Antron Brown was an Olympic prospect in the 100 meters in the mid-1990s, running a time at Mercer County (N.J.) Community College that would have qualified him for the 2000 trials. It also earned him a full scholarship to Long Island University.
"Chris Carter was the new coach at Long Island and he thought he could train me to be fast enough to make the Olympic team," Brown said.
Brown had a second offer in 1997, from then-NFL defensive back Troy Vincent. He wanted to start a Pro Stock Motorcycle team to compete in the National Hot Rod Association, the premier drag racing series in the United States. Brown liked running, but his greater passion was drag racing. He'd grown up around it and jumped at the opportunity presented by Vincent.
Brown has been a star almost from the start. He won three NHRA Full Throttle Series national events in the motorcycle division in his second season in 1999 and 16 total before switching to the nitro-burning dragsters of Top Fuel, considered the king of the sport, in 2008.
The NHRA's national tour races this weekend in the 57th U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
"It's our Indianapolis 500," Brown said.
Brown should be a contender in drag racing's most prestigious event. He has four victories this season, including one in the last event at Brainerd, Minn., and is second in the points behind Del Worsham.
The NHRA has a playoff system, the Countdown to the Championship. Indianapolis is the 16th and final event of the regular season, and ten drivers will qualify for the six-event Countdown. Brown has finished in the top five in three of his previous Top Fuel seasons. With four wins this year, his Top Fuel total is up to 13 victories and 29 total in his NHRA career.
Brown's accomplishments make him the most successful African-American race car driver in the United States, arguably the best in history. James Stewart has won national motocross championships, but no African-American drivers have won more top-level car races than Brown.
His place in history is not something that Brown gives much consideration in his pursuit of a championship. All Brown cares about is winning races.
"Racial barriers and stuff, I never had to live through racism like my grandparents did," Brown said. "When you out perform the competition, people don't care where you came from or what color you are. They like you because of how you perform. It's like Michael Jordan. People don't see him for his color, they see him for how great he was.
"I go back to the people I looked up to as heroes. Two legends stick out, Don The Snake Prudhomme and Don Garlits. What those guys have done came from their love and passion for drag racing. Prudhomme owned a paint and body shop and dug deep and became one of the most successful drag racers in history. Don Garlits was before his time in technology, he broke speed barriers. He was an engineer who drove a race car."
Brown's father Albert and uncle Andre were race-winning sportsman -- a category somewhere between amateur and full professional -- in New Jersey, and Brown spent weekends with them at the tracks and working on their cars. Starting at age 12, Brown also raced motocross in addition to playing high school football and running track in Columbus, N.J.
Vincent, then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, gave Brown the kind of opportunity any young driver seeks and it came through a family connection.
"Troy wanted to start a pro stock bike team and he's married to my cousin Tommi. It was funny. When they got married, she remembered me racing motocross. It was the perfect fit."
Brown drove for Vincent's No. 23 team for 10 seasons, then made the transition to Top Fuel. Along with the nitro Funny Cars, they're the fastest race cars on the planet, going from a standing start to over 320 miles per hour in less than four seconds. With an estimated 7,000 horsepower, they pull five Gs going and generate five negative Gs stopping.
Brown had his finest season in Top Fuel in 2009, when he tallied six wins and finished third in the points. This year could be better.
"Things have been going good," Brown said. "We've been working on some things and testing has went well. Really, coming into the season, we were hitting full stride and it feels good. We're right where we want to be. Our main goal is to be in the top three to get the bonus points going into the Countdown.
"We don't think about who we're racing. We want to do the best job we can," he said.
Mark Oswald and Brian Corradi are Brown's co-crew chiefs for the Matco/U.S. Army-sponsored dragster. Brown drives for Don Schumacher Racing, one of drag racing's multicar powerhouses.
Oswald was the NHRA's Funny Car champion in 1984.
"We have an All-Star cast of people working together, and working with Mark and Brian has taken our performance to a different level," Brown said. "I definitely have a really good car beneath me and they're able to guide me. Mark was an excellent driver and when you're able to bounce stuff off him, you're able to grow fast."
Brown has plenty of competition at the Nationals and for the championship. Worsham had spent the previous 15 seasons in Funny Cars and his six wins. He'll clinch the No. 1 seed for the Countdown by qualifying at the U.S. Nationals.
Worsham won the Nationals in 2005. He could become the fifth driver to win the event in Top Fuel and Funny Car in Monday's eliminations.
"I'm excited to get to Indy to hopefully complete our first goal of being the top seed for the Countdown and do our best to win the U.S. Nationals while we're at it," Worsham said. "I've won it in Funny Car, it would be pretty amazing to win it in a dragster, too."
Tony Schumacher, Brown's teammate, has won eight of the last 10 U.S. Nationals in Top
Fuel. He's fourth in the points.
John Force Racing's Mike Neff leads the Funny Car points over teammate Robert Hight. Force himself, a 15-time champion, legend and winner of 133 events in Funny Car, continues to be a contender at age 62. He's seventh in the points and has one win this season.
Neff is his own crew chief. He has four wins this season.
"It [winning Indianapolis] would be the biggest [win] ever," Neff said.
Brown is going for his first win at Indianapolis, too. It would boost his growing legacy.