Pedley: Is Four Too Many Or Just Right For NHRA?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, April 15 2011

The 2011 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord N.C. are set for this weekend. Good or bad? (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

The open-air observation deck on the offices/suites/media building behind the staging area at the new zMAX Dragway was getting a pretty good load test two years ago. People were crowded along the railing and those behind were attempting to elbow their way forward.

Down below, another load test was taking place on the drag strip. Four NHRA Funny Cars were inching their way toward the starting line. At the same time. Long-time series chief starter Rick Stewart had his hands full.

His eardrums and the eardrums of all living creatures for miles around were also about to be load tested.

The occasion was that for first time in modern, known racing history, four nitro-burning drag cars would take the green lights all at the same time. It was just an exhibition, but that fact did nothing to deaden the sound, excitement or significance of the moment.

When the blower ports sprung open and each of the 8,000 horsepower engines cut loose, Thor peed in his pants.

Quite a show, we on the observation all smiled and nodded to each other after the chutes popped up-track.

But, people – drivers, officials and fans – began asking themselves that spring weekend in 2009;

The traditional Christmas Tree.

would it/should it work under actual racing conditions?

Now, two years down the road, people are still asking themselves that same question.

Some of drivers involved in the exhibition of 2009 said afterward that going four-wide presented some sticky, potentially dangerous, problems. Seeing the tree was difficult, staging within the time limit was tricky and should a car lose it during a run, the carage could twice as bad.

When the NHRA finally consented to the track’s request to hold a points race four-wide, some drivers revolted. Some said they might not participate. Meetings were held and nasty words traded.

In the end, the teams and drivers relented. Some were clearly not won over by the concept, but most agreed to paraticipate out of respect for zMAX owner Bruton Smith. It was a thank-you nos to Smith, who has given the sport a major lift by building great new, modern strips during a time when some of the older venues are becoming rundown, obsolete and, yes, unsafe.

The first 4-Wide Nationals came off without major problems. Concerns about staging and starts continued on and the whole thing still seemed foreign to those in the cockpits, but the weekend came and went sans trouble.

The NHRA has redesigned the tree this time around to alleviate some of the staging confusion. Funny Car driver Robert Hight got a sneak peek at the new tree in Gainesville when the NHRA invited all the drivers to check out the new look.

“It looked really good,” Hight said. “The NHRA has made it a lot better. They used LED lights and I think drivers will be a lot more comfortable looking at that tree to see what the other three cars or dragsters are doing. The real key is just keeping your own mind clear and focused on what you have to do. It is tricky but John figured it out last year by studying the tree all weekend. I am sure he’ll be up on the starting line again this weekend.”

Pro Stock driver Erica Enders said, yes, up to the drivers to figure it out.

“I think it’s very important to keep an open mind,” Enders said. “All of us have been doing the same

They're doing it 4-wide for real at zMAX this weekend. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

starting-line procedures for 20-plus years. You go and change a driver’s neuro program with something new, it’s always going to affect you in some way – and not always is it positive.

“Having said that, an open mind is important. But since we went through it last year, I think we’ll be OK.”

Earlier this week, I talked to Top Fuel driver Del Worsham. He said the event puts more stress on his crews as they set cars up for four lane racing in which every run can be on a mystery surface. But overall, he and most competitors have adoped and “it is what it is” attitude.

Fans’ opinions?

They will vote at the turnstiles this year and in future years. Right now it appears the fans around Charlotte are adjusting too. Crowds last year looked good but not bursting.

Me? I like it as a one-off. Once a year, it gives something special to the NHRA scene. The noise and smoke show and speed – which looks higher during a manage a quad – is dang exciting to watch.

I like the pressure it puts on the teams. Runs become much more important as there will be three drivers going home after each round this coming Sunday.

And I think it will have staying power. I think it will continue to be a special weekend for drag racing for decades to come.

But it kind of stands in direct contradiction of the definition of drag racing. Which is, has been and always should be; one on one, head to head.

I guess the best plan is just enjoy it, which I plan to do this weekend in off-site quietude. But please, Mr. Smith, don’t build a six-wide strip any time soon.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, April 15 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Dick says:

    4-wide for the ‘sportsman’ classes, with their large number of entries, is probably a good thing. But! For the pro/nitro classes? It’s a novelity! Just pick the best 2 lanes and run a traditional drag race! Stop trying to reinvent the wheel.