4-wide racing brings buzz to NHRA

Updated: March 24, 2010, 4:28 PM ET
Associated Press

CONCORD, N.C. -- The mind games start the moment drivers roll up to the stage lights at a dragstrip.

One driver may pull up early, gamesmanship intended to intimidate their opponent. Another may stall his approach, an obvious attempt to rattle the other driver.

It's head-to-head psychological warfare leading up to the fastest four seconds in auto racing.

Now, triple it.

The NHRA will race four-wide this weekend for the first time in a sanctioned event, and fittingly it will be at zMax Dragway, the Speedway Motorsports Inc.-owned facility regarded as "The Bellagio" of dragstrips.

"I'm pretty sure it's going to be as exciting as anything we've ever done," said seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher.

But the uniqueness of the event, which begins Friday at the facility located on the grounds of Charlotte Motor Speedway, has drivers worried about the mental aspects of drag racing against three opponents instead of the usual one.

"Normally I always say there's another car in another lane and he thinks he can beat me," Schumacher said. "Now there's going to be three, and it's going to be fun. We're going to stage that car, and all I can say is I hope no one is going to screw around. One of the guys can, and mess with the other three guys, and that's going to be pretty unique.

"It's so far different and off the norm for us."

SMI chairman Bruton Smith had all of this in mind when he built the dragway in 2008. The fourth dragstrip in his collection, he began construction with the goal of turning the new facility into the showplace of the sport.

In addition to 30,000 seats, 28 suites and the latest fan amenities, Smith wanted four lanes. The plan was to essentially build two dragstrips side-by-side to create a one-of-a-kind facility.

It seemed preposterous considering the NHRA didn't run four-wide, but Smith and SMI were able to convince the series to give it a try.

"The big thing came years ago when my dad got interested in drag racing, and at that time he started talking about going four-wide with all the dragstrips and how it could help with TV, help the show, and help the sport move along more quickly," said Marcus Smith, president and CEO of SMI.

"Of course, it was a really outlandish idea at the time. But when we started to build zMax Dragway, he said 'Let's build it four-wide so we can do that.' The guys at NHRA were fantastic and said they wanted to embrace the idea and take the leap with us. So here we are, and we think it's going to be pretty awesome."

The NHRA held a four-wide exhibition last fall at zMax, the only time in series history cars have raced in that size pack. Although there were four-wide races in the 1970s on old airstrips, those drag races were not NHRA-sanctioned.

But if there's a place to do it for real, Top Fuel driver Antron Brown says zMax is it.

"I call it the Disney World of drag racing -- the attraction that everyone from all around needs to go to," he said. "It's the top facility, the best we have on our circuit, and I actually think it's one of the top racing facilities in the world, period. So it's the logical place to do something new, and maybe help turn our sport into a spectacle, something closer to NASCAR."

Drag racing caters to a specific race fan, and the unveiling of four-wide racing can potentially bring attention and new interest to a series that lags far behind NASCAR in ratings and attendance. But this weekend's events have drawn a buzz that Schumacher believes can carry the NHRA into mainstream sports coverage.

"Our sport was built very differently. It wasn't built over great TV coverage, it's built over being live," he said. "Maybe one person will tell two people they have to show up. But more than anything, the buzz around the country over this weekend ... is pretty neat. People calling from all over to ask about four-wide.

"So we've already got their attention. I am sure it will get a lot of coverage on TV, but also on the news, showing the inaugural and the winners. And that's what we need."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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