Don't bet against Don Schumacher's drivers in Sonoma Nationals

  • In this photo provided by the NHRA, Tony Schumacher celebrates with his father, Don Schumacher, after winning the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals auto race, Sunday, June 17, 2012, at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo/NHRA, Teresa Long)

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.

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