Take a look at this candid conversation with the fastest motorcycle racer in top fuel–Antron Brown.
When Antron Brown made the monumental leap from Pro Stock Motorcycle to Top Fuel in late 2007, there were many inside and outside NHRA’s drag racing community who weren’t quite ready to nod their approval. That kind of inter-category, ramp-to-ramp jump had never been successfully attempted before.
A Pro Stock racer or two have taken a swing at a fuel class (Kenny Koretsky and Johnny Gray) and there have been a bunch of nitro jockeys who have tried their hand at both Top Fuel and Funny, but a motorcycle to automobile switcheroo was unheard of until Antron got his Top Fuel initiation driving for David Powers after a 16-national event win career in PSM.
Antron grew up in a drag racing family based in the Trenton, New Jersey, area. Antron’s dad Albert and uncle Andre teamed up to drag race motorcycles, followed by a Super Gas Chevy Vega and Brogie-built roadster in Super Comp when Antron was in elementary school. It wasn’t long before the youngster was working on the race cars alongside his dad and uncle, competing under the name Brown Bros. Racing.
In his late teens, Antron began drag racing his own street bike and the formative stages of his future career path were being set into motion. After turning pro in PSM and amassing an impressive body of work aboard a string of race-winning Suzukis, Antron was approached by veteran nitro tuner Lee about trying something that had never been done before. That conversation touched off a major shift in Antron’s drag racing compass needle, and ultimately has led to Brown setting a number of drag racing milestones, from becoming the first racer to win an NHRA national event in both Pro Stock Motorcycle and Top Fuel to becoming the first racer in NHRA history to win the U.S. Nationals in those two categories.
NHRA commentator and author Bill Stephens invited the popular driver of the Don Schumacher Racing Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster to answer some questions about himself while giving readers of Drag Racer Magazine a closer look at what makes the racer they call “AB” tick. With his usual upbeat personality and penchant for the positive, Antron was more than happy to oblige.
STEPHENS: What was it like growing up in a drag racing family?
BROWN: There was never a dull moment in my family. I was also very fortunate to have my grandparents living in our house as I was growing up. It was my grandfather who spearheaded my dad’s involvement in drag racing. When my father was younger, he and my uncle were street racing, and when my grandfather found out, he told them, “If you’re going to race, you’re going to do it right,” and that meant racing at a track, not the street.
STEPHENS: Your father raced motorcycles before racing cars, just as you have. What led to him making that switch?
BROWN: Almost from the time I can first remember my childhood, I was growing up at a dragstrip in the area and I always had a wrench in my hand. I was fortunate to have had the chance to do the things I did back then. I remember as a small child—I was around 3 years old—going to Atco Raceway and how the grandstands were wooden planks set on concrete blocks.
By the time I was 10 or 11, I was really developing a love of the sport. By then I was old enough to help out on my dad and uncle’s race cars. I remember I rebuilt a dirt bike engine when I was 12, and when my dad saw that he said, “If you can rebuild that engine, you can help me build the race cars.” My size was also an advantage when it came to working on the cars back then. We needed to remove and replace the clutchless transmissions in the race cars all the time because they broke pretty easily. I was the smallest guy on the team, so I got to get underneath the cars while they were up on ramps and helped remove and replace those transmissions.
STEPHENS: When did you get to go down a dragstrip for the first time?
BROWN: In 1996, I was 19 years old, and I had a ‘92 Suzuki GSXR 1100, which I drove on the street. That gave me my first ride down the track and it was a pretty fast bike. I ran in the low nines at around 160 miles per hour.
STEPHENS: How would you describe the feeling of that first pass?
BROWN: What was really exciting to me was that this was the bike I drove on the street and now I had a chance to open it up and see what it would do. It was crazy fast. In fact, it was faster than the Vega my dad and uncle raced.
STEPHENS: You could have just as easily become an athlete or pursued a corporate career. What happened?
BROWN: I played basketball, football and competed in track and field in school and was always the fastest kid in all those sports. Some people mistakenly believe that I competed in the Olympic trials, but that’s not true. The truth is when I was running in track events, I ran times that would have qualified me for the Olympic trials. I attended Mercer Jr. College and then decided to apply to Long Island University because the track coach was Chris Carter (not the retired NFL wide receiver), who had competed in the Olympics and he was going to train me for Olympic competition.
But I had to make a choice between racing and staying in school. I had received a full scholarship for my two remaining years at Long Island University and was studying for a business degree. I was considering becoming an actuary where I could use my mathematical skills working with probabilities and derivatives to find different ways to arrive at the same answer.
That kind of application of calculus is basically what crew chiefs do with the data they study in their computers.
STEPHENS: Rather than go after your degree or apply yourself to athletics, you decided to go drag racing. How did that go over with your family?
BROWN: There were members of my family who were unhappy. But my mom Judy told me that racing was my dream and I should do what makes me happy. My dad said if I wanted to race, I should go do it and that I could always come back and finish my education later.
STEPHENS: Just about everyone knows you debuted in Pro Stock Motorcycle aboard a bike owned by your cousin, former NFL All-Pro Defensive Back Troy Vincent. From there you raced a Suzuki teamed with your cousin-in-law, three-time NHRA champion Angelle Sampey for Don Schumacher Racing. What influenced you to give up a successful motorcycle racing career and risk the jump to Top Fuel?
BROWN: It all began with Lee Beard. When I was racing a Suzuki for Don Schumacher, Lee was also at DSR and had spoken to Don about setting up a test session for me in a fuel Funny Car, but it never got worked out. Later on, Lee went to work for David Powers, who was running two Top Fuel cars driven by “Hot Rod” Fuller and Whit Bazemore.
When Whit left the team, Lee asked me if I had ever thought about racing in Top Fuel. I said I definitely did, but there were a lot of drivers who wanted to drive a Top Fuel car and that it took money to get some of those rides. Lee went back to David Powers and told him, ‘I’ve got someone who will do an incredible job.’
Lee really went to bat for me with David. David wasn’t so much convinced I could do the job but had confidence in Lee’s knowledge and experience. He told David I was an athlete, I had a positive attitude, and that I was a team player and that he could train me to be a driver and a winner. I also had a relationship with Matco Tools who were a sponsor on my Pro Stock Motorcycle at DSR so that helped make it happen, too.
But Lee put his reputation on the line for me and I owe him a lot.
STEPHENS: Your first pass in a Top Fuel car took place in testing at The Strip in Las Vegas in 2007. Can you describe the sensation?
BROWN: It was a mind-boggling experience. When you get into a Top Fuel car and step on the gas, you go into a different realm. It’s something you can’t describe. I didn’t make a full pass right away in the dragster but worked my way up to it. I made some short runs—100 feet, 330 feet, a few runs to half-track, and then I made a run for 1,000 feet. Lee said if I wanted to, I could take it all the way next time. So I went back up and during that run the car didn’t feel right so I shut it off early. Even so it ran a 4.48 and at the time, the national record was around a 4.42. We made a couple more full passes and ran a 4.52 and a 4.54. When we went to my first national event a couple of weeks later in Pomona for the Triple-A Finals, we qualified Number 1 with a 4.49.
STEPHENS: Would you say at that point you were comfortable driving a Top Fuel car?
BROWN: Definitely. I felt at home. I felt as if it was something I should have been doing a long time ago.
STEPHENS: The NHRA has become a much more diverse motorsport than any of the other professional series in terms of drivers representing both genders and various nationalities. Have you ever encountered any racial discrimination since getting into organized drag racing?
BROWN: Never. There’s never been any discrimination in my experiences. One thing I’ve learned is that you can kill ignorance with kindness. I’ve never walked around with a chip on my shoulder and people notice that.
My great-grandmother recently passed away and she always said her generation had to go through what they went through so my generation wouldn’t have to. She said to enjoy your life and don’t be angry for what happened in the past and that’s what I try to do. I have fun with the fans and they appreciate that. But you’re always going to have people who don’t know any better and you can’t let them interfere with who you are.
STEPHENS: As a husband and a dad, how tough is it to be away so much pursuing your racing career.
BROWN: It’s hard. There’s nothing easy about it. You miss your family; they miss you. But my wife Billie Jo comes to around 14 national events, and my kids, Arianna who’s 9, Anson who’s 7 and Adler who’s 3, come to six races during the season.
STEPHENS: With all of that time away from home, do you ever think about whether it’s worth it or not?
BROWN: The fact is, this is not my hobby; this is my job; this is how I put food on the table. Other people who have 9-to-5 jobs go to the office every day, but I get to come home when I’m not racing. I don’t have to go to the office, and when I’m home, I’m really home. That’s family time and I keep that separate from my job. I shut everything else off. I can still think about certain things about my job when I’m home, but my family time doesn’t get interrupted.
My priorities are God, my family and my job. That’s never going to change. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing for my living. Before I had my family, I’d go to the shop between races, but I don’t do that anymore. The guys on the team sometimes say, “Hey, how come you don’t hang out with us at the shop?” and I tell them that when they have a family, they’ll understand.
STEPHENS: Is winning the championship what drives you the most?
BROWN: Everybody who races for their career wants the closure of winning a championship. Everybody wants that championship trophy sitting on their mantel and wants to tell the story of the battle that it took to win it. Nobody ever remembers who came in second place. It’s crazy to think that at my young age (35), I’ve been racing out here for 14 years. Winning the championship compensates for all the work, the sacrifices and frustrations you’ve experienced to finally win it.
STEPHENS: Some of the greatest drivers in the sport have never won a championship, such as Cory McClenathan, your DSR teammate Ron Capps and many more. Do you ever think about never winning a championship?
BROWN: It’s a very draining feeling. It’s like you worked so hard to grab the carrot dangling in front of you and someone else jumps in and takes it away. I’ve been there. In my 10 years in Pro Stock Motorcycle, I lost the championship more than once by two or three rounds. One year, I lost it by 18 points. But you never quit; everyone dreams of winning the championship.
Realistically, each year you have around five teams in each pro class that are capable of winning the championship. Then there are other teams who are just hoping to win a race. But this is a people sport; you have to have the right people on a team to be successful. You can have all the money in the world but without the right people, you’re not going to win.
STEPHENS: What’s it like working with your tuning team, Mark Oswald and Brian Corradi?
BROWN: Both of those guys are awesome and so is our assistant crew chief Brad Mason. Mark is incredible because he’s a former Funny Car champion (1984) and a great tuner. He can see what the car is doing from both perspectives and that helps me know how to do a better job. He can tell me things only a guy who was a great driver can tell you.
Brian is a total nitpicker. He picks up on every detail, every last thing that we’re looking at. He doesn’t miss anything. And Brad is the glue that holds us all together. I’m like the cheerleader who keeps everyone positive, feeling good about what we’re doing and focused. We all get along great and we spend time together on the road because we have such a good time together. That allows us to be friends and to be honest when we’re doing our jobs. We can point things out to each other and give each other input because we’re all comfortable and have confidence in what we do.
STEPHENS: Have you thought about what you’ll do after you retire as a driver?
BROWN: My game plan is to become an owner or part-owner of a team someday. I might wind up owning a team with my kids if they decide it’s something they want to do. That would be a cool deal and really good challenge.
I think my education definitely gives me some strong management skills. I think a good manager doesn’t tell his people what to do; he brings out the best in his people to get the job done. Our team is a good example of that and that’s the approach I would take if I were to ever own my own team.
Text by Bill Stephens
Photos by James Drew