This time fans shouldn’t be the focus

REACTION TIME
By Susan Wade

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Perhaps this should come with a yellow, diamond-shaped warning sign: Contradiction Ahead.

Sports fans have to be the most forgiving, most longsuffering, most charitable, most tolerant group on Earth. The majority of athletes avoid or ignore them, figuring that simply meeting them is in the same category as stepping on wet chewing gum. Most athletes don’t like signing autographs for them — unless the fans pay for the privilege. Few athletes recognize or care that the fans who underwrite their salaries never will make in a lifetime what they make in a year. Athletes seldom understand that a fan might — might — get his name in the newspaper once in 50 years, if he writes a letter to the editor or miraculously bowls a 300 game or gets a hole-in-one or dies.

Yet fans still stand at the fence or shout from the stands, hoping their favorite athlete will take notice and sign a ball or a picture or scrap of paper. They wear the jock’s jersey or hockey sweater or some T-shirt proclaiming superhero status for this mere mortal who has been over-marketed. They buy merchandise and claim to be “the biggest fan ever.” They  listen faithfully to games or matches or races on the radio, event after event, day after day, season after season, knowing they never will meet their heroes. They’re grade-school kids, working moms, trapped-in-the-mundane middle managers, retirees.

They deserve respect.

However, in the case of four-wide drag racing, fans should not dictate whether this spectacle ever takes place again.

Neither should zMax Dragway owner Bruton Smith, who also owns Infineon Raceway, Bristol Dragway, and The Strip at Las Vegas, all of which account for six of the NHRA’s 23 race venues. His desire to sell tickets, concessions, and merchandise should not override the drivers’ opinions. Every businessman wants and needs to make money, but none should do it at the expense of someone else’s safety or if it interferes with the integrity of the endeavor.

Fans are a key part of the equation, but in this case, they have neither the right nor the right reasoning to determine if four-wide racing should return.

They don’t own the cars or the equipment. Most have no idea how much it costs a team owner to have his car(s) at a race, much less to field a competitive team. They have no real clue how damaging it is if an accident occurs. They don’t grasp fully the scope of the impact if someone intentionally or even inadvertently launches improperly in a four-wide lineup and causes trouble in other lanes.

(After all, as John Force — the Funny Car winner at Charlotte in that first modern-day four-wide NHRA event and a 14-time series champion — noticed, “It was confusing for all of the drivers. If you were watching, it was amazing the mistakes that could happen by the Christmas Tree.”)

Smith doesn’t have the right to assume his four-lane racetrack will see four-wide racing again, and he shouldn’t assume that if he follows his whim to expand The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to four lanes that the NHRA will conduct another four-wide points race there.

Although Smith clearly is a clever businessman, clearly is innovative, and clearly shells out a lot of money for the sport, he shouldn’t buy the right to make the NHRA’s decisions — unless and until he buys the NHRA. Right now he doesn’t own or operate the sanctioning body.

“Bruton Smith has invested a lot of money by building the ‘Bellagio of race tracks’ with four lanes,” Force said, “and Tom Compton, the president of the NHRA, said that we owe it to him to do this race.”

Mission accomplished. Debt paid.

Disappointingly, Force, considered a leader, waffled on his position and opted to take a back seat in this discussion. He spoke out when he felt strongly about multi-car teams. He spoke out about HD Partners’ bid to buy the NHRA. He spoke out in favor of females driving and dominating. He spoke out and acted decisively when Eric Medlen died and when he cheated death himself six months later. Most daresay expected him to take a strong stance.

Yet Force said, “I could go either way. I’m waiting to see what the others say. I’m waiting to hear what the majority wants.” That’s hardly the vocal John Force everybody has come to expect.

Force said, “Change is good. I’m going to have to learn to adapt. 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. Like I said when I won, I don’t know how its going to play out, but I had a ball.”

He said in a March 31 teleconference that if he had to vote that day whether to bring back four-wide racing, “For me, I couldn’t vote right now, because I want to hear what the jury says.

“I guess we all have the same Christmas Tree, the same four lanes, but there’s a lot of issues floating around,” Force said.

“Was the crowd bigger? Did it fill it 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?  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 race track whether there was oildown or a body explosion, or when there was rain. Was it an overload for them? I don’t know. We’re waiting to see,” the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver said.

“Was it exciting? Without a doubt. Was it different? Without a doubt. It’s a whole new ballgame, but it doesn’t work in the big picture,” Force said, giving the first hint of his opinion.

“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 race track there at zMAX? Does it need to be in the Countdown where millions of dollars are invested? I don’t know that yet,” he said. “Do I love it? Yes.”

Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III bowed to the fans. “If the fans love it, I’ll go eight-wide,” the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang driver said. “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.” But he said if he could choose, “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.”

John Force Racing’s Robert Hight didn’t hesitate to say how he would vote.

“My vote is for what the majority of the fans want, because that’s what my sponsors are going to go with,” the driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang said. “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. That’s how the sport is going to continue on. It’s all about what the fans want. That’s the whole bottom line of this is.

“I don’t care what other racers think of it or not,” Hight said. “It’s all about what the fans want.”

As much sense as that might make from a business standpoint, it makes no real sense in practicality.

Some fans — and who can quantify them? — enjoy seeing crashes. Should the NHRA line up the dragsters and the Funny Cars at opposite ends of the track and send them off toward each other? Or ensure by lottery that one of the four cars in each set will have some sort of spectacular mishap?

Some fans might want to mix up the foursomes and see the Top Fuel cars and Funny Cars race at the same time. Should the NHRA accommodate them?

Some fans want to stand on the starting line with the crews. Should the NHRA allow that?

No telling what hare-brained schemes the fans could come up with. Of course, the NHRA should keep fans in mind regarding many issues.

But not this one.

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