Did the Top Fuel cockpit canopy make a difference in its maiden voyage in NHRA competition Friday at the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.?
Tony Schumacher said it did -- for his peace of mind only.
And that was only regarding safety, for Antron Brown, his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, is making him plenty uncomfortable in the performance department.
Brown matched Schumacher's class-best elapsed time of 3.791-seconds on the 1,000-foot course at Brianerd International Raceway. But Schumacher took the provisional No. 1 position by virtue of speed: his track-record 323.97 mph to Brown's canopy-less 323.74.
So it was a wash.
Nevertheless, Schumacher stood by his previous remarks regarding the necessity of the device, and he praised its performance Friday. 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 burden, that it doesn’t slow the car down so that other drivers won't want to take the opportunity to protect themselves.
And the seven-time champion 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.
"It was good," he said of the canopy. "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. Parts and pieces could fly in. And I'm in the capsule. We've been looking forward to doing that for a long time."
He lauded his team, Indianapolis-based manufacturer Aerodine, and even the NHRA (whose long approval process frustrated him at times).
"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 Brown's 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," Schumacher said, sounding gratified that Day 1 with the canopy proved the other drivers were not at a performance disadvantage.
"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," he 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 Friday 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 -- much quieter -- with the canopy installed but said, "I'll get used to it."
Even with the canopy, he's still enjoying being No. 1
Schumacher is seeking to lead the field for the sixth time at Brainerd and for the 70th time in his career. Two qualifying sessions are set for Saturday. Eliminations will start at 11 a.m.(CT) Sunday.
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