Author: Burgess, Phil
Date published: March 26, 2010
It just keeps getting better, doesn't it? The weather and track hiccups in Phoenix aside, the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series is off to a ripsnorting start that only figures to get more interesting and definitely more exciting as we head to zMax Dragway and the historic NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
The 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline was a huge hit on all fronts, from the nostalgia element to John Force's wonderful comeback win, and the recent Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals lived up to that great event's legacy of amazing competition with a record-busting weekend at Gainesville Raceway.
The points races in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock all got a little shake-up and a little tightening up, setting the stage for the four-wide event.
I wasn't fortunate enough to be at zMax last September when NHRA and track owner Bruton Smith staged a pair of four-wide exhibitions - one each in Top Fuel and Funny Car - but those who were there were more than a little awestruck by the sight and sound of 30,000 horsepower hurtling as one down the unique side-by-side tracks.
This time, of course, will be quite a bit different: What may have been a fun thrill ride for the eight drivers in the exhibition is all of a sudden very serious business. Getting to the win stripe first this time will mean more than just pride, and finishing third or fourth in any of the four-car races won't result in a "Well, we were proud just to participate" statement.
With NHRA Full Throttle points and prize money on the line, this one is for keeps, and points accumulated in Charlotte will weigh as valuably on championship hopes as those from any event on the tour. That, however, is not to say that the thrill of winning the event will be equal to any other this year; I'm quite sure that each of the four winners will be four-wide with pride at having won the first points-earning four-wide event in drag racing history.
Four-wide racing was a semi-regular occurrence at match race tracks in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it was never tried at a national event with so much on the line. You have to admire the outsidethe- box thinking of Smith to build a track capable of handling such an event and the willingness and open-mindedness of NHRA management to allow a nontraditional format to be introduced into a wellestablished program. Sure, the easy thing would have been to stage it as a stand-alone, no-points event - similar to the Top Fuel vs. Funny Car Showdowns that NHRA staged in Bristol in 1999 and 2000 - but making it a part of the real deal just ups the ante for everyone involved.
Sure, some fans aren't crazy about the format and claim that it tramples on the long drag racing tradition of "two go down, one comes back," but people weren't exactly thrilled when rear-engine dragsters replaced the venerable slingshot rails, either, and we all know how that worked out. I think that the majority of fans are eager to see the experiment play out, especially because the results are just 1/23 of the championship equation. A bad showing won't destroy anyone's season.
There's so much to be gained for the sport in exposure for this unique event that the plusses will far outweigh any unforeseen difficulties. A lot of homework has gone into staging this event, from a reworking of policies and procedures - such as the "first or worst" rule, which now, I guess, becomes the "first or worstest" rule - to the reconfiguring of the timing and starting systems, using knowledge gained from September's exhibitions. Be sure to check out Candida Benson's preview of the fourwide racing on page 60, which explains the nuances and shares the expectations of some.
And me? Yep, I'll be there. No way I'm going to miss it this time.
As you can read throughout this issue, the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals was one for the record books, with three national records falling and career bests recorded by the bushel. Everyone seems to be stepping up and jockeying for whatever advantage he or she can find. We're just three races into the season, and already we've seen two huge personnel changes, which probably speaks volumes about the desire and intensity and the stakes at hand.
The rumble coming into Gainesville surrounded the likely departure from John Force Racing of John Medlen, who had been with the team since 1996, for the Don Schumacher camp, and that actually came to pass during the event, or at least the announcement did. Brad Littlefield does a wonderful job of explaining the significance of this movement - the gains for Schumacher and potential losses for Force - in his Between Rounds column on page 16.
The other major news came two days after the event, when Kenny Bernstein released crew chief Rob Flynn and his assistant, Mike Guger, from their tuning duties with the Copart dragster. The team hasn't exactly struggled this year - winning a round at two of the season's first three events and holding on to a top 10 berth - but Flynn's vaunted "Canadian horsepower" hasn't gotten to the ground in Olympic gold-medal proportions, and apparently, KB would rather make a move now instead of further down the road. I'm sure that Flynn and Guger will be gobbled up by a needy team before long and that Todd Smith will live up to Bernstein's faith in him.
Before we get to Charlotte and the four-wide mania, coming to the plate next is the first of three SPORTSnationals events this season, the JEGS NHRA Cajun SPORTSnationals at No Problem Raceway Park in Belle Rose, La. Pat Joffrion is well-regarded as one of the great track operators in the business and throws the doors open wide for Sportsman racers at his annual bayou bash. A lot of good fun goes on between the brutal racing on the track.
On May 14-16, Auto Club Dragway at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., will host the JEGS NHRA Pacific SPORTSnationals presented by K&N - the race had been held in the fall but was moved up in the rotation - and the series will conclude on the home turf of the sponsoring Coughlin clan, National Trail Raceway in Hebron, Ohio, Sept. 24-26 with the JEGS NHRA Northern SPORTSnationals.
The SPORTSnationals name has a rich NHRA tradition; various events have been held since the mid-1970s, beginning with the original at Beech Bend Raceway Park (1974-80) in Bowling Green, Ky., before short-lived stops at the old Houston Int'l Raceway (1981-82) and O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis (1983-84). The SPORTSnationals returned to Bowling Green in 1985-86, which marked the beginning of the Allstars program also sponsored by our friends at JEGS. Seven years ago, NHRA reintroduced the SPORTSnationals concept at No Problem Raceway Park and drew rave reviews from racers and spectators, which led to the expansion to three events to serve the nation's racers.
We'll have complete coverage of that event as well as Full Throttle results from the NHRA Four- Wide Nationals in two weeks, plus Lucas Oil and Pro Mod coverage from Gainesville in the week between. The season's just starting to warm up, and I say, "Bring the heat!" ND