Four-Wide racing is two-wide too many

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Jerry Bonkowski

Alright, admit it, at some time in your life, you've punched the gas pedal leaving from a traffic light to get a jump on the car next to you.

The light turned green and the race was on. It was the thrill and exhilaration of speed and going fast, trying to show that you and your car were badder and faster than the other guy.

It's a feeling that never gets old – or any less enjoyable when your hemi-powered Charger of today leaves that lame Honda Accord in your dust.

Why do you think Detroit still makes muscle cars like the Charger, Challenger, Mustang, Corvette, Viper and more? Simple: U.S. drivers like to go fast.

Mike Neff, John Force, Jim Head and Jack Beckman
Mike Neff, John Force, Jim Head and Jack Beckman

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

But herein lies the rub: when you or me or even grandma want to get somewhere in a hurry, we typically battle one opposing car at a time, be it a slow poke or someone who is more interested in their cell phone conversation than what they're doing behind the wheel.

That's why I wonder why the NHRA is moving into its third season of the 4-Wide Nationals this weekend at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte, N.C.

Granted, track owner Bruton Smith truly has built a facility that deserves its nickname of "the Bellagio of dragstrips," complete with bells and whistles and amenities that put virtually every other drag strip in the universe to shame.

One of the main things that makes zMAX Dragway stand out is it's essentially two tracks in one, with four lanes of racing available – the only four-lane, all-concrete drag strip of its kind in the world – to boost fans' interest and enthusiasm, at least in theory.

But I'm a purist – not to mention an old fart. Drag racing has always been, and will continue to be a two-car sport. If we want four lanes, go on the interstate, or traipse through the checkout lanes of your local grocery store, not on a drag strip.

That being said, I'll once again this weekend try for the third time to give this new-fangled format yet another chance when it comes to benefit of the doubt – but I'm not going to hold my breath that lighting will strike, storm clouds will part and I'll suddenly become a four-wide convert.

Pro Stock cars awaiting a qualifying round
Pro Stock cars awaiting a qualifying round

Photo by: Ted Rossino

When Smith, zMAX and NHRA debuted the first-ever 4-Wide Nationals in 2010, it was the talk of the motorsports world. It was a bold, brash, unique twist on what is one of the most simple and easy to understand and follow forms of motorsports in the world. Green light at the starting line comes on, drivers mash the gas pedal and 1,000 feet and a few seconds later, either you or the guy in the other lane emerges victorious.

Doesn't get any simpler than that. How we wish everything else in life was that simple.

In a two-lane sport, Smith decided to take that theory to the next level when he broke ground for zMAX Dragway, adding a second set of lanes to allow select races within the event to not only have side-by-side racing, but rather side-by-side-by-side-by-side racing.

The fans were thrilled by the end result in the inaugural event, watching four cars in each of the major pro classes – Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock – take on each other to determine who would be the eventual overall event winner in their respective classes.

However, ask a number of pro drivers in the TF, FC and PS classes their opinion of racing four-wide, and you will get some of the most divided opinions you'll ever hear. Publicly, most drivers in the NHRA pro ranks will gush openly about how much they love the four-wide racing. Privately, however, I've had several big-name drivers admit to me their disdain for what most perceive as nothing more than a gimmick.

If you were at the 4-Wide finals last year, the stands were maybe two-thirds full – and that's being generous. Don't believe me? Look at some of the homemade videos on YouTube to see all the empty seats. It's pretty clear to me that Charlotte-area drag racing fans are not enamored with the four-wide tweak to what has been a solely two-car province since Ford and Chevrolet squared off for the first time at the beginning of the last century to see whose car was fastest.

Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Del Worsham
Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Del Worsham

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

To me, four-wide competition is like watching slot cars on a track in your basement (sorry, those of you under 20 probably have no idea what a slot car or slot car track is – Google it and you'll find out), or maybe Hot Wheels cars on steroids.

Ever since the late Wally Parks founded the NHRA in 1951, the sport of drag racing has always been about one driver and one car against another driver and car.

That's it, one-on-one. Any more and it's like the old saying, "Two's a couple, three's (or more) a crowd."

At the same time, I can understand using four lanes if approaching weather is a concern: you want to get the event in and get the fans on their way before the skies let loose. But that's more the exception, rather than the rule.

When Smith first began courting the NHRA to bring one (and eventually two national events) to Charlotte, the four-wide concept was a key selling point – even though many drivers didn't like the idea then, and still don't like it today.

A drag race is hard enough to keep track of when two cars – particularly of the nitro-burning Top Fuel and Funny Car variety – are flying down 1,000 feet of pavement at 320 mph or more in under five seconds.

Having four cars racing down at those speeds -- and in that practically blink of an eye pace -- makes for a less not more enjoyable experience for the fans. Rather than excitedly exclaim, "Wow, did you see that?" when two cars battle each other to the finish line, four-wide racing lends itself to fans saying something else like, "Geez, did you see what happened to the other two cars? I missed it because there were just too many darned cars on the track to keep track of."

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Series NHRA
Tags 4-wide nationals, bonkowski, charlotte, featured, zmax dragway

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