Major League Baseball hit Pete Rose with a lifetime ban for betting on its games. The NFL famously suspended two high-profile players, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for consorting with gamblers back in 1963. That sort of scandal has yet to infiltrate National Hot Rod Association drag racing.
If they did, Don Schumacher might ask: What's the fuss?
"As far as gambling being good or bad for people — Las Vegas is one of the nicest cities in the United States," said Schumacher, NHRA's dominant team owner. "You can find great food, great entertainment. And you can partake in gambling or not. I myself do not feel gambling has any negative connotation to it. Maybe that's because of the life I've lived."
Schumacher brings a unique perspective to the Sonoma Nationals this weekend. His parents were bookies in Chicago, and his first major sponsor as a driver was the Stardust Hotel-Casino.
Al Schumacher, Don's father, wound copper-wire transformers for radios in the early 1940s, and supplemented his income by playing games of chance or skill with soldiers returning from World War II.
"Dad was always a gambler," Don Schumacher said. "You didn't want to play pool or cards with him, because you'd get beat."
The Schumachers lived in an apartment over the Midnight Inn, a tavern owned by Don's maternal grandparents at the corner of Fullerton and Central in Chicago, across the street from Hanson Stadium. It was well known that a guy could put a little money on the Bears or the Cubs with a visit to the Schumachers. They handled the smaller wagers themselves and laid off the larger ones to operations with deeper pockets.
Don and his older sister were largely shielded from the business.
"I can't say that as a young man I realized they were bookies," he said. "It was a well-accepted profession in the 1950s."
Along the way, Al Schumacher built up Woodward-Schumacher Electric, a company he co-founded that made transformers for radios and televisions. When that business began to take off, his wife, Jean, took over the bookmaking duties. By the time Don Schumacher got into drag racing in the mid-1960s, neither parent was making book anymore.
But they had some connections. Many of the men who established Las Vegas as a gambling oasis had come from Chicago, and they knew the Schumachers as friends and business associates. That's how Don Schumacher wound up driving a Plymouth Barracuda Funny Car bearing the Stardust logo. In the offseason, the Stardust would wax up the car and display it in the casino.
That was Schumacher's ride until 1973, when he reached a sponsorship agreement with Wonder Bread and drove a white wagon painted with brightly colored polka dots.
Schumacher, known as "The Shoe," was a top-tier driver who won five NHRA events and nine in the International Hot Rod Association. He gave it up in 1974 to spend more time with his young children, and to help lead Schumacher Electric (as it was called by then) during his father's transition into retirement.
The company had about 400 employees in 1974. Now it has more like 2,000, with facilities in Mexico and China and annual sales of over $100 million. If you own a plug-in battery charger, chances are it was manufactured by Schumacher Electric.
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