Safety canopy merits fast approval

Sometimes you're the windshield. Sometimes you're the bug.

Most times, in the NHRA Full Throttle Series, you don't want to be either.

"I had a bug hit my windshield before," said Antron Brown, the defending Top Fuel Dragster champion of the NHRA Nationals, the nitromethane festival of speed and halter tops running through SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Strip.

"It splattered all over the place, and it actually put a crack in (the windshield)."

When you hit a beetle -- or even a Beetle -- traveling at 325 mph, the little buggers do tend to splatter.

But what if that bug had been a sparrow? Or a supercharger that had fallen off the car in the other lane? What if it had missed the windshield and conked Brown on the helmet?

Last October, exactly two left-hand turns from where the NHRA guys were making qualifying runs Friday, Dan Wheldon was killed. A car driven by the reigning Indy 500 champion flipped and hit the wall at the superspeedway, exposed cockpit side first.

This is why the Don Schumacher Racing team for which Brown drives wants some enclosure. It wants to put a canopy over the cockpit to further protect the drivers of its dragsters.

It's not that the cars aren't safe. On the contrary, they are probably safer than ever before.

Still, accidents happen. Or it wouldn't be auto racing.

In recent years, two Top Fuel drivers -- Blaine Johnson in 1996 and Darrell Russell in 2004 -- have perished behind the wheel. Funny Car also has had two fatalities -- Eric Medlen in 2007 and Scott Kalitta in 2008.

Of these cruelest of fates, only Russell's was attributed to flying debris.

But the risk is always there. A tire blows, an engine blows, a drive train blows. A car flips, or gets upside down. Then it's usually up to the racing gods.

"Our cars aren't always going to stay sunny-side up, you know what I mean?" Brown says.

Schumacher has been a safety innovator, having driven Funny Cars and developed the escape hatch for the men who drive them, when too many were getting burned in fires in the 1970s.

In January, Schumacher's son, Tony, and Brown tested the second adaptation of the protective bonnet at Palm Beach International Raceway in Florida. Tony Schumacher's top speed was 324.28 mph at an elapsed time of 3.761 seconds.

Pretty darn fast. Pretty darn safe.

But not all the drivers agree with the latter assessment.

Morgan Lucas, whose father's name is on the front of the stadium in Indianapolis where they played the most recent Super Bowl, said the canopy the DSR team wants to implement does not totally envelop the cockpit. There's a small gap behind the driver, Lucas says, exposing him to the volatile and often temperamental 500 cubic-inch Hemi engines.

Fire could get in there. And Lucas fears if he were enclosed in a protective bubble, it might be harder to get out of the heat.

"If I'm going to drive something with a full capsule around me, I'm just going to get into a Funny Car," Lucas said. "In a Funny Car, at least I can kick the window out."

While lauding the Schumacher team for developing the canopy, Lucas also questions whether the Kevlar and carbon fiber accessory inspired by hydroplane boat racing was truly designed to keep all drivers safe, or just to provide one or two with an aerodynamic edge.

Schumacher's team, which has extended an open invitation to the competition to inspect the canopy, was eager to debut it at the season-opening Winternationals in February. The NHRA wants to take a closer look before granting its approval.

Or not granting it.

Graham Light, NHRA's senior vice president of racing operations, said the sanctioning body does want to trade additional protection for the dragster drivers for more limited access to the cockpit in the event of an incident. This is the scenario that worries Lucas, and one that Light says will require additional study.

There also is a concern about saddling the teams who want to use the canopy with an additional cost during a lean economy.

"Sometimes the cure turns out to be worse than the disease, and that's not a path we want to go down," Light said, which might be interpreted as a less-than-ringing endorsement of the canopy, or me just reading too much into it.

Anyway, on Thursday, I was sitting across the table at Smith & Wollensky's from Antron Brown's wife, Billie Jo. She went down a list of reasons the NHRA should allow its teams to use the protective canopies sooner rather than later.

Then she mentioned her and Antron's three children, Arienna Celeste, Anson and Adler, which, to an outsider, seemed like the best reasons of all.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.