New device throws canopy of conflicting thought over Top Fuel class

The modern cockpit canopy made its NHRA debut Friday, August 17 at Brainerd, Minn., during the Lucas Oil Nationals on Tony Schumacher's U.S. Army Dragster. (Photo courtesy of Don Schumacher Racing)




U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green's vision of a protective cockpit canopy finally is a reality on the racetrack. And its debut Friday, Aug. 17 at the NHRA's Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., offered no evidence of a performance advantage for driver Tony Schumacher, despite his taking the provisional No. 1 qualifying position.

Ushering in a new era of Top Fuel design by racing with a canopy over his cockpit, Schumacher was quickest and fastest Friday in qualifying with a 3.791-second, 323.97-mph blast on the 1,000-foot Brainerd International Raceway course.

However, his canopy-free Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown, the leader after the first session of qualifying, stepped up, too. In the Matco Tools/Army/Toyota Dragster, Brown matched Schumacher's 3.791-second elapsed time. Schumacher earned the top spot because of his track-record speed that edged out Brown's 323.74 mph.

"I've got a [canopy] on my [cockpit]. Antron doesn't. They put a wicker [wickerbill] on our cars and we just ran the exact same number," Schumacher said.

That, he said, backed up the team's findings from pre-season testing in January at West Palm Beach, Fla. That, he indicated, underscored his belief that the device is purely a safety feature, a noble effort that would make the late NHRA founder Wally Parks proud.

Would it?

"The funny part was when we tested in West Palm [Beach, Fla.], all three of our cars [including DSR driver Spencer Massey's FRAM/Prestone Dragster] would go out and make a run and we all ran within one-thousandth of a second. I had the canopy and they didn't," Schumacher said. "Could have saved ourselves enough money and time and said, 'That's enough data,' because it really was. You can put stuff on computers, but the fact is when three cars go out and run within one-thousandth of a second -- several times, like we all did -- I don't think there's an advantage to anything.

"What the advantage is is life expectancy. I want to live longer, and that's what we're doing it for," the seven-time Top Fuel champion said. "There's no one out there who can dispute it. If you don't own one, if you like it and think there's an advantage, put it on your car. I recommend it highly. Simple as that."

He said the canopy simply is an evolution of Parks' effort to keep racers safe.

"Wally Parks founded the NHRA to keep people safe: get 'em off the street, put 'em in race cars with roll cages and safety people. And that's what we're doing. All of us working together are going to make that happen," Schumacher said. "We're trying to make this car go out and be the future so other people put it on their car and we don't have to see any more tragedies."

Schumacher emphasized that if anything, his team spent time in the past several months it easily could have devoted to a desperately needed tune-up that worked. He called the 25 extra pounds the canopy puts on the car "a curveball" to the team. To him it was a self-inflicted burden "to take a 25-pound weight and set it on someone's lap and say, 'Good luck tuning the car now.' "

After Day 1 of "canopyhood," no one in drag racing -- except Tony Schumacher -- is certain what to think of the radical contraption that seems to have no incident-based inspiration yet no vehement opposition, either. Schumacher insisted that it has been tested plenty, yet Morgan Lucas and others have expressed concern it hasn't been examined enough. No authoritative proof has come from the racetrack that the canopy provides -- or doesn't provide -- an aerodynamic advantage . . . or a weight burden, either, for that matter.

Lucas said, "We think there are some potential fire hazard issues that have not been addressed and that the added weight will make the cars more difficult to stop. Given those questions, I cannot see Morgan Lucas Racing pursuing a canopy any time soon."

So for all the buzz about it, no one but Schumacher and Lucas seems to have formed a strong opinion. Many are taking a wait-and-see attitude -- which plays in their favor, considering the NHRA appeared to have contradicted itself with the timing of the approval.

The sanctioning body claims to rule that all teams have the same access to all parts on the cars. However, in announcing its final approval of the canopy, it did so in time for Schumacher to use his but with no time for any other team to acquire one, if desired.

Rather than approve it for use beginning in 2013, giving Aerodine time to manufacture enough to meet possible demand and teams enough time to decide if they want one or their budgets can handle one, NHRA allowed Schumacher to affix his canopy on the U.S. Army Dragster at the Brainerd race, the 16th of 17 in the so-called "regular season," just before the start of the six-race Countdown to Championship.

"The NHRA's tech department doesn't always have the best timing when it comes to some of its rulings," Lucas said. "I believe that a change this significant needs time -- like the off-season -- for teams to research the equipment themselves before it becomes accepted for competition use."

Jim Oberhofer, vice-president of Kalitta Motorsports and crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta, said, "I kind of wonder is if there is an advantage to have that thing -- I guess we'll see as we get into the Countdown if the Army car starts to run better than it already runs -- how quickly is that canopy going to be available to all the other Top Fuel teams that might think there's an advantage to have that thing.

"Is there only one canopy out there? How long does it take to build these things and to install it and all those other things?" he asked. "My feeling is they could have approved this then said, 'All right -- you need a minimal amount sitting on the shelf.' That way they're available for other teams who that possibly want to install it for this race or for Indy. They could have said, 'It's approved but you can't run it until next year.' That would have made it simple.

"You know if that car goes out and runs good -- I mean, it's already a good-running car to begin with -- but if it goes out and runs even better, then you're going to get a lot of people complaining about it, saying there's an advantage with that thing," Oberhofer said.

Bob Vandergriff, owner-driver of the C&J Energy Services Dragster, said, "We haven't seen it in competition and that could change the initial opinion, for the better or the worse, depending on what we see from the implementation of it on the DSR cars.

"I'm not sure anything should be allowed two-thirds of the way thru the season due to the unknown effect it could provide for the DSR teams," he said. "I'd probably have preferred it be allowed starting with the 2013 season, but with it being allowed now we will see the results before next year starts. So pluses and minuses on the timing of the approval."

Oberhofer said he wondered whether the sport has a genuine need for such a product. So he asked boss and drag-racing legend Connie Kalitta, who he said "probably has burned more nitro than anybody else out here" and who has "made a lot of laps down the racetrack himself and has been around the sport racing continuously probably longer than anybody."

Besides, back in the mid-1980s, when innovator "Big Daddy" Don Garlits started using a canopy (not constructed like the one Schumacher is using today), Connie Kalitta also had a canopy for his dragster.

So Oberhofer asked "The Bounty Hunter," "Have you ever seen anybody get hit with something driving a Top Fuel car, whether it's a bird or whatever?" He said he inquired about "the things that Tony Schumacher was saying that either happened to him or came close to happening to him."

He said Kalitta's reply was that "in all my years of racing, I've only known of two people and they drove Comp dragsters back in the '70s." Said Oberhofer, "He said as far as a Top Fuel car he doesn't recall anybody getting hit with anything making a lap down the track."

The ambiguity of this Schumacher canopy, the unsettling mystery of it, makes it unclear whether it's a safety feature or aerodynamic enhancement. Schumacher and DSR insist it is the former and in no way the latter. Maybe it's both. Maybe it's neither.

Both Vandergriff and Oberhofer -- and evidently more than a few crew chiefs -- are concerned about the weight of the canopy -- the effect of the extra poundage and the possibility the NHRA will react to it with a weight-added mandate. 

"My biggest worry -- and I think I share a lot of the feelings of the other crew chiefs who are working with Schumacher [DSR] . . . Our concern is that they were going to allow them to run this canopy and that they were going to add weight to us because of that," Oberhofer said. "Doing what they did, they allowed them to run it and they didn't put weight on us -- which is good, and I hope they keep it that way."

He said he's taking his cue from driver Doug Kalitta about whether to pursue buying a canopy.

"From what I understand, the whole system adds a little over 30 pounds. I would have to leave that up to Doug [Kalitta] whether he would want something like that on the car. To add that kind of weight, right now I'm not in that position," he said.

"Doug Kalitta is not Doug Herbert size, but he's also not Antron Brown size, either. I want the car safe and if there is a safety advantage of having it, then OK. But right now I don't see that with that thing," Oberhofer said. "I feel our cars we have right now [including Dave Grubnic's] are pretty safe. Doug feels safe driving the car. That's the most important thing."

Vandergriff said, "Currently we are not ordering it. As a bigger driver we can't afford the weight increase to our car. If NHRA raised the weight limit to allow for the increase in weight the canopy and it related components add to the cars, then we would seriously consider adding one. I'm all for safety improvements, and at face value this appears to be one."

Schumacher would second that. "It's phenomenal. You're safe. You're in the thing. They close it and you feel . . . I don't know . . . a sense of safety -- which is the whole point," he said.

"For 16 years I've driven this open cockpit where you can see things. Parts and pieces could fly in. And I'm in the capsule," Schumacher said. "We've been looking forward to doing that for a long time."

Now that they have, lingering doubt about its function and performance (not to mention the sanctioning body's ill-timed approval) have placed a canopy of confusion and conflict over the whole matter.

 

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