STRAIGHT AHEAD WITH JEFF WOLF - TWO DOUBLE-DOUBLES ARE ENOUGH
It was evident three weeks ago in Las Vegas that fans like the four-wide concept of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
They liked it enough that sellout crowds were announced for Saturday and Sunday racing after a near-capacity crowd opened the Denso Four-Wide NHRA Nationals on Friday.
The Strip became the second permanent four-lane track in the world. Its Speedway Motorsports Inc. sister facility near Charlotte is the other.
This weekend, the mini four-wide tour moves to zMAX Dragway at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the 9th edition of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. It, too, will draw a crowd considerably larger than its two-wide fall event that is the fourth of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
I attended the first Las Vegas four-wide after having watched the last six quad events at Charlotte. My debut experience was memorable, but as a traditionalist that would have been enough.
Every racing fan should see it once to experience the full body experience of absorbing 40,000 horsepower firing up at the same time. The only thing comparable would be the launch of a space shuttle and we’re likely never to have the opportunity to absorb that power again.
The four-wide is one of countless visions of Bruton Smith, founder and chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. that hosts six NHRA Mello Yello events at four of its facilities. Smith likely was the only one at SMI who saw the possibilities for four-wide racing.
New fans love the format and apparently far outnumber the purists that shun it.
For traditionalists, Graham Light, NHRA senior vice president of racing operations, offered good news that no more four-wides are on the Mello Yello horizon.
“I believe the addition of a four-wide to Vegas now gives us one on the West Coast to go along with one on the East Coast,” said Light, a former Top Fuel driver who is retiring full-time from NHRA at the end of this season after 34 years with the governing body.
In other words, you won’t be seeing more than two double-doubles on the Mello Yello Tour.
Graham said that NHRA has no plans to widen any of its tracks, and the combination of money and space would prevent others from doing so and he doesn’t expect SMI to expand to four lanes at its tracks in Sonoma, California, and Bristol, Tennessee. He said widening Sonoma would adversely affect its double use for a NASCAR Cup road race, and Bristol would need to remove more of the bordering mountains.
Attendance results prove Smith and NHRA made the right move.
“There was some speculation and hesitation with the first four-wide at Charlotte about how successful it would be,” he said. “We expected a lot of people to show up out of curiosity and to see what it was all about. But we have seen continued growth each year and it’s become one of our biggest events.”
Word is Vegas spent between $5 million and $7 million to put in four new lanes, three guardwalls and infrastructure.
It has started to pay off.
The crowds at Las Vegas two weeks ago were outstanding; Friday was near capacity before sellouts were announced for Saturday and Sunday. And the track is believed to have 22,000 permanent seats.
“We supported adding four-wide to Vegas so we could have one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast,” Light said during a break in Las Vegas eliminations. “The turnout here is absolutely phenomenal. We expected to see growth (from the previous two-wide events in the spring) but what we’ve seen surpassed what we expected.”
This puts NHRA on par with the NASCAR Cup Series as each has two unique racing formats (Cup has two road races), and neither are in their respective playoffs.
“I don’t think it would be fair to have a four-wide race in the Countdown when pro drivers are racing for championships,” he said to rule out converting either of the tracks’ fall events to four-wides. “We need to be as consistent as possible at each of the six playoff races.”
Christian Byrd, a longtime SMI official, has overseen the zMAX dragstrip since before it opened in 2008, and has found ways to utilize the four-lane tracks in more ways than just for the Four-Wide Nationals.
He has conducted dual events with the pairs set up differently such as enabling “no prep racing” for street tires and those requiring conditions for racing tires that require more extensive track preparation competing on the same days.
Jeff Foster, manager at The Strip, says he expects to try similar events and other ways to use his four lanes.
So it looks those of us who have been against four-wide races counting toward Mello Yello championship points have to accept it as part of the NHRA landscape. And that includes Kalitta Motorsports driver J.R. Todd who won the Funny Car Wally Trophy at the inaugural four-wide at Las Vegas.
“The (four-wide) format — I’ve been saying all along, I’m not a fan of it,” Todd told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after winning the title. “But it’s definitely cool to be the winner of the first four-wide here in Las Vegas. So I guess I’ve got to somewhat like it.”
It took winning for Todd to consider his opinion of the four-wide concept.
The first of many four-wide winners for SMI was the first time they counted revenue from that first race in 2010 at Charlotte. That winning streak continues.