Antron Brown lives in Indiana with his wife and three children, but when he won the National Hot Rod Association championship in November one of his first impulses was to hustle back to his childhood home in South Jersey. The first African-American driver to win an NHRA championship, he wanted to share the news with his beloved grandmom and his many relatives here.
Brown, 36, won the championship in his fifth year of racing in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class—driving 30-foot-long, thin-wheeled, nitromethane-fueled rockets that generate 8,000 horsepower and hurtle down a drag strip as fast as 330 miles an hour. The races are over in seconds; Brown’s trek to the top took considerably longer.
Born in Trenton, Brown moved with his family when he was six to Chesterfield, a rural township in Burlington County where his father ran a septic-tank service started by his grandfather. Brown was operating front-end loaders and backhoes for the business by the time he was 12. He began driving the backroads when he was 14.
“We knew all the cops,” he says.
Brown became a star sprinter on the Mercer County Community College track team, but decided to forgo an offer to run at Long Island University—opting instead to race motorcycles in NHRA competition for a team owned by Troy Vincent, another Trenton native who played cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and had married into Brown’s extended family. Later, Brown had his own team, but without much success.
“There were times when I wondered why I was out there,” Brown says. Racing, he adds, is a “humbling” experience. “There are no do-overs. You don’t have laps, or timeouts, or Mulligans. When you lose, you’re done…like somebody just stole something from you.”
Brown kept racing because his grandmother, Dolores Brown, had impressed upon him the importance of hard work. In 2008, he moved from motorcycles to the more prestigious and lucrative Top Fuel dragsters and immediately contended for an NHRA championship. It eluded him until 2012, when he edged teammateTony Schumacher, the seven-time champion, by just seven points.
Brown does not see himself as a trailblazer. “Everything I have done to this point,” he says, “is a reflection on where I grew up, where I came from. Not just my competitive background, but the person I am today.”