NHRA heads to Charlotte for Four-wide Nationals

The Four-wide Nationals at ZMax Dragway are almost upon us.

NHRA heads to Charlotte for Four-wide Nationals
Top Fuel winner Leah Pritchett
Leah Pritchett
Eric Medlen and J.R. Todd in 2008
Funny Car winner John Force
John Force warmup with Jimmy Prock
Leah Pritchett
Troy Coughlin Jr.
Jerry Savoie

Last weekend the series held its SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway outside Houston, Texas.

This coming weekend is the most unique of all 24 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series contests, the Four-Wide Nationals held on zMax Dragway next to Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. Finally, a road trip of a couple of hours southbound awaits teams and drivers as they travel to Atlanta Dragway, north of that Georgia city (and a bit north of the road-race course at Braselton, Road Atlanta).

30th annual SpringNationals

The 30th annual NHRA SpringNationals yielded a third 2017 victory for Top Fuel racer Leah Pritchett, who drives a Papa John’s Pizza Mopar dragster from the deep Don Schumacher Racing stables. She defeated Texan Steve Torrence to gain her Wally trophy.

Funny Car went to reigning titleholder Ron Capps’ NAPA Dodge Charger R/T flopper, also from the DSR entry, giving that team its fourth “double-up” in the five races held this year; Pritchett’s and Capps’ victories mark the 68th time the team has swept both Top Fuel and Funny Car categories.

There was a brand new winner in Pro Stock, as sophomore Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro driver Bo Butner finally hoisted a Wally trophy as a professional. The driver has won 15 times in Lucas Oil sportsman classes but has come up short every time he’s been a finalist - until now.  It may have taken eight tries for Butner, who was the No. 2 qualifier in Houston.

“We finally got it off our back,” he said. “It’s been dangled out in front of me and I always, always had a chance to win. Today it happened, and who knows? Maybe it will start rolling like a snowball.”

We’ll see about that.

Now it's time to go four-wide

The Four-Wide NHRA Nationals, being held for the eighth time at zMax, is an anomaly on the schedule, as four racers vie for the win right side by side. While the customary 16 racers will compete in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle (only the second 2017 race for the bikes), there are three, rather than four rounds of eliminations on Sunday, with the top two advancing to the next round.

It won’t be easy to make eliminations in any of the professional categories this week, as all four categories have more than 16 entries. Top Fuel boasts 18 dragsters on the grounds; Funny Car has 19 floppers; 17 Pro Stock cars are entered and 22 motorcycle riders want to race on Sunday.

Every series talks about the closeness of its competition. With her third victory of the season, Pritchett propped herself back into the lead of Top Fuel, hounded by teammates Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Doug Kalitta is fourth and Torrence lies fifth, followed by last year’s Four-Wide title winner Brittany Force. Only the top three have won Wally trophies five races into the season.

Schumacher, an eight-time champion in the dragster class with 83 career wins, has yet to win this race and considers it one of the most difficult. “You can’t make a little mistake because there are three other drivers who can capitalize on it. Normally,” he said, “you might be able to make a mistake and there’s a chance the other driver will make one, too. But when there are three of them, you’ve got a couple of guys who are going to be ice cold. You have to be a machine to win the Four-Wide. You have to be as ice cold as you can ever be to get the job done.”

Funny Car supremo John Force won the initial Four-Wide Nationals in 2010, while teammate Robert Hight has captured this trophy twice.

According to 148-time winner and 16-time champion Force, who will paraphrase or borrow terms at will, this race is the ‘Greatest show on earth.’

“The fans love it; they can come there and it’s a change: four cars, 40,000 horsepower, side-by-side-by-side-by-side,” Force said. “I love two-lane, but I love four-lane. I wish they’d build more of them. I don’t know if everybody would agree with me… “

Well, John, not everybody. In the Funny Car wars, seeing the other three cars lined up is exceptionally difficult in a visibility-hampered flopper. Which is why some drivers love this race while others dread it. Not that they’d admit.

Last year’s Funny Car winner, a 20-time victor in the class, Tim Wilkerson will have his hands full with the lineup looking to win the Four-Wide, but the early part of the weekend, with mostly sunny and warm temps is the kind of situation the Illinois Ford Mustang racer thrives in. Scattered thunderstorms are forecast for Sunday.

Force’s armada of three Chevrolet Camaro SS floppers for himself, Hight and daughter Courtney Force face the always tough four-car Dodge Charger R/T squad from Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman.

Toyota boasts one of the hottest teams in Funny Car right now with rookie Jonnie Lindberg’s Camry from Jim Head’s shop, as well as J.R. Todd, Alexis DeJoria at Kalitta Motorsports and the hot/cold Cruz Pedregon.

Points leader Hagan (two wins with DSR) had an off-weekend in Houston, but still leads the standings over teammate Capps, who ended a 13-race drought at Houston, John Force, teammate Johnson Jr and Courtney Force.

Will this be another DSR runaway in the nitro categories? Exceptional competition exists to stop that barrage, both inside and out of the top 10. Bob Tasca III returns, as do Dave Richards, Dale Creasy Jr., Bob Bode and Jeff Diehl.

Last year it was 2016 champion Jason Line first to the win light in Charlotte to gain his third Four-Wide wally, but he, too, had an “off” weekend at Houston, not making the finals. Unlike last year, Pro Stock is much more open than in the first season of the current rules, which dictate a 10,500 rev limit, electronic fuel injection and a different body style, among other rules.

Line’s teammate Greg Anderson - also a three-time winner in this unique event - leads the standings, followed by last week’s first-time winner Bo Butner, Line, Jeg Coughlin (the runner-up at Houston), Tanner and Shane Gray.

Of the top six, only Coughlin lacks a Wally trophy, and seventh through tenth places belong to some heavy hitters just waiting for the opportunity to cop a final: two-time champ Erica Enders, Chris McGaha, Vincent Nobile and Drew Skillman. Incredibly there’s been a different winner at each of the races held to date; will there be a sixth new victor in Charlotte?

Las Vegas winner Tanner Gray continued an incident with Alex Laughlin in Houston (that began at Seattle last year, before the rookie began his Pro Stock career) at the top end that ended up involving crews from Gray Motorsports and Elite Motorsports in the pits; will it spill over to Charlotte? Both are entered in this battle. Chevrolet is leading the manufacturer battle, if you want to call it that. No Dodge Dart has performed well so far this season.

A massive field of 22 Pro Stock Motorcycle racers vie for 16 Sunday slots, all looking to dethrone last year’s race winner Andrew Hines on his Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson - and the first race winner, his teammate Eddie Krawiec.

A healthy eight Suzuki riders will try to knock off Hines and Krawiec on their Harley-Davidson bikes, while the balance of the field competes on either Buell or Victory motorcycles. Matt Smith gave the latter brand its first ever NHRA victory in the final race of the year at Pomona in November of 2016.

With this being only the second race of the year for Pro Stock Motorcycle, who have a total of 16 events compared to the balance of the field’s 24, there’s very little to talk about other than the hopes of various riders to rise to the top of the heap, alongside 2016 champ Jerry Savoie and his new teammate LE Tonglet, the 2010 rookie champ.

Certainly Chip Ellis is looking to regain his form with Junior Pippin’s Buell, as are Buell riders Hector Arana and son Hector Arana Jr.

One can never count out three-time champ Angelle Sampey, her teammate Chad Reed, Karen Stoffer, Steve Johnson (the clown prince of the class and one of its longest-riding competitors), Joey Gladstone - who showed good speed in the season opener at Gainesville - and the balance of the regular riding group. Savoie had a challenging start to his title defense but is certainly looking to turn that around in Charlotte.

As noted, warm temps are forecast for the two days of qualifying in Charlotte, with the possibility of thunderstorms by Sunday. All of the NHRA teams will be hoping the latter situation doesn’t occur, as they’ve got a third consecutive race a few hundred miles south the following weekend in Commerce, GA. Who will be celebrating and who will be shaking their heads once the win lights come on?

Pritchett, Capps and Butner conquer in SpringNationals
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C. Force, Millican and Coughlin Jr. lead qualifying at the zMax Dragway

C. Force, Millican and Coughlin Jr. lead qualifying at the zMax Dragway
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