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Force Gives Four-Wide A Thumbs Sideways

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 2 2010

Despite getting a big victory in the Four-Wide Nationals last weekend, John Force remains concerned about the format. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

By any measuring device, last weekend’s inaugural NHRA Four-Wide Nationals was a runaway success for John Force Racing.

But despite an historic victory in the rain-delayed Funny Car final at zMAX Dragway, Brut Force is suggesting that four-wide might better serve all vested parties as an all-star-style, non-points event on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule rather than factoring into the Countdown to 1 championship points chase.

“I’m hearing positives and negatives,” Force said during a teleconference this week. “If they took the points out of it the money would still be there. At the end of the day, that would make everybody happy. I don’t really know.  In this economy, maybe it‘s a test to see if this works. I haven’t seen the TV ratings. If it doesn’t put people in the stands and the ratings drop and sponsors don’t make sales then it doesn’t work. I go with what works best for everybody.”

Owner/driver Force, the 14-time Funny Car world champion, bagged his second national event win in four races this season and the 128th of his stellar career with a final-round victory against daughter Ashley Force Hood and a pair of rivals from Don Schumacher Racing. Ashley’s final-round result of 4.042-seconds at 316.38 mph set the national speed record and moved her into the No. 5 position in the point standings led by her father.

Earlier, JFR’s Robert Hight, the 2009 Funny Car champion, qualified No. 1 and set zMAX Dragway 1,000-foot track records for both elapsed time (4.024-seconds) and speed (314.24 mph) at O. Bruton Smith’s “Bellagio of Drag Strips.”

Still, John Force admittedly is ambivalent about the concept that saw drivers in Funny Car, Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle qualify and compete simultaneously in four lanes instead of the traditional two. While acknowledging that he “had a ball” with the format en route to collecting his latest Wally, Force exited Concord, N.C., with as many questions as he had before the event started.

“Change is good. I’m going to have to learn to adapt,” Force said. “I’m waiting to see what the NHRA has to say about it and the whole organization of drivers, but it was exciting. Any time you win, that’s exciting.”

Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang, has advanced to three of four final rounds this season. In addition, Ford Motor Company announced prior to the event that it had signed a five-year contract extension with JFR that will carry through at least the 2014 season.  JFR has won 123 races and 10 NHRA championships since switching to Ford in 1997, including the 2009 title with Hight.

“You are really on a high, but you want to be careful not to get caught up in that,” said Force, 60, whose victory continued an impressive streak of specialty race wins for himself and JFR. Force opened the season by winning the 50th annual NHRA Winternationals. Force also won the Winston Showdown Top Fuel vs. Funny Car Invitational at Bristol Dragway, another Smith facility, in 1999 as well as the 50th anniversary NHRA specialty race in Pomona, Calif. And Gary Densham, Force’s former teammate, won the 50th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in 2004.

Four-wide drag racing, featuring  a combined 32,000 horsepower in the Funny Car and Top Fuel classes at the starting line, was hailed pre-race as a can’t-miss sensory experience for those in attendance. Artistically, however, the event arguably fell short because of unseasonably cool temperatures and rain that interrupted ESPN2s originally scheduled final-round coverage on Sunday. Finals were pushed back to Monday morning, with Cory McClenathan (Top Fuel), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) joining Force as champions.

Looking at the business side of four-wide, Force rattled off a laundry list of concerns. “Was the crowd bigger? Did it fill more seats? Did it make our TV package better? Did it run smoother except for the rain we had on Sunday? How did the racers react to it? How did the NHRA react to it? I’m waiting to hear what the majority wants,” Force said. “Was it exciting? Without a doubt. Was it different?  Without a doubt. It’s a whole new ballgame, but does it work in the big picture?

“Bruton Smith has invested a lot of money by building the ‘Bellagio of Racetracks’ with four lanes and Tom Compton, the president of the NHRA, said that we owe it to him to do this race. Like I said when I won, I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but I had a ball. It was confusing for all of the drivers. If you were watching, it was amazing the mistakes that could happen by the Christmas Tree.”

Hight’s day ended in the first round foursome that included Paul Lee, Matt Hagan and Jeff Arend. Hight was disqualified when his Auto Club Mustang lost traction and crossed from Lane 2 into Lane 1 and made body contact with Arend’s Toyota Camry. Hight, 40, was among a long list of professional drivers who found the revised dual Christmas Trees –featuring a line of four, blue staging lights added to the usual amber bulbs – distracting and confusing.

“It was funny,” said Hight, eighth in points heading into the 23rd annual O’Reilly Spring Nationals April 9-11 at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas – site of his first career victory. “John and Ashley and I got together after we heard how it was going to run and we kind of had a game plan and we talked about it. Going out there I thought I’ll be able to watch everybody stage. I usually don’t go in first or second, I do a timing thing so that my car is consistent every time.

“Then I went in and it was like my eyes were wandering around looking at all these lights blink and light up. And from there I told myself I’m just going to go in there and stage, and stare at the bottom yellow, which is what we react on, and not pay attention to where everybody else is at because it will drive you crazy.”

Adding to questions about the practicality of the concept is the fact that only Smith’s all-concrete zMAX Dragway, which opened in 2008, currently is equipped to run four-wide. The next most logical venue for four-wide would be The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another of Smith’s facilities, which opened in 2000 with four-wide in mind.  But even Force questioned if any other NHRA promoter – specifically citing Texas Motorplex owner Billy Meyer – would be willing to tackle the financial investment necessary to expand to four lanes.

Asked for a “right-now” vote on four-wide as a once-a-year schedule option, Force said, “I couldn’t vote right now because I want to hear what the jury says. I do know this, Bruton Smith has invested in it, and NHRA gave him the shot and what I look at, does the four-lane need to continue? Yes. Does it need to be in the championship points chase or just a specialty race once-a-year to put on a special show for the fans and utilize a great racetrack there at zMAX? Does it need to be in the Countdown, where millions of dollars are invested? I don’t know that yet.

“Do I love it? Yes. I guess we all have the same Christmas Tree, the same four lanes, but there’s a lot of issues floating around. How did the clean-up go on the track? They had a great crew, the Safety Safari crew did a great job getting in there and cleaning that racetrack whether there was oil down or a body explosion, or when there was rain. Was it an overload for them?  I don’t know, we’re waiting to see. I could go either way. I’m waiting to see what the others say.”

Hight, who is Force’s son-in-law, said he would side with whatever the majority of fans decided. “Because that’s what my sponsors are going to go with,” said Hight, who earned his 34th career pole under the new format. “We aren’t going to sell Ford if everybody isn’t watching TV and glued to four-wide racing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about what the fans want. That’s the whole bottom line of this. I don’t care what other racers think of it or not, it’s all about what the fans want.

“I remember back in the day when we would have the Winston Invitational and the other all-star race where John beat the dragsters with the Superman car. It would be cool to have an all-star race like that. What better place to do it than zMAX? It is really up to the fans and what they like.”

Force, who qualified sixth, reiterated his primary competitive concern was the confusion surrounding the dual Christmas Trees and their lights – a subject NHRA competition officials plan to address. “Maybe it wasn’t confusing to some,” said Force, who defeated his daughter and the Dodge Chargers of DSR teammates Ron Capps and Matt Hagan in the final with a winning pass at 4.036-seconds at 316.23 mph.

“There are just so many things to work at and we are trying to figure out which way to go,” Force said. “I am not trying to dance here in giving you an answer; I just don’t have one yet. Another issue is, do the sponsors get the TV time when you are trying to watch four cars at once?  Maybe for TV, a shorter day is better.  There are a lot of positives and negatives, I just don’t know which way to go with it yet.”

Force Hood, 27, and driver of the Castrol GTX Mustang, heads into HRP as the defending event winner _ and as the primary long-term beneficiary of JFR’s contract extension with Ford. “Well, it just gives you the financial security for the future in this economy,” said John Force, who under the “One Ford” approach is making his BOSS 500 engine and chassis programs available to all Blue Oval NHRA teams. “It gives me security so we can make progress in our motor program.  It’s a challenging program, and the employees in The Eric Medlen Project (for safety) know where we’re going to go in the future.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 2 2010
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Richard in N.C. says:

    I don’t understand why they could not just run 2 “regular” races at the same time on the 4-wide – or just keep the program moving using just one lane pair if the other pair needs to be cleaned up for an oil down.

    Also, it’s not really any of my business I guess, but I sure would be interested in seeing someone write more about why John Medlen left John Force.