There was nothing traditional about Antron Brown’s path to a highly successful drag racing career.
While his grandfather, father and uncle all had the racing bug, they also had full-time jobs and families to support. The family septic tank business taught Brown at an early age the value of hard work and perseverance.
That type of work ethic helped inspire 39-year-old Brown to become the first African-American to win a major U.S. auto racing season championship in 2012 as the NHRA Top Fuel dragster champ.
The loss of his “grandpop,” Albert S. Brown, occurred when Brown was 6. The family moved from the inner-city area of Trenton, N.J., to rural ,Chesterfield, N.J., and Brown’s father, Albert C. Brown, and uncle, Andre Brown, opened a septic tank service while maintaining their love of racing.
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“He wanted to have a better life for his kids because when he was born, his family didn’t have a lot of money,” said Antron Brown, who ranks second in the NHRA Top Fuel points race and owns 36 Top Fuel wins in his career, the latest coming Sunday at the Carolina Nationals. “He started making some good money and when my dad and uncle were growing up, they had everything that my grandpop wished he had. He didn’t bring his sons into the business; he had them go out and get other jobs.”
Brown has won the last three Top Fuel events and four overall at Gateway Motorsports Park. He is one of the headliners as the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series returns to the Madison facility on Friday for the fourth annual AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals.
Gateway has always been a favorite stop for Brown and his Don Schumacher Racing Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster team.
“It’s the atmosphere, the people in the stands, everything” Brown said. “It’s one of the best tracks in the country as far as a racing surface. When you get the great weather with the great people and the time of the year we run, you mix all that together and our team thrives in that type of atmosphere.”
Brown’s father and uncle passed on their resourcefulness to him and he responded by laying the groundwork for what has been a truly amazing ride through the sport he loves.
He began riding motorcycles at an early age and when he wasn’t speeding around the property, the young Brown had a wrench in his hand.
“My dad and uncle were Sportsman racers, they built their own race cars,” Brown said. “They didn’t have these high-dollar cars. They took cars and built them from scratch and raced as weekend warriors at the drag strip. I grew up around that atmosphere, working with the cars, and I fell in love with it.
“I loved the adrenalin and the rush, what the cars looked like and how they sounded. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what gave me a passion for what I’m doing.”
Brown hasn’t forgotten his roots and up to 30 times a year speaks to inner-city and underprivileged children and high school students through the NHRA’s U.S. Army YES program (Youth Education Services).
“When I was young, I got to move out in the country where it was totally different, way different than what I was used to,” Brown explained. “It opened up my eyes to so many other things, like working on our family’s tractors and bulldozers and dump trucks. Learning different skills that I was clueless to.”
Brown believes in exposing youngsters to new opportunities they might not have thought possible.
“When I get to talk to these inner-city kids or other programs like that, I can really enlighten them to things that are available,” Brown said. “Some of them never lifted a wrench in their lives. Some of them have never looked at a race track or a race car. My thing is to bring out some different skills sets and different opportunities that might be out there for them.
“Give them a little ray of hope for something else they could do, that they never explored or tried.”
Brown doesn’t just give lip service to his status as a role model. He is emotionally tied to his mission.
“When you talk to these kids, they’re confined to what’s around them,” Brown said. “They don’t look outside the box at things that aren’t offered to them. My best words of encouragement to any young person is if you ever think about something you really, truly want to do, what you have to do is put yourself out and around it.”
Motorcyles to Top Fuel
Brown may have been small as a youngster — he eventually topped out at 5-foot-8-inches —but he played sports and eventually ran track at Mercer Community College.
A family connection led to Brown’s big break into the NHRA racing circuit. His cousin was married to then-NFL cornerback Troy Vincent, who heard of Brown’s motorcycle prowess and called to gauge his interest in riding in the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle division.
Also mentored by veteran NHRA driver Dave Schultz, Brown went from working on and testing motorcycles to blazing his way down the drag strips.
Brown paid his own way through drag bike racing school, got his license, then immersed himself in the sport by testing motorcycles for other pro teams. That experience eventually led to a spot on a bike and Brown racked up 16 wins in 10 seasons in motorcycles.
He reached 33 final rounds, finishing second in the overall point standings twice.
That success followed Brown once he switched to the Top Fuel circuit in 2008.
“We need to keep on growing and doing the things that we’ve been doing,” he said. “We need to come out with our A-plus level game because the competition right now is unbelievable. To get it done, we have to go out there and be the most effective that we’ve been and be aggressive in each and every round. That’s what wins championships.”
Fourth annual AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals
WHAT: 20th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Categories include Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, plus other racing divisions.
WHERE: Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison.
WHEN: Friday through Sunday
TICKETS: call Gateway Motorsports Park at (855) RACE-TIK (722-3845), or visit gatewaymsp.com
FRIDAY SCHEDULE: Lucas Oil Series qualifying; NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Series qualifying at 2:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.; Mello Yello Series qualifying at 2:45 and 5:15 p.m.
SATURDAY SCHEDULE: Lucas Oil Series eliminations; NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Series qualifying at 1 p.m.; first round of eliminations at 3:45 p.m.; Mello Yello Series qualifying at 1:45 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
SUNDAY SCHEDULE: Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.; Mello Yello Series eliminations begin at 11 a.m.
TV: Saturday TBA on ESPN2; Sunday 7 p.m. ESPN2
2014 WINNERS: Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Courtney Force, Funny Car; Dave Connolly, Pro Stock; Jerry Savoie, Pro Stock Motorcycle.