GRANITE CITY — Toby Jones was thrilled when drag racer Tony Schumacher showed up at the Granite City High campus on Sept. 24.
The Granite City freshman got autographs and took a selfie with the eight-time National Hot Rod Association champion at the school’s industrial technology department area.
“It’s pretty amazing to take the time out of his day to come in and show us his car and stuff,” Jones said. “I think it’s neat that he does that and taking autographs and stuff after seeing all of those crashes that he had. It’s just amazing.”
Schumacher came to GCHS as part of the NHRA U.S. Army Y.E.S. (Youth & Education Services) program. Before arriving at GCHS, Schumacher visited two other schools in the St. Louis area — Collinsville High and Fox High School in Arnold, Mo. Schumacher was scheduled to compete in a race at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison on Sept. 25.
“For the last five years, we’ve bus-loaded kids to the Army Y.E.S. program at Gateway International and they put on a meeting for them,” said Eric Hill, an industrial technology teacher at GCHS. “The kids all get together and the drivers talk to them and they do some team-building stuff. They talk about technology and employment and talk about the physics of the car. The Army is gracious enough to give all of those students passes. We get to go into the pits and they get to watch time trials for free, so it’s a real nice program.”
Schumacher said he’s thrilled to return to Illinois.
“I grew up in Chicago,” the drag racer said. “I’ve been a Midwestern boy for 45 years and moved to Austin, Texas, last year. It’s nice to come back. It’s cool to come back just to get back to my people. This is where I was born and raised and lived my whole life. It’s a great place.”
For two hours, students got to meet Schumacher.
“We’ve had to push some of them away,” Hill said. “They all wanted to come back here and meet him. Unfortunately, he can’t meet everybody, but they were extremely excited. It’s a great program and it’s great for the kids. Tony Schumacher is a great individual. He signed autographs, taking pictures and selfies, and he’s great.”
The NHRA Y.E.S. program, which began in the late 1980s, is motorsports’ first and only full-time event dedicated to educational programming. It provides high school students with lessons on career options and positive goal-setting.
Schumacher said he not only enjoyed signing autographs but giving GCHS students advice on achieving success in the classroom.
“The autographs are fine,” he said. “It’s just knowing that you can chat with a few kids and some are going to listen. Maybe not every one of them, but some of them are going to go out there and listen to what I say, ‘Get A’s, change the way you study and get around the right people.’ It takes one or two kids to listen and come back the next year and go, ‘You know what, I’m a straight-A student now and I listened to what you said.’ I can’t fix the world, but I can just talk about what it took for me to get where I was and some of the kids will pay attention.”
The GCHS students also got to see Schumacher’s U.S. Army drag car, built in 2009.
“It’s a beast,” Schumacher sad. “It’s a U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster. It’s a 10,000-horsepower, 337-miles-an-hour machine that travels a quarter-mile in three seconds. It’s the fastest machine in the planet. It has won eight championships, but it’s been used for recruiting. It’s a recruiting tool for the Army and they had it for 15 years and it’s been the most successful recruiting tool they have ever put together.
“The reason the Army uses it is to go out and talk to young kids. Three out of 10 kids can get into the Army, but seven out of 10 kids can’t pass the test anyway. We need to raise that.”
The Army has been Schumacher’s sponsor since 2000. He’s the winningest driver in NHRA Top Fuel history, capturing 77 NHRA national events titles, earning 76 No. 1 qualifying positions and going 703-323 in elimination rounds.
Jones found out Schumacher was going to come to GCHS while attending his automotive class.
“We had to do some research on him and I found out he plays hockey and he likes to fish,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what I like to do. I looked him up and my uncle (Glenn Simpson) likes to watch races and when I told him, he was so happy. He was like, ‘Make sure you give a signature,’ so I did.”
Jones said he’s happy to see one of his favorite racers at his own school.
“It meant a lot because not everybody gets to meet a celebrity,” the GCHS freshman said.