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Fresh NHRA argument erupts at Phoenix

Graham's satisfied. Don's mad. Tom's in the dark. Kenny's denying involvement. Alan's mum. And John's trying to smooth it all over.

The past weekend at the National Hot Rod Association's Arizona Nationals near Phoenix was just another one in drag-racing paradise. Or as the Toby Keith lyrics go, "There's always something going on down in the trailerhood."

Ambient temperatures Firebird International Raceway soared to triple digits, track temperatures were smoldering at about 30 degrees beyond that, and mega-team owner Don Schumacher was blazing hot about the NHRA's ruling Friday that the protective canopies on the cockpits of his three Top Fuel dragsters were illegal -- reversing its decision about the equipment he said was designed to make drivers safer and cost him more than $100,000 for the research and development.

Graham Light, NHRA's senior vice-president of racing operations, said the NHRA revisited the issue after another team -- one he declined to name -- said it had researched the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) canopy and found it to be more of a performance enhancement than a safety device. Light said the NHRA paid a separate engineer to conducted its own test and those findings supported those of the non-DSR team's conclusions.

The NHRA had approved the shrouds, and the Antron Brown, Spencer Massey, and Tony Schumacher teams have been using them for the past 19 races. But Friday NHRA's position was that the shroud was illegal. Light also pointed to a flash fire that occurred in Brown's dragster at Reading, Pa., two weeks earlier as proof that the DSR equipment was not meetings its safety claims.

Light said he took DSR at its word about the safety value of the shrouds in the beginning but said the NHRA today regards them as aerodynamic advantages. He stopped short of saying DSR deceived the NHRA.

Schumacher charged that the NHRA, which he said never asked to look at the reams of paperwork and documentation DSR had compiled during the approval process, handled the matter in an "amateurish" way.

"I strongly disagree with the decision. They made it with no scientific evidence," Schumacher said. "They should talk to a real aerodynamic engineer. They never even came over and looked at Antron's firesuit until I gave them a piece of my mind."

Schumacher said he phoned NHRA President Tom Compton, who didn't return his call until the next day around noon and then said he wasn't familiar enough with the details of the matter to discuss it.

What at once angered and baffled Schumacher was the NHRA's logic in removing a safety improvement from a car.

He called the decision and the way it was handled "an embarrassment to DSR, to the sport, and to every one of my sponsors."

The team owner said he has no plans to appeal the decision: "It does no good to appeal anything to the NHRA. They're right."

Said Schumacher, "I think Larry Morgan had a great T-shirt several years ago."

Morgan, a Pro Stock veteran driver, caused a flap for printing T-shirts with an NHRA logo and the words, "You Can't Fix Stupid." The NHRA banned the shirts, threatened Morgan with a lawsuit, and ordered him to hand over the shirts or destroy them.

Moreover, Schumacher leveled accusations that fellow multi-car team owners Kenny Bernstein, Alan Johnson, and John Force receive preferential treatment from the NHRA.

He called the NHRA's decision "just another DSR rule because I am not Alan Johnson, John Force, or Kenny Bernstein." He said, "Those guys can do what they want and have done it for many years. Alan Johnson runs Pomona with an illegal supercharger, wins Pomona and they [NHRA] don't do anything. There's guys out there competing with illegal heads and superchargers and parts within their superchargers. Why doesn't the NHRA do anything about that?"
And Schumacher resigned from his Pro Racers Organization board of directors.

Finally, Schumacher said he has no further interest in investing more money or personal energy into helping improve the sport, whether it's for the sake of safety, enhanced fan experience, or, frankly, any other reason. Saying, "They have no use for me," Schumacher said, "I've spent way too much of my own personal energy and time and money."

He said he won’t leave the sport, primarily because of sponsor obligations.

Bernstein responded by saying, "I've never said a word about his aerodynamic thing on his race cars. I haven't griped to the NHRA about it. I don't really have a clue why [Schumacher would accuse him]. We certainly haven't been in that position for a long, long time. We are a single-car team. I don't think we are on top of the world here, so I don't know what we have that someone else doesn't have. I'm in a little world over here, just trying to survive, be competitive, and win a race. "

Alan Johnson Racing, which operates the tandem Al-Anabi / Toyota Dragsters for Larry Dixon and Del Worsham, issued the following statement: "This weekend's off-track development concern other teams and are unrelated to the Al-Anabi Racing Team. Our sole focus this weekend is doing our best to win the NHRA Arizona Nationals."

(They did, with Dixon beating Brown's DSR team in the final round.)

Force, who has had his share of disagreements with the NHRA, said Sunday morning before eliminations began, "First of all, I'm not even in this dogfight. I don't know anything about dragsters. Don't be mad at me."

Alluding to a contentious matter in the recent PRO meeting, Force said, "In all fairness to Don, a lot of things went wrong. A lot of stuff just hit him at the same time. I'm just sorry all this happened."

The 15-time Funny Car champion said he understood Schumacher's position, for a few years ago he was at the center of similar battle with the sanctioning body. John Force Racing was cooperating with Jack Roush Racing in designing and testing a new Ford Funny Car body that NHRA approved. After all the research, fabrication, and testing, the NHRA told Force it would not allow him to run that body.

"I was into that body about $300,000. And I had a fit. I went toe-to-toe with (NHRA Chairman of the Board) Dallas Gardner, and he told me, 'Force, you don't know everything.' He said he was doing it for the good of the sport," Force said. He said throughout his process "we did what we were told. But s--- changes. The sanctioning body makes the rules, and they're the boss.

"Has the NHRA ruled against me? Yes. Has the NHRA ruled for me? Yes. When something goes against us, we just go on. It's all a balance," he said.

Force said he appreciates the ability to debate with the officials: "In NASCAR, if we complained, we'd be thrown out of racing."

He appealed to Schumacher not to become so distraught that he might leave drag racing.

"We can't afford to lose him," Force said. "I want Don Schumacher to stay in the sport. If we lose him, we can't even fill the fields."

Schumacher owns three Top Fuel teams and four Funny Car teams that are direct competitors of Force's three Mustangs.

Bernstein said Schumacher's resignation from PRO leadership was disappointing.

"That caught me totally off guard also," Bernstein said. "He’s been a great asset the last few years there. He’s been a right hand to me over there. He’s taken on a lot of responsibility for that organization. He’s helped me tremendously. I hate to see him leave. I don't really know why he left, to be honest about it."

For his peacemaking efforts, Force gained one thing -- a social invitation from Schumacher.

"After he chewed my a--, he asked me to go fishing with him," Force said. "He wants to use me for bait."

That's a huge exaggeration, but Schumacher still isn't willing to let the NHRA off the hook.


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