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Adrenaline sky-high for four-wide racing

3/28/2010

CONCORD, N.C. -- Larry Dixon said he felt like the first man on the moon. Antron Brown giddily called it the ultimate throwdown.

And John Force, a man who has said almost everything imaginable in his legendary drag racing career, said something he never has said before: "I felt like a virgin out there."

They all agreed that the first pass of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals was a special moment and something to see.

"Wow. This was different, but it was cool," said driver Ron Capps, who had the quickest Funny Car pass in his first four-wide matchup.

The NHRA is making history this weekend at the zMax Dragway with four-wide racing, something that never happened before in the 60 years since the late Wally Parks founded the series in 1951.

The drivers had a meeting Friday morning with NHRA officials to discuss how this was going to work. Almost everyone was apprehensive. There were a few minor hiccups, but for the most part, the first qualifying round was a spectacular show.

The last pair of the session -- sorry, I mean the last quad -- was a qualifying pass to remember. Four Top Fuel dragsters blasted down the lanes at more than 314 mph and finished within .025 of a second of each other.

They were the top four qualifiers of the round, led by seven-time champion Tony Schumacher with an elapsed time of 3.830 seconds at 315.49 mph in the Army dragster.

One pass earlier, Brown beat three other drivers to the line when all four dragsters ran under 3.9 seconds, but Brown ended up fifth on the qualifying list.

This track is the Disneyland of drag racing, and this is a whole new roller coaster. This is the biggest and baddest deal in the sport and we're enjoying the ride. I'm glad to be a part of it.

-- Antron Brown

"It was four guys out there going at it," Brown said. "No strategy, just a grudge match. It was like lining up for a street race. I think this was a great idea."

Typically, the opening qualifying session of an NHRA event rates low on the excitement scale. Teams use it to experiment with setups, knowing they have three other chances to post a time. Cars often don't make it down the track.

But these drivers meant business for the first four-wide pass. It was more like final eliminations at most events. Everyone wanted to make a competitive run to get a feel for how things would go under the new format.

"There's a lot of new stuff happening out there," Force said. "My head's in a cluster out there. It's a Rubik's Cube. You have to figure it out. It's complicated and it's stressful, but it's cool."

The biggest adjustment for the drivers is learning a new staging lights system. Two "Christmas tree" starting poles are used, one between Lanes 1 and 2 and one between Lanes 3 and 4.

The new part is four horizontal blue LED lights on top of each tree. Those lights show the drivers in Lanes 1 and 2 when the cars in Lane 3 and 4 prestage and stage, and vice versa.

Got it? A few drivers didn't get it in the first round. Bob Gilbertson failed to stage his car in Lane 4 when he apparently forgot no car was in Lane 3, so the lights never came on.

A lot of drivers were late off the line and more than a few red-lighted in the Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycles classes.

Force thinks mistakes are inevitable for all the classes.

"Picture trying to dance with four women at the same time," Force said. "I wanted to use sex [as an analogy], but I won't go there.

"Anyway, winning always has been about a good car and cutting a light. Now you have to learn new lights with more cars. It's a third ingredient to the recipe."

The fans also had some new ingredients to learn in their entertainment package. The scoring boards lit up in two segments with a light below listing which lane was being displayed.

"All the fans are really digging it," Brown said. "Guys were screaming at me, 'Go out there and kick all their butts.' It was a different atmosphere out there."

"The fans were fired up," Force said. "They love it because it's different. It pumped me up and got my adrenaline up."

The one downside for the fans is everything happens in less time with fewer passes on the track. But there is an added element of danger with four nitro-burning machines powering down the track at the same time.

"I can't see anything that's going on in the other two lanes," Capps said. "You have no idea. So on Sunday, you can't just get out of the throttle if things don't go well off the line. I think you will see a lot of cars sideways, scraping the walls or worse trying to get to the finish line."

Brown thinks some wild things could happen after the finish line.

"We may need bodyguards at the top end to pull guys off each other," Brown said. "On race day people are going to stick their chests out and say, 'I ain't going in [the staging lines] right now.' We'll see some games and people will get mad."

Learning how to make it work will take time, but the drivers are enjoying the challenge.

"It's hectic," Capps said. "This is a work in progress for us, but it's also a lot of fun."

Brown thanked track owner Bruton Smith for having the vision to build a facility where four-wide racing was possible.

"This track is the Disneyland of drag racing, and this is a whole new roller coaster," Brown said. "This is the biggest and baddest deal in the sport and we're enjoying the ride. I'm glad to be a part of it."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.