2022 NHRA MILE HIGH NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
LEAH PRUETT ENDS FRUSTRATION WITH BIG WIN AT MILE-HIGH NATIONALS - In the offseason, NASCAR and racing legend Tony Stewart constructed the Tony Stewart Racing team with nitro Funny Car driver Matt Hagan and his wife, Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett.
Hagan’s team has not missed a beat, winning three races.
Pruett’s team, however, has had its share of struggles. Through 10 races, Pruett had a 5-9 elimination round record.
All that was forgotten on Sunday at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals.
Pruett won her first race of the season and was awarded the win the finals when her opponent Shawn Langdon – following his burnout – was rolling back NHRA officials noticed a leak underneath the DHL dragster and Langdon was forced to shut off.
Pruett, although she had a bye, clocked a stout 3.884-second elapsed time at 316.38 mph in his Dodge Power Brokers sponsored dragster.
“This view never gets old, and that's the first time you've said Top Fuel winner for Tony Stewart Racing, so that will also never get old,” Pruett said. “But I will say that coming up here to the mountain, we threw everything at it, and it was way too much, and we tried to rotate the Earth. And I’m so I'm really thankful, we're all very thankful for four qualifying runs, and I think that has a lot to do with the Bandimere family, and that's part of the reason we got to be where we're at right now.”
“That allowed us to have two different pathways of performance, and if we got our act together in Q2 we did with the 78, then we could go a different route and test, and that went well. And then we said, ‘Okay, well, let's go back and put together a program for race day." And that's just a luxury that Mike and Neal have not had this entire season, because we haven't been going that many rounds. So, when we say that the qualifying rounds make a difference, they really do.
This was Pruett’s 10th career Top Fuel victory and her first since the first Pomona, Calif., race in 2021.
Stewart was attendance Sunday and on the starting line to see his wife claim the victory.
“That’s the love of my life down there holding that Wally,” Stewart said. “She’s been super patient, but I can tell you one thing of all the places we go to on the circuit, Denver is the one she circles. Denver is the one she loves the most and the thing she talks about is how much she loves the fans at Denver. The support of the fans here means so much to her. For her to win her first race with this group and this organization means the world to here, I can tell you that.”
Pruett defeated Antron Brown, Clay Millican, Justin Ashley, and Langdon on Sunday for her win.
“Coming into race day, it was cloudless, and it was hot, and UVs were high, and we had to back off,” Pruett said. “And we were very comfortable in our tuning window, except you're never comfortable when you're racing Antron Brown in the other lane. And I've been focusing really hard on trying to be, like I said earlier, emotionless, and he's the one that actually taught me that. And so, when you come to a race this, the Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals, and you think your adrenaline's high, and you just learn over time to regulate that. I'm not saying master that, but you do a little bit better of a job.
“We had that 3.91 and everything looked good, and then we put a feeder motor in it, and we went to race Clay and we were in the right lane. And like I said, the left and right lanes are very different here. It's just, you have to tune your capabilities differently towards them. And that's what we focused on. There was a time where we had, I mean, almost two and a half hours in between rounds. That might have been the run after that. But, anyway, I pedaled it half-track, and they got us to the finish line with that 4.05 but sheered all the bolts off the flywheel. We ended up having to change that motor too. And that's the first time that this Dodge team has had to go through three blocks in one weekend. By that time Hagan's team had been out. And so, they came over and they did a phenomenal job of just being the support there to be able to make those quick turnarounds. Then going into race Justin Ashley, oh, that was the one where we had a lot of time, and I have my practice tree that's hooked up to the injector, and it's as realistic as possible. You're in your own cockpit, and you're practicing, and I broke it.”
So, Pruett went to Plan B to prepare to race Ashley.
“It (the practice tree) was giving me wrong readings,” she said. “I said, ‘No, and now I'm racing Justin.’ So, then I hopped on the Wi-Fi, and I played a bunch of Tetris in between signing with fans, that seems to work. And I learned that from Tony. He plays a lot of games on his phone, but it helps him clear his mind, and keep him up on his reactions for his race. Which I do want to say, for those who don't know, he won last night in SRX.
“So, we have joked this morning, like, ‘Come on, let's keep it in the family. Let's get another TSR win this weekend." So that was great. And then after we were able to beat Justin and come into the finals, I did mention to Alan Reinhart about, ‘Shawn is kind of... he's difficult. He's won here on the mountain before back in juniors.’ We might not be the most compatible people in personalities and like each other or whatnot, but it didn't matter. My team has got its act together this weekend, and they are making phenomenal strides and our attitudes are elevated. Our performance is there, and no matter what happened in the other lane, I had confidence for it. So, we were able to rip off an 88, which was going to be hard to beat.”
Then Pruett took a moment to discuss her feelings while doing her victory press conference.
“I don't know what you guys are seeing here is just pure gratitude for my team, for the belief that Tony has had in us,” she said. “I mean, we've had a tough season. You might think that a team owner might be breathing down your throat a little bit by now and wanting a little bit more results compared to our Funny Car team, but he is a realist, and we're optimistic and these are long term goals, and you guys are just seeing, right now, the short-term results of it.”
Pruett was quick to admit the media was making more of her team’s struggles than the team itself.
“I think the frustration might lie outside of our bowl to be totally honest, and maybe to the fans or to those watching, and when I say that ‘We might not be having the win lights, but we know our progress.’ And it's fine, if not everybody believes us, but we have the confidence to know that eventually it will show. When I talk about the attitudes that we have, and that they're high, that's the exact opposite of being frustrated. I mean, here and there we communicate a lot about our strengths and our weaknesses and where to improve upon, and that has been just in any relationship, the absolute skeleton key to success. And so, frustration, that's not the way to get to the finish line. So that's why I'm really thankful for the fans that have hung on with us, transferred over, that continue to grow with us. And this is their win as much as it's ours.” Tracy Renck
HIGHT GETS REDEMPTION IN DENVER, COLLECTS FIFTH WIN OF SEASON - Last season, nothing went right for Robert Hight.
After dominating the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series in 2019 and then missing the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Hight had high expectations that his team would pick right up where they left off last season. But that never happened.
Hight limped to the finish line in 2021 with one of the worst seasons of his storied career, and nowhere was that poor performance more evident than the race at Bandimere Speedway one year ago. At that race, Hight never quite felt comfortable, struggling in qualifying and then immediately bowing out in round one. That race was a microcosm of a forgettable season for Hight, and one he circled as a must-win in 2022.
On Sunday, he did just that.
One year after what Hight described as one of the worst races of his entire career, the driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro conquered that very same track to collect his fifth win of the season and fifth win at the facility at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway.
“I want to give all of the credit to the Auto Club team. Last year was probably the worst year we have ever had up on the mountain, maybe at any race ever. We never went down the track and it was just horrible. Jimmy (Prock) and Chris (Cunningham) have had a year to digest that, think about it and figure out what they wanted to do when we came back here,” Hight said. “In qualifying we just went down the track making really good runs and every time we got a little quicker. When you do that, it gives you a lot of confidence on Sunday that these guys have figured it out. They raced smart today.”
Hight’s smart race ended with an ironic Chevy versus Ford matchup at the Dodge-sponsored race as Hight squared off with Bob Tasca in the final for the second race in a row. There was some drama before the race started when Shawn Langdon’s Top Fuel machine spilled liquid on the racing surface in the prior pairing, leading to a delayed start for the Funny Car final.
In the race the pair were even at the hit, but Tasca began to haze the tires and slide out of the groove midway through the run as Hight powered past the driver of the Ford Motorcraft machine to earn his series-leading fifth win of the season.
Hight had a 4.065-second pass at 311.92 mph in the deciding round to earn the 58th win of his career and extend his championship points lead. Tasca crossed the stripe with a 4.263 at 272.89 mph.
“Good job to this Auto Club team. Their backs were against the wall all day,” Hight said. “We didn’t have lane choice the last two rounds and that was a masterful job of getting this racecar down the track in a little tougher lane. Hats off to the guys, they really earned their keep today.”
Hight added wins against Terry Haddock, Tim Wilkerson and John Force, with the latter producing one of the most exciting races of the afternoon. Force got to the finish line first in the semifinal matchup with a 4.033-second lap, but found himself out of the race as Hight won on a holeshot with a 4.041-second pass at 315.56 mph.
After the race Hight credited his team for making smart calls in the staging lanes that led to round wins. It was especially evident as the team watched their closest championship rival, Matt Hagan, misjudge the track and smoke the tires in round one in a losing effort against Jack Wyatt.
“They didn’t push it. They could have pushed it a little harder against Haddock in the first round and we might have been in the same boat as Hagan smoking the tires,” Hight said. “The last two runs we were in the lane that is not the choice of lanes. It is a little tougher over in the right and they just made it go down the racetrack and let me do my job.”
Tasca had wins over Chad Green, Ron Capps and Wyatt to earn back-to-back runner-up finishes.
Hight has now visited seven final rounds in 11 races this season, extending what has already been one of the best starts of his career. And he credits a firmer grasp on the setup as the leading factor behind his resurgent season.
“Last year was very disappointing. I just knew when we came back last year we were going to pick up right where we left off in 2019 and dominate and win races. That didn’t happen,” Hight said. “What is different this year is we are not changing everything every single week. We have a really good combination and we are fine tuning it and getting more consistent. And I don’t feel like we have peaked just yet. Sometimes we will make a run and Jimmy and Chris will look at each other like ‘wow, we didn’t expect it to run that good.’ I still think there is more left in this combination and we just have to find it.
“Everything from top to bottom is working right now. We have a great team, great crew chiefs and I have been driving well. To have five wins at this time in the year; I think you have a successful season if you have five wins total. We just have to stay focused and keep working at this and I think we can get better. The next 11 races are going to be even tougher.”
With the first leg of the famed Western Swing now belonging to Hight, the focus shifts to race two of the three-race tour of the western United States at a track in which he has won three-in-a-row.
“If we could (sweep the Western Swing) it would mean four wins in a row. That is pretty tough,” Hight said. “We just have to go out there and treat it exactly like Denver. We need to make good qualifying runs and race smart on race day. If we do that, the round wins are going to come. But this class isn’t getting any easier.” Larry Crum
THREE YEARS LATER, HARTFORD GETS HIS WIN ON THUNDER MOUNTAIN - It has been three years since the Pro Stock category last raced at Bandimere Speedway, the track affectionately known as Thunder Mountain.
At that event Greg Anderson picked up the win in a very close race against Matt Hartford, after which the class took a break from the facility until its return this season. And no one has looked forward to that return more than Hartford.
A race that still haunts him to this day, Hartford returned to the facility located just outside of Denver with one mission on his mind - redemption. And he got that on Sunday as the driver of the Total Seal Chevrolet Camaro turned on four win lights on an improbable road to victory to collect his first win of the season and the fifth of his career at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway.
“I love Bandimere. It is one of the best facilities you can go to, but it is a hard facility to race at because you are at 9,000 feet. And it eats me up every time I see that replay of Greg and I in the finals. I know for a fact that if I had driven anything on my shift points right we win that round. That is a hard pill to swallow when you know the driver let you down, but the car was going to be good enough to win,” Hartford said. “To come up here and have redemption, it is great for the team.”
Hartford matched his round-win total for the season on Sunday, earning his first victory in over a year - his last win coming at Houston in 2021 - against one of the hottest drivers on the NHRA tour in Aaron Stanfield.
After surviving one crazy round after another, Hartford finally saw it all come together in a near-perfect final round, hammering the tree with a .004 reaction time and recording the best pass of the entire day, a 6.967-second lap at 196.36 mph, to collect the win. Stanfield wasn’t far behind in his Janec Brothers Chevrolet, but wasn’t able to make up time lost on the tree with a 7.054 at 172.61 mph in his sixth final round visit of the year.
Adding to the excitement of the moment, the teams had just 20 minutes between the semifinal and final rounds to turn the cars around due to the live television schedule. After the race, Hartford was complimentary of his crew and the work they did to get the car ready in a crunch.
“Everybody from the KB team jumped in and helped us get the car turned around in 20 minutes and rolled up to the starting line,” Hartford said. “The irony of the 20-minute turnaround is, when we got done, we were waiting (on Stanfield). They didn’t even have the transmission together in the car yet. They have a pretty sophisticated team over there, so for a little team like us to turn the car around in 20 minutes and get back up there, that is a feat that says a lot about our team.”
The race between Hartford and Stanfield had an extra element of drama after the most recent race on the tour when Stanfield’s Elite Motorsports-backed team had a few choice words for Hartford following some starting-line gamesmanship in a race against championship leader Erica Enders. Additionally, coming into this weekend the Elite Motorsports team had won every race this season with the exception of one, until Hartford’s win on Sunday.
“Aaron is mean and his car is fast. He is probably one of the best drivers out here. The Elite camp kind of got mad at me at the last race because they said I was playing some games,” Hartford said. “I appreciated the games they played on me in the final round. He went in and pre-staged immediately. As soon as I rolled in to pre-stage his stage light was on. I gave him a solid five and a half to six second count before I went in and I let the clutch out and went .004.
“Coming up here it closes the gap with all of the cars. It is an equalizer when you come to altitude. So we knew it didn’t matter where you qualified, you can win on race day. I said this morning before the first round that the person who gets their foot off the clutch the best and makes the least mistakes on the shift points should win today without a problem. Honestly I was relaxed. We know we have a good car, we just went out there and had some fun.”
Stanfield had wins over Bo Butner and Troy Coughlin Jr. in collecting his fourth runner-up finish of the season.
While the final round was nearly flawless for Hartford, the rest of the afternoon was anything but. The eventual race winner overcame obstacle after obstacle to reach his first final round of the year, surviving as much as succeeding on the track.
In round one Hartford fell behind quickly and had to outrun Deric Kramer, nipping him at the finish line by a few inches in a 6.980 to a 7.028 matchup. It was much of the same in round two as Hartford won on a holeshot over Mason McGaha, with McGaha recording a quicker 6.981 at 196.10 mph to Hartford’s 6.991 at 196.24 mph.
“In the first round I sucked, let’s be clear. To give the guy 47 on the tree in Pro Stock you are not winning that round 99 out of 100 times. Luckily, he fell off a little bit and we actually made a nice run. I didn’t know who was winning. I knew when I put the car in fifth gear I was behind and that is not a good feeling” Hartford said. “But we ran him down and the win light came on. It really made me realize I needed to wake up and I went back to the trailer and thanked Eddie (Guarnaccia). I told him, ‘you saved me, but that is not going to cut it going forward.’
“I needed to get a little bit better and, honestly, I got to the second round and was 32, which wasn’t great, but it was good enough to get the win light. Those first two rounds we had five thou margin of victory between them.”
In the semifinal, another close contest that would have gone down to the wire was negated when Cristian Cuadra went red by one thousandth of a second to advance Hartford to the final round.
“I beat Cristian one other time this year, but he has been a sore in my side. Every time I race him, he always beats me,” Hartford said. “Rolling up there he had as fast a car as we had, but we didn’t have lane choice.That kid is one of the best drivers out here right now and we went 12 against him and put the car in fifth gear and went across the stripe and I was saying a lot of things in my helmet that weren’t pleasant and Eddie is like, ‘let's turn this around and close the deal.’ I was like, ‘dude, we lost,’ and he told me he went red. I didn’t see the win light, so I didn’t know we won the semis.”
While the path to victory was far from easy, Hartford felt that Sunday’s win further proved that his team has turned a corner and can be a car to be reckoned with on Sundays the remainder of the year.
“The last two races in the second round we have had to run Erica and they have a fast car. She has had me covered by five or six hundredths every race, but yet we have lost to her within a hundredth. Had we been in other pairings, I think we would have went farther at some of the previous races,” Hartford said. “Since Epping we have really turned our program around and I feel confident going to Sonoma that we are going to qualify well, but come race day we have as good a racecar as anybody out there right now.” Larry Crum
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE STAR MATT SMITH WINS MILE-HIGH NATIONALS FOR SECOND YEAR IN A ROW - Reigning NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion made the decision to switch from Buell to Suzuki in the offseason.
However, he didn’t get rid of his championship-winning Buell and that was a good thing this weekend.
Smith brought back out his Buell to compete in the high-altitude of the Mile-High Nationals.
Smith rode the Buell to a dominating win in 2021 at the Mile-High Nationals and history repeated itself Sunday at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., just outside of Denver.
Smith clocked a 7.097-second elapsed time at 190.22 mph to beat Joey Gladstone’s 7.163-second lap at 185.43 mph.
“That bike (the Buell) is bad a**,” Smith said. “The decision was, we've been running our Suzuki all year long. And basically, we just don't have all the parts and pieces to have a backup motor. And I've never ran a Suzuki up here. So, I just thought that instead of coming up here and taking a chance on hurting that, I had a V twin that won this race last year. And why not bring that out? Because it's just sitting in the top of the trailer. We're hauling it around.
“So I decided to roll it out and do it. And it paid off, because, no more qualifier, won the race, set both ends of track record. You can't ask for much more.”
It is believed Smith is only other second Pro Stock Motorcycle rider in NHRA history to win on two makes of bikes. The first is believed to be the late Dave Schultz.
Smith clocked a track-record speed of 190.03 mph in his semifinal win over Angelle Sampey. It was the first time a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer went 190 mph at Bandimere Speedway. He then bettered the mph record in the final round. Smith also set the track record with a 7.090 elapsed time.
This was Smith 34th career national event victory and second of the season as he also won in Houston.
Smith, who qualified No. 1, had a victory parade that consisted of a first-round bye, a second round win over Marc Ingwersen, Angelle Sampey, and Gladstone.
This is Smith’s fourth career win at Thunder Mountain to go with the ones he captured in 2007, 2008 and 2021.
“Oh, it's sweet. Anytime you get a win, it's awesome, because these things are hard to come by,” Smith said. “You never know when it's your last one. Don't take it for granted because it could be your last one. I really wish I'd ran Angie (Smith's wife) in the finals. She had the bike to beat also, and something happened in the semifinals. We don't know what it missed a couple times, and she slowed up. And I wish she'd of been there, but all in all, DENSO Brand, Lucas Oil, everybody that helps us, we took the win and brought it home.”
Despite the success of his Buell, Smith wasn’t ready to be running the motorcycle at the next national event in Sonoma, Calif., July 22-24.
“I hate to put her back up in the top of the trailer, but that's probably what's going to end up happening,” Smith said. “We'll save her for the Countdown. If I need it, she'll be there.”
“I don't know for sure yet,” Smith said about running the Buell in Sonoma. “That's the honest answer. I need to talk to Lisa. We might run the Suzuki on Friday. If I'm not happy with, I might pull the V twin out for Saturday. I don't know yet for sure, but I want to run the Suzuki. The Suzuki seems to have an advantage at more sea level. Of course, the V twin were better out in altitude. So, I want to do what's best for my sponsor. I want me or Angie to try to win the race at Sonoma. You always want to win your sponsor's race.”
Although Smith had not competed on his Buell since the end of last season, he had no qualms about using the motorcycle in Denver.
“We come out here last year, went 11 three different times, and at 189,” Smith said. “So, I knew I had the tune up. I just loaded that same app in for Q1. And, on the first pass, I thought the bike was blowing up, because it was vibrating so bad going down the track. I almost pulled the clutch in at the eighth mile, but I said, ‘No.’ I just legged it on out. We got plenty of motors. When they told me it went a 10, I was like, ‘Holy cow. I've been on Suzuki, as Suzuki is so smooth a ride. And the V twin vibrates so much that I wasn't prepared for it like I thought it was, but I rode it good all weekend. And we dominated. We got the win.”
The Suzukis have been at the head of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, but Smith wasn’t worried about them Sunday.
“I told tech when, after the first run, I said, ‘These guys, everybody missed them. They just missed it,’ Smith said. “They even came over, after Q4, after we went, what, 7.09? NHRA came over and tore us down. And I told him, I said, ‘Look, those guys can run within two, three hundredths of us, I feel like.’ And Joey came out here and win a 15 today. And Eddie went 14 today. So, we know they can run. They just were missing the tune-up a little bit. And I'm sure another year up here with that, they'll creep it on down. The Suzuki’s will be better next year for sure, a hundred percent.” Tracy Renck
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - IT’S ANOTHER THRILLING DAY UP ON THUNDER MOUNTAIN
THE CHALLENGE OF THE MOUNTAIN - Racing up on Thunder Mountain brings about its own unique set of challenges. Once a year, the nitro teams bring their equipment to the Bandimere Speedway to race up and down the track with little data and even less oxygen.
From a tuner’s standpoint, what’s the biggest challenge in racing a mile above sea level?
“It’s the altitude - it’s the density of the air up here,” said points leading crew chief Dickie Venables. “It’s very thin air, and these nitro engines, they require a lot of air. And so you try and make that up best you can. With blower speed, you try and make up the air with blower speed. You raise the compression, and you put more timing. You do lots of things to try and make up everything that you’re missing.”
While it might seem the margin of error is pretty thin, improvements and knowledge have enabled the tuners to get their combinations dialed in.
“We can get pretty close,” Venables said. “We’ve been here enough now to what all the teams have. We’re hitting it pretty close now, but it’s still a challenge. And the biggest problem is, you only have data from one race a year. You’ve only run a maximum of eight runs here all year long. So your database, from what you have here to all the other tracks, is minimal. So there’s just not a lot of data, and it’s kind of a crapshoot.”
Mike Green has been tuning in Denver for over three decades and said there’s a key area tuner use to compensate for the intricacies of Bandimere.
“The compression usually is mostly what we change,” Green said. “It’s the only thing we really actually physically change is the compression. I mean, a lot of guys change cams and all kinds of other stuff, but for us, we just raise the compression in a higher compression piston and then adjust everything else to fit the conditions.”
Largely when a team finds a combination that works, they barely deviate from the plan.
“It took us a long time to get a good combination up here,” Venables admitted. “Last year was the first time that we really had a good combination, and where we didn’t hurt stuff. And we were fortunate enough to win.
“I would say once you get a combination that works, you always baseline off of that. And there are things you can apply from sea level to here. Maybe things you’ve learned along the way that would still apply here. But I think for us, we’re always going to go back to our baseline set up here and work off of that. That’s the safest bet for us.”
While many teams can have multiple events where they can compare data for tune-ups, Denver gives each team a max of eight runs a season. This forces many to stay close to home with their tuning.
“We don’t change as much stuff as we used to,” Green admitted. “We used to lean the engines a lot more than we do now because we’ve learned that the fuel is what makes the horsepower. So we try to adjust everything so we can leave as much fuel volume in the engines as we can to make as much power as we can up here. So I think that’s one of the biggest changes for sure.”
One of the biggest resources which has advanced fuel tuning in Denver has been what is called the Chiller. Bandimere Speedway’s innovative underground cooling system was installed in 2008 with the intention of keeping the early part of the race track at a much cooler temperature than the 140-plus degree readings it would read on a 90-degree day.
The cooling lines are 480 feet in length, and each lane carries 17 lines. The track has two storage tanks buried on the east side of the track, with each holding close to 12,000 gallons of water.
It’s not only the engines that require adjustment for the conditions. Matt Hagan is one of those drivers who maintain a healthy lifestyle, but when it comes to Denver, he finds himself changing up his routines.
“You definitely have to drink a lot more water up here,” Hagan said. “I’ve already had two IVs this week to try to stay ahead of the curve up here and still have a little headache. So I guess as I get older, it takes more and more. It’s one of those things up here on the mountain. You want to be clean, you want to be crisp, you want to be on point with it. And we’re doing everything that we can, but it takes a lot more focus up here.”
Hagan said he’s learned to hear what his engine is saying to him over the years of racing at the high altitude.
“I’ve had 15 years out here driving one of these fuel cars, and up here, these things, if they sounded like this at sea level, you’d shut them off,” Hagan said. “You’d never even send them. So they sound crazy. They’re different. It’s a different pitch. The overdrives more. There’s more nitro in them. Like, compression is higher. It’s a whole different animal.”
One thing remains the same over the years in Denver, an ego on sea level isn’t wise on the mountain.
“The mountain keeps everybody in check,” Venables surmised.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT - Top Fuel was the only professional eliminator with a full field and featured a higher car count than the other professional divisions.
IT’S A DIFFERENT WORLD - Former NHRA Funny Car standout Jim Epler believed the timing had to be right. After two decades of working to find the right fit in the business of drag racing, the man who is credited with drag racing’s first four-second Funny Car run is now in his comfort zone.
“I love marketing through drag racing,” Epler, the Vice President of Phillips-Connect, said.
Epler’s first major signing as an executive for Phillips-Connect was a three-race deal with standout Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley. By March of the season, the deal was extended to the balance of the season.
Make no mistake about it, Epler still loves the idea of driving a race car but, at this time, is perfectly content on the business side of the sport.
“I’ll never say never,” Epler admitted. “Mike Ashley and I talk about someday getting another Funny Car, but I am 100% focused on this, and it’s a young person sport now, and I accept that, and I’m having a great time doing what I’m doing. I love the media. Everything that’s going on. Social media wasn’t even around when I was doing it hardly. So the tools that you have has just been amazing.”
Epler is quick to point out how different his world would have been had social media platforms been around, especially when he teamed with Jerry Tolver on a two-car Funny Car team sponsored by the then World Wrestling Federation.
“Oh, my God, it would have been a home run,” Epler said.” If you knew what happened with the WWF behind the scenes, I think it could have helped WWF stay on board just because of what they bring, what they brought to the business. Toliver is a great guy. He’d have a lot of fun with it, too. So you can’t get away with anything, though. So that’s one thing. If you do something, the whole world would know about it, good or bad.”
So, how much did Toliver getaway back in those pre-social media days?
“A lot more than the world knows,” Toliver admitted with a smile.
LET IT EAT - Matt Smith said he feared no retribution for his championship-winning Buell letting it all hang out in Friday qualifying. He came back on Saturday and did it again.
Smith set both ends of the Bandimere Speedway track record with an impressive blast of 7.090 at 189.79 on his Denso Auto Parts Buell. The defending world champ and event winner set the track record on Friday but delivered in an even bigger way to close out qualifying, becoming the first motorcycle to go in the 7.00s on Thunder Mountain. It gives Smith his second No. 1 this season and 49th in his career and plenty of confidence heading into eliminations after a stellar two days of qualifying.
“The Suzuki bikes were stepping up (today), so I tried a tune-up, and obviously it worked,” Smith said. “It’s awesome (to set a record). I’ve always loved coming here, and we come here to win the race. That was the whole reason why we brought out the (EBR) for this race. There might be a little more, but we definitely learned something today. As long as you ride the bike well and hit the light well, you can do well here, but we’ve got the bike on kill every time up here.”
Smith’s wife, Angie, qualified second thanks to her 7.151 at 188.25 in the final qualifying session, while Eddie Krawiec’s 7.164 at 186.56 gives him the third spot heading into eliminations.
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING - Sometimes, the greatest of careers have had the humblest of beginnings.
If Justin Ashley’s career were to end today, he’s had quite the career. He’s won four times in eight final rounds in three seasons of racing at drag racing’s highest level.
During his time, Ashley has excelled in initial forays. In his first Top Fuel race, he reached the semi-finals and his first full season drive to the NHRA Rookie of the Year honors.
He’s embarking on another first this weekend.
“Members of our team have raced in Denver before, but this will be my first time racing on the mountain at Bandimere Speedway,” said Ashley, the 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year. “Ironically, in 2006, I won the NHRA FanNationals in NHRA’s Funny Car simulators while watching my dad race in Denver. Now I’ll be racing in Top Fuel sixteen years later. Crew chiefs Mike Green and Tommy DeLago always give me a great racecar, and I look forward to taking on the challenge of racing at a high altitude.”
Ashley and the Phillips Connect Top Fuel team powered by Vita C Energy have won twice this season already and reached two more final rounds. They are sitting in fourth place in the Top Fuel point standings, just one point out of third place. The young driver and team owner knows this three-race swing is an excellent opportunity to make a move on the three teams in front of him with six races left in the regular season.
“This is crutch time to begin stacking round wins and picking up points on the competition,” said Ashley, who has a win this year at the Winternationals and Thunder Valley Nationals. “There is a sense of urgency around this time of the year, but it’s important to stay within ourselves. All the Top Fuel teams want to win these next three races, but it all starts with taking one round at a time in Denver. This Phillips Connect Vita C Energy team has been doing a great job all season, and I am excited about these next three races.”
Two final rounds in the previous three races has Ashley feeling confident but not over-confident. The Toyota-backed team has qualified in the top half of the field at every NHRA national event this season except for the New England Nationals. Ashley started that event from the No. 14 spot but raced his way to the winner’s circle from the bottom half of the field. This was the second time the young driver has secured a win from the No. 14 spot.
Ashley jumped to second during the final session thanks to his standout run of 3.765 at 327.51
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - THERE’S FIRE UP ON THE MOUNTAIN AS SEASON REACHES MID-POINT
HE’S THE BOSS - Mike Salinas smiles as the notion hits him.
If someone had walked up to him before the 2022 season and said, “By the midpoint season, you’ll be the number one points guy, and you’ll be the most dominant Top Fuel driver in the class this year to this point.”
I would have responded, “It would be nice in my dreams. It’s something we’re working on.”
Who could blame Salinas’ skepticism? He’d just lost his iconic tuner and his 2022 season was nothing short of a huge question.
Three crucial attributes kept Salinas seeing the big picture.
“Persistence, perseverance, and a positive mental attitude,” Salinas added.
Pretty much, Salinas confirmed, the trio has been crucial in his approach to life and the success of his businesses. It has not been an easy road.
“My brother and I, we were talking about that,” Salinas said on Friday before qualifying began. “We would work a full shift at our companies, and then we would go work for other companies at night. We continued to do that for almost 20 years. The people that we used to go work for, we wound up buying them out because we saw how they weren’t running their businesses right, and ours were just getting bigger and bigger.
“Even though our companies got to be a pretty good size, we still never thought about it any different. We were still the same guys, the same small guys in business.”
Salinas’ family-owned business is now 71 years old, and the company he and his wife started recently turned 42 years old. From Day One, Salinas said the determination to succeed couldn’t be measured.
“We never listened to anybody that said you couldn’t do it, you can’t, won’t,” Salinas explained. “Those words aren’t in our vocabulary. We don’t listen to the noise around us. We don’t listen to all the critics in business. We go up against the very large waste companies every day. They stopped messing with us years ago because we work around the clock.
“It’s our businesses, and we do whatever we got to do to make it work. There is no second. There is no giving up. There is no quitting. We’ve struggled. There were times when we couldn’t pay the bills; we couldn’t do this. But if you go talk to the people, it’ll work out. It’ll always work out as long as you’re honest and you have integrity.”
Those principles have fueled Salinas’ business success and employee retention.
“Just treat everybody how you want to be treated, and your customers are the business,” Salinas said. Take care of them. We have three generations of customers who have been dumping trash at our place and doing business with us. All of our rental businesses, all the real estate, all of everything, we just take care of people.”
Case in point, during the midst of the pandemic, when teams were furloughing and laying off crewmembers, Salinas enabled his team to go to work for his companies to keep the paychecks coming in.
And right there, amid the mayhem, Salinas was working alongside them.
Salinas considers himself an ordinary man, though his perseverance and determination actions say nothing but that.
“We always looked at the big guys, there was a time where we couldn’t afford one truck, and it had used tires, used everything on it,” Salinas said. “It was a used truck. We couldn’t afford that stuff. We got to where we could afford it and were always the next step, next step, next step. Then you wake up one day, and now you own hundreds of trucks and hundreds of pieces of equipment. You’re buying million-dollar pieces of equipment like it’s nothing. But it is something.
I think we were so wrapped up in our businesses, still to this day, that we still work in our companies. You forget that they’re yours. You just go in, and you just take care of business.
“Our longest [tenured] employee we have is 40 or 41 years. That’s because we work with them, right with them, right in the ditches with them. They see us. Impressive that I don’t ask anybody to do what we won’t do. We were training some new kids. I say kids; they were 30 years and under. We were training some new guys that work at our company, and I did the training because one of our guys was out. They asked me, ‘How do you keep this pace up?”
“I’m like, ‘This is our normal pace. I’m a little bit slower than I used to be. This is just life.”
REMEMBERING POPS - The Elite Performance Pro Stock operation is racing with a heavy heart. This weekend is the first outing since team patriarch Royce Freeman Sr. died following a motorcycle accident on July 9, 2022. Freeman was the father of Elite Performance team owner Richard Freeman.
The man with whom many referred to as Pops was an integral part of the championship team.
‘It’s always tragic losing somebody like Royce Freeman,’ said Aaron Stanfield in his provisional qualifying press conference. “He was a special person in our pits and always went out of his way to tell everybody he loved. And, man, he really loved Pro Stock. We’re definitely racing with some heavy hearts, and we’re racing with one goal in mind, and that’s to honor him this weekend.”
Freeman knew Pro Stock as he was in the first generation of racers in the former heads-up Super Stock division. For the younger drivers on the team, he was a fountain of knowledge from which to draw.
“We’ve definitely got some extra motivation for the rest of the season because he’s somebody that’s always pushed us and always been there for us,” added Troy Coughlin Jr. “We were absolutely blessed to have him the years that we had him, and he’s definitely been a huge piece of the puzzle for us and been an absolute honor to know him.
“And you want to talk about a heck of a Pro Stock racer, that’s him. There’s a lot of history behind him, and gosh, I’ve taken a lot of really good advice from him, and I’m one of the luckier kids in the pits just to get to sit in the same truck with him; a few times.”
Bo Butner remembered Freeman as one of those who showed true grit.
“The old man was tough,” Butner explained. “Probably, he was one of the first people to ever speak to me at a national event back in the ’90s. You know what I mean? Because he’s talked to everybody, so. He touched everybody. Hardheaded, but we’re going to miss him. None of the other Freemans are like him. So, who knows, but one of us has to win for him.”
WITHOUT RETRIBUTION - Matt Smith wasn’t taking any chances in Denver, although a nearly .08 qualifying advantage suggested there was nothing conservative about his first-day efforts at the NHRA Mile High Nationals.
The only thing Smith wasn’t taking chances with was having enough parts to race for a championship.
That’s why Smith left the 4-valve Suzuki he’s been developing in the trailer and instead rolled out his proven Buell.
Smith’s opening salvo of 7.107 was not only a new Bandimere Speedway track record but also almost .08 quicker than No. 2 qualifier Angie Smith, also aboard a Buell. Angelle Sampey, the quickest Suzuki, was .127 of a second behind Smith in the third spot.
The Suzukis closed the gap in the second session to almost .06, but this could have led mainly to Smith lifting at 1,000-foot in the evening session.
Smith is racing without fear of retribution from the rule makers as he pointed out, “I don’t think they’ll penalize us because [NHRA Technical Department] has always told us this is a one-off race.
Smith knew who to play to the Suzuki’s disadvantages in the high altitude race, citing Suzuki doesn’t benefit from being able to change ratios, and one cannot change the transmission.
“You are stuck with what Vance & Hines gives you,” Smith said. “The Vtwin stuff, we can pull the transmission out in a matter of ten minutes and swap ratios.”
Smith said he established the foundation for Friday’s success on the Monday following last year’s event, where he stayed over and tested.
“We were only .01 quicker than we were here last year,” Smith explained. “I went an .11 here last year and a .10 this year. No one should be crying. They should just be working on their stuff.”
So why did he lift on what could have been a quicker run?
“Save parts,” Smith responded. “Where we hurt our stuff on the Vtwin is the last 300 feet of the track. We will save those parts and pieces for Sunday when we will have to run them all out.”
THE REAL POWER BROKERS - If their runs hold through Saturday qualifying, Leah Pruett and Matt Hagan could deliver to team owner Tony Stewart his first-ever No. 1 qualifier double-up performance.
Pruett drove to the top of the dragster field with a 3.788-seconds elapsed time at 326.79 mph miles per hour, while Hagan went to the top of the Funny Cars with a 3.927, 319.07 performance.
The day didn’t start easy for Pruett when a parts failure caused her dragster to zing the rev-limiter at the hit.
Pruett, who has one Denver win, was also thrilled with the work her team put in on Friday that led to the strong pass.
“This is extremely cool. I mean, you always believe it can happen,” Pruett said. “Matt and I said it all week. You have to be positive, and we talk about simultaneously parking our cars in winner’s circle, and then we came out in Q1, and that was a gut punch. We were not trying to go No. 1. We were trying to establish a baseline. (But) for us both to hold on to our No. 1 is a cool feeling, especially at our Dodge race. I’m so incredibly happy right now.”
Hagan, the three-time world champ, is in line for his fourth No. 1 qualifier of 2022 and 47th in his career.
Hagan, currently second in points, won in Denver for the first time in his career last year.
“This mountain air is hard on these motors,” Hagan said. “It takes me a while to get acclimated to this place. With the race car, we have to stay ahead of it. We have a good combination from last year, and we just brought it off the shelf and made two strong runs in a row. We didn’t just come out and back into it into for one run. For everything we’ve done this year with TSR, I had a good feeling coming into this deal. I don’t know about weather for tomorrow, but if conditions are the same, we could go better. Nothing is said and done until tomorrow.”
FAST FIRST-TIMER - If Aaron Stanfield is a first-timer at Bandimere Speedway, he did a terrible job showing it. The third-generation drag racer looked like a seasoned veteran as he drove to the provisional No. 1 with a 6.946 elapsed time at 196 miles an hour. If the run holds, it will be his fourth number one qualifier in the season. Aaron, you made the quickest run in both sessions.
“It’s definitely pretty cool,” Stanfield said. “The gears come fast. Just had a fast and consistent hot rod all year long.”
Credit the seamless transition in the mile-high altitude to the experience of his crew, led by Al Lindsay, former crew chief for Mike Edwards, one of the more dominant non-Mopar drivers at Bandimere.
“They have a lot of data here over the years,” Stanfield explained. “They offer me advice as a driver, and they just help prepare me, prepare me for the run because it’s definitely different than I’ve ever driven before.”
The difference largely stands in the first three gear shifts.
“They come in a really big hurry in comparison to what you see on the [sea level] racetracks,” Stanfield explained.” You don’t see that anywhere else. It’s a big difference in the driver’s seat.”
UP ON TORRENCE MOUNTAIN - The last two times NHRA has raced on Thunder Mountain, Steve Torrence has made the most noise. This season has been relatively quiet by his standards.
What is impressive is a third-place ranking is considered a slump. And no, it’s not because the four-time Top Fuel champion has forgotten how to win. Torrence’s so-called slump is by design.
Transitioning to a new engine-and-clutch combination designed to keep him competitive at the elevated performance levels established by rivals Mike Salinas and Brittany Force, Torrence thus far has been victimized by his hot rod’s uncharacteristic inconsistency.
“When you have an expectation of performance, and it’s not there week-in and week-out, it can be a little frustrating, maybe (even) a little disheartening,” said Torrence.
“You have to remind yourself that it’s for the greater good. Everyone out here is constantly changing; they’re (always) trying to do something more,” he emphasized. “We had it figured out for so long that we didn’t change, but (ultimately) you have to change or get left behind.”
Torrence hasn’t won a national event in the last ten starts as he chases an ongoing bid to join John Force, Bob Glidden, and Tony Schumacher as the only pro drivers to have won as many as five consecutive NHRA championships.
Torrence has an opportunity to get back into the win column this weekend at a track where at 5.600 feet above sea level, he’s done more impressive stuff than winning twice. He is the only driver ever to have broken the 330-mile-per-hour barrier at the tour’s highest elevation track.
“That (his 330.31 mph track record) was with the old set-up,” Torrence said, referencing the manner in which crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr. prepared his Capco Contractors dragster back in 2019, “but I’ll take these Capco Boys whether we’re racing at sea level, on a mountain or a dirt road.”
“We’re close, real close,” the 51-time tour winner said of his team’s progress, “but it’s just hard to win out here. Toughest I’ve ever seen it. I think with Tony (Schumacher) coming back this year, a lot of people thought it was just going to be me and him. I never thought that.
“Look what Mike Salinas has done with that team,” he said. “(Top Fuel success) used to be about building your own parts and pieces. We changed the model by focusing more on what you do with the parts that are available off the shelf.”
Torrence trails Salinas by 109 points and Force by 97.
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING - The last time a professional drag racer swept the swing was 2009, and it was Antron Brown.
“It’s hard to conquer the rock, but we’ve done it before,” said Brown of the first race on the famed Western Swing. “We’re going in with our heads down and ready to give it our all. We want to start our Western Swing off on the right foot. We were very fortunate in 2009 to be able to ‘sweep the Swing.”
One good thing about Bandimere for Brown and those fans coming out to enjoy the action is all four qualifying sessions are staged in the evening.
“The fans always show out, so we like to show out on the race track for them,” Brown added.
Showing out, as Brown fully understands, is a relative term.
“Bandimere Speedway is always a challenging track for everyone, but we’re looking forward to rising to that challenge,” Brown said. “I’ve won there a few times, and that’s always been a great event for our Matco Tools team. We have a very strong Matco presence there, and I’m looking forward to getting back on ‘the mountain’ and conquering the rock.”
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING, PT 2 - J.R. Todd has two victories at the Mile High Nationals, picking up Top Fuel wins in 2006 and 2014. A Funny Car win this weekend would make him just the third winner of both nitro classes at Bandimere Speedway. The previous two drivers to achieve that feat are Hall of Famers Kenny Bernstein and Mike Dunn.
“My two Top Fuel wins at the Mile High Nationals are great memories, and I would love to add a Funny Car win to my resume here,” said Todd, a 10-time Funny Car national event winner. “Any time you can add your name to a list that has Kenny Bernstein and Mike Dunn on it, you know you have done something special. These DHL guys have been giving me a great car this season, and I would love to get it into the winner’s circle this weekend.”
Todd has a measure of momentum working in his favor. The DHL Funny Car team has raced to three semi-final finishes and three quarterfinal finishes. The consistency has begun to turn into momentum, with Todd racing to the semi-finals in two of the last three national events. Currently sitting in seventh place in the points standings, just three rounds out of the top five, the 2018 Funny Car world champion is eager to get the Western Swing underway.
“These next three races will be a lot of fun and a great chance for us to make a move up in the points with this DHL Toyota GR Supra,” said Todd. “We have definitely turned a corner, and this weekend is a great chance for us to keep the momentum going.”
ALEX LAUGHLIN TO RUN ENTIRE WESTERN SWING - Veteran Top Fuel racer Scott Palmer continues to do plenty of events outside of the NHRA realm.
However, Palmer did confirm to CompetitionPlus.com Alex Laughlin will be driving one of his Top Fuel dragsters at all three of the NHRA’s Western Swing national events starting with this weekend’s 42nd annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., near Denver.
The Western Swing concludes with races at the Denso NHRA Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals, July 22-24, and the Flav-R-Pac NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle, July 29-31.
“For the Western Swing, we have both cars loaded,” Palmer said. “We just rolled the other car in that I drive. I just went and tested it last week, and if I decide to, I’m going to run both cars. I have some sponsors that are coming out to a couple of the Western Swing shows, and if they are going to be there, I will be running both cars.
“The other car has run 3.72, so I know the other car is good. We went and tested it at our local track (Ozark Raceway Park in Rogersville, Mo.), and honestly, it was a Test-N-Tune night, so it wasn’t really prepped. We tested the car to make sure everything works in case we want to run on the Western Swing because we haven’t run it since last August in Topeka (Kan.). I also was testing it to get ready for this No Prep thing I’m doing.”
Palmer and fellow Top Fuel driver Greg Carrillo are headed for a grudge match.
Palmer and Carrillo will match race as part of Discovery Channel’s “No Prep Kings” reality TV show.
Palmer and Carrillo will match race at the 1/8-mile Tulsa (Okla.) Raceway Park track, Aug. 12-13. When the TV show will air has yet-to-be-announced.
According to Palmer, he and Carrillo will race against each other in their Top Fuel dragsters on Aug. 12, and the driver with the quickest elapsed time will get lane choice when the two meet again Aug. 13 for a winner-take-all side-by-side race for a prize more than $20,000. – Tracy Renck
UP IN THE THIN AIR - No one knows more about the importance of a good tune-up on the mountain than Alexis DeJoria.
DeJoria qualified second last season in Denver and parlayed the good starting position into a runner-up finish. A month ago, in the reasonably high elevation of Bristol, Tenn., DeJoria turned in a semi-final finish a year after winning the event.
“We were very consistent throughout qualifying and on race day last year,” DeJoria said. “It’s common knowledge that crew chiefs have a ‘Denver specific’ tune-up that they turn to every year, and it definitely makes us feel good heading into an event where we know we have a proven combination for that particular track.”
Racing this weekend and on consecutive weekends is as much of a welcomed blessing as the thin air of Denver.
“After these few weeks off, I’m looking forward to getting back after it this weekend,” DeJoria said. “Personally, I don’t like the long breaks in between race weekends. Of course, sometimes it’s necessary for us to get home and recharge, but I tend to believe that the more races we have back-to-back, the better it is for me as a driver as well as for my team. We like to get into that go-go-go rhythm, and I’m looking forward to kicking off this three-race swing on a high note.”
GETTING THERE IS SUPPOSED TO BE HALF OF THE FUN - Making his way to the mile-high city of Denver was a challenging experience for Clay Millican, who on Tuesday was a guest speaker at Bill Bader Sr.’s celebration of life ceremonies in Norwalk, Ohio.
“This is a week that has made me appreciate family and friends,” Millican said. “I was so honored that I got a phone call from Bill Bader, Jr. to speak at Bill, Sr.’s celebration of life. It’s not a fun thing at all, but at the same time, I left there with, like, this joy in my heart. And I know that probably sounds weird coming from a race car driver, but it was pretty amazing to hear stories of a guy that you looked up to that maybe you didn’t realize that what he did for me, he did for so many others.
“An amazing day, and it’s weird to say that when you’re at a funeral, but it was an absolute, rewarding, amazing day, and it has me charged up, ramped up, and makes me appreciate everything a little more.”
The Bader event might have been the smoothest part of the week for Millican.
“I could not fly in and out of Cleveland and make it there in time and then make it back home,” Millican explained.
To make the schedule work, Millican caught a one-way flight Monday evening from Memphis to Cleveland, Ohio, and then planned another one-way from there to Denver. It looked so simple on paper.
“I made it to my hotel room at 2:00 AM,” Millican said. “The funeral was at 9:00 AM, so regardless, there’s very little sleep in between that amount of time.”
Millican didn’t have a hotel room, so he winged it with friends until his evening flight. He caught his flight out, but as he landed in Atlanta, he received a text message.
“Flight canceled. We have rebooked you on the next flight.”
“I’m like, ‘Oh, man, nobody wants to spend the night in Atlanta,” Millican said. “Nobody does unless you live there. When I’m landing, I get another message that my flight was boarding.”
Millican landed in Atlanta Hartsfield Airport’s B Concourse and, with his newly rebooked flight already boarding, knew there was no time to spare.
Millican said his actions of racing through the airport closely resembled one of the old O.J. Simpson Hertz commercials.
“O.J. Simpson could not have outrun me from B to F,” Millican admitted. “Got on sweating, huffing, and puffing. I landed here at midnight and get to the rental car place. They have no rental cars.”
Add another hour to Millican’s already hectic day.
“Now we’re talking 1:00 AM,” Millican said. “I’m staying with Doug [Stringer, team owner], who has an apartment here in the Denver area. He had sent me the address. I click on this, it carries you right to your maps, and it takes me to a neighborhood on a dead-end street — wrong address.
“I’m not going to call Doug. So now we’re talking 2:00 AM. Long story short, all that by memory, somehow, some way, I walked in the door at his apartment at 3:30.”
Millican slept in that morning.