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Schumacher wants enclosed canopies

Tony Schumacher raised eyebrows when he recorded the fastest speeds and times at last month's test session in West Palm Beach, Fla. Some competitors fear an enclosed cockpit gives him an aero edge. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

Seven-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher will go to Pomona, Calif., this weekend for the season opener missing one thing on his Army dragster that he really wants -- a hard top.

Schumacher hoped to debut a state-of-the-art enclosed canopy on his dragster, a safety advancement that could revolutionize the sport.

It's long overdue, but NHRA officials are saying, "Not so fast." And some rival Top Fuel teams fear that the enclosure gives the Army team an aerodynamic advantage.

"This isn't about performance. This is about safety," Schumacher said. "I want every driver to have one. We aren't hiding anything. Everything we're doing is for the better of everybody.

"It's a no-brainer. I'm going to show up in Pomona and not be allowed to use it. I'm not comfortable without it, but it has to be approved. I understand that. I just hope they do it quickly. I feel safer in it. So let everybody have it. Do whatever, but keep me safe. That's it. That's all I ask for."

Glen Gray, the NHRA's vice president of technical operations, is listening. He hopes to expedite the approval process, but a lot of things must be tested and evaluated first. He won't put a timetable on it, but he hopes it will happen this season.

"We have a process we use on anything new submitted by our teams," Gray said. "I'm all for any safety advancements. But as an engineer, we have to see what the data tells us. We have to go through our due diligence."

Gray attended last month's test session in West Palm Beach, Fla., where Don Schumacher Racing used the canopy on Tony Schumacher's dragster. He had the best speeds and times of the session (3.761 seconds at 324.28 mph), which led to complaints about the enclosure from other teams.

"I know we caught some flak," Schumacher said. "I'm not asking for an advantage. The canopy doesn't make us go faster."

Mike Green, Schumacher's crew chief, said they never tested the canopy for aero purposes.

"These complaints are ridiculous to me," Green said. "We had a conference call with NHRA officials this week to talk about it. I told them, if anyone thinks it's an advantage, then let us just put a wicker [bill] in front of it. We just want to run it because Tony feels safer with it."

An enclosed canopy is not a new concept for NHRA dragsters. NHRA legend Don Garlits used a type of enclosure 30 years ago, although it was a primitive design compared to the one DSR has now.

"Garlits put on an aerodynamic windshield," Schumacher said. "That thing was thin plastic. This is bulletproof. This is meant to keep pieces of crashing cars out of your cockpit."

Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell was killed in 2004 when a part of his car hit his helmet. Safety advancements followed to cover the roll cage around the helmet, but Schumacher feels it's not enough.

"I remember twice when my front wing hit birds at 300 mph," Schumacher said. "If those birds would have hit my helmet, I probably wouldn't be here today."

DSR has spent close to a year perfecting the enclosure, which is being refined and produced by Aerodine Composites. The current design is a second generation that is lighter (about 25 pounds) and less expensive (less than $15,000).

Gray said the NHRA needs all the design specs on the canopy before making a decision on approval. The NHRA also plans to use an independent group, possibly Purdue University, to test the aerodynamics of the canopy. NHRA Safety Safari officials will look at the enclosure this weekend at Pomona to make sure it can be easily opened to extract a driver in case of a fire.

Schumacher said all those scenarios, including air pressure in the canopy, have been considered. The enclosure actually is a section of the car's body sheet that fits over the driver compartment. The canopy, which is made of Kevlar and carbon fiber, can be opened from inside or outside.

Schumacher actually approaches the starting line with the canopy open. It is closed before staging.

Schumacher also believes that this type of canopy should be considered by the IndyCar Series in response to Dan Wheldon's death in October at Las Vegas.

"Would Wheldon have been safer with it? I would bet by far, yes,'' Schumacher said. "But it's a bet.

The fact is I feel safer under it. When I sit in this car with the canopy, I have a level of comfort that I haven't had in a long time. Every driver should have that feeling. I've lost some good friends out here and don't want to lose any more.

-- Tony Schumacher

"Unless we throw it out of an airplane and see what happens, we're not going to know until someone is upside down. You can't fake-crash it. You can't throw it out of a truck at 300 miles per hour. There are certain things you can't test until something happens."

Schumacher emphasized that DSR won't make a dime off the canopy if other teams opt to use it.

"My dad [DSR team owner Don Schumacher] spent a lot of money to develop this," Schumacher said. "But Aerodine is going to sell it. They don't cost any more than three [cylinder] heads on a car. We're going to burn those off in a couple of races. This thing is here to protect people. They're safe. That's it."

Don Schumacher, a former Funny Car driver, helped develop the escape hatch now used on the roof of Funny Cars. He believes that this canopy will become a major safety improvement for dragsters.

"I want to make these cars as safe as they can be, and not just for Tony," Don said. "The canopy takes safety in Top Fuel to a much higher level. It's just the right thing to do. I truly believe this creates a safer environment in the race car.

"But we have to go through the proper channels with the NHRA, and we understand their position. I think it will be a few weeks while they gather data on it. If they want us to take it to a wind tunnel, we'll gladly do so. We let all the teams at West Palm examine it. We let drivers get in it if they wanted."

If aero tests show the enclosure is a performance advantage, NHRA officials have to make sure the canopy is readily available to other teams.

Obviously, adding weight to a dragster is a performance disadvantage, so any aero advantage could be a wash.

Green hopes NHRA officials approach the approval process with genuine excitement about a major safety enhancement.

"I want them to embrace the concept," Green said. "Take it and run with it. Don't look at it as a hassle they have to deal with. Along with the safety aspect, it's something that can sell tickets because it's new and it's a pretty cool thing for fans to see."

That coolness factor doesn't matter to Tony Schumacher, a man who has had his share of terrifying crashes over the years.

"I wouldn't care if [the canopy] were ugly," he said. "The fact is I feel safer under it. When I sit in this car with the canopy, I have a level of comfort that I haven't had in a long time. Every driver should have that feeling. I've lost some good friends out here and don't want to lose any more."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.