NHRA weekend will be quick to impress

from David Poole of the Charlotte Observer:

It was Aug. 29 of last year when I got wind that Bruton Smith was seriously thinking about building a drag strip at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I called Smith to check it out and was literally putting luggage into the car to go to the airport to fly to the race in California when Smith called back and said that was indeed something he was thinking seriously about.

Three days later, I was in a hotel in California. I know it was Saturday because the Appalachian State-Michigan football game was under way. I was flipping through my e-mail and saw that the National Hot Rod Association had put out a 2008 schedule that included at “to be announced” race on Sept. 11-14. Curious, I thought. Wonder what that’s all about? Shampoo was running into my eyes when it finally hit me what was going on.

I thought about all of that Wednesday morning while sitting in one of the four racing lanes at zMAX Dragway @ Concord, the $60 million facility that the public got to see for the first time at an open house on Saturday. It’s amazing what you can get up out of the ground with dollar bills as fertilizer.

A year ago the story was that the NHRA would have its track in Gainesville, Fla., on standby in case things didn’t get done in time here. But I learned years ago never to doubt what people with money and determination can do. I am writing this column from Bristol Motor Speedway, and all I have to do to get a reminder of that is close my eyes and remember what this place looked like the first time I came in the spring of 1997.

You might not like the way Smith does business. You might not care for the way he backed Concord into a corner by threatening to move Lowe’s Motor Speedway if he didn’t get his way with the drag strip. Not everybody is going to be happy with how the drag strip fits into the neighborhood and people who feel like they’re having their lives interrupted are entitled to be upset and bitter about how things turned out. But from a motorsports perspective, adding drag racing’s top series to the Charlotte area’s sports menu is a big step forward. Charlotte, Concord and the surrounding areas now have four weekends filled with major national-level events, which bring visitors and competitors and television cameras and all kinds of attention and economic impact. The new drag strip is, by acclamation, the finest facility of its kind anywhere.

I’m going to the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis next week to get ready for the Carolina Nationals. I’ll be meeting new people and bringing you some of their stories while learning, along with some of you, the ins and outs of a different kind of racing. Drag racing gets a lot of stuff right. Every ticket is a pit pass, and drivers make themselves accessible to fans as much as possible during a weekend. Teams work on their cars where fans can watch them, and during the 75-minute break between rounds Top Fuel and Funny Car teams literally rebuild their engines in what amounts to a NASCAR pit stop that lasts about an hour.

A fan who thinks a stock-car race is just watching cars go around in circles doesn’t understand there’s more to the whole experience, and drag racing takes that to a different level altogether. The midway at a national event includes manufacturer and sponsor displays as well as the kind of concessions you might find at the state fair. I’ve said it before that an NHRA midway might be the only place in the world where you can buy a funnel cake, an Ashley Force T-shirt and a new set of cylinder heads while walking less than 100 yards.

Like anything else, of course, drag racing has its issues.

*****To read more on this piece from David Poole of the Charlotte Observer go to www.macon.com*****