Long hailed as one of the world’s best markets for motorsports, the Charlotte, N.C., region will again play host to high octane entertainment when the fastest accelerating machines on the planet return to zMAX Dragway, Sept. 16-19, for the third annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals.

The four-day event at the Bellagio of drag strips marks round two of the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship—a six-race post season that determines the world championships in the NHRA’s top four professional classes.

The Countdown begins next weekend at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Ind., before heading east to zMAX Dragway. After racing four-wide at the world’s only four lane concrete drag strip in March, the NHRA will return to the traditional two-wide drag racing for the upcoming O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals.

A fast start in the Countdown proved vital last season as Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Robert Hight (Funny Car) used their wins at zMAX Dragway, then the Countdown opener, to propel them to championships in their respective divisions.

“It's obviously important for momentum and to be able to get round wins in the early part of the (Countdown),” said current NHRA Top Fuel points leader Larry Dixon. “I watched Robert Hight last year, who squeaked his way in and slid into the 10th spot, and he ran off a few wins, then nobody could catch him.

“So the early part of the chase, I guess it pays the same amount of points as the last part. But it's a lot more fun being out front than having to chase.”

Fellow Top Fuel drag racer, Brandon Bernstein, agrees that a fast start and consistency is important in the Countdown, adding that the pressure in the NHRA post season is tangible.

“It’s definitely pressure cooked,” said Bernstein, currently sixth in the Top Fuel point standings. “These next six races are intense. You can’t make any mistakes. If you make mistakes during this time, then you’re out. Up until this point we could deal with some mistakes here and there, but right now, its big time pressure. Crew chiefs, drivers, crew guys, they all know that they need to make sure they do everything perfect in the last six races.”

The importance of the Countdown may be equaled by the significance of the Charlotte market, which for many years has been known as the heart of stock car racing. With the construction of the grandiose zMAX Dragway in 2008, NHRA not only gained a home in a rich motorsports market, they also gained a new fan base.

“I really love going to Charlotte and running in front of a lot of diehard NASCAR fans,” said Jack Beckman, who currently sits third in points and won the inaugural event at zMAX Dragway. “Our goal is never to take fans from any other sport, but our goal is to build fans that are fans of other sports.

“To have that feed back from those people who have been to NASCAR races and tell us how much they loved our race, and how much they appreciated getting to come up to the pit and interact with the drivers, I thought that was pretty special.”

Bernstein echoed the importance of the NHRA being in the Charlotte market, especially during the Countdown.

“Having the Charlotte market included in the Countdown, our postseason, is huge,” said Bernstein. “The championship is going to come down to these next six races and to have a championship caliber race in this market is great. The city loves it. The fans love it. It’s a big deal and we’re fortunate enough that Charlotte is one of those tracks.”

For Dixon, success in Charlotte is important for several reasons.

“It would certainly be good to do well at Charlotte,” said the two-time NHRA Top Fuel champ. “I mean, we'll go there and try our best and hope it's enough. But we certainly enjoy racing at (zMAX Dragway) and we’re just a big fan of Bruton Smith. The fact that he loves NHRA drag racing and has four of the finest drag strips that we have on the tour, it's an honor that he thinks that much of our sport. So we'll certainly go in there and try to put on a great show for everybody.”

Tickets for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals, Sept. 16-19, at zMAX Dragway can be obtained by calling the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS (3267) or online. General admission four-packs are available for only $59 on Friday and $119 for Saturday or Sunday. 


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