In continuation of our feature titled “First-Seasons” Speedway Media takes a look back at a driver’s first year or rookie year in racing. In this edition, we caught up with three-time Top Fuel Champion Antron Brown who discussed his rookie year in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
In the interview, Brown reflects on his first start, not qualifying for the Gatornationals, his first victory at the Dallas Nationals in 1999, redemption one year later at the Gatornationals and many other special moments throughout his rookie years in NHRA.
SM: You began racing in NHRA by competing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class during your rookie year in 1998 at the young age of 22. Why did you choose Pro Stock Motorcycle and what it was like entering the Pro Stock Motorcycle class and coming up through the ranks?
AB: “I chose Pro Stock (Motorcycle) because it (PSM) was what I grew up around,” Brown said. “I grew up as a kid racing motorcycles, from Motorcross to street bikes. That was my first start into it (PSM). That’s all I wanted to do to get in there and do that.”
SM: Before you started competing in Pro Stock Motorcycle, you connected with Team 23 Racing run by NFL star Troy Vincent which ultimately give you the chance to race. Can you explain how that connection came about?
AB: “So, how that came about was, I was racing street bikes in Atco, New Jersey where there is a little small drag strip there and we were out there racing and I met Troy (Vincent),” the 3x Top Fuel NHRA Champion said. “That’s how the whole connection came together. At the time, Troy was married to my cousin. Troy wanted to get into the Motorcycle NHRA world and my cousin says ‘you know, I have a cousin that races dirt bikes.’ From that point on, he reached out to my family and got me on a bike and that’s how it all started.”
SM: When you entered the ‘98 season, you ran 14 races, a full-time schedule. What were your expectations? Were race wins or championships on your radar or did you take it one race at a time?
AB: “We took the season race by race,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, I was a rookie. We had some good expectations and things of that nature. We came out to win and we wanted to win. Troy brought the best of everything. I remember everything like it was yesterday; that was the coolest part about it. Just being able to have the opportunity at the end of the day.”
SM: Your first career start came at the famous Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida but unfortunately, you did not qualify for the show. How did you prepare for the race and were you more nervous or just excited to get to the track? How did you handle not qualifying and do you think you could have done anything differently?
AB: “That was hard,” he said about not qualifying for the Gatornationals. “We would qualify, but it was just an incident where we had a fuel jug mix-up. We actually qualified sixth, but we didn’t pass fuel inspection. Basically, we had regular unleaded gas in our motorcycle which wasn’t supposed to be in there. That was a rookie mistake, you know what I mean? It was a new team, new everything, just accidentally poured the fuel into the wrong jug.
“It was so funny, because everybody thought this new team was coming out here and trying to use cheap race fuel. We were like ‘are you kidding me?’ The bad part of it was, we were slower that lap. It’s not like we picked up from the lap we were trying to qualify with. That being said, we took our bumps and bruises, and then we qualified the very next race in the top five and had numerous semi-final appearances. 1999 was our breakout year winning three races in our sophomore season. We made the switch to Vincent-Hines race engines and that’s where I got tied in with the crew chief at the time, Mark Peiser. That’s where the whole narrative started to change. We learned, we studied and just became very competitive. The next year (1999), we finished third in points after finishing seventh in my rookie year (1998).”
SM: Just a few races later at the Pennzoil Nationals, you would have first-round wins at the Pennzoil Nationals against Dave Schultz and John Smith in Round 2 and made the semi-finals for the first time in your career racing against Angelle Sampey. What did those first two round victories mean to you especially after you did not qualify for the Gatornationals?
AB: “It felt awesome to us as a whole team,” Brown said. “It was basically a moment like okay, we’re here. We are where we are supposed to be, all the hard work that took to get there. The whole team came together at a really fast pace of time and we were all new to the game. We were making some noise on the scene. We had a lot of people looking at you and a lot of people who didn’t want you to succeed also. It was refreshing to us to make that happen.”
SM: Is there anything in particular that you will always remember from the Pennzoil Nationals in 1998?
AB: “I will always remember everything from that weekend,” he said. “From the start of the year, I remembered it was awesome just to be there, to say this was a kid who grew up in Chesterfield, New Jersey and racing against the people I saw on TV. I was racing against John Smith, John Myers, Dave Schultz, who were the superstars of their career. It (making my debut) was a very eye-opening experience for me. I was very happy to be out there, let alone be competitive.”
SM: As the season wore on, you made three more semi-final appearances in your rookie season and finished a respectable seventh in the standings, just 811 points behind eventual champion Matt Hines. Would you call your rookie season a success all these years later?
AB: “Oh, absolutely,” Brown said about his rookie season. “I would definitely call (1998) a success. With everything that happened, we learned all the right ways and we didn’t win right off the bat because the competition was so stout, but we just didn’t have the power to win. We were really getting out run. We finished where we should have finished. That made us open our minds, do our homework where we set ourselves up the following year to make a change. We made that change and making that change paid dividends.”
SM: One year later, you achieved your first runner-up finish at the Gatornationals, the site where you did not qualify one year prior. Did you feel as though that finish was somewhat of a redemption?
AB: “Yes, I did,” the Don Schumacher Racing driver said about qualifying at the Gatornationals one-year later. “I came out there, we hit it hard and qualified well. We struggled a little bit after our first race with the new engine program. I remember my bike wasn’t shifting at a test. We would shift second gear and the gear would pop out. We had some transmission issues and we had to work through that. We definitely were on point after that.”
SM: Finally, the next race at Dallas, you would get your first ever NHRA win. Have you ever gone back to watch that race and what does that win still mean to you to this day?
AB: “That win right there, I tell you what, the victory felt like I’ve done something,” Brown said. “The victory was very heartfelt for sure. I can’t complain about it. Winning that first race will always be special to me. I always look at that victory to where I am now. Winning was like ‘Wow., we did it. We made it here.’ I think (winning) was the biggest thing for me.”
SM: With that in mind, what will be your fondest memory from your first two years in racing or your rookie season? Was it your first start, round victory, runner up, win, or something else?
AB: “Actually, I raced in AMA Pro Star that year and I won my first race at Atlanta,” he said. “I raced against Paul Gast and that (in Pro Stock Motorcycle) was the start of it. That’s when we knew if we had our power, we could run with people and win races. We weren’t as fast as Paul, but we were within two-hundredths of him every lap.
“I took him (Paul Gast) out in the final round and I was cutting good lights, while Paul pushed the tree and got two red lights and we won that race. That’s when we knew, we have to get power to where we can be faster. In my rookie year, the front runners would be quicker than us running eight-hundredths faster. We could only qualify fifth through eighth it seemed like. If we qualified the first race, we could have finished fourth or fifth that first year.”
SM: Some racers collect their own memorabilia and some don’t. Do you collect your own merchandise and if so, do you have anything that reminds you of your rookie season from Pro Stock Motorcycle?
AB: “I still have the majority of 80% of all my stuff (from my rookie season in PSM or Top Fuel)” Brown said. “I definitely have saved a lot of my merchandise from over the years.”
SM: I’ve been asking drivers what their favorite Wally is in their collection out of all the years they competed. What is your favorite Wally and why?
AB: “I would say my favorite Wally in my collection is my 2008 Top Fuel trophy (where Brown won against Tony Schumacher at Atlanta),” he said. “The reason being is that was the wildest dream I ever had of getting there (racing in Top Fuel). My dream was to become a Top Fuel racer and I never could have imagined in a million years of making it there. (Winning in 2008) was definitely a dream come true.”
SM: Wrapping this interview up, it’s hard to believe your first start was 23 years ago. However, if time travel were available, what would a 44-year-old Antron Brown tell 22-year-old Antron Brown? Is there anything you would do differently?
AB: “I would literally tell my younger self to not doubt myself and not to settle,” Brown said. “I had a few times in my career where I stayed poised, not plateaued. I stayed in the same spot because I got comfortable sitting in the same position for four years. That’s what I would tell my younger self is to progress faster and not sit idle.”
In Antron’s career, the Pittsboro, Indiana native has a total of 67 career wins, 16 victories in Pro Stock Motorcycle and 51 victories in Top Fuel including winning the championship three times in his career (2012, 2015, 2016). Overall, Brown has collected 57 runner-up finishes, 93 semi-finals, 119 quarter-finals and 102 first-round appearances which include Pro Stock Motorcycle and Top Fuel. In addition, Brown has a total of 49. No. 1 qualifiers with his first No. 1 qualifier occurring at Gainesville in 2001. His win-loss record stands out 741-371.
Brown has made the playoffs for 11 years in a row with the exception of 2020 where there was no Countdown to the Championship. Throughout the playoffs, the Indiana native won 14 races, earned six runner-up finishes and had five No. 1 qualifiers.
Special thanks to Allison McCormick for coordinating this interview and many thanks to Antron Brown for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.