Top Fuel driver Antron Brown started Sunday with a losing effort and burned hands. He ended the day as the NHRA Top Fuel champion, the first African-American driver in history to win a major auto racing title.
Brown had to stand and watch the final round with bandages on his hands, knowing his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, seven-time champion Tony Schumacher, would take the title from him if he won the match up with Brandon Bernstein in the Auto Club Finals.
But Bernstein won the final by inches on a holeshot (slower elapsed time but better reaction time at the start) to deny Schumacher and make Brown the champion. Bernstein reached the finish line in 3.76 seconds at 320 miles per hour, edging Schumacher's 3.75 elapsed time at 325 mph.
"You don't wish nothing bad on anybody," Brown said. "Tony has been my biggest supporter since Day 1. He has helped me leaps and bounds along the way. Tony's a class act. I'm just beside myself. I feel so blessed to be in this moment."
Schumacher started the day 70 points behind Brown, but almost pulled off the comeback.
"It's a terrible way to lose, but there's no good way to lose," Schumacher said. "They gave me a great car that got to the end, but the win light didn't come on. I'm sure Antron is back there celebrating. He will be a great champion."
Brown suffered minor burns on his hands when the engine on his dragster caught fire in a first-round loss Sunday at the Auto Club Finals.
"It's just a little first-degree burns on my hands," Brown said after leaving the track care center. "It was tough outing. We were just going for it. I don't know what went wrong with the car yet, just a rough mishap."
Brown quickly climbed out of the car when flames came in the cockpit. His fire suit was singed as he pulled it off to his waist. Brown was walking around on the track before an ambulance took him to the care center.
Brown lost in the opening round to DSR teammate Spencer Massey, who also was trying to win the championship. Massey had to win the opening round to keep his hopes alive. Massey lost in the second round to Bernstein, who is one of Brown's closest friends.
Brown said he would have been able to continue racing with his burns had he won in the first round. He could have clinched the title by winning the first two rounds of Sunday's event.
"My guys did an incredible job this year," Brown said. "We will keep our heads high. We're still here. We have to see what happens, just watch and sit and wait. That's all we can do."
He watched and he won in the end, making history as the first Black champion.
"I never really thought about it that way," Brown said. "But if I can be an inspiration to any kids out there, as a guy who never settled and never doubted myself, that's great."