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The lessons of Antron Brown

February 18, 2013

ImageThe canopy of the Matco Tools/Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel car likely saved Antron Brown’s life (Anne Proffit photo)


If there were any doubt that racing is a cruel sport, one only had to watch today’s eliminations for the NHRA Winternationals on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip.

Everything was fairly normal during the first round but changed dramatically when the third set of Top Fuel drivers set out to battle for 1000 feet in the second round of eliminations.

2012 Top Fuel champion Antron Brown was racing against David Grubnic, from the right lane. Just before crossing the finish line a winner he lost the No. 7 cylinder on his Don Schumacher Racing 8000-horsepower engine failed and this resulted in a ball of fire that destroyed the race car and sent it and passenger Brown careening from one side of the Pomona racetrack to the other, eventually ending up in the sand pits that stop cars from joining the residential neighborhood that abuts the circuit.

Brown’s crash on this session-winning pass (3.848/308.64) down the strip was horrendous when viewed in person, in photos and in video captured by television and shooters at the scene. It showed one thing for sure. That $15,000 canopy that’s being used on all three Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel cars and also on rookie Brittany Force’s rail is well worth the expense, the time and even the addition of up to 30 pounds in weight.

The canopy did its job then, just as it did earlier in the weekend when teammate Tony Schumacher’s parachutes deployed late and sent him into the sandtrap. It kept both drivers safe and able to walk away from their incidents, with minuscule amounts of sand inside the cockpit. Schumacher’s car didn’t need any repairs but Brown’s is, no doubt on its way to the scrap heap after being pored over to understand the metallic messages from his big shunt.

As for Brown, he was grateful for the proximity of NHRA’s crack Safety Safari, who were working to right the capsule almost before it stopped in the middle of this man-made beach. The emergency medical team pronounced him cleared to drive but since the car was junk, Brown was done for the day (in drag racing the car is qualified and can’t be replaced). An interesting anecdote to that is that Schumacher advanced to the finals on the merits of his solo semifinal run, which wasn’t anything to write home about at a snarky, tire-smoking 6.465 seconds at nearly 97 mph. He lost in the finals to Shawn Langdon, who drives for Al-Anabi Racing.

Brown’s accident took the wind out of the event’s sails and needed more than an hour and eight minutes to repair the walls that he cracked with his car’s motive wrath.

There’s been a lot of negative publicity about the Mike Green (Schumacher’s crew chief) and Aerodine-designed and constructed Top Fuel canopy. It’s too expensive, people said – and that might be true if you’re spending your last dollar on pistons and con rods – and it’s too restrictive? It’s got a competitive advantage? Well, dismiss the last part because the aerodynamics of the thing are negated by its added weight. Added poundage, as we all know, is a racer’s big enemy.

Before the race I checked with Antron on weight. With all of his gear, ready to race he weighs 170 lbs, about 25 of that being equipment and the balance being his body weight. Don Schumacher Racing has its deals with certain suppliers but other teams in the NHRA paddock have been embracing equipment from Stand 21 that is lighter, more resilient and as safe or safer than what’s available from the other suppliers.

I also talked with Bob Vandergriff who, when he won his first Top Fuel race at Dallas in 2011 ran back down the very hot strip fully dressed to greet his crew. He was wearing Stand 21 then and continues to wear it now. He told me the flexibility of the suit, its lighter weight and ability to withstand heat and fire made it the right equipment to purchase. (Where other manufacturers give away their equipment, Stand 21 never gives away its suits, underwear, gloves, helmets, etc. They have to be purchased by the end user.)

Shawn Langdon won Sunday’s season opener. He’s been wearing Stand 21 since joining Al-Anabi Racing last year (Anne Proffit photo)

At this point I’ve seen the Top Fuel Al-Anabi team, Morgan Lucas Racing, Bob Vandergriff Racing and Kalitta Motorsports embrace Stand 21 products. Others may use it but I’ve seen this evidence. With the weight savings, couldn’t these teams think about protecting their drivers even further with the canopy? It seems a no-brainer to me.

Watching Antron Brown emerge from his stricken race car told the whole story: “I was able to take my seat belt off and get out of the car,” he said. “I have a couple of little brush-burns on my knee a little bit. But besides that, I’m good to go. That capsule did its job. Thank God, man.”

Brown expects to be racing this coming weekend in Arizona, albeit with a different car and engine, obviously. But he is without serious injury from a frightening crash that could have ended his life sans the safety structure of the canopy. Maybe sometime soon Don Schumacher will realize he needs to look at his clothing affiliations, too, and adopt the best for his seven-car team. It’ll ease some of the pain of that 30-pound weight disadvantage of the canopy for the three Top Fuel entries and allow his tuners to be less aggressive on their clutch setups.

By Anne Proffit

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  1. Wow, you do take “us” there!

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