Drivers Buzzing about Running Four-Wide at zMAX Dragway
Perhaps NHRA president Tom Compton said it best at the official announcement on Jan. 21, when he told everyone in attendance, "Once again, the NHRA is making history at zMAX Dragway. It's certainly going to be spectacular to see."
Compton was making reference to the new format that he, alongside Speedway Motorsports Chairman Bruton Smith, announced for the inaugural NHRA Four-Wide Nationals March 25-28 at the Bellagio of drag strips. For the first time in NHRA history, all four professional classes will race four-wide for all qualifying sessions and eliminations.
The announcement created a buzz like never before among NHRA drivers who were quick to respond with excitement and anticipation for what promises to be a landmark event.
"We've got to grow," said 14-time NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion John Force. "Like Obama says, we've got to have change.
"It's going to be exciting. You're talking over 30,000 horsepower at one time. You're talking over 1,200 mph out there on that race track."
Force participated in the first modern day, four-wide exhibition race at the second annual NHRA Carolinas Nationals last September at zMAX Dragway. Mike Neff, Force's teammate, won the exhibition, but it was Force who couldn't contain himself in the media center after the race.
"Let me tell you, I embarrassed myself at the press conference," Force continued. "We came right back in to talk about what had taken place. When I drove this four-lane race, I ran in here and I was like Tom Cruise on Oprah, jumping up and down, screaming. Everyone said, 'He went nuts,' because it was that exciting and thrilling."
Fellow Funny Car competitor and 2003 U.S. Nationals champion Tim Wilkerson also participated in the four-wide exhibition and echoes Force's excitement looking ahead to the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
"The whole thing was a gigantic hit with the fans, and it was fun to be a part of it," Wilkerson said. "Side-by-side Funny Car racing is pretty impressive on any track, but going four-wide just doubles everything up, and it's kind of hard to believe. Maybe somebody ought to talk to Doublemint gum about this. You know the old slogan, ‘Double your pleasure, double your fun.' This is going to be a pretty historic deal, and it's just another example of how innovative Bruton Smith is, when it comes to promoting the sport."
When the Top Fuel dragsters went four wide in September, one of NHRA's brightest stars, Antron Brown, turned in a surprisingly competitive pass from lane four, one of the lanes that wasn't used during regular competition. Brown, who now drives the Matco Tools Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing also shares the sentiment of his nitro methane brethren.
"When we go to zMAX Dragway and NHRA gets there and lines everything out, they will take all the variables out," Brown said. "This is just going to be another challenge along the road as we try to get to the Countdown. I never saw the day coming that we would have four-wide drag racing, but I'm glad to be a part of it. This is definitely going to take our sport to the next level."
Top Fuel pilot Doug Herbert had a strong showing last year in the NHRA Carolinas Nationals and brought his dragster down to zMAX Dragway to participate in the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals announcement two weeks ago. The Cornelius, N.C., resident is genuinely excited about having such a monumental event at his home track.
"I think it's awesome the NHRA is going to run four-wide," said Herbert. "They've been doing the same thing for a long time and this is really different. I'm glad we're getting the chance to do it right here in Charlotte at the best drag strip in the whole world."
Defending NHRA Carolinas Nationals Top Fuel champion Cory McClenathan wasn't able to participate in the four-wide exhibition in September because he was too busy winning the event, but the NHRA veteran is looking forward to the adrenaline rush he's sure to feel in March.
"We knew when Bruton built zMAX Dragway this was going to happen," McClenathan said. "I think a lot of people were thinking we would qualify four-wide and then race a normal 16-car deal on Sunday. It was a little bit of surprise to me to how they're going to do the race on Sunday and I think for fans, it's going to be unreal. For drivers, I think the biggest thing is the staging process is going to be a little bit tough. These cars are temperamental and it's going to be interesting to see how the staging process is going to be handled.
"The qualifying is going to be pretty crazy and interesting. We're there to put a show on and obviously everybody wants to win the race. If I could be in the final round and be the first one to cross the finish line-that would be more than cool. I think the roar of three other dragsters, when you're in your own car, is going to be a real rush."
While fans got a taste of four-wide drag racing from the nitro ranks in September, the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals will be the first opportunity for Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycles to run four-wide down the Bellagio of drag strips.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. drove his Pro Stock machine through the ribbon during the official ribbon cutting ceremony at zMAX Dragway in August 2008. The five-time NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Pro Stock champion was overjoyed with the news of Pro Stocks going four-wide in March.
"I am excited to run four lanes wide," Coughlin said. "It will create a lot of excitement for the fans at zMAX Dragway. I want to applaud NHRA and its competition department for making Bruton Smith's vision a reality.
"When I first saw the renderings of the facility and took a tour when it was under construction, it was fun to imagine four cars running side-by-side. Now we will get to see it and live it. I am sure it will be some of the most exciting drag racing we have ever experienced. This is exactly why Bruton built zMAX Dragway."
Fellow Pro Stock competitors, Greg Anderson and Jason Line, from Mooresville, N.C.-based KB Racing, also were excited to here the news.
"The Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway promises to be a spectacle unlike any other in the sport of drag racing, and it will be interesting to see the fans' reaction," said Line, 2006 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Pro Stock champion.
"It should be particularly exciting in Pro Stock, where our races are often decided by ten-thousandths of a second. One of the biggest challenges for the drivers will be simply being able to see the staging bulbs for all four cars, especially if you're in the lane where you have to look around the hood scoop. Lane choice also promises to be more important than ever, especially considering we'll only get one run in each lane during qualifying."
Three-time NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Pro Stock champion and Summit Racing teammate Anderson recognizes some of the challenges, but is working to alleviate some of those issues and is hoping to put his name in the record books in March.
"There's the matter of timing and scoring, and since the announcement, I've been in contact with the folks over at CompuLink (who are in charge of the NHRA's timing and scoring), providing whatever input I can to help them design a viable solution," said Concord, N.C., resident Anderson.
"They not only have to find a way to effectively stage four cars, but also have to determine the finishing order at the top end with competitors often separated by just a few thousandths of a second.
"However, knowing Bruton Smith and his staff, I'm confident they'll find a way to get it done. I'm certainly going in with an open mind and am ready to accept the challenge. After all, everyone will be gunning to be the first to win a four-wide competition, and we're going to do whatever we can to make sure it's one of our Summit Racing Pontiacs."
Pro Stock Motorcycles are generally the tightest of all professional categories. The close races place an even greater emphasis in getting off the line first, which in turn makes red-lighting a frequent occurrence.
Steve Johnson became the first PSM rider to win at zMAX Dragway in the inaugural NHRA Carolinas Nationals in 2008, and he can't wait to be in the middle lanes when the motorcycles go four-wide on the concrete quarter-mile.
"I, for one, am happy that our sport is trying new things and that the NHRA is a forward-thinking company," said Johnson. "Bruton Smith is revolutionizing drag racing with his facility in Charlotte. It's no longer drag racing, it's drags racing!
"We do all we can on the bikes to try and slow down our reaction times, but it's safe to say you'll probably see the first ever race with three red lights and one green. I think the NHRA has hit it out of the park on this one and fans will be the true winners in March. This is going to be great."
Built in 2008, zMAX Dragway is the only four-lane, all concrete drag strip in the world. Located across U.S. Highway 29 from Charlotte Motor Speedway and adjacent to The Dirt Track at Charlotte, zMAX Dragway seats 30,000 spectators, covers 46.5 acres, features two pedestrian tunnels under the strip and a 34,000-square-foot starting-line tower.
Tickets for the history-making inaugural NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, March 25-28, are on sale now and can be obtained by calling the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS or online. Convenient interest-free payment plan options and affordable multi-day ticket packages are available.