Tony Schumacher ruled the world of top-fuel drag racing for six years.
He was known as "The Sarge" not only for his U.S. Army sponsorship but because, in his father's words, "he looks like a soldier" with his crew cut and ramrod-straight posture. Schumacher was on top, setting every major record in the sport's fastest and most elite division.
The records included six consecutive top-fuel championships from 2004 through 2009, giving him a record seven overall, and most career top-fuel wins with 67.
Then came 2011 and . . . nothing. Not a single race win — the first time that had happened in a decade — and certainly not another title, as Schumacher finished fifth in points in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Full Throttle Series.
"It was a devastating year," said his father and team owner, Don Schumacher. Tony's cars were competitive all season but the Canoga Park native simply couldn't prevail. It was a rude setback for someone so accustomed to winning.
"Every race I don't win eats at me," said Schumacher, 42, after Friday's second round of qualifying for this weekend's season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona. "But my [team] guys were amazing. None of us left anything on the table."
Schumacher was second fastest after Friday's qualifying following a run of 3.837 seconds at 321.42 mph at Auto Club Raceway. There's one more day of qualifying with the 16 fastest cars advancing to final eliminations Sunday.
"We've won more races than anybody in the history of the sport, but I've lost a lot more than that," Schumacher said. "The way to win championships is to be calm and cool through the adversity and come back fighting, and that's what we're doing."
Don Schumacher said he didn't make any major personnel changes during the off-season to help Tony rebound, but he did make other changes in the team's approach and preparation that he declined to identify.
"We can all point the finger at anybody and everybody," Don Schumacher said of last season. "But when it really comes down to it, it's my responsibility."
Defending Winternationals top-fuel winner Morgan Lucas remained the provisional top qualifier with his run of 3.832 seconds and 320.28 mph Thursday.
In funny cars, the NHRA's other premier series, Bob Tasca III of Hope, R.I., took over the No. 1 qualifying spot with a pass of 4.109 seconds at 309.34 mph Friday.
John Force, the 15-time funny car champion, was sixth after a pass of 4.185 seconds (300.40 mph) and rookie Alexis DeJoria was seventh with a run of 4.198 seconds (also 300.40 mph) down the 1,000-foot drag strip.
Force's daughter Courtney Force, who's making her funny car debut this weekend, was eighth after a run of 4.199 seconds (307.09 mph).