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Sturbin: Is Four A Crowd In NHRA?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 25 2010

All four lanes at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. will be put to use this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Adrian Parker)

In a sporting universe operating on a 24/7 news cycle, perhaps four-wide drag racing was inevitable. Whether or not side-by-side-by-side-by-side straight-line competition has a shelf life beyond the curiosity stage largely will be determined during this weekend’s inaugural NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.

For the first time in the National Hot Rod Association’s 59-year history, competitors in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle will qualify and race four-at-a- time at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.

Four-wide is the brainchild of O. Bruton Smith, the only NHRA track-owner fully vested in the concept. NHRA staged exhibition runs in Top Fuel and Funny Car at zMAX – otherwise known as the “Bellagio of Drag Racing” – in September to generally positive reviews.

NHRA announced this race would become a points-paying event on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series in late January, and the debate has been nearly non-stop.

“It’s definitely a long way away from tradition,” said Larry Dixon, a two-time Top Fuel champion and driver of the Al-Anabi Racing Dragster co-owned by Alan Johnson. “I really thought four-wide would come along and be an exhibition, non-points deal – big money, pay-per-view, everybody has fun and let’s get back to racing. It’s definitely changed everybody’s mindset on it because this is for real. Points are on the line here.”

With the exception of the two extra lanes, all of drag racing’s basics will be in play beginning with the first of four rounds of qualifications on Friday afternoon. The lanes will still be approximately 30 feet wide. Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers will cover a distance of 1,000-feet down the all-concrete surface, while Pro Stock and Pro Stock Bike competitors will race to a quarter-mile finish.

But four cars or motorcycles will roll to the starting line for each round instead of two, perform their burnouts and launch. Aside from a few differences in protocol, NHRA contends it will be business as usual. However, questions linger about the use of dual Christmas Tree starting devices, the staging process and lane-choice. And then there is the question of what each nitro-class driver will experience when 32,000 horsepower are unleashed at once.

“I know that the loudest it is for me is in the water (box), when the pair ahead is running and it’s incredibly loud then,” said Dixon, third in Top Fuel points after three events, 27 behind leader Tony Schumacher. “I imagine it’s going to be twice as loud. But as far as on the racetrack and the run…the walls are high enough and I’m sitting down in the car. I don’t know if I’ll be able to see the other cars on the other side. If things go the way we want, I hope I don’t see the guy I’m racing. You’re always hoping you’re out front and don’t see or hear anybody else.”

Here are the revised basics. Lanes will be identified from left to right facing downtrack as 1-4. Qualifying sessions and elimination rounds will be conducted using all four lanes, but the standard Friday qualifying procedure of a top-12 format will not be in use at this event. Again, two Christmas Trees will be operational, one between each pair of lanes. The Compulink Autostart system will continue to be utilized and will not activate until all four vehicles are pre-staged and one vehicle has staged.

Additionally, the ladder structure will feature in Race A: qualifiers 1, 8, 9, 16; Race B: qualifiers 4, 5, 12, 13; Race C: qualifiers 2, 7, 10, 15, and Race D: qualifiers 3, 6, 11, 14. Race A and Race B will be on one side of the ladder, while Race C and Race D will be on the other. Lane-choice for eliminations goes to the driver with the quickest elapsed time, then the second-quickest, and so on.

The first two drivers in each elimination round to cross the finish line advance to the second round and final. In the final round, teams will finish in the order they cross the finish line (barring any red-light starts).

“Is it too far from tradition?” Dixon asked rhetorically. “Well, they’re (NHRA officials) not scared of trying anything. Bruton wants to one-up everybody, as you know from the (NASCAR) Sprint Cup side. I did a press thing for him and said the next thing he’s going to do is run 16-wide, and we’ll all be icing down the beer at 11:05. We’ll be done.

“Whether it works or not, we’ll see. The first session I’m going to be up against Tony (Schumacher) and Cory (McClenathan) and Doug Kalitta. It’s not going to change our entire sport because everywhere we race…there might be three other tracks that can do that (add two lanes). And the expense of doing that is another factor. I don’t know if it’s going to help us in Atlanta…but it’ll bump up the numbers when we’re in Charlotte, that’s for sure.”

Schumacher, the seven-time and reigning Top Fuel champion, did not compete in the four-wide exhibition last fall. But he enters this race after scoring his first victory of the year at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway two weeks ago, when he set the national speed record for 1,000-feet at 324.98 mph.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see how it all plays out,” said “The Sarge,” driver of the U.S. Army Dragster fielded by Don Schumacher Racing. “I watched the exhibition last September and I was amazed at how smoothly everything went. We’ll see if that holds true for this weekend when it counts for real. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. Of course, I’m hopeful there won’t be any issues. I’m just going to go out and do my usual thing. I’m going to stay focused on my car and my lane. That’s really all you can do.”

McClenathan returns to zMax as defending event champion and runnerup to DSR teammate Schumacher by 11 points. “Obviously, coming back to Concord as a defending champion is definitely going to be a good thing for our FRAM team,” Cory Mac said.  “At the same time, now we’re going to be introduced to a whole new way of racing. It’s going to be a very cool event. It’s really going to get the attention of the fans, and it’s certainly going to get the crew chiefs and the drivers to start thinking about what they’re doing.

“I think when it comes to Bruton and Marcus Smith and the rest of the gang at zMax, if they can stretch that envelope a little bit farther, they’re going to do it. They’re trying something new. It’s going to be exciting not only for the drivers, crew chiefs and the fans, but it will also show how NHRA is evolving in this sport and how willing they are to always try something different, and that’s cool.”

Robert Hight, the reigning Funny Car champion, was among several drivers pondering the Christmas Tree situation. The tops of both trees will be fitted with additional pre-stage and stage bulbs, which will indicate those positions of the two vehicles on the adjacent track.

“They are changing the whole tree around,” said Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang fielded by John Force Racing. “On Thursday, the NHRA wants us on the starting line with our car. They have two different versions of the tree for us to look at. We have to get out there and make sure that we can see out of this 2010 Ford Mustang and see what we need to see. You just have to adapt and stand on the gas first. It doesn’t matter if you are racing one, two or three cars you just have to get there first.”

Hight currently is tied for fifth in the standings with Matt Hagan at 181 points – 99 behind 14-time champion John Force.

“It’s one thing to race the guy beside you, but when you have to race three others, you don’t know what’s going on two lanes over,” said Hagan, driver of the DieHard Dodge Charger fielded by DSR. “Now you’re going to have to put yourself in a situation where you have to make it go to the end no matter what, because you can’t see what’s going on in the other lanes, versus just racing the guy beside you.

“It puts you in a tough situation to make the decision of whether you have to pedal at the top end or not, because you can’t see what’s going on and you have a real good chance of the car blowing up. But, that’s the official decision, so we just have to deal with it as drivers.  I think four-wide racing is great for the fans, and I’m impressed that Bruton and Marcus Smith and the NHRA are willing to try something so radical. We all have to learn to change and adapt to it.”

This event will mark Hagan’s second race with John Medlen, formerly of John Force Racing, as co-crew chief with Tommy DeLago. Hagan was trailered at Gainesville in the quarterfinals after qualifying No. 1.

Force, meanwhile, said he was excited about trying “something new and adventurous” with NHRA at zMax. “I wouldn’t say that we have an advantage, but two of my teams did run in the exhibition last year, Mike Neff and myself,” said Force, owner/driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Mustang. “Mike finished No. 1 and I was the runner-up, so if anyone knows anything about the four-lane, we do.  Could be a little advantage, but it will be exciting. It’s different.  We felt that Bruton Smith deserved the four-lane race, for the investment that he has made in NHRA.”

Neff has since vacated the cockpit to assume co-crew-chief duties on Force’s car.

Jack Beckman, winner of the inaugural Funny Car event at zMax Dragway in 2008, said he would certainly like to add the inaugural four-wide “Wally” trophy to his collection.

“I think this is going to be one of the coolest things ever for the fans and one of the bigger nightmares for the teams in NHRA,” said Beckman, driver of the Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge Charger fielded by DSR. “We’ve never had an official drag race where there wasn’t one winner and one loser. Now you have two winners and two losers and then in the final round you’re going to label them first, second, third and fourth. And that’s never happened at an official drag race before. I think stats-wise it’s going to be a nightmare, so we’d just as soon keep it simple and win this thing.”

Beckman is third in Funny Car points after three events, including a victory in the rain-plagued NHRA Arizona Nationals and a first-round loss at Gainesville. “We still aren’t 100 percent sure how they’re going to handle the Christmas Tree and the starting system,” said Beckman, who trails DSR teammate Ron Capps by seven points (226-219). “I know they’ve been soliciting a lot of opinions from the drivers. We’re going to have a drivers’ meeting on Friday, and I think it’s going to be a learning curve for all of us.”

In Pro Stock, reigning class champion Mike Edwards already has fashioned a sizeable 132-point lead over runnerup Allen Johnson. Edwards has two victories, a runner-up finish and three No. 1 qualifying performances in his Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP.  Three-time class champ Greg Anderson sits third, 142 points behind Edwards.

“Despite everything that will be different about this weekend’s race, nothing is fundamentally going to change,” said Anderson, driver of the Summit Racing Pontiac GXP, and a resident of nearby Charlotte.  “The potential problem area comes in the driver’s mindset, watching four different sets of staging lights come on as you try to determine what exactly is going on, getting prepared to leave at the right time.  That will be the tough part, especially considering we’re still not quite sure how they’re going to set up the trees.

“That’s my main concern about the four-wide format.  With four to pick from, lane-choice could be a factor, but in Pro Stock, the race is often decided at the starting line.  We don’t have the luxury to be off by a couple hundredths (of a second) – if you are, you’re pretty much done.  We need to be as close to perfect as we can be on every run, with the additional two lanes only adding to the challenge.”

Eddie Krawiec, the 2008 Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion, opened the 2010 season with a victory at the Gatornationals in Gainesville aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod. Reigning world champ Hector Arana currently is fourth on his Lucas Oil Buell, 43 points behind Krawiec’s 119 total.

“I’m looking forward to this new (four-wide) deal because it’s going to be cool,” Arana said. “The only concern I’m going to have is, are we going to know when everybody else is pre-staged? I don’t want to stage, be on the rev-limiter and ready to go, and then the other lanes aren’t even ready. That’s my main concern. The first thing I’m going to do is talk to (chief) starter Rick Stewart and ask him and everyone else how this is supposed to work. I’ll also be able to watch others cars run before me so I won’t be too surprised.”

ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 9 p.m. (ET) on Saturday. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise “NHRA Race Day,” a 30-minute pre-event show, at 10 a.m. (ET) on Sunday. And ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours, 30 minutes of eliminations coverage beginning at 5 p.m. (ET) on Sunday.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 25 2010