REACTION TIME – Four-Wide Drag Racing Pageantry Perilous

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By Susan Wade

The spectacle of four-wide racing is a memory for drag-racing fans with Monday’s rain-delayed finish of the National Hot Rod Association race at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway.

And racetrack owner Bruton Smith and the NHRA are lucky to have escaped with no serious injuries to anyone. The potential certainly was there. Matt Hagan’s shrapnel-spraying bomb and Jeff Diehl’s body-blowing concussion in the same qualifying foursome first gave proof that this pageantry was more than bit perilous. Cory McClenathan lost a tire at high speed during eliminations, and a piece of it punctured the front wing of Rhonda Hartman-Smith’s Hartley Family dragster in the next lane. And in Funny Car runoffs, Robert Hight’s Mustang went amok and banged into Jeff Arend’s Toyota at the top end. The concussions, tire explosions, and line-crossing runs, of course, can occur and have occurred in the traditional two-lane format. But the grace of God kept any of last weekend’s accidents from being worse.

How many more times can the sport trade on the grace of God?

Smith is supercharged to get the heavy machinery rolling at his Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, to expand it to four lanes. Smith is a brilliant businessman, but surely he has heard of the economic law of diminishing marginal utility. One four-lane dragstrip is a novelty, two surely would be a whole lot more problematic.

At some point, NHRA President Tom Compton and/or Graham Light, its senior vice-president of racing operations — maybe even PRO President Kenny Bernstein — is going to have to put some brakes on Bruton Smith’s enthusiasm. At some point soon, they’re going to have to convince Smith that the drivers aren’t thrilled about racing four-abreast. They’re going to have to convey to this visionary that his vision needs correction. They’re going to have to insist that such gate-boosting drama is confined to an all-star event, a non-points exhibition — if at all.

The drivers did their best to give something new a whirl, and they should be commended for their effort (even though they had no real vote in the matter). “After all,” said eventual Pro Stock runner-up Jason Line, “we’ve been trained to do the same thing for years.”

They deflected attention from their own opinions, calling the concept “exciting,” saying it would be “awesome for the fans,” and praising Smith for building what he likes to call “The Bellagio of Dragstrips.” But a few, including Hagan, Funny Car teammate Ron Capps, and Top Fuel driver Morgan Lucas, were not pleased with the arrangement.
Capps, always as diplomatic as possible, said afterward, “I’m glad it’s over. Don’t get me wrong. I had a blast, and I said in my interviews how much fun and how exciting it is. But it needs to be a special-event race with a lot of money, like the Dragsters versus Funny Car Showdown we had a few years ago [the Winston No Bull Showdown]. This format is not conducive to a points-earning event. It’s just not. It’s fun and it’s exciting and Bruton Smith deserves kudos and I’m glad we were able to deliver for him, but I think the consensus is we’d rather not run a points race this way.”

Even before the race, Capps had said, “I know all of the drivers are very, very excited about lining up that first time for four-wide racing. It’s already exciting to race these cars and to get into them every Friday after you’ve been out of the car for a week or so. It just reminds you how lucky we are to do what we do. But about an hour before that first time we line up for qualifying on Friday, we’re going to see a lot of drivers pacing around in circles being a little apprehensive about what it’s going to be like.”

He said during qualifying that he had felt again like he was getting in a Funny Car for the first time, as though he were chasing his competition license. He said he knew it was “going to be a little overwhelming, worrying more than just about your opponent in the lane next to you.”

Hagan had similar concerns beforehand.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Afterward — after his massive concussion that lifted both rear slicks a foot or more off the pavement injured him slightly and his team fixed the car and he raced in the final foursome — Hagan’s opinion was unchanged. “I’m glad this four-wide racing is over. I’m not looking forward to doing it again,” he said.

But like so many others, he said, “But we’ll race wherever they let us race. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Funny Car runner-up Ashley Force Hood said nothing negative about the notion of four-wide racing, but it left her mixed up.

“I was frustrated at the top end only because I was confused,” she said. “The light came on in my lane and no one was talking to me at all on the radio. I got out [of the car] thinking I won and was totally confused.” Force Hood said she learned the outcome when she saw her father “with a crowd around him. I figured he must have won. In the big picture it is more important that we were consistent and the two of us were able to come out on top over the two Schumacher teams. We have all our parts and pieces together and we can get back and be focused on this championship. I think the new day brought all new challenges for everybody. We were able to figure ours out.”

Lucas was frustrated, as well, and he had a message for his fellow dragtser drivers: “There are a few people who need to get on their game with staging and not take their sweet time, because it felt like I had the (clutch) pedal out forever,” Lucas said in qualifying. “I think everyone needs to try harder to get their act together because we’re all going to be a little more jacked up.

“My opinion of the four-wide is insignificant compared to that of the fans’,” Lucas said. “That’s something NHRA needs to look at. I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback. I’ll support what everybody wants, but I’m not exactly thrilled about it.”

Jack Beckman wasn’t sure it was a great move but got a kick out of how the racers were gabbing about it.

“Hoo-wee,” he said of racing four-wide for the first time. “For all that we’ve griped about it, and I’m still not a fan of doing it in a points race, all I have to say is that at the top end of the race track we are all chatting like 12-year-old schoolgirls up there. Everybody is having a blast with this thing. It’s like bragging about who caught what when you went fishing. Everybody compares notes at the end of the track, and I’ve never seen that when it’s two cars racing, to this extent. We’re having fun right now. Sunday might be a whole different deal.”

Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III declared, “If the fans love it, I’ll go eight-wide. To me, this sport is all about the fans. The fans are the reason why we are here and the reason why the sponsors invest in us. With that said, as a racer – I would prefer one-on-one, two-lane racing and the traditional staging strategy. But if the fans love it, let’s go four-wide.  We’ll wait and see what the fan feedback was from the race. It was a different kind of racing, but even so, you still have to cut a light, get the car from A to B and put the win light on.”

His crew chief, Chris Cunningham, prefers the traditional format.

“There is too much going on at once for everyone to appreciate what we do in NHRA,” Cunningham said.  “I guess you can call me nostalgic, because I think we should only run two cars.  There’s just a lot going on for everybody — for NHRA, the fans, and teams.”

If anyone was prepared besides McClenathan, it was Pro Stock veteran and No. 1 Charlotte qualifier Jeg Coughlin.

“I’ve grown up my whole life with the traditional Christmas Tree for two race cars,” Coughlin said, yet he called it “pretty bizarre” to see the extra row of blue bulbs on the electronic starting device that were installed to let racers know when the two drivers in the opposite lanes are ready to go. (His reaction was much like bike Craig Treble, who said, “It’s a lot of lights going on and off up there, and it looked like Vegas. It’s a matter of getting used to it, that’s all.”)

Coughlin said. “I’ve made thousands of runs down the racetrack in a multitude of race cars, but this will still be a challenge for me.”

And he approached this twist in the schedule as a scholar. “We talked to other racers and talked to NHRA about the format and how it would work. I’ve put a lot of time and thought into how we’re going to race this and handle the different situations. Fortunately, I’ve had a majority of the scenarios I dreamed up play out in my four time trial runs, so I feel like I’ve seen it and been a part of it. My comfort level coming into this event was probably at 60 percent, and going into game day, I feel well above 90 percent.”

It didn’t do him all that much good, as he exited early.

Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen said, “We’re just glad it’s behind us.”

Not everybody spoke about the experiment with disdain. Predictably, though, the proponents were the winners.

“I love this four-wide race,” Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Matt Smith said. “It was exciting and something different. I’m happy Bruton Smith and NHRA worked things out. I hope they do it here every year.  It’s a different atmosphere – just like NASCAR having road races.”

Top Fuel winner Cory McClenathan , before race, said, “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.”

Did they really have a problem with doing that before this race?! Yikes.

“There will be two different Christmas Trees between the lanes, and the only real difference is we’re going to have three more opponents instead of one. It will be interesting,” McClenathan said. 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.

“So, for Full Throttle and everybody else involved, it’s a good thing. It’s going to be really cool to watch everybody slug it out four-wide,” he said.

After his second straight victory at Charlotte, McClenathan said, “Everybody likes an All-Star race. I don’t think that’s something that’s out of the question. But we came here with the opinion that we need to be able to go four-wide, we need to be able to understand the lights, and I had a certain way that I went about it all weekend long. I kept the same plan, and it worked out for us. I was happy with the whole thing.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years in a fuel car. You’re not going to make everybody happy. The Smith family brought something to the table that nobody else has been able to do, and, yes, we were able to win it, so I might be a little biased on that.”

Pro Stock winner Mike Edwards, who said, “It’s pretty cool to be the first champion of such a race,” added, “but it was anything close to easy. It took me a long time to adjust to all the lights for staging, figuring out the whole situation, and it showed in qualifying as we made really only one solid run.”

In the end, though he was complimentary.

“It is such an honor to be going home with this events Wally,” Edwards said. “I have to give credit to Bruton Smith for one building such an awesome facility and second, doing something to try and take the sport of drag racing to the next level. If having events like this will increase the sports fan base, I am all for it because drag racing would be nothing if we didn’t have the awesome fans we do have and Bruton is trying to strengthen that.”

Said Hagan, “I am impressed that Bruton and Marcus Smith and the NHRA are willing to try something so radical.”

Coughlin said, “It’s neat to see Bruton Smith’s dream come true again — to take drag racing four-wide. I can remember looking through my dad’s scrapbook from the late ’60s where there were pictures of four-wide drag racing back then with a flagman standing in the middle of the track. In modern history, this is definitely an interesting deal for drag racing.”

Funny Car winner and points leader John Force made a special effort “to personally thank Bruton Smith and his son Marcus, because they took money in this economy and they spent it.

“I don’t know how it is going to play out,” Force said. “There are a lot of positives and negatives. We have to see what the fan response is, what ESPN thinks, how the racers feel, how the NHRA and Bruton feel.”

Bruton Smith was the star of the show, of — in his words — “the big hoo-raw.” He’s the man who made it possible, the man who can fill the void left by NHRA founder Wally Parks’ passing. Parks once said, “My role is the dreamer.” Maybe now Smith is the dreamer. And that’s all lovely. But at some point, dreaming ends and reality kicks in.

The drivers should drive the decision.

Force said, “The biggest thing for me is the money that Bruton Smith has invested in this sport [and] that NHRA gave him the chance to run four lanes. He deserves that reward.”

Everyone is grateful Bruton Smith is spending the money and trying fresh ideas. But four-wide racing is something the drivers clearly are uncomfortable with, and they deserve a say, considering they are risking for more than money.

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