Tony Schumacher last led the NHRA Top Fuel standings five races ago. He hasn't won four races like Spencer Massey or Antron Brown -- or even three like Steve Torrence or two like Morgan Lucas. He's ranked third in the class and is fending off upstart single-car owner-driver Torrence, who is within a point of him.
None of that fazes Schumacher.
"The U.S. Army dragster is still the baddest hot rod in the world, in my book." Schumacher said. Already in the Countdown field, he said, "The reality is we need to stay in third, to hold onto third. At the end of the day, when the championship is settled, we need to get there and kick some butt."
He did Friday evening.
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 for the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.
His 3.791-second, 323.97-mph blast on the 1,000-foot Brainerd International Raceway course set the bar overnight. Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown, the early leader, matched that 3.791 but relinquished the top spot because of speed. Brown posted a 323.74-mph effort.
In improving from his first-session effort of 3.847 seconds at 318.99 mph, Schumacher rewrote the track speed record. He eclipsed the 323.04-mph mark that DSR colleague Massey set last year. He wasn't far off Larry Dixon's August 2010 track elapsed-time record of 3.786.
He said he's pleased with the performance of the car with the Aerodine-produced canopy affixed -- although he insisted again that the device is no performance-enhancer.
He said his Mike Green-led U.S. Army team has worked like soldiers to make sure the canopy is not simply a 25-pound albatross, that is doesn’t slow the car down so that other drivers won't want to take the opportunity to protect themselves.
He continued to express his belief that the canopy project is a noble one, in keeping with NHRA founder Wally Parks' mission to keep drag racers safe.
Schumacher said of his first competitive runs with the canopy on the car, "It was good. It takes some getting used to. I've said it's like you're driving and you've got snow on the windshield and you wiped off the center of it to see through it -- except you’re going 320 miles an hour.
"It's phenomenal, though. 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 -- part and pieces could fly in. And I'm in the capsule. We've been looking forward to doing that for a long time.
"I guess you've got to give credit to the Army team for building it -- they did an amazing job making it safe," Schumacher said, "and Aerodine for perfecting this thing -- and NHRA you've go to give credit."
He compared his performance to that of Brown, the early Top Fuel leader Friday and the second-quickest of the day in the Matco Tools/Army/Toyota Dragster: "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.
"The funny part was when we tested in West Palm [Beach, Fla.], all three of our cars [including 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.
"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," he 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."
He summed up his day by saying, "For the car to go out there and not miss a beat and go fast and qualify No. 1, it’s a perfect situation."
Green, who started the canopy project with money from his own pocket, and the crew deserve credit, Schumacher said.
"My guys worked so hard to get this thing to where it's at and to make it so we weren't going to come to the first race and be a tenth of a second behind where it was so overweight that the other drivers didn't want to do it."
He said today's racing is not like the days when Alan Johnson was his crew chief and the U.S. Army car was ruthlessly dominating. Therefore, the added weight of the canopy caused a major concern -- and this presented extra work for a team already adjusting to other teams' overshadowing performances. So it's not like his team had nothing to lose by pursuing the radical device.
"This too tight now. We win and lose races by a thousandth of a second. So to put that canopy on and to have it slow down? We can't afford to lose more races," Schumacher said. "To go out there and run like it did, to show that we can do this is exactly what we needed to have to raise the guys' spirits. That was a ton of work. They were day and night making this happen."
Furthermore, Schumacher said, "In the process, we were working on a tune-up issue. We'd been smoking the tires and getting beat. I've gotten beaten by a thousandth of a second three times in the last six races. That is a problem, and it had nothing to do with the canopy," he said. "To really have it come together, we're getting closer to [solving] some of these problems we were struggling with the last few races. And that's a curveball, to take a 25-pound weight and set it on someone's lap and say, 'Good luck tuning the car now.' It's a pretty big difference. And to go out and take the No. 1 spot . . ."
He said the noise level inside the cockpit is markedly different with the canopy installed.
"We tested in West Palm. I took my earplugs out. The first round I got out and said, 'Geez, I don't know -- Is the car running?' It's just quiet," he said. "And 16 years of doing the same thing over and over again, where you give it gas and you hear the motor go 'Brrrrr' and whenit spins the tires you can hear it go, 'Rrrrrrrrr.' All of a sudden you've got this canopy and you put earplugs and you can't hear squat. So I took 'em out.
"When the car's on a run it's a little louder. It's not as loud as it was with earplugs in and the canopy closed, but it's louder than just with earplugs. I'll get used to it," Schumacher said
He said the second run Friday "was the first run that it left real hard and pulled the clutch down. It sounded great. The run before it was going through the clutch and the RPMs were high and it was fairly loud. You won't know until you smoke the tires."
For Friday night, all Schumacher was smoking was a celebratory cigar.
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