Side by Side by Side by Side

Being an old geezer, I’m becoming increasingly jaded to NHRA big show racing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a diehard drag racing fan: I enjoy the experience, and still attend a few NHRA national events a year, but mostly to see old friends who are still on the circuit. The actual racing is secondary. What can they show me that I haven’t seen before? But I made the short trip from my home up to zMAX Dragway for the highly hyped Four-Wide Nationals.

After the inaugural Four-Wides last year at O. Bruton Smith’s self-proclaimed “Bellagio” of drag strips, zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., there were a lot of opinions bandied about, with most of the pro drivers signing a petition saying not only that they didn’t like the format, they didn’t like the staging process, they didn’t want to race for points there and their biggest concern was safety -- with four cars running together on track there was the possibility of two (or more) cars having to go into the safety net at the same time. The fans also voiced their opinion lighting up the various “Fan-Boy” websites with the majority disliking the format and vowing to never support the Four-Wide races. Complaints were that it was too hard to follow the action, the sponsors didn’t get their fair share of TV time and the race was over too soon -- all valid complaints.

So after the 2010 event NHRA, zMAX Dragway and the pro drivers went to work to try to improve the Four-Wides in every way for everyone. They came up with a few improvements that made this year’s event a lot better.

First, they completely revamped the pre-stage and stage system. I’m sure that you’ve probably seen it on TV or in photos in Agent 1320, but gone are the yellow bulbs stacked above each other, replaced by new state-of-the-art LED bulbs that have both the pre-stage and stage beams in one compact unit. With really bright blue and white LEDs, I had no problem seeing them from the finish line grandstands and all the drivers really liked them. From what I understand you’ll see them replacing the yellow incandescent bulbs at all national events real soon. The bonus of the new staging lights is that the Tree is a lot shorter and is raised up so the drivers had a lot easier time seeing the bulbs over their huge hood scoops or injector hats. The run-off area was also improved and ESPN literally doubled the number of cameras to make sure the sponsors got the exposure they paid for.

Now let’s get to the Four-Wide racing. Let me tell all of those detractors this, don’t knock it until you’ve seen it in person. We all know that TV doesn’t do two-lane drag racing justice and that goes double for Four-Wide, so don’t judge it by what you saw on the tube. Think of it a sensory overload, double the nitro, double the noise and a spectacle that needs to be experienced, not in your recliner at home, but at what arguably is the nicest drag strip in the world. I watched it from just about every vantage point at the track, down on the starting line, up on the roof of the tower, in the starting line grandstands and my favorite, the top end grandstands. Sitting about 30 rows up when four fuel cars come by at full song is unlike any other experience in drag racing! 

I do think that there is one way to improve four-wide racing and it’s an easy fix that won’t cost anybody a dime. To end the confusion, and make it a lot easier on the drivers, change the rule that makes the first two cars across the finish line winners. Instead hold two separate drag races where the drivers are only racing the guy in their set of lanes. You can still run them at the same time, but the big difference is that the drivers aren’t racing guys that they can’t even see. You’ll still end up with two winners and it will be a lot safer as drivers won’t have to stay in it risking blowing up racing against an additional two cars.

One thing that did rear its ugly head was track preparation. It’s hard to prepare two lanes equally, much less four, and even though the NHRA Safety Safari did their best, a driver I talked to in the staging lanes before second round of Funny Car eliminations who was in the dreaded lane #2 said “I’m going to need some studded snow tires to get down this lane, it’s like driving on ice out there.” He was right as hardly any cars in lane #2 got down the track without smoking the tires.

All in all it was a good show. Would I go again? Absolutely. Should you make plans to go next year? Well, if you like twice the excitement and have never been to zMAX take a trip to Charlotte and see for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I wasn’t.