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Thursday, April 14, 2011
Updated: April 16, 5:14 PM ET
NHRA drivers gear up for four-wide

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

The NHRA drivers won't be skipping into the zMax Dragway this weekend singing hallelujah hymns. But they're back, begrudgingly so, maybe, for the second annual Four-Wide Nationals.

  

The only thing louder than the 32,000 horsepower at the starting line last year at Charlotte was all the complaining by the drivers and team owners.

A full-fledged revolution was at hand over the first NHRA event with four cars blasting down the track at once. The competitors banded together in their disgust; too crazy, too dangerous, too hard to understand and just too different all around for them to want to try it again.

Most of them signed a petition saying they wouldn't do it again.

Well, guess what. They're doing it again.

Four Wide Nationals
NHRA racers voted 60-3 last year not to race four-wide in any future championship points races. Well, guess what? They're doing it again.

And it's a good thing, too, because the wow factor was bigger and better than anything anyone ever had seen on a drag strip.

"If the fans love it and the place is sold out, I'll go eight-wide," said Funny Car driver Bob Tasca. "I really don't feel it'll play a big role in who wins or loses the race."

Most drivers felt differently a year ago. They didn't like it and didn't want it. The petition, which some drivers signed before the event started, was an ultimatum.

The vote was 60-3 against doing it again, listing safety issues, confusion, sponsor identification problems and a circuslike atmosphere. The letter was sent to NHRA president Tom Compton and zMax Dragway owner Bruton Smith, the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc.

Big mistake. Don't make a power play against Smith, one of the most powerful men in motor sports.

He spent $65 million to build the zMax Dragway, the first with four racing lanes and easily the best facility in the NHRA. He also owns three other top tracks that host NHRA events in Las Vegas, Sonoma, Calif., and Bristol, Tenn.

Smith called their bluff, threatening to back away and eliminate the event, even saying, "Is the IHRA [International Hot Rod Association] in town that weekend?"

Two weeks later, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached to have a second four-wide show in 2011.

"I still feel like it's a little bit of a gimmick," Top Fuel racer Morgan Lucas said. "Some fans like it; some fans don't. It's a work in progress for the NHRA to make this as smooth as possible for everybody. They are fine-tuning the process, which I guess is good."

The drivers won some concessions, one of which is a new Christmas tree, the series of lights on the starting line that signal to drivers when to hit the throttle.

"It's something the drivers recommended," Tasca said. "It'll simplify the tree. I really didn't have a problem with it last year. I truthfully feel your level of concentration to stage is going to be what it's going to be."

There was enormous confusion last year about the staging lights, with drivers uncertain whether all four competitors had fully staged before the starting lights came on.

The new system seems easier to understand. It has four circular, blue staging lights. The top half of the circle lights up as a driver pre-stages. The bottom half illuminates when the driver stages, making it a full circle.

Dragway x-mas tree
The NHRA has come up with a new tree to help drivers stage for four-wide racing.

It's also an LED lighting system for the first time.

"This is something we're going to have to do anyway," NHRA vice president Jerry Archambeault said. "We're not going to be able to get the [incandescent] bulbs we use now in the future. So this is a way to test these LED lights for all our tracks."

Regardless of the lights used, no doubt you'll hear more complaining from the drivers who struggle at zMaz this weekend. Racing four-wide still is two too many for some competitors.

"I just don't like racing when I can't see [all] the other cars," Funny Car driver Matt Hagan said. "It can be dangerous.

"If you have a problem in a regular race, you might shut off if you see you can't beat the guy in the other lane. On race day in the four-wide, you have to take it to the end just in case the drivers you can't see [beyond the wall in the center of the four lanes] are in worse shape than you. You can't shut it off. You have to take it to the finish."

Like many competitors, Hagan would rather race four-wide as an all-star event but not as part of the season championship.

"It's tough to race [for championship points] like this in such an unnatural setting,'' he said. "At least it's early in the season."

John Force A lot of guys were confused last year. Heck, I was confused. I just studied it long enough to figure it out.

-- Funny Car champion John Force

The inaugural winners of the four-wide event were some of the most experienced drivers in the sport -- Cory McClenathan in Top Fuel, John Force in Funny Car and Mike Edwards in Pro Stock.

"A lot of guys were confused last year," said Force, who won his 15th Funny Car title in 2010. "Heck, I was confused. I just studied it long enough to figure it out. I was up there [at the starting line] every chance I got watching the lanes, seeing how it worked."

 

Studying the lights didn't help some drivers. Greg Anderson, who won his fourth Pro Stock title last season, didn't make it out of the first round in the four-wide show.

"I applaud Bruton for trying to bring some extra excitement to our sport and our fans,'' Anderson said. "But it's certainly tougher on the drivers. To go completely outside of our comfort zone for this one race is a little disconcerting.

 

"With the changes to the tree and other things, we can't race on instinct as we normally do. We'll have to think about what we're doing. Drivers have proven many times that thinking is not our strong suit."

The thoughts and feelings they have this week probably include disgust, disdain and even a little repugnance.

But they're back. And no one is kicking and screaming or signing any petitions. Not yet, anyway.

Terry Blount is a senior writer 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.