JOLIET, Ill. --
Schumacher and his 10,000-horsepower U.S. Army dragster delivered over the weekend at New England Dragway, winning his second race of the season on a day filled with dramatic side-by-side racing against an ultra-competitive Top Fuel field.
Schumacher edged out points leader Kalitta in a thrilling final round and is well aware of the incredible levels the class has reached. He also knows the challenge ahead of him at this weekend's 17th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries at Route 66 Raceway, but for the seven-time world champ, conquering a category that challenging is as satisfying as it has ever been.
"The class is tighter than I've ever seen it and it's awesome," Schumacher said. "I haven't driven my best and these guys step it up against me. These guys are kicking my butt and the competition is tough. You have to earn them and win them and you have to dig deep to win them. Any one of us can be beat on any given day. It makes you rise up in the seat, it makes the fans enjoy it and makes the team enjoy the wins. It's very gratifying."
For Schumacher and his talented team that's a good thing, as the U.S. Army team takes considerable momentum into Schumacher's home track. The team moved to fifth in points after the impressive performance in Epping and they have plenty of history on their side in Chicago.
Schumacher will be chasing his fifth win at the state-of-the-art facility, but none may top last year's thrilling final round when his dragster exploded in a huge fireball when he crossed the finish line against Clay Millican. It ended up as one of the most spectacular victories in his career and Schumacher, who now has 74 career wins, finds himself returning to his home track on the cusp of what could be a season-changing hot streak.
"You go up and down in racing and right now we're up," Schumacher said. "It's outstanding. It was intense. We've been working hard. We haven't given (the fans) the Army car we're used to seeing. We haven't performed, but as a team we know what we're going through. We know the goal and if we push through these hard times it's going to be amazing. We've got a great car and we're right there."
"We've got to find a way to win the Countdown and running old stuff, it's just not going to work," Schumacher said. "We're going to be ahead of it and we've spent a lot of time forcing the issue."
Schumacher has his work cut out for him trying to track down points leader Doug Kalitta, who has been to an impressive eight final rounds in 2014. But Schumacher will be challenged by a variety of threats in Chicago, including Don Schumacher Racing teammates Antron Brown and Spencer Massey, reigning Top Fuel world champ Shawn Langdon, reigning Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, J.R. Todd and Englishtown winner Richie Crampton.
Schumacher, though, knows what it takes to win and he reflected on that when he shared the winner's circle with DSR teammate and Funny Car standout Ron Capps in Epping.
"We have to drive better because we're getting older," Schumacher said. "These young guys are doing great and it makes us have to be better than we ever were. We all have to be great every day to win a race."
Hagan, the 2011 Funny Car world champ, has two wins in Chicago, but is after his first victory in 2014. Other multiple class winners at the track include reigning and 16-time world champ John Force (three wins) and Del Worsham (three wins), while other marquee challengers include one-time Chicago winner and recent Epping winner Capps, two-time season winner and Epping runner-up Alexis DeJoria, Englishtown winner Cruz Pedregon, Topeka winner Courtney Force, Jack Beckman, Bristol winner Tommy Johnson Jr. and current points leader Robert Hight, a four-time winner this season in his Auto Club Ford Mustang.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Michael Ray is the defending race winner in Chicago and has two No. 1 qualifiers to start this season. Points leader Andrew Hines has two wins at Route 66 Raceway and is on a roll following his recent wins at Charlotte and Englishtown. Defending world champion Matt Smith, Eddie Krawiec, John Hall, Hector Arana Jr., Angie Smith, who recorded her first career win in Epping, and Scotty Pollacheck all will tangle for the right to hold the 2014 Chicago Wally in the two-wheel category.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they're granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA's popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
The race also will showcase the thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, as well as the fan-favorite JEGS All-Stars competition.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, June 27, with sessions at 4:30 and 7:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, June 28, at 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 29.
To purchase general-admission tickets or reserved seats, call Route 66 Raceway at (888) 629-RACE (7223) or visit www.Route66Raceway.com.