Commentary

Biggest four-wide winner may be format

Updated: March 29, 2010, 6:15 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Ashley Force Hood ran the fastest 1,000 foot Funny Car pass ever at more than 316 mph and beat her two rivals at Don Schumacher Racing. But she lost the race to her 60-year-old dad, John Force.

Antron Brown was only 39 thousandths of a second behind Top Fuel winner Cory McClenathan, but Brown didn't even finish second.

Welcome to the four-wide world of drag racing. It was different from anything anyone had ever seen before, and that's not bad.

But whether the inaugural Four-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway become the annual Four-Wide Nationals is up for debate. Some people love it, some hate it and some aren't quite sure.

Place me in the love category. This was fun, even with a one-day rain delay to see the finals.

"I have mixed emotions," Force said after his victory. "I want to be positive about something that was fun for me, even though this thing could give you an ulcer."

Line up all the cars you want. Two-wide, four-wide, whatever. The old man still can get it done.

[+] EnlargeForce
Courtesy of NHRA There will be only one first-time Funny Car winner at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, and fittingly, John Force is that driver.

Force, a 14-time champion, had seen it all except for winning a four-wide race. So how does it rate for the man who has won more NHRA events than anyone else ever to sit on the starting line?

"Right at the top because the first one will never happen again," Force said. "I may even have a beer."

Force no longer drinks, but some competitors needed a cocktail or two after struggling with the new format. Cory Mac was not one of them.

He was one of two old pros battling it out to the finish line in the Top Fuel final. McClenathan, 47, mastered the four-wide concept to edge 45-year-old Doug Kalitta by 15 ten-thousandths of a second (about eight inches).

"I was happy with the whole thing," said McClenathan, who won at zMax last year in two-wide racing. "Yes, some things thrown at us were a little bit crazy. I'd like to call it controlled chaos. I don't know if that really covers it, but there was nothing cooler than seeing all four cars go down to the end."

Mike Edwards, who won in Pro Stock, said he's for it if the fans are for it. Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Matt Smith was downright giddy about it.

"Man, I love this four-wide deal," Smith said. "It was fun and different. I hope they do it both races here next year."

NHRA officials are noncommittal for now on running four-wide again next season.

"We're going to look at everything before making a determination," said Jerry Archambeault, the NHRA's vice president of communications. "We've been listening to what the fans in the stands are saying."

The zMax Dragway had a near sell-out crowd Saturday, but rainy weather kept people away Sunday. Only a few returned on Monday for the finals.

"I'm thrilled with the results this weekend," said Marcus Smith, president of the Charlotte complex that includes the drag strip. "The only thing that could have been better is the weather."

Bruton Smith, the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Marcus' father, owns four facilities that host NHRA events: Las Vegas, Sonoma, Bristol and zMax. They are four of the best facilities in the sport.

He built the first four-wide zMax track with hopes this day would come, but there were rumors that he had to drag (no pun intended) NHRA officials into it because they felt they owed it to him.

"We didn't have to pull them kicking and screaming," Marcus Smith said. "The NHRA was 100 percent supportive of it. It's easy to sit back and do what you've always done. But it takes extra effort and courage to do something different and controversial. It makes [the NHRA] a leader in my book."

Would Smith be surprised if the NHRA decided not to race four-wide again?

"I'd be shocked," he said. "This was a very successful event."

Ashley Force Hood Just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad. I think it would be cool to have this as a specialty event.

-- Ashley Force Hood

People often are resistant to change. Many of the same NHRA fans mad about going from a quarter-mile to 1,000 feet see the four-wide format as a gimmick to gain attention. Some drivers felt the same way.

"I heard a few drivers complain," McClenathan said. "But you know what, I've been doing this for 20 years in a Top Fuel car and you're not going to make everyone happy."

NHRA officials are considering a return to quarter-mile racing next year at tracks that can safely handle the longer distance (1,320 feet). So next season you could see 1,000-foot races, quarter-mile races, two-wide races and a four-wide race.

"Just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad," Ashley Force Hood said. "I think it would be cool to have this as a specialty event."

Some drivers would opt for a four-wide all-star race instead of a championship points event. Many drivers complained about the additional staging lights that were confusing at times.

The two scoreboards at the top end also didn't work for four finishers. Two additional scoreboards, in some fashion, were needed to list elapsed time and mph for all cars at the same time.

"A lot of issues need to be addressed, but we can figure that stuff out," Force said. "Maybe we need to learn to adapt to new things. In NASCAR they run different circle tracks and road courses. Some guys are good on one and not the other. Maybe we can do that here."

McClenathan believes they can and they should.

"Yes I won, so I might be a little biased," he said. "But the track was prepared great and it was safe. Those were my concerns. If we can be safe doing it, let's do 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.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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