The Top Fuel canopy made its debut at the recent Brainerd race, but it's in danger of being sidelined from further National Hot Rod Association competition -- if a coalition of team owners has its way.
On the eve of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, Competition Plus learned that several Top Fuel operators have raised serious concern to the sanctioning body about the canopy and the timing of its approval.
Don Schumacher Racing, and U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green in particular, orchestrated the research and development of the polycarbonate windshield that the NHRA approved August 13. At that time, the NHRA gave the green light for teams to use the canopy in competition. The U.S. Army team is the lone organization to have a canopy at this point.
Indianapolis-based Aerodine manufactures the device that arcs over the driver.
And seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, sticking to his assertion that the device is purely for safety, said, "There are some cars that are so retro and so old-school that some of those guys should be ashamed of themselves. Then [they] have the audacity and the gall to say my car is good for another reason. Some of these guys ought to be ashamed of themselves not to have any insight at all into racing. They shouldn't even be able to call themselves racers. There are people out there that just need to be quiet -- or come over and look at it."
A handful of canopy opponents have told Competition Plus they wish the NHRA had given all teams more time to do their own analysis and testing of the finished product, the final prototype.
Morgan Lucas was the most openly vocal critic of the canopy during the Brainerd race, which he won after beating Schumacher in the semifinals.
A brief conversation with Forrest Lucas midweek confirmed that he was in touch with Graham Light, NHRA's senior vice-president of racing operations, but Lucas so far has not replied to phone messages.
Because of the sensitive nature and possible legal ramifications of public discussion, representatives of other teams spoke off the record to Competition Plus about their feelings in the matter and whether they are or have been in discussions with Light.
Meanwhile, Light told Competition Plus, "There has been some discussions with some teams." He declined to name them.
Neither side would divulge the parameters of the demands or requests the canopy opponents have mentioned. It is unclear whether legal action has been threatened or is in progress.
Asked whether the NHRA plans to issue an injunction to Don Schumacher Racing to sideline the canopy until further deliberation is complete, Light said, "No. Our Tech Department went through extensive due diligence in looking at that when the canopy was first brought onto the scene late last year. They tested with it at West Palm [Beach, Fla.]. An outside agency has worked six months or so with our Tech Department and with the research we’ve got, there’s no aerodynamic performance advantage. The team has represented it as a safety enhancement. Our Tech Department's study has concluded the device is legal, and [it] ran at Brainerd.
"The research data we have was done by Purdue University and by a very credible group," He said, adding that it "shows no aero advantage over the non-canopy cars."
Light indicated that none of the opposition team owners have presented any documents contradicting those the NHRA used to make its decision.
"The only research data we have received is the data we had done for us," he said.
Light was coy about whether the dialogue is closed or upset team owners are continuing to negotiate.
“We have an open policy to discuss any issues with any teams any time. Anybody who wants to talk we will discuss," he said.
The NHRA approved a roll-cage shroud in the 2011 preseason, then rescinded its approval with two races remaining in the season -- during a pivotal Countdown to the Championship event. Naturally, many were surprised at the timing of this latest approval, this canopy approval with just eight races left on the schedule.
Said Light, "I think we learn lessons on everything we experience. We have since 1951. We need to thoroughly research and if it means third parties, we will do so. I think it is a good common practice that you do due diligence on anything when you approve a new part."
Jim Oberhofer, vice-president of Kalitta Motorsports, is among those who have cocked an eyebrow at the timing of the approval. He neither has lambasted the canopy nor embraced it but has said, "The timing, that's the key to the whole thing. The timing was just not right."
That seems to be the consensus of the Top Fuel team owners.
Tony Schumacher, on the other hand, said he didn't like the timing of it, either -- he had wanted the NHRA to approve it by the start of the season-opening Winternationals.
He bristled at the notion that he voluntarily remove the canopy from his U.S. Army Dragster until it is available to the entire class, to any team that chooses to purchase one.
"Not a chance," Schumacher said. "Who would do that? No -- then I would end up getting hurt. We've been waiting every race all year to put it on. Everybody else could have had it sitting and waiting [NHRA approval]. Anybody could have ordered it. We told people. We showed people. So not chance, mostly because of this: We brought it out at West Palm [Beach, in preseason testing] and asked every team to come look at it. Nobody showed up. They could have bought it then and waited like we did.
"Allen Johnson has a set of heads on his car that nobody can get," Schumacher said. "They've got four sets of them. Cant get 'em but they're approved."
He disputed that the canopy is a high-ticket item that could strain budgets already burdened.
"It's not a high-ticket item," Schumacher said. "It's less than a set of [cylinder] heads. Gas is expensive. Funerals are expensive. If I win a championship, it's got nothing to do with that canopy, unless it psyches the other guy out."
Who will be psyched out or just which side will blink first remains as much a mystery as who will complete the Countdown fields of 10 at this weekend's U.S. Nationals -- or whether rain will delay the finish of the race that's scheduled for Labor Day.
For now, Schumacher has the canopy on his car, some teams are upset about that, and the NHRA so far isn't budging from its approval.
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