Commentary

Four-wide fun at zMAX Dragway

Updated: April 19, 2013, 1:39 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

With a rigidly defined, 1,000-foot, straight-line course, there's not much that can be done to spice up drag racing, right?

Wrong.

Doubling the number of lanes from two to four for the Dollar General 4-Wide Nationals creates exponential change for the NHRA Mello Drag Racing Series.

[+] EnlargeFour Wide
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsNHRA Funny Car drivers (from top) Johnny Gray, Alexis DeJoria, Mike Neff and Blake Alexander in the 2012 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

This is the fourth time that the NHRA will go four-wide at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, N.C., and it's fair to say the experiment has been a success so far. Big crowds and fast speeds, including the first 330 mph Top Fuel pass over 1,000 feet in series history, have come part and parcel with the four-wide era.

Not to mention the mind-blowing (and eardrum-pounding) spectacle of experiencing four cars simultaneously rip down the strip.

It's a trip, too, for the drivers, who almost endure sensory overload as they adapt to what is a radically different mindset before every elimination run.

"When you have a car on each side, you feel like the sky's falling on you," remarked seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, who has won two-lane races at zMAX Dragway but has yet to conquer the four-wide format. "It's intense. It's an incredible amount of pressure.

"That's one I'd definitely like to put on the list."

Schumacher holds the zMAX track record ET of 3.749 seconds, established during a two-lane race last September, while Spencer Massey's 332.18 mph pass from the four-wide event one year ago stands as the NHRA's National speed record for a 1,000-foot pass.

"Simply put, the last race we ran 330 miles an hour, the conditions were just perfect," Schumacher said. "You can't run speeds like that. We haven't previous to that; we haven't since then, if I recall. It was just amazing air, and the track surface helped, too."

Sophomore sensation Courtney Force already has scored one event win this season, and the 24-year-old Californian arrives at zMAX with the Funny Car points lead.

While it hasn't yet achieved major status like the U.S. Nationals and events at Pomona, Calif., and Englishtown, N.J., Force cites the 4-wide Nationals as one of her favorites.

"This is the Bellagio of drag strips, and there is nothing like seeing 40,000 horsepower as the cars go four-wide," Force said. "This is the only track on the circuit that's built for this, so it's always a challenge to come and race here. It's a little bit overwhelming for a driver, but it's always exciting to see.

"I love that it's unique and different, and it definitely makes it cool for the fans -- it's fun to put on a great show for them. Although it's going to be nerve-wracking because there's so much going on -- so many other cars and lanes to focus on, kind of having to relearn the Christmas tree -- I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a challenge, but that's what I like about it."

Pro Stock Motorcycle has not been part of the four-wide slate since the inaugural event in 2010, but the two-wheelers are back to compete on four lanes this weekend.

Matt Smith, whose team operates out of nearby Winston-Salem, won that 2010 event and he counts it as one of his most memorable triumphs.

"

This is the Bellagio of drag strips, and there is nothing like seeing 40,000 horsepower as the cars go four-wide. ... It's a little bit overwhelming for a driver, but it's always exciting to see.

" -- Courtney Force

"To be able to be the only one that's won that race to date is a great accomplish for me and my team," Smith said. "I really adapted to the four-wide thing right away. A lot of people struggled with it, but I adapted to it right away."

Hector Arana Jr. leads the PSM points after claiming victory in the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., the only event the motorcycles have contested in 2013. Smith is ninth in the standings.

"I don't think I'm going to approach it any differently," Arana noted. "I'm going to go up there and do my thing and do like I always do before I even prestage. I'll pay attention to the lights and make sure everybody prestages and stages. I'll be staying focused on the yellow bulb, and as soon as it drops, I'm ready to go."

With the cars in their fourth year running four-wide, the initial questions and concerns about the feasibility of the format have disappeared. Now all that matters is the spectacle.

"The first year, I didn't know what to expect," said perennial Funny Car front-runner Cruz Pedregon. "The second year, I was on the fence, thinking, 'Man, is this going to be something we're going to do all the time?' Third year, we went to the final four and lost to Robert Hight by not even half a car length. I noticed the enthusiasm was back. I loved it.

"So it's exciting. If I wasn't racing in it, I'd love to get up there in the top part of the grandstand, about half-track, and watch it -- because I think it would be pretty cool."

Qualifying highlights will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. ET Saturday, with eliminations scheduled for Sunday at 7 p.m.

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