Drag racer Brown not alone at the top

Antron Brown is black and a drag racer. He’s just not a black

drag racer, at least in the look-he’s-the-only-one sense.

OK, so maybe Brown is the only African-American driving at the

highest levels of side-by-side racing, a star on the rise in an

NHRA Top Fuel dragster.

But he’s far from alone.

The NHRA’s Pro Stock divisions have at least three minority

drivers – Michael Phillips, Peggy Llewellyn and Tom Hammonds – and

there are countless others at smaller tracks across the country,

pounding the pedal when the Christmas tree turns green.

See, the unique thing about drag racing is that it’s not the

typical good-ol’-boy, most-money-wins motor sport. It doesn’t take

$50,000 to run a go-cart season just for a chance at the next

level. Anyone can take a $1,500 junker, buy the right parts and

beat the competition off the line.

“It’s pretty cool when you see all these different cultures out

here in drag racing,” Brown said. “You don’t have the problem

other forms of racing have. We all grew up drag racing. Who doesn’t

know someone who had a four-cylinder Chevette and his buddy’s got a

four-cylinder Chevette and they race off at the stoplight?”

It’s just that now Brown isn’t at the stoplight in a

groceries-in-the-back ride anymore.

He’s driving a jet-engine-propelled Toyota Top Fuel dragster,

the G-forces shoving his brain to the back of his skull as he hits

300 mph.

It’s been a somewhat surprising run to the top. Not because of

his color. His background.

Brown grew up playing more traditional sports. Whatever the

season, he was playing. And he was good.

Undersized but exceptionally athletic, Brown excelled at just

about everything and was particularly adept at track. Good enough

to earn a college scholarship, have a chance at qualifying for the

Olympic Trials.

But racing was in his blood.

His father and uncle were weekend warriors with fumes, driving

at the local track near Trenton, N.J. They drove cars, but Brown’s

specialty was motorcycles.

He first started riding one at 4, not long after taking on a

bicycle with training wheels. Brown had a successful amateur

career, riding all along the Eastern Seaboard, and was eventually

contacted by former NFL player Troy Vincent about riding

professionally. A year later, Brown was riding for Vincent in the

Pro Stock division, where he stayed for 10 years, winning 16 races

and earning 33 final rounds.

Then came the opportunity had always wanted: Top Fuel. Even

though he rode motorcycles, Brown had always wanted to drive at the

upper echelon of drag racing, follow the footsteps of “Big Daddy”

Don Garlits, John Force, Kenny Bernstein – all the drivers he

looked up to as a kid.

Brown got the chance in 2008 with David Powers Motorsports and

made a difficult transition from two wheels to four look easy,

winning in his fourth Top Fuel start by edging two-time series

champion Larry Dixon in Houston. Despite going through four owners

in a year, he won six races in 2009 and is now fifth in the points

this year, with three finals and a record qualifying time at Topeka

last weekend for Don Schumacher Racing.

“Evolving from motorcycles like he’s done, nobody’s ever done

that that I know of,” Force said. “For him to jump right into the

class field with a shot at the title; he hasn’t got it yet, but he

could.”

More than just being fast, Brown has reached the top by being

quick with a hand shake or pat on the back.

Naturally charismatic, the 34-year-old realizes it’s not just

about stomping his foot. He understands he no longer just

represents Antron Brown, that he’s the face of his sponsors, his

team and its owners.

So when Brown isn’t at the line or in the garage, he’s out

shaking hands with fans, talking with sponsors or at shows, always

flashing that engaging smile.

“You have to have the full package to be successful out here

and there’s very few people who have that,” Brown said. “There

are people who are great racers, but they’re not good PR people,

not good public speakers and know how to represent companies right.

You have to be a salesman, a racer, you have to be a team builder

because you work with the crew guys and then you have to represent

a corporation.”

So far, Brown has handled it well. He’s become successful on the

track, well-respected among his racing peers, the crowd-pleasing

face of the team and corporations he represents.

Brown understands drag racing is a fan-fueled sport, that it

won’t do him any good just to go fast if no one cares. Drag racing

has a certain niche even within the motorsports world and it not

only has to find as many fans as possible, but look for ways to

bring new ones in by making the show fun.

“He’s very good for the sport, he’s very outgoing, he’s

entertaining,” Force said. “He knows it’s not just about pitching

the gospel of your sponsors or your team owner. He knows the drill

is to entertain.”

Brown also knows, firsthand, how dangerous his sport can be.

While qualifying at Phoenix in the second race of the season,

the back end of his car broke, sending a tire bounding into the

stands. It missed most of the fans in the grandstand, but struck a

52-year-old woman, who later died.

Even though there was little Brown could have done to prevent

the Feb. 22 crash – the car simply broke – he wakes up every

morning and looks in the mirror, wondering what if.

“It was one of those freak accidents, but still it was a lady

enjoying herself watching a drag race,” Brown said. “In our

sport, it’s an entertainment sport and we’re there to entertain

people, not hurt them. It’s always going to weigh on my mind, make

my heart heavy.”

Even in pain, Brown gets it.