Tony Schumacher not only is the most successful top-fuel drag racer in NHRA history, he's also a huge hockey fan.
So he was thrilled to drop the ceremonial opening puck at the Kings' game Thursday night at Staples Center, where they snapped a four-game losing streak.
Now Schumacher hopes to end a drought of his own. After winning a remarkable six consecutive top-fuel championships from 2004 through 2009, giving him a record seven overall, Schumacher hasn't won a title since then.
To hear Schumacher tell it, it's not so much that the 44-year-old driver known as "The Sarge" has lost a step, it's that his rivals have become much stronger.
"I drove better last year than I've driven in my life and finished seventh" in the point standings, Schumacher said Friday ahead of qualifying for the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, the season opener of the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Mello Yello Series.
"You're seeing no one dominate," said Schumacher, who drives for his father's team, Don Schumacher Racing. "It's no longer anyone winning two in a row."
Indeed, there have been four different top-fuel winners in the four years since Schumacher won his last title.
Shawn Langdon of the Al-Anabi Racing team earned the championship last year in top fuel, the sport's fastest class, in which the dragsters routinely top 320 mph. Al-Anabi Racing's team manager is Alan Johnson, who was Schumacher's longtime crew chief until Johnson left after the 2008 season.
In addition to his seven titles, Schumacher also holds the records for top-fuel wins (72), most wins in a season (15) and consecutive wins (seven).
There were two rounds of qualifying Friday and Schumacher's best run was 3.808 seconds at 322.73 mph, placing him eighth in the field ahead of Saturday's qualifying rounds. Final eliminations for the top 16 cars are Sunday.
Schumacher teammate Antron Brown posted the fastest top-fuel qualifying run Friday with a pass of 3.731 seconds at 326 mph.
John Force sets record
In the sport's other elite class, funny cars, defending and 16-time champion John Force picked up where he left off last year, topping the charts Friday with a record second-round run of 3.966 seconds at 324.12 mph.
Force's elapsed time and speed were both national funny car records for 1,000-foot races, which the NHRA adopted in mid-2008 for the funny car and top-fuel classes. Other classes still race the conventional quarter-mile, or 1,320 feet.
During Ron Capps' second qualifying run, the engine of his funny car exploded as he crossed the finish line, blowing the body off the car. Capps was briefly shaken but unhurt.