This week the NHRA has a Carolina calling with the return of the sixth annual 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s the renewal of the 4-wide scene for drag racing, and from a promoter’s point of view, it should be one of NHRA’s biggest races garnering lots of attention.
But it’s not. Getting fans to embrace the 4-Wide format has been a struggle. Attendance is down and fan enthusiasm is low. So what happened? In this sport of big noise and big power, why isn’t bigger equaling better for fans?
Track owner Bruton Smith clearly feels that if two lanes of racing is good, four is great, and he’s convinced he can turn others to his way of thinking. Smith is a big-picture guy and envisioned a show that people couldn’t get just anywhere. They had to come to zMax to see four lanes of drag racing at once. He went the extra mile, or a couple of extra quarter-mile, to bring fans a one-of-kind show that can’t be duplicated anywhere in the world.
The problem is that race fans are failing to embrace it. The biggest qualm fans have expressed is the overabundance of sensory input. It’s difficult to catch all the action with four cars running. Fans don’t want to miss any of the clashes on the track, and trying to train your eye on four lanes instead of two is a challenge. Fans are then relying on the giant video screens to watch replay and it’s frustrating trying to watch it all.
From a driver’s perspective, though, zMax is a dream, although running there has been an adjustment for them as well. Drivers are growing accustomed to the two additional lanes of racing and it’s rare to hear anything but compliments about the set up on the surface. Last year’s winners, Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jimmy Alund (Pro Stock), Andrew Hines (Pro Stock) seem to have full command of that environment.
One racer, who hasn’t seen Charlotte’s Winner’s Circle, but has been in three final rounds, is unlikely Funny Car driver, Tim Wilkerson. History illustrates that Wilk has shown a propensity for finding his way into that final foursome on previous Sundays in Charlotte, as well. In the first five running’s of the 4-Wide Nationals, he’s advanced to the final round three times, but has yet to crack into the Winner’s Circle or the runner-up position. All three times, he finished outside the top two and was saddled with a semifinal finish.
As Wilk sees it, it’s twice the drama, double the size, and two times the opportunity for success.
“We’ve all gotten used to it now, so there’s not the crazy feeling of being a little lost doing something you’re supposed to know how to do, which is what it was like the first time around,” Wilkerson said. “That first year, we were all figuring it out on the run, and some of us never figured it out, but now the crew chiefs and the drivers know the drill and we get it all done without too much trouble.
“At the 4-Wides, on Sunday you don’t have to be the quickest car in your lap, you just have to be one of the two quickest. If you do that twice, you have a chance to win the whole thing.”
Talking with drag racing fans in Charlotte area, none of whom wished to be named, it’s clear that it’s all about the viewing and while they love the cacophony of four nitro machines in sync – a noise unmatched anywhere – the race is really all about the view.
“I can appreciate having a first class track so close to home and we try to make both of the Charlotte NHRA races, but we prefer what we call ‘regular’ drag racing,” said a young lady, who is a big Greg Anderson fan. “You just can’t see, and my husband and I get frustrated by that. We love the sound, meeting the drivers and it’s a great place to get up with our friends. They are like us; you can’t watch all four drivers in the race. We’ve tried to understand it, but all the other tracks we go to are two wide.”
“I love drag racing,” said a North Carolina man in his 30s. “I just can’t understand the purpose. I always thought drag racing was two cars competing. Now with four, it’s just so much to see and you really can’t keep up with what’s going on the track. The scoreboards are lit up but I can’t tell which lane is which. I normally wait on the announcer to tell me what the best run of the bunch was. The win light doesn’t mean much because each side has two cars…who won?”
The empty seats in recent years back up the fan perspective. Attendance has been down and fans have been signaling to the sanctioning body that they don’t approve.
That won’t change anyone’s mind in Glendora, California. Bruton Smith built it and it will work and it will be unchanging because he says so. With all the contributions that Smith has made to motorsports, you have to wonder what future vision he sees that can weather fan indifference. Will they grow to embrace it once it becomes more familiar?
The NHRA must think so as the series continues to run there, signaling tacit approval of this one-of-a-kind racing, and with attendance down in all venues, you can’t blame them for trying to spice up the show and draw in new folks with fewer preconceived notions of drag racing format.
Rumors abound that Bruton may change the format, offering huge prize money and a national network broadcast of the nitro head to heads. It could be much like the Winston ‘No Bull’ Showdown – a 24-car field of Funny Cars against Top Fuel Dragsters for a winner’s purse of $200K. That would interest the car owners and the racers, but for the fans, it still all comes down to just wanting to see great racing. That’s all.
But for now, the status quo at zMax is 4-Wide racing and if Bruton Smith wants it that way, then that’s the way it’s going to be. Case closed.
This year’s show will be live this Sunday, March 29. ESPN will provide coverage on Sunday starting at 2 p.m. EDT., and the Mello Yello Series racing will begin at 1 p.m. ET LIVE at the track on WatchESPN.com.
Photos courtesy of NHRA Media.