Fireworks galore in NHRA opener

A day before Danica Patrick made history by winning pole position for the Daytona 500, Courtney Force earned fastest qualifier honors at the 53rd annual O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

Force then set the bar higher on Sunday by going on to win the Funny Car class in the NHRA's traditional season opener, the first of 24 events on this year's Mello Yello Drag Racing Series slate.

From the third No. 1 qualifying slot of her career, Force drove her Traxxas Ford Mustang to an event-best 4.025-second (317.12 mph) pass in the finals that bested Ron Capps' NAPA Dodge Charger to earn her second career victory.

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Antron Brown credits the enclosed canopy on his rail dragster for protecting him during this fiery pass at Auto Club Raceway on Sunday.

"We had a good hot rod and we had a good day," Force said after defeating Phil Burkhart Jr., Matt Hagan, Bob Tasca III and Capps on her way to the event win. "It's pretty surreal and crazy that we went to the top spot and I'm leaving here in the points lead. That's just crazy to me, and it's exciting to be out here at my home track. My friends are all out here so I get to celebrate in the winner's circle with them."

But the talking point in the aftermath of the NHRA 2013 opener was Antron Brown's scary crash -- and the fact that the defending Top Fuel champion walked away from his canopy-equipped rail dragster.

Brown had already crossed the line timed at 308.64 mph to win his second-round matchup against David Grubnic when an exploding engine pitched Brown's Matco Tools-sponsored machine into a scary ride.

A fiery explosion destroyed the car's rear tires and wing and the car slid backward into a hard impact with the wall in Grubnic's lane. It slid several hundred yards more on its side before coming to a stop in the sand trap at the end of the pavement.

"When it blew up, I felt the back end come up and all I remember was going over on my side," Brown related. "And then I remember pulling the brakes and everything else and I couldn't do anything else.

"I remember turning the fresh air on because the [nitro] fumes were getting to me. Thank God that canopy is on our car because when we hit that sand trap it really kept everything away from me, and kept the fire away from me."

The NHRA Safety Safari arrived at the car within seconds and had no trouble opening the protective canopy -- similar to that on a fighter jet -- which made its debut in late 2012 on Tony Schumacher's Top Fuel car, which like Brown's is run by Don Schumacher Racing.

Viewed as a significant safety advance for rail dragsters, the canopy performed well in crash testing, but it had never been involved in a significant real-world accident until Sunday.

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No one was more excited than Courtney Force after the Funny Car final at Pomona -- well, other than papa John Force.

"We're going to have to go back, obviously, and look at the crash up close, but I think it's miraculous," remarked Tony Schumacher in an interview during the ESPN2 broadcast. "It stayed intact. I don't know if they have theirs sealed like we have ours sealed, so I'm not sure what happened there.

"But he got out of the car and that was a horrific crash. … When you start getting your head close to that guardrail, you want to be enclosed. I'll guarantee you he's going to get out and thank God for all the work Aerodine Composites did and all the work our guys did to develop that canopy. That thing just did an amazing job and a guy walked away from an incredible crash."

Brown was taken to the track's on-site medical center, where he was checked and released.

"I've got some scrapes on my legs and my back is a little sore, but overall I feel good," Brown told media about an hour after the accident. "The best feeling was seeing how quickly the NHRA Safety Safari got to my car after it stopped.

"The windshield is five-eighths of an inch thick," he added. "When I hit the sand trap, I saw stones flying all over the place, but I didn't get dusty, nothing got into me. It really, really did its job. I'm just grateful we had that thing on our car because I don't know what would have happened if we would've had [the old-style, open-cockpit] setup on the front of the car. The car did its job and we'll be ready for Phoenix."

When action resumed after an 86-minute delay to clean up the debris from Brown's accident, Shawn Langdon drove his Al-Anabi Racing entry to victory over Schumacher in Top Fuel in the best final race of the day. Langdon carded 3.721 seconds/322.27 mph to defeat Schumacher's pass of 3.747 seconds/324.12 mph.

"Couldn't have scripted it any better really," Langdon said. "We struggled a little in qualifying. We didn't really have the car that we thought we should have had, but we qualified seventh. We knew the things we learned in testing that we had a car capable of winning. It showed today."

Vincent Nobile claimed Pro Stock honors, clocking 6.571 seconds/211.03 mph to defeat Jeg Coughlin, who triggered a red light foul in the JEG's Dodge Avenger.

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