Antron Brown started his week at Miramar College in San Diego, where he used his own experiences in urging students not to set limits on what they can accomplish.
Brown had mistakenly done that himself early in his NHRA career, when he figured Pro Stock Motorcycle was the highest level he could reach.
"My biggest dream was always to race a Top Fuel or Funny Car, but I always thought it was way out of reach because we didn't come from money," Brown said this week in an interview with The Associated Press.
"And I began to ask myself, 'Why am I settling?' Then when I got the partnership with the U.S. Army, it taught me how to use my tools. I began to use my personality, my drive, my approach to people — how I never take failure. And that's exactly what I did, and I got myself into a fuel car," he said.
Five years after making the move from Pro Stock to Top Fuel, Brown is poised to become the first black champion in any NHRA pro series. He takes a 65-point lead over teammate Tony Schumacher into this weekend's finals at Pomona.
Brown is not thinking about the milestone, and points out that NHRA has long been the most diverse series in motorsports. Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to earn a license from NHRA to drive a Top Fuel dragster and won three championships, and brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, who are of Hispanic descent, both won Funny Car championships.
Earlier this season, Erica Enders became the first woman to win a Pro Stock event, beating four-time champion Greg Anderson in the finals at Route 66 Raceway.
So Brown thinks his success is just another testament to NHRA's wide opportunities.
"Our sport has been so diverse for so long," he said. "The thing that is important about this for me is hopefully I can inspire some inner city kids or some minority kids. If I could open the doors up for kids, get them intrigued and interested, then that would mean something to me."
But this is no gimme for Brown, who was eliminated in the first round at Las Vegas two weeks ago and had his lead in the standings gobbled up by Schumacher. Brown had gone into Las Vegas up by 136 points over his teammate, who advanced to the finals against Bob Vandergriff but fell short in his bid to win his 70th career victory.
Schumacher, a seven-time champion, thinks he's got a shot at an eighth title.
"I always wanted the ball in my hands for the last shot, and I always wanted to sit in a seat and have to win to be the champ, not hope someone else loses," he said. "I think Antron is in a really good spot right now. He's ahead of us, but he's not that kind of guy. He does not want to have to watch someone lose, he wants to close the deal, just like we do."
Lurking right behind Brown and Schumacher is Spencer Massey, who is 70 points out of the lead, and Shawn Langdon, 116 points back.
"There are more great cars than we've ever seen — great drivers, great teams," Schumacher said. "We seem to have all settled into a pretty good home between the drivers and the crew chiefs, and the battles are incredible. The guy who stands on the podium at the end is going to be well-deserving of the Full Throttle championship because it has been as difficult as anything I've ever seen, I've had to drive better. Antron, Spencer, all of us have had to drive better.
"All the drivers with the experience have had to rise way beyond what we've had to rise to before. And experience is paying off right now. It is incredible. I told the guys last weekend, it has been a number of years since we've seen something so good, such high class of racing. We're not seeing games played on the starting line, we're seeing good, solid, wicked, difficult races."
Meanwhile, only four points separate leader Jack Beckman and Ron Capps in Funny Car, while eight-time Pomona winner John Force will be trying to win a record 135th event.
In Pro Stock, Allen Johnson should wrap up his first world championship title and Eddie Krawiec needs only a few points in the two-wheel category to lock up his third Pro Stock championship.
But all eyes will be on Top Fuel, where Brown has been in position before to win the championship and come up empty.
He doesn't want to see it happen again after this six-win season, and it's been a long two weeks since Las Vegas, which was one of his worst weekends of the year. Brown's 13th-place qualifying position was his lowest of the season, he was eliminated in the first round and scored only 31 points for the event.
Brown and his team stayed in Las Vegas an extra day to test, and he's been counting down the days until Sunday's final at Pomona.
"We absolutely feel like the championship has been there for us to take and we have not done it," he said. "The competition has been that tough and that hard and this is one of those deals where you don't get a mulligan. Once you mess up, there is no second lap, there is no time out. We feel like the Miami Heat. We have all this talent, but we have not gotten the championship yet.
"We are so close. We feel like it is right there in front of us, and we want to get it and see what the blood, sweat and tears has been for all this time."
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(Photo: AP Photo/NHRA, Teresa Long, File)
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