Volume X, Issue 4, Page 72

NEWS & ANALYSIS

Schumacher’s Fuelish Faux Pas

Get it in writing.

urely a brilliant businessman such as Don Schumacher won't appreciate hearing simple advice that certainly is nothing new. But every once in awhile, we all need reminders that miscommunication happens.

Something happened this past weekend during the SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Maybe it was a fuelish mistake on Schumacher's part. Perhaps it was selective memory on the part of Graham Light and Tom Compton, if we are to believe Schumacher's side of the story. Perhaps it was just the NHRA like other major motorsports sanctioning bodies have done in the past- demonstrating to a high-profile team and its owner that they aren't above their (the sanctioning body's) rules and discipline.

Let's call it Nitrogate.

Whatever went down, the National Hot Rod Association has imposed a $100,000 fine -- the largest fine ever levied In the 55 year life or the organization -- against Don Schumacher, owner of DSR racing the NHRA's largest multi-team operation, for illegal possession of too much illegal fuel.

Light, NHRA's senior vice-president of racing operations (who was kind enough to volunteer his perspective despite an NHRA Media Relations effort to keep him and the press from speaking), said the sanctioning body discovered the problem Saturday. He said NHRA officials saw that Don Schumacher Racing had four barrels of Pro Nitro brand nitromethane (VP Fuels is the only official nitro supplier) in its pit area at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On the face of it, that appears to be a violation of NHRA's rule that "only nitro methane from an NHRA-accepted supplier may be brought on the site or used on site at any NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series event.   . . . To be eligible for competition, fuel teams must use nitro methane from one of the accepted suppliers.   . . . Any participant who violates any rule regarding nitro methane shall be banned from competition at the applicable event or shall be subject to such other penalty deemed appropriate by NHRA."

Schumacher, like NHRA, does import nitromethane from China, but his brand -- Pro Nitro -- is not the sanctioning body's approved supplier. However, he claims that Light and Compton told him last month, just before the start of the Gatornationals that Pro Nitro is acceptable now.

"Based on verbal conversation between Tom Compton and myself and Graham Light and myself, " Schumacher said Sunday, his brand of nitro "is accepted nitro to be utilized at NHRA events." He said VP, the official supplier, even had distributed a container of his brand to racers at an NHRA national event earlier this season.

Light maintained that Schumacher is, indeed in violation of the rule.

"Our officials detected four drums of nitro methane in possession of Don Schumacher Racing that were clearly not from the official supplier," Light said. "Given the nature of this product, serious fines had to be levied for such a violation."

The NHRA Media Relations Department issued a statement attributed to no one that said, in full, "NHRA determined that Don Schumacher Racing committed a fuel violation prior to eliminations on Sunday. Schumacher Racing has been fined $100,000 for possessing nitromethane fuel in its professional pit, clearly in violation of the fuel regulations as detailed on Pg. 64 of the 2008 NHRA Rule Book. NHRA has a strict policy regarding possession of nitromethane at events and takes its responsibility as stewards of this fuel and the sport very seriously. We will not tolerate inappropriate possession of this fuel and will take swift and significant action with teams that don’t comply with the rules."

The rule their release referred to can be found on "Pg. 64" of the official NHRA rule book which NHRA does make readily available to the media. No one claimed credit for the press release which provoked more questions than it answered, and it was vague in identifying the initial issue. So the Media Relations Department really shouldn't have been so disturbed or surprised when the roomful of reporters at the Las Vegas race wanted more information from both sides.
   
Enough of the media. Schumacher said in a prepared statement to the press a the time that he will appeal the fine.

At issue are four barrels of nitro that the team left behind from testing last fall. DSR teams planned to remain at Las Vegas following the event to test and wanted to use the remaining nitromethane.

"We had brought nitro to test with last October. That's where this fuel has come from.  We brought it back to the pit so we can test with it," Schumacher said. 

Light said he had no evidence that any of DSR's two dragsters and/or four Funny Cars or the PS bike actually used the nitro from the drums in question. He said he spoke with several DSR employees about the subject but received a variety of answers.

Cory McClenathan, who advanced through the Top Fuel field to win the $40,000 race Sunday while this latest controversy churned, said he knew few details of the incident. But he said, "Don Schumacher has always done the right thing, and he will again."

Although he said the matter was "Don's deal with NHRA, not mine," he pledged to do whatever he might be asked to do to help solve the problem. "It's a tough deal when it comes to nitro," McClenathan said. "We only want whatever's safe for everyone. They'll work it out one way or another. They have a good relationship back and forth."

Referring to Timothy McVey's bombing of the federal building at Oklahoma City, McClenathan said, "Ever since Oklahoma, I understand why everybody is up in arms about it. Nitromethane can be a volatile fuel."

Schumacher said, "Homeland Security has put a program in place that anybody can possess nitromethane, but if anybody has more than 400 pounds of nitromethane, which is approximately 42 gallons, you must be top- screened. Don Schumacher Racing is the only team that I am aware of that is top screened -- at my facility in Brownsburg, Indiana, and at every NHRA facility. I am not violating Homeland Security regs in any way at all. I have been top screened because of Pro Nitro. I follow the laws."

In the end, McClenathan said, "We'll work within the boundaries. Don will do his appeal. He'll take care of his end, and I'll take care of mine.”

 Whatever transpires, remember to get it in writing.