IN 1997, 21-YEAR-OLD Antron Brown faced a conundrum. Should he carry on with what he’d been doing, absolutely crushing his competition in the 100-meter dash as a Division I college athlete? Or should he do what he wanted to do: seize the opportunity to drag-race Pro Stock motorcycles?
On the one hand, Brown’s coaches believed he had a real shot to succeed as a sprinter. In fact, he regularly attained Olympic Trial–level speeds. But on the other hand … well, motorcycles. Long before sharpening his innate sprinting skills, Brown—who hails from rural New Jersey, and now calls Pittsboro, Indiana home—had competed in moto-cross, and, later, drag-raced street bikes. It was undeniable: Motorcycles were Brown’s real passion.
Ultimately, passion prevailed. In 1998, Brown swapped his cleats for a full-face helmet, and went motorcycle drag-racing. “That was a shot I had to take,” he says. Riding for Team 23 Racing, owned by NFL cornerback Troy Vincent and later acquired by Don Schumacher Racing, Brown would spend the next 10 years collecting 11 poles and 16 event titles, and twice finishing second in the points, in the NHRA Pro Stock division.
In 2008, though, Brown was ready for a change. So, he switched from Pro Stock motorcycles to Top Fuel dragsters—the first racer ever to do so. The quickest-accelerating cars on Earth, Top Fuel dragsters, which boast 12,000 in horsepower, charge from 0 to 100 miles per hour in less than 1 second, reach speeds of 335 miles per hour, and regularly pull over 6 Gs. (“It’s basically like having somebody who weighs 250 pounds sit on your chest,” says Brown.) Today, with 52 Top Fuel wins and three series titles, Brown is the fourth-winningest driver in NHRA Top Fuel history, and in 2019 was named Top Fuel Driver of the Decade by AutoWeek magazine.
Brown—who will compete at the 2021 NHRA US Nationals, September 1–5, at Lucas Oil Raceway—wasn’t the first member of his family to strap himself into a race car. He was preceded by his father, Albert Jr., and uncle, Andre, who were themselves exposed to the sport by Brown’s grandfather, Albert Sr. “They were drag-racing before I was even thought of,” says Brown. Albert Jr. and Andre frequently competed at an amateur level—first in a 1972 Chevy Vega with a small-block engine and later in a purpose-built roadster. (The Vega remains in the family. “I’ll never sell it,” says Brown.) They were also regular spectators at NHRA pro events, and often brought young Antron, whom they affectionately called “Ant,” along. Recalling his first experience watching the “big boys” run, at Summer Nationals in Englishtown, New Jersey, Brown says, “Fireworks went off inside my chest. It was like, ‘This is it.’” When Brown won his first Top Fuel series title in 2012, it gave him particular pleasure to invite his dad and uncle to the post-season banquet. “I’ll never forget it,” Brown says with a grin. “They were looking at me like, ‘We’re living our dream through you.’”
Brown might not have been the first member of his family to try drag-racing. But he is the first African American ever to win a major US auto-racing championship. More recently, Brown has become the only African American to own a Top Fuel team: AB Motorsports, which will enter the NHRA fray in 2022. Brown doesn’t focus too much on those milestones, though. “I never sat back and thought about it,” he’s said. “But, if I can be an inspiration for kids out there—not just African Americans, but Americans, period—and give them somebody they can look up to … then it makes this accomplishment even more special.”
Brown attributes his success to lessons he learned from his family. “Something that my grandpop instilled in us was, you can have anything in life, as long as you put in the work to get it,” says Brown. “The only limitations we have in life are the ones we put on ourselves.” He also works hard to stay in shape—indeed, he’s easily the most physically fit drag-racer around.
Like all good sprinters, Brown thinks often about when—and to whom—to pass the baton. “All I’ve done my whole life is eat, sleep, dream racing,” says Brown, “and I want to be able to open doors for people who have the same passion I had.” It may well be that Brown’s own kids, with wife Billie Jo—who Brown met at his first Pro Stock motorcycle race and married in 2001—will be the ones to run the next leg of the relay. All three of them—daughter, Arianna, and sons, Adler and Anson—have competed at the junior level. In his debut year, in 2014, Anson became the first fourth-generation dragster to race in an NHRA-sanctioned event. But Brown doesn’t push them. “I never say, ‘This is what you need to do,’” he explains. “I see some parents yelling at their kids, and I’m not like that. I don’t get upset when they lose. I mean, I lose all the time!” Instead of focusing on their win-loss record, Brown concerns himself with being present for his kids. “I can’t hit rewind,” he says.
In the meantime, Brown, now 45 years old, intends to continue racing as long as he can—“at least another 10 or 15 years,” he says—if he can still compete. “I don’t want to be out here just to be out here,” he says. “If I look at myself and say, ‘There’s somebody else who can do a better job than me,’ it’ll be time to step aside. But right now,” he continues, “I don’t feel that somebody could do a better job than me.”