Four-wide exhibitions steal the show
CONCORD, N.C. -- Not a person was sitting at the zMax Dragway late Sunday afternoon as Top Fuel dragsters moved to the start line. Funny Car star John Force was more hyper than normal pacing from lane to lane, hugging whoever was within reach and exchanging barbs with fans as he anticipated more than 28,000 horsepower being unleashed all at once.
No, this wasn't the final.
That wouldn't be nearly as dramatic, with ninth-seed Cory McClenathan beating No. 7 Shawn Langdon. Nothing over the past four days during the first round of the NHRA playoffs was close to what we were about to witness.
This was four-lane racing. The future of the sport.
At least we can only hope.
The pair of exhibitions staged between four Top Fuel cars and four Funny Cars, the first time in modern NHRA history this has taken place, was everything it was built up to be. The earth moved and windows shook as the engines exploded in unison.
It was made even more exciting because most of those participating were ranked near the top of their division after being eliminated in first-round upsets.
Nobody was more pumped than Force, who finished second to Mike Neff in the Funny Car exhibition that went first. If you thought he was certifiably crazy before, you should have heard him afterward.
"I have not had this much excitement since high school football when we charged the cheerleaders' showers when they were naked," the 60-year-old Force said. "I'm telling you, it's a rush. You're out there and you're like, 'This is illegal! You can't do this! This is not fair! This is not rational!'
"No s---! This is how it is. We ought to thank Bruton Smith [for] how bitchin' this is."
Smith is the billionaire owner of this one-of-a-kind facility, which he calls the Bellagio of drag racing. He built four lanes because he said he believes this truly is the future of the sport.
The NHRA already is the second-most watched form of motorsports in the United States behind NASCAR, even though most of its events are televised on tape-delay because the lags between professional-class races are too long.
A typical final like this one will take five to six hours. With four lanes, alternating two-lane runs in particular for the lower divisions, one NHRA official estimated that time would be cut in half.
There are concerns. Drivers worry that one pair of lanes might be faster and give teams a competitive advantage. Then there's the simple fact this is the only facility with four lanes and most aren't large enough to expand.
But the risks are worth the reward if somebody can figure out a way to make this a regular part of the series.
The exhibition was so bitchin' -- sorry, but there's no better word for it -- that you wonder if the top seeds threw their opening round just to be a part of it. Antron Brown, the top seed in Top Fuel coming in, certainly didn't seem disappointed.
Neither did sixth-seeded Spencer Massey, who won the Top Fuel exhibition.
"For sure, we come to win the race and go for the Full Throttle championship," Massey said. "But this four-wide deal was something. It's unbelievable. To have the opportunity to be a part of something like this is a part of history.
"It's something I'm proud to be a part of. Everybody sitting on this stage should be very proud to be going down the track with one another at the same time. It's unbelievable."
Even the burnouts were crazy. Force and Del Worsham used up almost all 1,000 feet of the track instead of the typical 400 feet they use before a points race.
"A big opportunity to do some big burnouts," Worsham said. "We just let it hang out, man. I thought I was way out there and John was like 10 cars ahead of me."
Then there were the lights on the tree -- or in this case trees -- that signal drivers when to start. There were so many (32) that Force thought he was seeing double.
"I'm still dizzy," he said. "I've been doing this a long time. I saw it in the old days. I heard about it and read about it."
Then when he actually was a part of it, "my adrenalin went crazy."
The anticipation began around 4:10 p.m. when the gates blocking the two lanes that have been silent all weekend were removed and a traction substance was applied. Fans that were behind the stands buying souvenirs and eating greasy food moved into the main arena.
Force was too busy pacing between two of his four cars -- daughter Ashley Force Hood and son-in-law Robert Hight -- in the Funny Car semifinals to think far ahead to the exhibition.
The son-in-law won by 19 inches and then beat Matt Hagan in the final.
But in between, John Force was all about the exhibition. Everybody was. All eight drivers that competed wanted a copy of the scoring sheet, whether they were first or fourth.
"It's like John said, there's nothing more exciting," said Morgan Lucas, who finished last in the Top Fuel exhibition. "I had the best seat in the house. I smoked the tires and got to watch all of those wings go down there and drop their chutes. It's something I hope we get to do more often."
McClenathan didn't get to see the exhibition. He was too busy preparing for the final. But he can't wait to see a replay and if the NHRA added it for qualifying runs one day he knows he'd be first in line going, "Let me, let me, let me."
Maybe one day it will happen. This gave a lot of people plenty to think about.
"Somebody smarter than me has to figure this out," Force said.
He's right about that. But if something like four-lane racing can take Force's excitement level to a new high, then imagine what it could do for the sport.
"Let me tell you something," Brown told Force. "All of us back here, boy, when you [talked about rushing] them showers, you had our eyes all lit up. We were just wondering what drug you're on now. We want some of that."
No drug. It was just a natural high.
"And don't forget, there's a race out here still to run," Force added, reminding the finals were still to come. "Pretty awesome."
No, it was pretty bitchin'.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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