DSR to show off canopy in double burnout at Charlotte

NHRA Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher will perform a side-by-side burnout Sunday alongside teammate Antron Brown in front of NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- with the unnecessarily controversial canopy on his car . Photo By Jared Tilton - US PRESSWIRE

In a salute to America's Armed Forces this Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Don Schumacher Racing teammates Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown will fire up their U.S. Army-sponsored Top Fuel dragsters Sunday for side-by-side exhibition burnouts just before the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race.

Track owner Bruton Smith has invited National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel drivers to perform single burnouts before, but this gesture will do more than set a precedent or expose motorsports fans to drag racing.

It will be significant for more than its opportunity for Smith to sell tickets to the June 15-17 Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at his Bristol Dragway or the Sept. 14-16 O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at his zMAX Dragway, across the road from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It will be a chance for DSR to show off the full driver canopy that the organization and its designer have sunk more than $125,000 into developing but still cannot use because the NHRA technical officials are dragging their feet to approve.

NASCAR has its "Car of Tomorrow," and NASCAR fans will get a peek at what could headline 330-mph drag racing -- if only the NHRA would get off the dime and approve the device they question as a safety improvement.

U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green had pondered the idea of a driver canopy for drag racers after racing 200-mph drag boats. After years of tossing the concept around in his mind, Green contacted friend James Brendel, who pioneered the use of enclosed capsules for drag boat racing and in the process has saved lives and possibly that sport. Designer Brendel, of Hondo Boats Inc. and Brendel Safety Capsules, showed NHRA President Tom Compton and other high-ranking officials the blueprints several years ago and received the green light to proceed with the prototype.

DSR began working with Brendel to develop a second-generation canopy -- the first, Green said, proved too heavy. Indianapolis-based Aerodine Composites, which has designed and manufactured various parts for top NHRA and IndyCar teams during the past 20 years, bought the project from Brendel.

Aerodine built the canopy structure, using a combination of Kevlar and carbon fiber that attaches to the existing chassis, nearly enclosing the cockpit, The canopy lowers over the driver.

It is designed so the driver can quickly release it inside the car or safety workers or crew members can remove it from outside the car. That satisfies concerns the NHRA raised about whether a driver could be rescued if might be unconscious in the event of a crash. Also to satisfy existing NHRA rules, the canopy also carries a five-pound fire-suppression system similar to those used in Funny Cars.

DSR first tested the canopy in January during pre-season testing at a racetrack at Jupiter, Fla., and presented it to the NHRA for review a few weeks later.

However, NHRA Vice-President of Technical Operations Glen Gray said in February that the sanctioning body wanted its safety personnel to study it but didn't want to prolong a decision.

But here we are on the verge of June, four months later and with one-third of the Full Throttle Drag Racing series schedule behind us. And still we have no word from the NHRA, which said it wanted to make sure the canopy didn’t have an aerodynamic advantage.

But of course it probably does have an aerodynamic advantage. "It's got the windshield of an F-16 fighter jet, not an Astro Van," Brendel said. But he emphasized that safety is the primary reason for the canopy.

Besides, as both Brendel and Tony Schumacher have said repeatedly, the canopy will be available to every team. DSR does not own the canopy. Aerodine is manufacturing it so that it is affordable to every team. All teams and crew chiefs and drivers have been invited and given several opportunities to look at it, sit under it, ask questions, and give input. Kalitta Motorsports reportedly wants to order six canopies when they become available, and several other Top Fuel drivers have expressed interest.

So what is the NHRA's holdup? How many more weeks does it take to make a decision? How many more times does a Safety Safari member have to look at it to tell whether it’s something that can help protect drivers from flying parts and pieces.

Just last weekend, at Topeka, ESPN cameras captured footage of sizeable pieces of debris shooting off a Top Fuel dragster. It's maybe more miraculous that none of those loose parts -- propelled with a strong amount of thrust behind them -- has landed in an opposing driver's cockpit. Brendel, Green, Schumacher, and all of DSR has been hoping the NHRA will approve the canopy before that happens and we have a drag-racing version of Felipe Massa's serious head injury in 2009 in Hungary or, worse, Henry Surtees' fatal accident at Brands Hatch, England, days before Massa's incident.

So the canopy will be in place on Schumacher's car Sunday, and the seven-time Top Fuel series champion said, "This isn’t about performance. This is about safety. I want every driver to have one. This is just all about making it safer for all the drivers in Top Fuel.

"I remember twice when my front wing hit birds at 300 mph," he said. "If those birds would have hit my helmet, I probably wouldn't be here today. This setup with the canopy is the smartest thing you can put on a (Top Fuel) car today.

"When I sit in this car with the canopy I have a level of comfort that I haven’t had in a long time. Every driver should have that feeling. I’ve lost some good friends out here and don’t want to lose any more," Schumacher said. "The canopy doesn’t make us go faster. It looks really cool, but I wouldn’t care if it were ugly. That fact is I feel safer under it."

If only that feeling could extend past Sunday.

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