The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and its Camping World Drag Racing Series’ professional tour has two anomalies on the annual schedule and both are four-wide races. Just about two weeks ago, NHRA held the first of its two such events in Las Vegas; the second which, last year was sandwiched by the now-deceased Houston event, now follows this weekend.
This 13th annual Circle K NHRA 4Wide Nationals occurs at the first racetrack to adopt this type of straight-line racing: zMAX Dragway, which lies adjacent to the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway oval. Deep in the heart of NASCAR country, zMAX is owned by Speedway Motorsports, which also owns The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Even before the four scheduled qualifying sessions and final eliminations begin for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle racers, there will be grudge matches on Thursday night – free with a donation to Speedway charities – that pit NHRA against NASCAR racers, beginning at 6:15PM EDT. The matches will be emceed by NHRA’s Brian Lohnes and NASCAR’s Michael Waltrip. Some of the racers include Top Fuel standout Justin Ashley taking on NASCAR Cup Series rising star Tyler Reddick, three-time dragster champ Antron Brown against 223Xi’s Bubba Wallace, 2018 Funny Car titleholder J.R. Todd facing NASCAR Cup Series rookie Ty Gibbs, among other, as yet undisclosed matchups.
There’s also a race for two-year-old members of the NHRA family, wherein Tykes on Bikes will take place just before the fourth and final qualifying session Saturday evening. The off-spring of elite pro drivers will race on upgraded trikes, featuring five-across racing for the first time in drag racing history. The 50-foot track will feature action from children of four-time Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence and dragster racer Josh Hart’s daughters, Funny Car racer Blake Alexander’s son, Pro Stock standout Troy Coughlin Jr.’s and Pro Stock Motorcycle standout Joey Gladstone’s daughters.
Even with all of these side entertainments, the main course remains the four-wide racing in all Camping World classes, along with Pro Mod, Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp Super Gas, Top Sportsman, Top Dragster and Factory stock Showdown.
All of this activity makes for a busy weekend – or at least that’s the hope, because it’s looking very likely that rain could headline the activities. Rain had been falling steadily in the area and, with slight respite Thursday was expected to continue with thunderstorms on Friday, the possibility of partly cloudy skies on Saturday and thunder-borne showers for Sunday. Monday is supposed to be cooler and partly cloudy, so that’s when final eliminations could take place.
With 18 Top Fuel dragsters on the entry list, two racers won’t get to play on Sunday. Of course everyone in the Top 10 are on-site and raring for action. All the top-10 drivers will be on-site: Steve Torrence, Justin Ashley, Brittany Force, Antron Brown, Mike Salinas, Leah Pruett, Austin Prock, Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta and Josh Hart. Joining that group and hoping to upend the standings are eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, Clay Millican, Dan Mercier, Lex Joon, Pat Dakin, Keith Murt, Doug Foley and Jacob McNeal.
Torrence, who leads the standings after finishing runner-up to fellow Toyota racer Brown two weeks ago, is the sole driver to sweep the two races at zMAX in a single year (2018). No dragster driver has more wins in four-across events than the 40-year-old Texan, who has earned victory in five of the last six zMAX four-wide events. Brown, on the other hand, is one of three drivers who have an opportunity to sweep this particular swing, just as he’s swept the NHRA’s Western Swing. Matt Hagan and Dallas Glenn are the other two racers eligible to earn a sweep.
Funny Car is going forward with 16 entries this weekend, and none of the competitors has more success in this race than 16-time Flopper champ John Force, who is bringing his Chevrolet Camaro SS to Charlotte in the hopes of taking a fourth consecutive four-wide win overall. By virtue of a semifinal result in Las Vegas’ four-wide race, Force jumped from 13th to eighth in the standings. He holds the track records for this event, set last April when he won his third race here.
But Force – and every other Funny Car racer – chases Matt Hagan and his Tony Stewart Racing Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, who won the Las Vegas Four-Wide race less than two weeks ago. Hagan and his Top Fuel teammate Leah Pruett will be part of the NHRA/NASCAR grudge matches – how appropriate is that with a team owner like Tony Stewart? Stewart, by the way, is another driver eligible for double-up on the four-wide win ladders.
Reigning champ Ron Capps, who’s 105 points behind former teammate Hagan, is the 2017 winner of this race and will be working to top his four-race results, where he has recorded two runner-up finishes and a single No. 1 qualifier in his Toyota GR Supra. The balance of the top 10 in Funny Car are all on the entry list: Alexis DeJoria (Toyota GR Supra), Chad Green (Ford Mustang), Robert Hight (Chevy Camaro SS), Bob Tasca III and Tim Wilkerson (Ford Mustang), Force, Cruz Pedregon (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) and Blake Alexander’s Mustang.
Joining this group and hoping to upend the standings are Alex Laughlin in Jim Dunn’s Flopper, Dave Richards and his Mustang, a Dodge for John Smith, Dale Creasy Jr.’s Dodge Stratus and Mike McIntire Jr.’s Toyota Camry. Capps summed up the four-wide duels well: “This early in the year, you’re not necessarily watching the points, per se, and these two four-wide races are kind of one-off events that you have to approach differently. I’ve always thought of them as sort of an all-star race because, if you can succeed and win a four-wide, you’ve really achieved something!”
Pro Stock wasn’t invited to the Circle K 4Wide Nationals last year, but they’re on the docket for this event. By virtue of his pair of victories in two of the four races held to date, Dallas Glenn has command of the Pro Stock standings. He, together with the balance of the top 10 in points, will be on the grounds to try and either increase the 51-point lead, in Glenn’s case, or take it away. With 23 cars on the entry list and all but six of them Chevrolet Camaros, this might look like a “spec” class. It’s not, when so many talented crew chiefs and drivers have the cojones to try new tricks to make their cars the quickest of the bunch.
Glenn, Troy Coughlin Jr., Matt Hartford, Camrie Caruso,. Aaron Stanfield, Bo Butner III, Greg Anderson, Cristian Cuadra (Ford Mustang) Kyle Koretsky and Mason McGaha make up the top 10 in points. They’ll have to contend with drivers like five-time champ Erica Enders, Deric Kramer, Alan Prusiensky’s Dodge Dart, Val Smeland, Kenny Delco, Brandon Miller’s Dodge, Larry Morgan, Jerry Tucker, Fernando Cuadra, Fernando Cuadra Jr. and David Cuadra, the latter three all driving Ford Mustangs this weekend.
Last year’s Pro Stock Motorcycle winner here was the ageless Steve Johnson and his Suzuki motorcycle. Johnson rode near or at the top of the PSM standings for much of the year but eventually ceded to Matt Smith, who took his sixth title in the class. The scenery has changed a lot since 2022. While there’s only been a single contest for this class, it was Vance & Hines’ newest capture, Gaige Herrera, who earned his first Wally winner’s trophy at the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals in March, giving him the class lead over Angie Smith, Chase Van Sant of WAR Racing, Jianna Evaristo, Matt Smith, Eddie Krawiec, Ryan Oehler, Joey Gladstone, Johnson and Chip Ellis. All but Oehler and Ellis are riding Suzuki motorcycles; they’re on Buells.
With 17 riders on the grounds, the field is heavily tilted to Suzuki success, but that is why we hold races. Upsetting the apple cart with full-blown competition – particularly with 4-wide racing – can change the standings as fast as a 200mph ride down the quarter-mile. In addition to our top 10 riders, Jerry Savoie returns to competition and makes the WAR team a triple threat with Van Sant and John Hall under that umbrella, while Marc Ingwersen on his Buell, Chris Bostick, Marcus Hylton’s Buell, Hector Arana Jr.,’s Buell, Ron Tornow on his EBR and Kelly Clontz are looking to upset the points tally. With 11 Suzukis on the grounds, it looks like a “gimme” for the brand, but isn’t that why we hold races?
Having the two four-wide contests together allows crew chiefs to continue on a quest they began less than two weeks ago. Knowing the track, knowing the conditions, which could change a lot this weekend, and knowing what they might need to make a good pass is what makes drag racing so interesting, even when held under traditional circumstances. With the unusual 4-wide setups, at least once the race is over, crew chiefs can be set aside their nottes until next year’s pair of contests.