Age is just a number in drag racing, where older drivers like John Force excel at high speed

In this photo provided by the NHRA, Shawn Langdon drives in Top Fuel qualifying Saturday, June 22, 2024, at the PlayNHRA Virginia Nationals drag races at Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie, Va. (Jerry Foss/NHRA via AP)

Tony Schumacher has a ready answer when fans wonder how much longer the 54-year-old, three-time world champion will keep climbing drag racing's ladder in the National Hot Rod Association.

“About 10 years,” Schumacher said. “That's what I've told them for the past 20 years.”

Age is just a number in drag racing, where cars hurtle down the track for a quarter-mile at more than 300 mph (483 kph), a blur of speed and roaring noise that is over in a few seconds before a parachute helps bring the vehicles to a stop.

Such terrifying speeds are far above those seen in Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar, but those races last far longer. That is part of the reason drivers in their 70s and even 80s can rely on their talent and experience to safely pilot a Top Fuel or Funny Car for a few moments and keep on winning long after traditional drivers on ovals and road courses call it a career.

“In our sport, unlike many of them, it's mental,” Schumacher explained. “I feel like I got better with age.”

He is not alone. Ron Capps, 59, has won at least one Funny Car event for 15 straight years starting in 2009. Antron Brown, 48, has 75 career Top Fuel victories, winning titles in 2012, 2015 and 2016. Matt Hagan, 41, picked up his 50th Funny Car victory in April and the reigning champ was nominated as “Best Driver” for an ESPY.

Of course, all-time great John Force, 75, has won 157 times in a career that began in 1978 — 46 years ago.

Force was involved in a fiery crash last week at an event in Virginia. He was talkative with rescue works before going to a hospital, where he remains under observation. Force is now in a neurological intensive care unit to focus on a head injury, a switch viewed as a “welcome positive" in a recovery his team will take a long time.

As in all racing series, safety improvements have been made over the years in drag racing, from the roll cages and padding within the chassis to the firesuits, helmets and restraints for the drivers. Deaths in the NHRA are rare but not unheard of.

Brown, competing this week in Norwalk, Ohio, said accidents like Force's are in the back of every racer's mind. The successful ones know how to block out the worries while focusing on their driving skills. A Top Fuel or Funny Car has somewhere around 11,000 horsepower — more than 10 times that seen in an F1 car, for example.

The love of the sport, Brown believes, is the fuel to keep going in a sport where engines can burst into flames or a tiny wobble can send a car airborne or hurtling into a wall.

“I think this drag racing, the people that are in the sport, they're consumed by it, I think,” he said.

That had to be the case for Chris Karamesines, the “Golden Greek,” who advanced in a Top Fuel event at age 86 with a then-record run of 305 mph (491 kph). Karamesines retired in 2020 with granddaughter Krista Baldwin taking over his ride.

“It’s been 63 years of fun, and I have loved every minute of it," Karamesines said at his retirement.

Irvin Johns made history at age 79 last year when he won the Super Stock title at the Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois, to become the NHRA's oldest national event winner.

“Seriously, I feel like you can do this for as long as you like," said Johns, who stepped away from racing for more than 30 years as he built a towing business in Louisville, Kentucky.

Brown, a relative youngster, said those who last learn that fitness and health is a key component to drag racing longevity. When you start out, the speed rush and thrill of racing carries you, he said.

“How many older people do you see racing the mile? It's not older people winning the Boston Marathon," Brown said. “You can see older (runners) winning the 100 meters. That's what we are, we're a sprint.”

That may be what attracted NASCAR Hall of Famer and three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, 53, to drag racing.

“I'm too old to race in IndyCar, I'm retired from NASCAR, sprint car racing's getting tougher and tougher,” Stewart said in February 2023. “But drag racing, the reaction times and the aspects of it that are way different than anything else I've done is what's drawing me to it.”

Schumacher, the son of drag racing great Don Schumacher whose company has won more than 350 events and 19 championships, knows what Stewart means. The younger Schumacher has kept a strong fitness regimen and believes his mind is as sharp as ever, no matter how much younger his rivals may be.

“I do believe there's a point where I'm not catching” the right timing during a run, Schumacher said. “But as of right now, I'm dead straight every time.”


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