” Zizzo said on Friday night. “You have the opportunity to do all kinds of things in this world, but to do this with friends and family is really special. We have worked really hard to get this done and it means a lot.

“I have to say that Don Schumacher was riding along with me today. He was instrumental in the success of this team. We don’t race as much as I’d like but I have confidence that when the car runs, every nut and bolt is right. My crew is all volunteer, but they’ve all been with me for a long time and I have complete confidence in them.”

Enthusiasm and anticipation levels were high in the JCM Racing pit area on Sunday morning, as Schumacher was motivated to get a hometown win for his late father while sporting the tribute look. Hopes were dashed when Schumacher lost traction down track in the first pair of the opening round of eliminations, but he still reflected on the positives of the event. 

“It was just a fantastic weekend with all the friends and family and everyone from Schumacher Electric and all the people that loved my dad so much,” Schumacher said. “It was nice to hear all the thankfulness that people gave from him guiding them through this racing world. It was just awesome to represent him with this tribute car. I can’t believe we didn’t win this trophy.”

Though Schumacher didn’t get that meaningful trophy, former DSR drivers Brown and Hagan did pull through. 

Hagan, who joined DSR as a 26-year-old Pro Mod driver turned Funny Car upstart in 2009, raced for Schumacher until joining the new Tony Stewart Racing Nitro team in 2022. He won three of his four world championships with DSR. Hagan’s win over John Force, his second consecutive victory after winning his 50th at Charlotte, put him in the points lead as he pursues a second consecutive championship and fifth overall. 

“For much of my career, I drove for Don Schumacher, and we celebrated his life here this weekend in his hometown,” Hagan said. “He got me into Funny Car racing 15 years ago. Now, I race for Tony Stewart Racing, and Tony gives me the best equipment I could ask for in NHRA competition.”

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Antron Brown – NHRA photo

Brown, who raced for Schumacher on the U.S. Army Pro Stock Motorcycle team and again a few years later with the Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster, went on to score his first win of the season by defeating Shawn Langdon in the final round. He credited Schumacher for guiding him through the process of starting his own team, AB Motorsports. 

“For Don Schumacher, our boss, our guy that got us all out here, I’m dedicating this to him and his family,” Brown said. “I got to share the winner’s circle with my old teammate Matt Hagan today, it was like one of those old-school DSR double-ups; it brought a tear to my eye.”

This story was originally published on May 20, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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