Unprecedented: 4 lanes for NHRA racing

CONCORD, N.C. -- The NHRA is going four-wide for real this season at the zMAX Dragway.

In an unprecedented move, the NHRA will race four cars together for the first time in actual competition during the inaugural NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in late March.

NHRA president Tom Compton and Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith made the announcement Thursday during the NASCAR Media Tour stop at the drag racing facility.

"Once again, the NHRA is making history at zMAX Dragway," Compton said. "It's certainly going to be spectacular to see."

The zMAX Dragway, which opened in 2008, is the only track on the NHRA circuit that has four lanes for racing.

All four lanes will be used at the same time for all four pro categories -- Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Cars, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle -- during qualifying sessions Friday and Saturday and final eliminations on Sunday, a historic change for the NHRA.

Funny Car legend John Force, a 14-time NHRA champion, flew to Charlotte for the announcement.

"I just found out two days ago," Force said. "Bruton called me and said, 'Get your butt up here.' He knows how fired up I am about this. It's our version of March Madness.

"A lot of racers have mixed feelings about it, but I love it. It's going to be one hell of a crowd-pleaser with four cars roaring down the track at 300 miles per hour. We'll pack the place."

The decision to use all four lanes came within the last week after NHRA officials discussed the plan with the Professional Racers Owners Organization (PRO), the NHRA's drivers and team owners group.

Smith, who calls zMAX Dragway the "Bellagio of drag strips," built the facility with the hope that four-wide drag racing would become a reality, but the NHRA and its teams were hesitant to try it in actual competition.

Only two lanes were used in the inaugural zMAX Dragway event in September 2008. But a four-wide racing exhibition (one pass for Top Fuel and one for Funny Cars) took place during the zMAX event last September, something that fans and NHRA drivers praised.

The NHRA awarded the zMax facility a second annual event for 2010, adding the spring race for March 26-28. But getting the NHRA to agree to race four-wide in competition was unexpected.

"We had so much positive feedback from our fans and drivers after the four-lane exhibition last year," Compton said. "So we decided to add this unique twist for a national event."

Some of the rules still need to be determined, but details of the initial plan include:

• Qualifying will use all four lanes for each pass in each pro class.

• Final eliminations will have three rounds using four cars on each pass. The top two finishers will advance in the first two rounds, setting up a final-four showdown.

• The driver who crosses the finish line first in the final four is the winner of the event. The runner-up finishes second, and so on.

Because of fewer rounds, final eliminations should take only 3½ hours to complete, making the NHRA eliminations similar to other professional events for the first time. The eliminations on March 28 are scheduled from noon to 3:30 p.m. ET.

One of the issues to work out is a new timing system to record four cars at the same time, along with synchronization of two Christmas tree poles for starting lights.

"Sure, there are some obstacles to overcome," Force said. "Tom realizes there are issues, but you have to change to keep moving forward."

Force was one of the drivers who participated in the four-wide exhibition last year at zMAX.

"I was like a little kid out there," Force said. "It gave me that same feeling I had the first time I ever sat in a Funny Car. To be honest, it was a little mass confusion for everyone because it was the first time.

"But to have four cars fire at once and all of us do our burnout? Smoke was everywhere. It was wild. I was the runner-up to my teammate, Mike Neff, but man, it was fun."

The NHRA doesn't plan on racing four-wide during the fall event (Sept. 16-19) at zMAX Dragway because it's one of six races in the NHRA's Countdown playoff.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com.