NOT EVERYONE IS CONVINCED CANOPY IS TOTALLY SAFE

Written by Susan Wade.

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antron 06TEAMS TAKE STAND FOR STAND 21, MOST PROTECTIVE CLOTHING 

Two prominent Top Fuel safety proponents have indicated that the once-again-controversial cockpit canopy ought not to be the first line of defense for a driver.

They're Jim Oberhofer, Vice-President of Kalitta Motorsports and crew chief for driver Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools Dragster, and Bob Vandergriff, team owner of a three-car operation and driver of the C&J Energy Services Dragster. And both said outfitting a driver with the most protective apparel and safety equipment is a far greater priority. 

"If they're really concerned about safety," Oberhofer said of his pro-cockpit colleagues, "then wear some good frickin' helmets and good fire suits and buy the best you can buy, if that's what we're talkin' about. 

"I feel safer by buying my drivers Stand 21 helmets and fire suits," he said. "In my opinion, if you’re talking about safety and you want to make everything the best, well, then put the drivers in adequate apparel, because that is by far the best helmet and firesuit.

"Make sure your drivers are in the best possible stuff," he said. "We spend a lot of money. We're not looking for free [stuff]. We're looking for what's best." 

Vandergriff, too, said his primary concern is what the driver is wearing. He, teammate Clay Millican (who drives the Parts Plus Dragster), and part-time teammate J.R. Todd all wear Stand 21 equipment from head to toe. Vandergriff endorsed the Talant, France-based company's "helmet, firesuit, underwear, socks, shoes, gloves, liners under our gloves -- everything they make, everything that we can actually, physically wear."

He said, "We're changing Clay's stuff to Stand 21, because I think it's a better product. If he's going to work for me, he's going to have the best stuff. We value the safety aspects of it."

Stand 21 offers custom-designed, scientifically advanced safety racing equipment produced in its own factories and superior customer service. It works with prominent medical professionals and engineers, trying to integrate the most up-to-date research to improve every product. Its clients race in Formula 1, the IZOD IndyCar Series, sports car racing, and other motorsports series worldwide.

Yves Morizot, founder and president of Stand 21, dedicated his career four decades ago to motorsports safety after witnessing a fire on the racetrack as a spectator. At that time, he was a baker by trade. But he's not in this racing safety business for the dough. 

Abder Amokrane, Stand 21's U.S. advisor, said the company partners only with racers and teams who share the company's commitment to a high standard. "If it's not the right business model for us we turn it down. We do not bargain with safety," he said.

Neither does Stand 21 use mass production. That's just not part of its DNA. "We just do custom. Our business model is that everything is under our control: research, development, manufacturing. We don't have any subcontractors. Even the embroidery is done in-house. We control everything, so we know what's going on," Amokrane said.

Vandergriff also had the technicians from Schroth [pronounced SHROTE] Safety Products redesign the cockpits. They changed the mounting points for the seat belts, equipping him with a nine-point harness that positions over his HANS device.

"We look at everything we can, as far as the safety stuff," he said.

As far as Brown's crash that triggered this latest round of discussion about the merits of the canopy, Oberhofer said, "I think he was just hanging on for dear life." Brown described for reporters the split-second thoughts that pinballed inside his head in the wreck that spun, sling-shotted, and banged him around for probably no more than 10 seconds and left him pinned in the car in the Pomona sand trap.

Oberhofer said, "Thank God he was able to walk away from it" and "The key to the whole thing right now is to find out what happened . . . and learn from it." 

At least those are statements with which everybody can agree. - Susan Wade
Antron Brown gushed after his wicked Top Fuel accident at the Winternationals that the cockpit canopy "definitely made me feel a lot safer." He figured that the fact he is "here to talk about it" means the canopy is a lifesaver.

Tony Schumacher, the device's most vocal and sincere proponent from the start of the project, ended up in the sand trap at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. That neither he nor his car was worse for the wear, he indicated, was a sign the canopy is worth the struggle to produce it and get it approved.

"You almost get a false sense of security," Schumacher said of using the canopy. "Had I not had it on there, I would've been covered in dust, and my helmet would've been destroyed because of all the rocks coming in there from the sand trap. I'll say it 1,000 times: I would not want to drive the car without it. I don't know why everyone doesn't have it.

"After being through what all I've been through in my career, I really appreciate the guys on my team and my dad spending the money and the time to make us safer. We want to stay ahead of the game in the attempt to make everything safer."

But after reviewing video replays of Brown wreck at Pomona, a few of Schumacher's colleagues would argue that Schumacher might be sincere -- but that he's sincerely wrong.

Two Top Fuel leaders -- Kalitta Motorsports  Vice-President / crew chief Jim Oberhofer and team owner-driver Bob Vandergriff -- were outspoken this past weekend at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix.

"From looking at it, I think there's a lot of unanswered questions," Vandergriff said.

"Obviously there's a plus and a minus to everything. It looks like it kept things out of the cockpit. That's a good thing. If there were any obstacles, debris, or anything that could have come in there and hit [the driver], that's the plus side of it," he said. "The minus side of it is we did see fire in it. That was part of the thing behind it, that it wasn't supposed to allow fire in there. In that kind of an accident, where everything gets beat up and changed and moved, obviously it created a way for fire to get in there.

"The concern I would have," Vandergriff said, "is if there had been a broken fuel line or something that was spraying fuel in that thing while it was on fire and he was underneath that glass, it might have turned it into a microwave oven for him. Then the fact that he was upside down on his side, they couldn't get the canopy open. They had to pry the thing to get him out."

With Brown car pinned on its side, he said, "We saw the guy having to yank it and move it and lift it and pull it to get that thing open for him to get out of there. My concern is what if he had been on fire and he had been in an area that was contained? There would have been nowhere for that fire to go but around him."

Vandergriff said he's "not an engineer and I certainly don't want to say anything that's uneducated about that, but it just appears to me that there are some negatives that came from that, as well as the positives. . If we were convinced that the capsule -- or the canopy or whatever you want to call it -- is a better thing, then we'd do it. I'm just not convinced at this point that it is."

He said he'd "like to see more information about that, about saving his life. Everybody was quick to credit it. I think that was way jumping the gun. We've seen those kind of crashes without it and the guys get out of it, as well. So the canopy, in my opinion, didn't do anything more or less in that situation."

Extracting Brown from the car and seeing the fire in the cockpit were the two issues that disturb Oberhofer, as well.

"There's some things about that thing that concern me," Oberhofer said. "I'm not saying that our car [the Mac Tools Dragster that Doug Kalitta drives], what we currently have, that we couldn't make it better. I'm sure we can. We're still exploring."

However, he said that with Brown crash at Pomona "it looked like they [Safety Safari] were having some issues getting him out, opening the canopy. The other thing, too, is there are quite a bit of pictures where there are flames inside of that thing.

"I'm not saying it's a bad thing," he said, "but I'm not going to sit here and say if our car was in the same situation I'm 100-percent positive Doug would have walked away from that just as well."

Oberhofer said dozens of fans have asked, "When are you going to put that canopy on?"

His answer: "Well, we're not."

Doug Kalitta still was at the top end of the track after losing to Khalid al Balooshi in the second round at Pomona, and he got a closer look than some at Brown car after that next pairing between Brown and his own teammate, Dave Grubnic. Oberhofer said Kalitta returned to the pits and told him "he doesn't ever want one of those things on his car."

Said Oberhofer of the Don Schumacher Racing team, "If them guys feel safer in it, more power to 'em. If them guys think it's a better deal, that's great. I got no problem with that.

"The main thing is that Antron is OK. He's a good guy, and I'm glad he didn't get hurt," he said. "I'm glad Grubby smoked the tires, because it could have been a lot uglier than what it was. If Antron feels safer and his family thinks he's safe, that's the only thing that matters. I know Doug sees it from a different side of things. He just came back and said, 'I don't want it on my car.' Doug feels safe in his car, and I feel Doug's safe."

Oberhofer said conversations with race-team owner and aviation expert Connie Kalitta have convinced him that the canopy, depending on the situation, could be no match for a freak accident.

He said Connie Kalitta told him stories about "birds coming through three-quarter-inch-thick windshields on airplanes that are taking off at 300 miles an hour. He was telling me a story about many years ago when a Lear Jet took off out of Detroit Metro or Willow Run and a bird came through a three-quarter-inch-thick windshield and decapitated the captain. He [Kalitta] wasn't sure how big this bird was, but it did some damage.

"So for somebody to think that a half-inch-thick windshield with these cars going fast is going to actually stop something from coming through, he said, 'I don't see it happening.' These airplanes have much thicker windshields than what that canopy has," Oberhofer said.

Brittany Force Castrol Edge Dragster and the third DSR dragster are the only other cars to carry the canopy. Force said she can be a bit claustrophobic but said she got used to it: "It's already so tight with the gear you're wearing, the helmet, all that extra padding, the seat that's formed right for your body. It was nice having that open cockpit. When they told me they were putting that on, I was like, 'Oh, no.' I was a little worried about it. Once I made a few passes using the canopy, just for safety reasons, having that around you, it feels more comfortable. I think it would be hard to go back without the canopy."

Vandergriff doesn't share her comfort level. "There's a lot of questions in my mind. At this point I'm still up in the air on whether it's a good thing. Obviously I see some of the benefits of it. But I also see some of the concerns I've had since the inception of it. In certain situations it could be beneficial, but with different kinds of accidents you see some of the deficiencies or some of the problems it could cause," he said.

Vandergriff said he had reserved judgment until everyone saw the canopy in action. But now that everyone has, he said, "I think we still have questions about yeah, it was good on some ends but I think there's some pretty serious negatives that we saw from it, as well.

"The Funny Car, with a body, at least they have a hatch they can climb through. Unfortunately, in our cars we don't have the ability to do that. There's one way out," he said. "And if he's stuck upside down and that thing's on fire, he's in a microwave oven and can't get out."

The Schumacher mishap because of a parachute malfunction and the Brown crash are totally different sets of circumstances. Clearly, both Schumacher and Brown have concluded that the canopy is desirable.

Schumacher challenged any driver who doesn't want to use a canopy: "A lot of the guys say they don't want to, for whatever reason – 'Oh, I don't want to catch on fire,' or whatever the reason. Hey, it's a Top Fuel Dragster. It's going 330 mph. You might catch on fire. If you have a fear of that, pick another job."

So the debate will continue.

 

 

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