2023 NHRA MILE-HIGH NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
THE TEN: WATERCOOLER TOPICS FROM THE NHRA MILE-HIGH NATIONALS
1. Top Fuel winner Clay Millican stomps on loud pedal, competition - After polishing off Tony Schumacher in the opening round, Top Fuel’s Clay Millican said Sunday marked only his second Round 1 victory in 10 races this year. And he was quick to mention that the other time he advanced, he won, at Joliet, Ill., in May.
He said, “We’re going to step on that loud pedal three more times.”
And he did, taking the Parts Plus Dragster to the winners circle for his first – and last – triumph at Bandimere Speedway’s Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals.
The Tennessee anthem “Rocky Top” blared in th background, but this wasn’t Millican’s beloved Rocky Top, where he recorded his über-emotional first NHRA victory at his home-state track, Bristol Dragway. Nevertheless, it was on this mountain that the popular West Tennessee driver gave Rick Ware Racing its second victory of the season.
Millican denied final-round opponent Doug Kalitta his long-sought 50th victory in registering his fifth.
Millican, son of grocery-store owners in Drummonds, Tenn., asked the crowd to give one last cheer to the Bandimeres, saying, “I grew up in a family business. You never have a day off. You never have a vacation.” And he saluted his crew, who he said doesn’t ever complain about “how much I screw up and how much I tear up. They just pat me on the back and say, ‘Go stomp on that loud pedal.’”
2. Funny Car winner Matt Hagan delivers for Dodge- For Matt Hagan, his final-round romp over Alexis DeJoria was a fitting end: a Dodge car in the winners circle at a Dodge-sponsored event that after 35 years represented the longest-running event sponsorship in all of motorsports. (Ironically, DeJoria was his final-round victim when he earned his first Denver victory in 2021.)
The Funny Car points leader truly was the king of this mountain this one last time. Hagan cemented the No. 1 qualifier position with his victory Saturday evening in the $10,000-to-win Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge bonus race that gave him three more precious Countdown points. Then he claimed Tony Stewart Racing’s second straight victory at Bandimere Speedway. Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett, Stewart’s wife, won here last July.
Hagan had some sentimental incentives to win Sunday. He lost his mother about six months ago, and this is her birthday weekend. Hagan was hoping to win, too, for crew hand Josh, who suffered a broken sternum and some broken ribs in a highway accident in Indianapolis recently. And of course, he wanted to impress boss Tony Stewart, who flew in Sunday for the Camping World Drag Racing Series race following his own Eldora Million / Kings Royal classics this weekend at his dirt track at Rossburg, Ohio.
Hagan said one of the Dodge representatives teasingly told him if he didn’t win the Funny Car trophy he would be fired. Although it was a joke, Hagan wanted to make sure to get that 47th triumph that still leaves him fourth on the class’ all-time victories list.
DeJoria said, “That was a hard loss right there. Going up against Hagan, it was a rematch from two years ago. I really wanted that trophy for the guys and myself and our whole team. It is the last trophy here at Bandimere, so I guess it is quite fitting for the Dodge team to get it, but that’s not why we came here. We came here to win, and we were gunning all weekend. We had some wild rides, but that Toyota 200th win is still on the table, and we are also a part of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for the next race. This was our third final of the year.”
3. Pro Stock winner Troy Coughlin Jr. calls victory ‘humbling’ and ‘an honor’ - Like his uncle Jeg Coughlin Jr., Troy Coughlin Jr. can add a Pro Stock “Wally” trophy from Denver to the extensive collection at the family-run Jegs Mail Order headquarters at Delaware, Ohio.
But he has one trophy none of his racing uncles, siblings, or cousins ever can contribute. Coughlin – like Millican, Hagan, and Gaige Herrera – received a trophy John Bandimere had crafted especially for these four winners Sunday and nicknamed the “Johnny.” (The traditional “Wally” statue is named in honor of NHRA founder Wally Parks.)
He called this fourth Pro Stock victory in his 70th race “humbling” and just being at the event and soaking in its historical value “an honor.”
After nailing his second victory of 2023 over finalist and points leader Dallas Glenn, Gainesville victor Coughlin said, “Man, that was a heck of a race. We’ve got a long way to go until November, but this Elite Motorsports team is not giving up, that’s for certain. Mark Ingersoll and all of the boys in the lounge, everyone who works on this JEGS.com / White Castle machine, had this thing flying.”
3(a). Pro Stock Bike winner receives the first ‘Johnny’ trophy to go with his ‘Wally’ - Bike sensation Gaige Herrera closed out a successful run for the Vance & Hines team at Denver with his fourth victory in the class’ six appearances on the schedule. Champion brothers Matt and Andrew Hines also have won at Bandimere Speedway, not far from where they operated their race shop for many years, at Trinidad, Colo., before relocating to Brownsburg, Ind.
To Herrera, his performance was a rebound, after Steve Johnson and Hector Arana Jr. were able to break into the win column as he struggled a bit.
But he has the honor of receiving the first specially designed trophy dubbed the “Johnny” for John Bandimere Jr., who commissioned it.
4. First round is tough on Top Fuel class - Four of the top five-ranked dragster drivers lost in the opening round.
No. 16 starter Rob Passey was thrilled about his part in making that happen. He defeated Brittany Force, who made a dramatic 337.33-mph run Saturday night in 3.724 seconds) to set the track speed record and grab the No. 1 qualifying spot. Her car dropped a cylinder or two early on, then she lost traction and shut the engine off at about 600 feet.
Afterward, Passey said, “I was checking the weather all week. And when it looked like Sunday was going to be the hottest, I got excited. I wouldn’t mind if it was 110 [degrees],” the part-time racer from Salt Lake City said. “We just motor our stuff down there, and if they bobble at all, we’re standin’ here, having fun.” He said he’s “just livin’ the day.” Shawn Langdon cut Passey’s day short in the quarterfinals.
For the first time in four meetings this season, Steve Torrence defeated Justin Ashley, the points leader and four-time 2023 winner.
Josh Hart started eliminations by using a better reaction time to knock out Leah Pruett, the event’s Honorary Starter and Dodge-branded driver who had been hoping for back-to-back triumphs at Bandimere Speedway. She and Hart registered identical elapsed times (3.905 seconds). His margin of victory was about six feet, or .0137 of a second.
Force’s Top Fuel teammate Austin Prock fell to Mike Salinas in his first race of the day.
5. John Force Won’t Let Bandimere Speedway Go Quietly Into Night - Funny Car icon John Force let his emotions spill over Friday night following his provisional No. 2 qualifying performance, calling it “Mount Rushmore.
“They built this in the side of a mountain. How do you do that?” Force said. “This is God’s gift. This is mythical s---. I love racing, and I love this hill – and I want ’em all to know it.”
Force has won eight times at Bandimere Speedway (1994-96, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2016, 2018) and compiled an elimination-round record here of 75-32. That mark is second only to his overall performance at Minnesota’s Brainerd International Raceway, where he has 76 round-wins. But he didn’t roll into Denver on top of his game initially.
He remembered that in early in his career, when he couldn’t afford a hotel, the late John Bandimere Sr. opened his home to him: “I was so poor I had to sleep at his house. I was a joke.”
Motioning to the grandstands, Force said, “I sat up there with my dad and Bandimere Senior in ’79. They’re gone now … but this place is important to us. I’m always excited to come race on the mountain. I’ve been coming to Bandimere Speedway a long time. I have a lot of history here. I’ve accomplished a lot, grown with the Bandimere family. It’s … an emotional weekend, saying goodbye to this place.”
Then Sunday, Force had more to say: “It ain’t over ‘til Bandimere says it’s over.” Realizing that drivers in all classes are expressing sadness that this is the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ last stop here, Force said, “They all care about this mountain. We’ve got to fix it.”
6. Drivers Bid Farewell To Thunder Mountain . . . - Alexis DeJoria looked a little bit ahead and a little bit backwards in this last trip to Denver. She said, “We will be grateful for all of the runs we got to run out here. Working with the Bandimeres just has been really awesome. I’m going to miss this racetrack. I’m going to miss going up and hiking Red Rocks every morning before the races. I’m going to miss all of these fans out here. Hopefully, they do end up building another track. Who knows if that is going to happen? But I’m really grateful for the time that we’ve had.”
Reigning Pro Stock champion Erica Enders said, “It’s hard to believe that this is the last time we will be heading to Bandimere Speedway. Visiting Denver has been a staple on our summer schedule since the mid-’90s when we were racing Jr. Dragsters. The tradition continued through my entire sportsman and professional career. The mountain is just flat-out special. The Bandimere family has not only done so much for the sport, but they have also been so great on a personal level, to my family and me. We wish them nothing but the best as they venture out on their next journey.”
But Enders always will remember Bandimere Speedway as the racetrack she never was able to solve. She had two cracks at it this weekend, one in Pro Stock and the other in Mountain Motor Pro Stock. But no matter the size of her engine, Enders once again was unable to walk away with a trophy from this track she loves so much.
Top Fuel’s Buddy Hull said, “It's a blessing to be able to do what we're doing, and I mean that with all my heart. I'm thankful that we're able to pivot and get out here to make some respectable runs and help the Bandimere family close out a long legacy of providing an incredible facility to drivers and race fans. They've worked their butts off their entire lives to provide us with a sandbox to play with our fast toys.”
Hull’s on-track rival Justin Ashley said Bandimere Speedway “is so much fun. It's amazing. The facility itself is stunning. When you combine that with the fans that come here … it’s packed, and it's been packed all weekend. They are so engaged and excited about the racing and what the Bandimeres have done. It's really a good culture inside this whole facility.”
Backing him up is the fact that despite the usual hot summer temperatures, the place was jammed all three days – even though singer Taylor Swift was in town for a concert and baseball’s popular New York Yankees were in Denver for an interleague series with the Colorado Rockies.
Jim Oberhofer, Clay Millican’s crew chief for the Parts Plus Dragster, got rousing approval of the crowd Saturday when he said, “Let’s raise some money and give it to the Bandimeres so they can keep racing here. This place is awesome.”
And John Force sort of seconded that Sunday, saying that he was encouraged by racers from all classes saying how much they love the venue. Force said, “We’ve got to fix it.”
7. … While Bandimere Family Promises New Facility - The Bandimere family has operated the dragstrip on Thunder Mountain – snuggled into the mountain in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colo. – since 1958. They have committed to selling the property (and said if that falls through they have a back-up offer). In a Denver Post article published Wednesday, John Bandimere Jr. said the happy news is that the family is scouting new property and spearheading a plan to build a new, expansive dragstrip nearby that likely will involve a non-family member.
The ambitious aim, he said, is to welcome the NHRA back to the Denver market as early as 2025. Bandimere Jr. said Wednesday that the current racetrack won’t become the site of a housing development, but rather some sort of automotive-related endeavor.
Just before delivering the Saturday-afternoon invocation, Bandimere Jr. said, “The truth is this place doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God. He’s made it so it’s been so fun.”
That didn’t bring John Force much solace. The PEAK Chevy Camaro owner-driver said, “I know the world’s changing and everybody needs room and they’re building houses. But this thing is something special. I’m mad about it. Not mad at the Bandimere family. I know they love it.”
Bandimere Jr. said at the end of the official presentations that he and his team are searching for a new location to build a replacement track after they sell this property. He said when that happens, “We’ll invite all of you.”
8. Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge: Looking back and ahead - After zipping to his fifth straight $10,000 Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge victory Saturday and running his Countdown bonus-point total to 15 from the qualifying-session specialty race, Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley won’t participate at Seattle. Competing at Seattle in the bonus event will be Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican, and Steve Torrence.
In the Funny Car class, Alexis DeJoria, Ron Capps, Denver #2Fast2Tasty winner Matt Hagan, and J.R. Todd will go for the points and cash at next weekend’s Flav-R-Pac Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways.
In the Pro Stock category Saturday, Troy Coughlin Jr. launched with a perfect light in his winning run to defeat Aaron Stanfield (who, ironically, cut a perfect light against Matt Hartford for the right to face Coughlin in the final). A pair of KB Titan Racing drivers, Camrie Caruso and Dallas Glenn, and a duo from Elite Motorsports, Coughlin and Erica Enders, will compose the Seattle foursome.
No. 1 qualifier Hector Arana Jr. red-lit away his chance to rule the day, allowing Matt Smith to win the Challenge Saturday. But he earned a return berth Sunday, reaching the semifinals. Also qualifying for the Seattle Mission Challenge field were Gaige Herrera, Angie Smith, and Chase Van Sant.
9. Antron Brown Makes Friday Top Fuel Pass Fit For A King - Antron Brown’s Friday-night pass that made him the Top Fuel class’ tentative No. 1 qualifier was fit for a king. The King of Speed – Kenny Bernstein – warmed up Brown’s Matco Tool Toyota Dragster in the pits earlier in the day.
“That was some pressure right there, having ‘the King’ come back out and sit in our car,” Brown said after covering the Morrison, Colo., 1,000-foot course in 3.783 seconds at a class-best 327.90-mph speed. “I’m glad we did a representative run for Kenny. He did that all the time.”
And according to Brown, Bernstein hasn’t missed beat since his retirement: “When he warmed that car up – people don’t realize – he went through all the motions without even thinking about it: put it in reverse, forward, smooth, not grinding the gears, trimming the fuel pump like he was there just yesterday.”
Brown called his visit with Bernstein “truly special” and said his run Friday evening was ‘something we can give back to Kenny for all he’s done for our sport. He’s definitely our hero at AB Motorsports.”
10. Don’t mess with Texas – or Texas resident Alexis DeJoria - During the first round of Funny Car eliminations, Ron Capps defeated Terry Haddock. But Haddock put up a noble challenge, especially considering his crew and volunteer helpers from other teams worked until about 2:30 Sunday morning to prepare the car. Haddock’s final qualifying run ended with a massive engine explosion that blew out the side of his car body.
McKailen Haddock, the driver’s son, was praising his team for all of its hard work. And apparently he and interviewer Hannah Rickards were standing in the way of Alexis DeJoria as she was ready to perform her burnout. Someone from DeJoria’s crew shoved Haddock off to the side of the track.
Following her successful run, DeJoria said, “I was getting a little heated on the starting line. Car started up, and my crew chief went out to pull me out to do my burnout. Haddock’s team was still out there, giving an interview. And, man, I got kind of pissed. I get road rage when I’m in that car.”
McKailen Haddock, one of the politest and most respectful young men in the drag-racing community, later took blame for the problem.
“I had asked Hannah for the interview to shout out the guys and just wasn’t quick enough answering before the next pair,” he said. “All good!”
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THERE'S A PACKED HOUSE CHOCK FULL OF ENTERTAINMENT
MONSTER ROCKETEER HITS HER MARK - Monster Energy Dragster driver Brittany Force shattered the Bandimere Speedway track record by seven miles an hour in her final qualifying pass Saturday to seize the low-qualifier award in the Top Fuel class at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals.
She charged down the Morrison, Colo., 1,000-foot course with an elapsed time of 3.724 seconds at a speed of 337.33 mph – especially outstanding in the oxygen-poor atmospheric conditions that aren’t friendly for high-horsepower race cars.
Rival Tony Schumacher, the eight-time series champion, said he wasn’t at all surprised at Force’s and her team’s feat. He said, “I would expect – before even [hearing who it was to clock such a speed] – that it would be them.”
Four-time champ Steve Torrence had a little fun with it. He called out to the two-time and current champion Force, “Brittany, you’re just showing off now.”
She said, “It really shows a lot about this sport and the competitors in it for them to come over and congratulate me on a run like that and the entire Monster Energy team.”
And if she were showing off, that was all right for Force’s crew chief, David Grubnic, who said, “Well, we had to get it down the track. We’re developing a new program, and there’s no right or wrong decisions in this business. What we learn up here [on Thunder Mountain] we can’t take back down to sea level. It’s just a matter of getting it all right.
“This is our last time here in Denver. So we want to try to do something for the crowd and everybody that supported us over the years here,” he said. That run, he said, “is for everybody here.”
With a hint of a smile, something a bit rare for the ultra-serious tuner, Grubnic said, “It’s a lot of risk – but she made it.”
An elated Force, who replaced Friday and early Saturday leader Antron Brown at the top of the order, said, “We’ve struggled this season, so to come out here at Bandimere Speedway . . . We love this racetrack. I’ve been coming here since I was kid. And it’s sad to see it go away, but we want to leave our mark here.”
She did that. Her elapsed-time track record remains intact so far as she earned her fourth No.1 starting position of the season and 46th of her career.
Force said a 337-mph blast “is like being strapped to a rocket. I can’t compare it to anything. My guys pull [strap] me down tight to where I can’t even breathe. But we want to get our car down there and turn wins lights on. That’s what we really want to do.”
Rob Passey will be her opening-round opponent in Sunday’s eliminations.
HAGAN HAS 50 NO. 1 QUALIFIERS - Matt Hagan became the fifth different Funny Car driver to win the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge on Saturday, getting past Bob Tasca III in the finals with a run of 4.511 at 192.82 in his 11,000-horsepower Dodge Direct Connections Charger SRT Hellcat. That puts him halfway to what would be a perfect weekend at his sponsor’s race and Hagan has already shown what he’s capable of on Thunder Mountain.
His run of 3.895 at 324.59 from Friday handed him the No. 1 qualifier for the first time this season and the 50th time in his career, adding to his momentum in front of a packed house. Hagan opens eliminations against Chris King and is focused on Sunday while also taking a minute to celebrate his victory in the specialty race.
“I think we're putting on a pretty good show for Dodge – No. 1 qualifier, 50th No. 1 for me and winning the (Mission) #2Fast2Tasty Challenge,” Hagan said. “It's so much going on, it's incredible. It's just super special. It's a real emotional day and I'm proud of my guys, proud of (crew chief) Dickie Venables and all the work they put in. This cannot be done without the team that I have. We have a special team at (Tony Stewart Racing). They just do a great job.
“(Our combination) has proven itself again up here and I feel like we have a great combo again for tomorrow. Rolling into raceday, I feel very, very confident about tomorrow.”
JUST ASHLEY DOING ASHLEY THINGS - Top Fuel points leader Justin Ashley extended his winning streak by claiming victory in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge for the fifth consecutive time. The specialty race, held as part of the 43rd and final Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, saw Ashley emerge as the champion, defeating Austin Prock in front of a sold-out crowd.
Joining Ashley in victory at the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge were Matt Hagan in Funny Car, Troy Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock, and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Ashley’s victory came after a thrilling final round, where he clocked a time of 3.883 seconds at 313.95 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Phillips Connect/Toyota dragster. This win marks his fifth triumph in the 2023 season, earning him 15 bonus points for the Countdown to the Championship. As the current points leader, Ashley now sets his sights on achieving a third double-up weekend this year.
Reflecting on his success, Ashley expressed his delight at the ongoing dream season he has been experiencing.
“It has been a dream season so far,” Ashley said. “It’s been unbelievable, and we’ll take a win any way we can get it. It’s such a fun event, and it really helps us get ready for raceday. It’s packed here, and the fans are excited.
“You try not to think about the championship this early in the year, but how can you not? These championship points are so critical. Now that we’re at 15, it really is like a dream come true. When they reset the points, everything starts from scratch, but those 15 points are critical. We’re ecstatic with all these Mission #2Fast2Tasty wins.”
SHE WANTS TO BE THE QUEEN - Erica Enders, who never has won a Pro Stock trophy at Bandimere Speedway, said before the Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals, “I will do everything in our power to leave Bandimere [as] Queen of the Mountain.”
She was quasi-coronated Saturday, this Princess of Pre-Race Performance, as her 6.919-second elapsed time on the Morrison, Colo., quarter-mile from Friday weathered two more qualifying sessions for the No. 1 qualifying position.
“I would love nothing more than to win Denver for my first time in Pro Stock as the NHRA rolls into the gates for the last time. This one would be so meaningful,” the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage / Melling Chevy Camaro said.
She said she had a fun time during the idle week, “testing” at a match race in Wisconsin and working on her comfortability with the clutch pedal and bellhousing “to get better on the Tree.” But she said, “You can’t really get ready for this race unless you come to Denver and test, because it’s the only track that has these atmospheric conditions. It’s super-challenging on the mountain. I’m really excited for our performance so far.”
In Round 1 of eliminations Sunday, she’ll meet Fernando Cuadra Jr., who anchored the field with a 6.999-second showing. That means the 16 drivers were within eight-hundredths of a second of each other.
ARANA JR. UPBEAT AS EVER - After winning his first event of the season, Hector Arana Jr. came to the Mile-High Nationals this weekend with plenty of confidence.
Arana Jr. keep his momentum going as he was the No. 1 qualifier after Friday’s two sessions on his GETTRX Buell.
“The last time I raced at Denver (in 2018), we won the race, and we’ve had pretty good success there,” Arana Jr. said. “We really do a good tune up, as far as what we do with the bike, and I expect to continue that success.”
Back in 2018 in Denver, Arana Jr. defeated Jerry Savoie in the final round.
“We tend to build off the momentum,” Arana Jr. said. “We definitely feel good. I was just at the shop the last five days, working and helping prepare everything for the next three races on the Western Swing. Everything’s freshened up and ready to go and have a lot of confidence going into this race.”
Arana Jr. elaborated on the logistics involved with the Pro Stock Motorcycle class competing on the full Western Swing – Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma for the next three consecutive weekends – for the first time.
“We are fortunate enough that have a truck driver (who worked for Don Schumacher Racing, Kalitta Motorsports and Cruz Pedregon) and now he’s working for us,” Arana Jr., said. “It’ll be four weekends in a row that I’ll be gone out of town. So, the weekend leading up to it to prep for everything, and then the three races, with red eyes going home. So, it’ll definitely be tiring, and at the same time looking forward to it. Because these next two races: I’ve never been to Seattle, but Sonoma and Denver are by far some of my favorite racetracks.”
Arana Jr. easily hung onto the No. 1 spot thanks to his track record run of 7.047 at 189.36 from Friday on his GETTRX Suzuki. That handed the most recent event winner his first No. 1 spot of the season. Rookie Chase Van Sant stayed second with a 7.121 at 188.52, and points leader Gaige Herrera moved up to third with a 7.123 at 187.39.
STEVE TORRENCE DISCUSSES BANDIMERE, SEASON - From 2018-2021, Steve Torrence and his Capco team dominated NHRA’s Top Fuel class.
Part of Torrence’s success – 53 Wallys – three came at the Mile-High Nationals in 2015, 2019 and 2021.
“I really enjoyed racing there throughout my career and have had some success there and just all good things come to an end eventually and so, sad to see it go but would love more than anything to send it on its way and farewell to being the last one to win there,” Torrence said. “I was able to do that with Englishtown (N.J.), I couldn’t do that with Houston. Bandimere family’s been awesome to us and become really good friends. We’re going to go there and try to put on a show and make it a very memorable race.”
Racing in the high-altitude of Denver isn’t lost on Torrence.
“Everywhere has its own basket of challenges that you got to deal with and that one right there is the only place you feel like you’ve run a million miles when you get out of the race car,” Torrence said. “Yeah. I mean it’s something different, one is it’s always packed with fans. But yeah, it, more so for the crew chiefs than anyone else as far as the challenges that it dishes out. But it’s the one track that we go to every year that everything is different for Denver.”
Like so many competitors, Torrence is sorry to see that Bandimere Speedway in this location is closing after this season.
“I hate to see that go because in years past we’ve had a pretty good setup for there,” he said. “Historically, we have run well there and been pretty fast. So, you always have tracks that give you confidence if you like to go back to, and that’s been one of them for me, so. I’m trying to rally the troops and start a good charge and we’d love nothing more than to start that in Denver.”
Torrence’s team finished sixth in the 2022 points standings, which was hard to take.
“Last year was a bitter pill and a different one, a difficult one to swallow, but we knew what we were doing going into the season, so we knew we were going to try some things and try something different and go down a different road,” Torrence said. “I don’t think any of us expected it to take nearly as long as it did. I do think that where we need to be right now, we just have not had the consistency. I had this discussion with some people with Capco the other day. I was like, ‘It seems like we’ve just really sucked,’ but at the end of day we have not won a race yet. We’ve led the points the majority of the year and the guy that now is leading the points, I think is won three or four races.
“So, we’re doing better than everybody, but one person and we haven’t won a race. When you look at it that way, it kind of makes you be a little more appreciative of what you’ve done. But still you’re like, man, hopefully this comes back together and the dominance and the success that we’ve had in the past will return. Anything less than winning six or seven races in a season feels like you’re not doing good.”
As decorated as Torrence’s career has been – he still would love a sweep of the Western Swing – something he has never done. The Western Swing consists of Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, Calif.
“I’m not a big fan of multiple swings and multiple races in a row,” Torrence said. “I think that it’s just really, really hard on my guys. But I enjoy the Western Swing. I have a lot of things that I’ve been so fortunate and blessed to be able to accomplish, sweeping the swing, I’ve not done that. And I would love to.
“We went two for three. I know once, maybe a couple times and I think I’ve won eight or nine in a row before, but just not at the right time. I enjoy the three-race swing as it is. I enjoy the history of it. And there’s not a whole lot of folks that have swept the swing and at this point that’ll go away.”
Only Top Fuel drivers Joe Amato (1991), Cory McClenathan (1997), Larry Dixon (2003), Tony Schumacher (2008), and Antron Brown (2009) — have swept the Swing.
“I would love to,” said Torrence about sweeping the Swing. “I think we swept the Eastern Swing. We hadn’t done it over there for Denver, Seattle, Sonoma, and we’ll just go see what we can do. I got a lot of confidence in my guys. The car’s been doing better and better, which admittedly I’m one of those drivers that the better the car is, the better I am. That’s probably a weakness on my behalf. But I was kind of, ironically, I was happy even though we lost against Justin (Ashley in second round of the last race on a holeshot (at Norwalk, Ohio). I mean, I was .081 on the tree and ran 3.70 flat and he was .039 on the tree and goes (3).72 and won on a hole shot, but mentally you can’t beat yourself up too hard because, I mean, 80 is really not that far out. That guy’s that good on the tree. And I was happier that we outran them than anything because those guys have been tough to beat and mentally, we went up there and beat ourselves against them half a dozen times. So, we needed to go outrun them.”
RODEO, DRAG RACING COLLIDE - This weekend two stars from entirely different sports – rodeo and drag racing – converged to share their professions with each other.
Standout Top Fuel racer Austin Prock out of the John Force Racing stable, and 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifying saddle bronc rider Kade Bruno met up on their respective turfs.
First, Prock visited Bruno on Thursday night as he was competing at the NFR Open powered by RAM in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is just over an hour from Bandimere Speedway.
Bruno showed him the in-and-outs of rodeo before rode and then Prock watched from the back of the chutes as Bruno had an 83-point ride on United Pro Rodeo’s Sky Fall at the PRCA-sanctioned national event at the Norris Penrose Event Center.
“That was awesome,” Prock said after watching Bruno’s ride. “This sport is cutthroat. It is very similar to drag racing, you have to go out there and be perfect just a few seconds. You’re on a very unpredictable animal and you have to be on top of it. It is a team sport like drag racing. Your crew chief gives you a good car and you have to show out when it counts.
“Kade did that and it was really cool. He had an awesome ride and the judges thought so as well. It was fun getting to know Kade and I’m excited to show him what we do.”
Prock got that chance as Bruno, his girlfriend, Presley Phillips, and Tracy Renck, the editor of the ProRodeo Sports News ventured to Bandimere Speedway on Friday afternoon. Bruno and his girlfriend had never been to a drag race before.
Bruno, 23, was able to speak with Prock in the staging lanes before the first qualifying session and then he watched from the starting line as Prock, and his teammate Top Fuel driver Brittany Force made qualifying laps.
The experience – especially the noise of the 12,000 horsepower engines and the smell of nitromethane – was something that left a lasting impression on Bruno.
“That was crazy, and definitely loud enough for me,” said a smiling Bruno. “The ground was shaking, and I could feel it throughout my whole body and the smell of nitro burned my nose and made my eyes water. That was dang sure an experience you will not get anywhere else. It was cool.”
After watching the qualifying runs, Bruno got to see Prock working on his team’s crew in the pit and then he capped off his visit by seeing NHRA legend John Force, a 16-time nitro Funny Car world champ warm up his car.
“At my age, I will wear cowboy boots, but I will not even look at a horse,” John said to Bruno. “I don’t know why I get in this (as he pointed to his Funny Car).”
Bruno relished in the drag racing experience with the powerhouse JFR team.
“This was a unique experience getting to see the insides and outs of (drag racing),” said Bruno, who is from Challis, Idaho. “There’s a heck of a lot more that goes on than what you see by watching a race on TV. Taking the engine apart every single time, you run, that’s serious stuff. You really have to trust your crew. It was pretty dang cool to watch. I’m going to have to tell my cowboy buddies that they are going to have to go a race.”
ANDERSON LOOKING FOR ONE LAST PARTY - Greg Anderson and the HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro team are gearing up for a fierce battle in their pursuit of the last Pro Stock trophy at the Bandimere Speedway. With a high-performance hot rod under their command, they are determined to clinch victory at the highly challenging Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals.
Anderson, a four-time winner at Bandimere Speedway, expressed his admiration for this unique racetrack, citing the tough conditions as what fuels his team’s competitive spirit. “There is no question, the KB Titan Racing team feels that the tougher the challenge, the better our odds are,” said Anderson. He further emphasized the importance of their performance on Sunday, stating, “That makes it even more important to do well.”
Having set the stage for success, Anderson’s car achieved the quickest elapsed time during the final qualifying round, earning the team three bonus points. On Friday evening, Anderson clocked his best time of the weekend so far, completing a 6.927-second pass at 194.60 mph. Starting in the No. 5 position, he will kick off the day with a first-round faceoff against Mason McGaha, who narrowly defeated Anderson earlier this season at the opener.
As the most successful driver in Pro Stock history, Anderson is determined to script a different outcome this Sunday in Denver. Expressing his desire to claim the trophy, Anderson said, “It would sure be neat to get that trophy... My first win with Summit Racing Equipment came on this mountain in 2004... to do that in front of them was something I will never forget.”
Recognizing the significance of Bandimere Speedway, Anderson highlighted the close bond his team developed with the Bandimere family over the years, praising their management of the track for the benefit of racers and fans alike. Anderson acknowledged the difficulty of bidding farewell to this iconic location, expressing gratitude for his experiences here and hoping to end on a high note for the team.
AT TRACK OR DAILY JOB, KING PUTS OUT FIRES – Funny Car owner-driver Chris King made his professional debut at Bandimere Speedway in 2021. And as he returns in his second appearance of this season and his second at Denver, he’s gung-ho to rush into a daunting situation – just like he does in his primary job as a Chicago firefighter.
“I raced the G.O.A.T.s [Greatest of All-Time] of drag racing, but you know what? I wouldn't want it any other way,” he said. “How many people get to drive these things in the whole world? Not very many. And I'm one of 'em. I just gave myself goosebumps even thinking about that.” Perhaps more striking is the resistance he had to ignore in order to have the opportunity.
King said, “Everybody told me when I wanted to drive, ‘It's never going to happen.’ ‘You're never going to do it.’ ‘It's impossible.’ ‘You're an idiot.’ ‘Don't even think about it. You're wasting your time.’ That motivated me more. And some of them were really close friends of mine telling me, ‘Never going to happen, dude. You're never going to have whatever. You're wasting your time.’ But here I am.
“Every hurdle or every roadblock people can throw at you, they do. And then you actually find out who your real friends are because there's those who support you no matter what, then you got the ones that'll back-stab you and [criticize] you while you're doing things because they never had the ambition or the goals or the drive to make it happen,” he said. “I tell everybody there's not one thing in this world you cannot do if you put your mind to it.” He said people say enviously, “You got cool jobs.” You’re a fireman and you race cars.” His answer? “You know what? You could be a fireman and race cars if you wanted it bad enough. Just put the effort in and make it happen.”
And he’ll be the first to say that even with a lot of grit, achieving dreams to the fullest isn’t easy.
He has mastered the demands of a fireman, but he’s learning that an owner-driver of a race team gets pulled in different directions like a piece of taffy. In his first appearance of this year, at his home track at Joliet, Ill., King captured fans’ fancy by instructing several drag racers in the daily life and drills of a firefighter – and for having his Howards Cams / Competition Products Dodge Charger wrapped with a graphic designed by fan favorite Jack Beckman’s teenage son Jason. Now he wants to concentrate on making his Funny Car competitive.
“It does get to be distracting,” he said of the creative promotional/marketing programs that are aimed at adding value to potential sponsors. “I get pulled in a million different directions: ‘This part's broken. We got to go get one.’ OK - now I got to source parts. OK - you got to be here to do a warm-up. OK – I got to do this. I got to work on the car. OK - I have to be here for a PR meeting at this time . . . ‘Sorry guys. I can't work on the car right now. You guys got to do it.’ So there's a lot pulling me a bunch of different directions, but I actually kind of like that, because I'm up for the challenge and I'm a busy-body and adrenaline junkie and love the thrill of everything. So I'm welcome to the challenge. I just wish it was a little easier for the small guys to land the sponsors that the big guys always seem to get every other week. Finding good guys to work on the cars is definitely hard. And then you basically end up having to teach 'em every week because it's different guys. It costs a lot of money, because you're traveling and paying for people to fly all over the country. It never ends.
“It's a lot to take on,” King said, “because I'm the owner and the driver and the face of the team. So I'm the one out there hustling, trying to find any and all kinds of support. We do have sponsors on the car, but there's nothing heavily financial. A lot of the money comes out of my pocket. We get parts deals and help and have associate sponsors. But without those who help, we wouldn't be able to do it at all.
He is receiving practical and educational help from a variety of special sources. The main guide is Terry Totten, who facilitated King’s purchase of the Funny Car from friend Mark Howard. The car stays at Totten’s shop in Nebraska, and King helps Totten operate the team across the miles.
King said of Totten, “I would be lost without him, because he's done so much work on the car when I'm not available to be out there in Omaha. I live in Chicago. So he works on the cars in between the races. And he did a lot of changes to this car for this [Denver] race to get me comfortable in the cockpit. We changed the steering, raised it up, made some new tin work for it, and then obviously we had to put a new motor in it because we kicked the rods out at Joliet in the third qualifier. So we blew a motor up there, which is why we didn't qualify. And then he did a lot of work over the last few weeks to get this car ready for Denver. And I'm forever grateful to him. But he loves it. He loves thrashing and the challenges, and he's a pretty smart guy.”
Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Ron Capps Racing’s crew chief, has shared his deep knowledge, as well.
“Guido's always been really cool for me to talk to and just ask opinions. After we kicked the rods out [at Joliet], he looked at it and he [volunteered to come and help]. He came over and looked at some stuff and started talking to Terry, and we found out what the problem was and we changed our setup based off of what Dean recommended. We changed all the rods out and switched over, and he looked at a couple other things in our clutch department. We were having a hard time getting the car not to shake or spin the tires. And he offered some suggestions on how to calm that down. So basically, he came over and helped us straighten out the Funny Car. Terry's a dragster guy, and Funny Cars are drastically different. It helped us to get in the ballpark to make this car a lot more predictable and get down the track. He offered up a bunch of advice and assistance and guidance to point us in the right direction. And it is great,” King said. “Dickie Venables [Matt Hagan’s crew chief] has always been really cool, too.”
King needs no help in interacting with fans.
“I'm out there meeting people, talking to people. I'm trying to get known to the fans of NHRA,” he said. “I love being out there, talking to the fans and walking around and seeing people and answering questions. And I let people sit in my car. I love interacting with the fans and the people and then just the friendships you have. And most of the drivers come up and say, ‘Hey man, it's cool you're out here.’’
À la John Force at Seattle in 2019 or IndyCar’s Josef Newgarden at the Indianapolis 500, King said he’d share his first victory with the fans: “Tell you, if I won, I would be so ecstatic and excited. I think I would jump up in the crowd and just go up there and hang out with the crowd and slap hands and celebrate – because basically I'm one of the crowd. I'm a little guy out here doing it. But that's where I came from. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be racing. So you got to treat them with the utmost respect and include them in everything. And the more you can do for them, the more they can do for you. And I tell everybody this, too. I talk to everybody and anybody, because you never know who you're talking to. I could be talking to the CEO of a billion-dollar company. Just because he's wearing dirty shorts and a ripped T-shirt doesn't mean nothing.”
For right now, King said, “I don't really have any expectations. I'm just happy to be out here, being able to be part of nitro, ultimately what I love to race.” Winning and being a perennial contender, he said would “be a dream come true. Is it obtainable? It's almost impossible for most people. So I mean, I would love to find some sponsorship help to make this less of a financial burden on me personally so I can still come out here and do what I'd like to do. But I am a racer at heart. I love racing, and it's what I want to do. I like being at the racetrack. So whatever I can do to make that happen is pretty much my goal.”
MILLICAN TAPS INTO HIS BANDIMERE SPEEDWAY MEMORY BANK - Clay Millican established himself as an IHRA legend years ago and when he entered the NHRA ranks in 1998 he has become a fan favorite and a four-time national event winner.
During his NHRA career, he has made many trips to the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, and he took a moment to address the fact that this weekend’s race will be the last at the facility.
“There’ll never be another more fan friendly than (Bandimere Speedway),” Millican said. “You’ll never replace the views that you can get from watching a race here. I don’t think that’ll ever happen. It’s the most unique setup for a race ever. Obviously, we’ve got Bristol, (Tenn.) but Bristol is such a different setup than this. Where else do you go where the tractor trailer rigs are parked above the grandstand? You know what I mean? It’s just so unique and unusual. I don’t think you can ever duplicate this. And all the reports, newspaper reports say they’re looking out by the airport (to build a new track). They’re not going to be building on the side of a mountain like they did here.”
Despite the challenge that running at Denver presents, Millican has had a liking for the track. He advanced to the semifinals in 2021 at the Mile-High Nationals and to the quarterfinals a year ago.
“I know we were very much looking forward to (this race), and I truly hate that it’s going away. But at the same, you know what, if your family’s been doing something for 65 years, and you get an opportunity, the fans cannot be mad at the Bandimere family,” Millican said.
Millican acknowledged running in the high-altitude of Denver changes his feel in the cockpit.
“The hard part for me is what I call the butt-o-meter, in other words, what you feel in your butt,” he said. “It’s not as bad as it was years ago when the cars ran so much slower here. But the cars don’t go quite as quick, and so your butt-o-meter’s off a little bit. You might catch a run with a hole out at sea level and you feel that. And up here, you might question in your mind just ever so slightly, does it have a hole out? Or is it just because we’re on a mountain and it’s going slow? It takes a few runs for the butt-o-meter to just kind of catch up.”
Millican’s Parts Plus/NurtecODT/Rick Ware Racing dragster has had a somewhat strange season. He lost in the first round in eight of the nine races and at the race he didn’t lose in the first round – Chicago – he won the event.
“We obviously could change that trend (of losing in the first round), but it’s been super nice not having to stress if you make a mistake and hurt an engine or do something that you can’t come back (and race),” Millican said. “Obviously, we all want some better results, but overall, it’s absolutely amazing how well things are going, and how good everyone’s attitude is. When again, we haven’t won a single round, other than winning a race. It’s kind of crazy, but we know it’s there. We just got to be more consistent and find the set-up that turns on four win lights like we did in Chicago.”
LEE BEARD TALKS MILE-HIGH NATIONALS MEMORIES - Since late in the 2022 season, Lee Beard has served as a consultant for Cruz Pedregon’s team.
Beard has had an amazing career in the sport of drag racing.
Beard tuned the late Gary Ormsby to a Top Fuel title in 1989. In 1992 he won a world championship as team manager for Larry Minor Racing when Cruz Pedregon captured the nitro Funny Car title. He also was the team manager at Don Schumacher Racing when Tony Schumacher was the Top Fuel champ in 2009.
As a crew chief, Beard has amassed 55 NHRA national event wins with 14 different drivers in Top Fuel and Funny Car. Seven of those drivers were first-time national event winners.
The starting point for those national event wins came at the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway outside of Denver. Back on April 21, NHRA and the Bandimere family jointly announced the 2023 Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway would be the last NHRA national event at the historic track.
First opened in 1958, the Bandimere family has agreed to sell the current property and land, with the 2023 racing season marking the end of drag racing at the location.
Beard, as a crew chief, guided Jerry Ruth to the Top Fuel title at the 1980 Mile-High Nationals.
However, Beard acknowledged one of his fondest racing memories came at Bandimere Speedway came in 1979 when he was driving Jerry Ruth’s Funny Car.
“Yeah, I think it’s just been kind of a special place, because number one, I grew up in this area as part of the Division 5, which I raced in,” said Beard about Bandimere Speedway. We watched the thing grow from a little, we’ll say, mom and pop dragstrip when it first opened into a full-blown national event track that it is today, so we’ve seen changes that the Bandimere family, improvements that they continuously made, made it into really a first-class facility where it’s located up here on the side of the mountain. At nighttime, you’re looking out over the city. It’s one of the most spectacular views of any racetrack that we race on, so it does have... It also, as a driver, I won a really big race here in 1979, the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars.”
Beard took a moment to recall his 1979 triumpH that was still etched in his mind.
There were some big-name Funny Cars there (at the Cavalcade of Stars event),” Beard said. “Don Prudhomme was here, Raymond Beadle Blue Max was here, the Hawaiian was here, and John Force was there, and all the Big West Coast cars and stuff were here. Then I beat John Force in the final round. And for me, this kid from Pueblo, (Colo., 90 minutes south of Bandimere Speedway) to win an event of that stature was really one of the bigger wins in my driving career.”
Outside of Ruth’s win in 1980 as a tuner at Bandimere Speedway, Beard also tuned Top Fuel driver Hot Rod Fuller to a 2007 victory at the facility. Fuller defeated his David Powers Motorsports teammate Whit Bazemore in the finals.
“It’s certainly a challenge for the tuners, trying to overcome the corrected elevation here (at Bandimere Speedway),” Beard said. “The density altitude is always 9,000-plus feet, even though the altimeter reads like 5,650 feet here. When you factor in the temperature, it’s usually very hot here. And the density altitude, which the engine thinks that’s what it’s running at, is in the 9,000 feet range. How you attempt to overcome that really high altitude to get you back to... Close to having the same amount of horsepower that you have at the lower elevation tracks has been the crew chief’s own little recipe secret, we’ll say, in that. But over time, that technology leaks out and then all the guys get pretty good at it. There’s usually not one team that has an advantage up here. It’s another good race on the national event tour.”
This being the last race at Bandimere Speedway in this Morrison location isn’t lost on Beard.
“I’m sad to see any of the tracks go,” Beard said. “But this one has a sentimental spot in my heart because I grew up a hundred miles south of here. But I have faith in the Bandimere family. I’ve been reading some things that they’re looking for property out there around DIA (Denver International Airport), and I think John Bandimere Jr. has a passion in his heart for what he does, and I think it was a big business decision for them to sell the place and close the doors, but I have faith in him and his passion for the sport that we’re going to see maybe perhaps a better facility than what we have here.”
As for two-time world championship driver Pedregon, he arrived in Denver 10th in the season points standings, highlighted by two No. 1 qualifying spots in Pomona, Calif., and Las Vegas.
“We have an excellent combination to run under the cool... Really good conditions,” Beard said. “We can certainly qualify up in the top half in the first four positions really with that setup, but when we get into the heat of the summer and we’ve been on the hotter tracks, we’ve struggled. We just haven’t got the right horsepower combination to run in the hotter conditions. We did some testing at Indy after Norwalk, and it showed some promise. We’re going to try to build on that here and throughout the rest of the races where it’s going to be really hot.”
GAIGE HERRERA NEEDS TO UP HIS VANCE & HINES BANDIMERE RESUME - In this his first season with Vance & Hines, driver Gaige Herrera has an amazing run through five races.
Herrera won the first three events on his Suzuki in Gainesville, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago before losing in the final round in Bristol, Tenn. He was then tripped up in the second round in Norwalk, Ohio.
However, he is hopeful get back on the winning track and if history is any indication he is at the right location. His Vance & Hines team has 13 wins in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class at Bandimere Speedway.
Andrew Hines has the track class record of five wins at Bandimere in 2006, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2019. His brother Matt has four wins at the facility in 1996-98 and 2002, and Eddie Krawiec also has four wins at Bandimere in 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2017.
“They just say even though it’s going to be slower, the changes that make it seem like it’s basically running faster with the gearing change and stuff like that,” Herrera said about advice his team gave him. “I mean, they obviously talk very highly of the facility.”
Herrera would love to win Denver to start a charge to claim the Western Swing sweep in Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma.
“I mean, I would love to do it personally and I’m sure Andrew and the whole Vance & Hines team would. It’d be awesome to sweep the Western swing, especially with Denver, this being the last race for Denver,” Herrera said. “I haven’t been to Seattle, but Sonoma used to be six hours from when I used to live in California, so I used to go there pretty often.”
Herrera’s has a meteoric ride in the PSM class, which has been a whirlwind for him.
“Personally, yes,” Herrera said when asked if he’s been surprised by his success. As far as team-wise, no. I mean, they’re the best out there, but for me to be able to come on the new team, basically, I didn’t really race at all, Pro Stock (Motorcycle) last year. I did what, six races and then to come out swinging like we did. I mean, it’s just, it’s incredible. I would say it really didn’t settle in until the whole Bristol thing. Once I lost Bristol, then it really settled in as what really has been accomplished so far in such a short amount of time. It was a big deal. When I lost the final to Steve Johnson, it was a big deal to a lot of fans and everything. How many people reached out to me that were following, hoping I’ll keep the streak going and all that. I mean, it’s a lot to take in and it’s very cool to be a big part of it for sure.”
Herrera also knows he’s got things to learn as a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer.
“I mean, there’s been little changes as far as on the bike side of things, and I needed to adapt to those better than I have been,” he said. “I have got to change my riding style a little bit on the starting line, that’s what’s been hurting me as far as on the Christmas tree. I mean, we had a mechanical failure in Norwalk, but that comes with racing, you never know when that’s going to happen. But yeah, it’s made me pay more attention to, as far as what I’m doing on the starting line, because these bikes react so fast and I’m getting more and more comfortable on it. So, I’m reacting faster and ultimately that’s what got me in Bristol.
“Overall, you can’t complain. I know we keep getting hit with more weight and all that, but it’s part of the class, they want to keep parody and I get that. But overall, the bike is flying, me, Eddie, all the Vance & Hines bikes are running well. And you can’t ask for nothing better than that.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – IT’S THE BEGINNING OF THE END FOR THE THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN
YEAH, DONE THAT BEFORE - Kenny Bernstein should have been wearing garb that read, “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”
That’s exactly how the experience went as he sat in the cockpit of Antron Brown’s Matco Tools-sponsored dragster as it warmed up before the Q1 session.
“This is exactly how we did everything— how we started, how the clutch felt, how the steering felt, how the brake felt, how the fuel shutoff was, where it was located,” Bernstein explained. “It was no different than my car 16 years ago, so it was a piece of cake, but I enjoyed it so much, and I love [Antron]. He’s the best.”
Brown made the opportunity possible through his longstanding relationship with Lucas Oil and a familiar executive with the company, Bernstein’s son Brandon.
The warm-up seemed innocuous, but Bernstein admits he had his guard up the moment the engine fired.
“Next thing he’ll tell me (is that) I can get in there, and I’m really in trouble because my wife will probably divorce me more than likely,” Bernstein said with a smile and shaking his head. “This is a special place for us. This is where Sheryl and I met 42 years ago.”
Bernstein admitted he’d jump at the chance to drive a fuel car again, but knowing where his bread is buttered, a warm-up will have to suffice the King of Speed’s need for miles per hour.
"I’d have a little argument or two to go through first, so you may have to give me about six months to get ready,” Bernstein admitted.
It’s likely not because he’s not in the best shape ever.
“I hope I could” drive one, Bernstein said. “But let me tell you, these things work on you. They are monsters. There was many a time I got out on a Monday morning, and I was a little sore.”
But on Friday, at Bandimere, the only thing that was sore after the warm-up was his face from the broad smile he wore throughout the experience.
"The King sat on my throne and I love it," Brown added. "He told me he fit in the seat and could drive it right down there. He looked good in there. The way he was in there, he could get in one of these cars and make us all look bad."
WHO’S GONNA GET THE 200? - There’s a lot of jockeying going on for this weekend’s title and the prestige amongst Toyota-sponsored drivers to earn the brand’s 200th win. Right now, the Funny Cars have the advantage because their final round runs first Sunday.
Ron Capps captured win No. 198 at Bristol, followed by manufacturer teammate Justin Ashley, who earned No. 199 on a triple-up weekend. The mark should have fallen in Norwalk, but Leah Pruett (Top Fuel) and Blake Alexander (Funny Car) kept that from happening.
Antron Brown, if a Funny Car doesn’t snag the accolades, has an excellent chance of being a three-time champion and a five-time runner-up. Additionally, Brown remains the last driver to sweep the famed “Western Swing.”
“Denver is always one of the toughest races on the circuit,” Brown said. “I’ve had great success there in the past. Our Matco Tools team has been hard at work on our combination, we’ve been testing, and we’ve been making some good power, so I’m anxious to see what we can do with that power up there on the mountain.
“With this being the last race at Bandimere, we definitely want to go out with a bang and finish Sunday with a trophy in our hands at the top of that mountain.”
Steve Torrence, who has won two of the last three events in Denver, has his sights on the Toyota milestone.
“We’ve had a lot of success here, but even if we hadn’t, it’s just a neat track,” said Torrence, a four-time NHRA series champion. “There’s not any other place like it.”
Justin Ashley, the points leader in Top Fuel, will be looking to elbow his way into history.
“This three-race stretch is one of the most critical portions of the NHRA regular season,” Ashley pointed out, noting that a sweep the swing can only happen with a Denver win. “The competition in Top Fuel is tougher now than ever before, and teams are really hitting their stride.”
Doug Kalitta can kill two birds with one stone if he can win career race No. 50 and No. 200 for Toyota.
But it’s all a moot point if J.R. Todd, Ron Capps, or Alexis DeJoria reach the winner’s circle first.
“For the racers, winning at Denver is the most gratifying win you can have,” said Capps, who, like Kalitta, is on the verge of a personal milestone. Capps, with a win, can score personal victory No. 75.
“The conditions up there will put any team under duress,” Capps explained. “If you can leave there with the trophy, you’ve done everything you can. It’s definitely a meaningful race to win. You’re going to see it in every press release this weekend – every driver, every team is going to be talking about how they want that last Bandimere trophy.”
Todd, who won his first career NHRA national event in Denver back in 2006, understands
“I’m hoping we can carry that momentum from the semifinals at New Hampshire and Norwalk to a win soon, and it would be nice to get one on the Western Swing at Bandimere Speedway since it’s the last race there,” Todd said.
ASHLEY ENJOYING HIS RIDE IN 2023 - A year ago, Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley had a fantastic season, winning three races and finishing fourth in the points standings.
This year things have been even better for the rising star.
Ashley arrived at the Mile-High Nationals in Morrison, Colo., outside of Denver, first in the points standings on the strength of four wins in Phoenix, Pomona, Calif., Epping, N.H., and Bristol, Tenn. He most recently lost in the final round to Leah Pruett in Norwalk, Ohio.
Ashley is hoping to add to his victory total in Denver.
“Yeah, I'm excited about it,” Ashley said. “When it gets to the Western swing, it's your opportunity to set the tone for the back half of the regular season. Denver's definitely one of the more challenging races. It's always a team race, but I think this race more than anything else is really a tuners race because of the adjustments that needs to be made. It's really, really tricky, so anything can happen.
“I think it's just a great opportunity, definitely a challenging opportunity. But I’m really excited to try and carry the momentum that we have from the first half of the season, and bring it into Denver and the rest of the swing.”
Following Denver this weekend, the Western swing concludes with races in Seattle (July 21-23) and Sonoma, Calif. (July 28-30).
Despite the challenges Denver presents with hits high-altitude, Ashley is keeping the same approach for this weekend.
“Our goal, generally when there's four qualifying sessions, is to go down the track and make a nice solid A-to-B lap [in] Q1,” Ashley said. “That way we can be a little bit more aggressive and feel comfortable in doing so in Q2. If everything goes according to plan and we're able to get down the racetrack during that first session on Friday, I definitely think it opens up the possibility for us to be very aggressive Friday night. Because looking at the weather, that should be the coolest condition that we'll face all weekend.”
Back on April 21, NHRA and the Bandimere family jointly announced the 2023 Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals on at Bandimere Speedway would be the last NHRA national event at the historic track.
First opened in 1958, the Bandimere family has agreed to sell the current property and land, with the 2023 racing season marking the end of drag racing at the facility.
The final race at the facility is something that isn’t lost on Ashley.
“Although I've only raced there once, I did spend a lot of time there watching my father (Mike) race there,” Ashley said. “So I'm familiar with the Bandimeres. I have a lot of respect for Tammy and the entire Bandimere family, and I love that racetrack. I'm definitely sad to see it go because it's one of my favorite places to visit. Just because the facility is so gorgeous, the way the stands are built into the mountains, and how clean the actual facility is, and how good the actual track surface is. Definitely sad to see it go. Excited about the opportunity to race in front of what's going to be just a bonkers, sold-out crowd.
“But watching these tracks drop, I know that more will start to come into the fold. I have no doubt about it, because I think NHRA is in the best place it's been business-wise.”
Since Ashley made his Top Fuel debut in 2019, he’s collected nine Wallys, but he knows his success is all about the team around him.
“The truth is — it sounds cliche, but it's true — you’re only as good as the people that you surround yourself with,” Ashley said. “When you look at the team that we've had the privilege of working with, top to bottom. When you look at Dustin Davis and Joe Maynard's involvement, and Mike Green, and Tommy DeLago, the entire leadership group down, it's not surprising that we've had the kind of success that we've had. Because of the experience that they have, because of the energy, and effort, and commitment that they have to make this whole program a long-term and sustainable success.
“It's very difficult to have this kind of success, especially early on in your career. But it's a lot more helpful when you're surrounded by the right team, and the right people that helped put the program in the right position.”
After knocking on the door to win a world championship last year, Ashley would love to finish the job this season.
“I'm a big football fan, so I always correlate it to football, and you want to get hot at the right time going into the playoffs,” Ashley said. “Those are the teams that generally have the best opportunity to find success in the playoffs, or in the NHRA Countdown.
“So, it's important to collect data, to collect information, to stack those points now so we put ourselves in the best position and give ourselves the best seed going into the playoff format. But yes, it's absolutely critical if we want to give ourselves an opportunity to win the championship come that Sunday at Pomona, to get hot at the right time. It's just the fact, the way the NHRA format is, it lends to teams that are running the best during the last six races of the year.”
MOUNTAIN MAN - There are those drivers who know how to win up on Thunder Mountain, and then there’s John Force. His eight wins span 24 seasons: 1994-96, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2016, and 2018, and he carries a won-loss record of 74-31.
Force started the Mile-High Nationals from the No. 1 position in 1987, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2014, and '15, winning from that position in ’92 and ’94. This weekend he’ll be trying to win an NHRA tour event for a 35th season. At last year’s event, after qualifying No. 3, he lost to teammate Robert Hight in the semifinals.
“I’m always excited to come race on the mountain,” Force said. “I’ve been coming to Bandimere Speedway a long time. I have a lot of history here. I’ve accomplished a lot. Grown with the Bandimere family. It’s going to be an emotional weekend, saying goodbye to this place.
“I know they’ll build another track someplace here in Colorado. I’m trying to stay positive about the situation. Bandimere has given us a lot of really great racing (and) we’ll try to make that the case again this weekend. I hope this PEAK Chevy team can celebrate one last time in the winner’s circle.”
Force enters the weekend eighth in points, a position he’s maintained through six races. The PEAK Chevy has three semifinal points finishes this season. Still, its best showing came at the postponed NHRA New England Nationals contested during qualifying at the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tennessee. Force qualified only ninth but finished runner-up.
DENVER MEMORIES CENTER ON FANS – Former Top Fuel racer Rhonda Hartman Smith is back in South Carolina this weekend, but a part of her heart is in Denver. One of her first races in dad Virgil Hartman’s dragster was at Bandimere Speedway, because at the time she was living in Southern California and, she said, “it wasn't a far haul.”
This week she said she “was trying to think of stories of Denver because this is its last year. I was kind of sad about that, because I love the Bandimere family. I was just thinking about [when] I was there [while expecting] Dylan. John was racing, and I was very pregnant and it’s [legendary] how hot it is there and then the altitude and I was having trouble. Our generator went out on our trailer, and so my mom and I were sitting in the [passenger] car just to keep cool. And this mom and daughter came over and brought me this quilt that they had made for Dylan, for my baby. And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ And people – fans – were bringing me gifts, and I was just stunned. And I remember that.
“It was just such a great time. And now Dylan is 17. He just graduated from high school. Thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s been that long?’ Yeah, it's been a while. That was a long time ago.”
Recalling such generosity, Hartman Smith said, “I just couldn't believe it. … It was overwhelming.”
She said Wednesday’s article in the Denver Post – a story in which John Bandimere Jr. announced that his family is planning to spearhead the construction of a much larger, new dragstrip that could open as early as 2025 – made her “happy” and “excited.”
She said, “Everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, drag racing is dying.’ And especially with selling all these tracks, it's nice to hear, ‘Hey, no, we're looking at building a bigger, better track.’ So it's good news. It's nice that they share that, because I hate to hear people put down drag racing and that it's dying. I mean, gosh, we went to Norwalk, it was packed. It was just absolutely packed. That was our last race with [Top Alcohol Dragster driver daughter] Megan, and the pits were hard to get through. And it was great to see. It's just great to see everybody out there to support us.” - Susan Wade
IT AIN'T HOW YOU START - Mike Salinas didn't have the start the hoped for as he shut off on the first burnout of the weekend. Salinas nailed the throttle for the burnout and the RPMs went to the moon. Fearing he'd damaged the engine, Salinas pulled off to the side, exited the car and climbed over the wall.
Instead of allowing Josh Hart to run with Salinas' dragster parked in the right lane, they shut him off. Instead of going to the back of the pack, the R+L Carriers team fueled the dragster, and Hart drove his way to a 3.914, 318.09, good enough for fifth provisionally.
"We do our burnout and usually the car calms down," Salinas explained. "This time the throttle hung wide open. It didn't want to slow down and it went a little faster. There was no throttle control so I just manually shut it down. Everybody is safe."
HERE COMES NO. 400 - Back in 2005, Robert Hight burst onto the scene and clinched his Rookie of the Year recognition by winning one of his first two races at Bandimere Speedway. Since then, he has notched up wins at the Mile-High Nationals in 2010, 2014, 2017, and most recently in 2022. Moreover, he has been a consistent force, starting from the No. 1 qualifying position in 2005, 2007, and 2019.
The Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals will mark Hight's 400th career start. Notably, the driver hit his 300th career start at speedway in 2017.
"I've always loved the challenge of racing the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway,” he said. “I’m going to be sad to see it go, but I'm looking forward to defending the win from last year and getting that last Wally at Bandimere. I know the Bandimere Family isn't done with drag racing, and they'll find a new spot to build on their legacy."
Hight also acknowledged the significance of this race in setting the tone for his Cornwell Tools team throughout the Western Swing. He hopes that a strong performance this weekend will propel them towards a potential sweep. With the Countdown to the Championship looming, Hight recognizes the importance of gaining momentum during this critical stage of the season.
Bandimere Speedway has proven to be a favorable track for Hight. He has an impeccable record, reaching the final round every time he has taken his Cornwell Tools Camaro there. In fact, Hight has won more rounds (37 victories with just 12 losses) at the Mile-Highs than any other race in the series.
This year has already been a success for Hight, having secured two wins and two No. 1 starts. These achievements have extended his streak to an impressive 18 consecutive seasons in which he has won at least one race and qualified at the front at least once, reflecting his consistency and dominance on the NHRA circuit.
AUSTIN PROCK HAS BUSY WEEKEND — Standout Top Fuel driver Austin Prock has a busy weekend at the Mile-High Nationals that will bring him back to his roots, thanks to an unexpected departure by a crew member at John Force Racing.
“We had a guy quit (who was a clutch assistant) on our crew, so I ended up hopping in the Suburban and driving it over with a couple of the crew guys,” said Prock, the son of championship/JFR crew chief Jimmy Prock. “So this weekend, we didn't have any time to replace him, so we're going to shuffle some people around on the team and I'm going to be in a floater position. I'll help service the supercharger, service the manifold, drain the oil, and then my typical duties doing the fuel and packing the parachutes along with that. So, it'll be a busy weekend for me, but I've been having a blast so far.
“Coming from being a crew guy and then getting into the driver role, you miss that aspect of the race team sometimes. I had a good time driving over with the guys, drove two of the shifts (on the 18-hour trip). The guy (who quit) figured out it wasn't for him, which is fine. So, we'll keep trucking along and we always get the job done, so it won't be no big thing. Just a little bit more work for me.”
And, Prock knows this is weekend in the high-altitude at the speedway’s final race is going to be no easy task.
“Yeah, I love coming here. It's a big challenge for the crew chiefs driving here that you lose about 12% of your horsepower,” Prock said. “So from a driving aspect, the car feels much slower. You can definitely tell you're up on the mountain, but love coming here, it's such a beautiful facility. Looking over the cliff nowadays, we look at a lot of houses but back in the day it was a really beautiful view. I still love coming here, but is really sad it's going away, but hopefully they do build another track in Denver, but it'll never be the same as Bandimere Speedway.”
RON CAPPS TAKES A TRIP DOWN MILE-HIGH NATIONALS MEMORY LANE — Ron Capps is a three-time NHRA nitro Funny Car world champ.
Before Capps started his Hall of Fame career, he had humble beginnings, and one of those times came at the Mile-High Nationals in the early 1990s.
“Well, my first time going there, I was a crew member on Darryl Hitchman's Top Alcohol Dragster in 1992,” Capps said. “I went on the road full time, my first time ever as a crew member. Darryl, he wanted to hit all the national events. That was his dream.
“He was from Fresno (California), and he had bought a whole combination from Blaine and Alan Johnson who I grew up with. So, he needed a couple of good crew members and me and one other guy, this other guy from Fresno, we hit the road and that's my first time I ever got to go to all these national events outside California. I just remember in Alcohol Dragster, you got to claim a division. He claimed Division 5. So, for me, I got to go to Pueblo (Colorado). I got to go to Wyoming, a lot of these Division 5 tracks. I just remember the first time we went to a divisional race at Bandimere was my first time being there.”
Those are memories Capps fondly recalls.
“I just remember going the first time, the divisional race, and just like anybody else, the first time you go to that track, you're blown away by this track cut into a mountain and then its view of the city at night,” he said. “It's quite an experience, and then visiting downtown Denver for the first time ever, for somebody who grew up in California, never been out on the road. It was a blast. I mean, that for me, it stands out, that first time. And my probably favorite memories honestly, were all the years I spent with Gary Scelzi at the kickoff events in Golden.”
Capps acknowledged heading to Denver – especially back in the day – was a trip his family loved.
“It was always a good time,” Capps said. “For years when my kids were younger, we would leave back east in the motorhome. Our favorite time of the year was driving the motorhome, we would always have a weekend off in between whatever race was back east. It used to be Ohio. I'd have the kids, they were young enough that we didn't have in school and they were out for the summer.
“So, I'd fly my wife and them out and we would drive straight to Breckenridge (Colorado) to an RV resort there, and we would spend a whole week and a half there, and then drive down the mountain to the track and then prepare for the race by all the pre-race stuff in Golden.”
Capps did remember one specific time with Scelzi that’s almost too funny to be true during one of the events in Golden.
“Scelzi ordained himself as a priest and I was the best man,” Capps said. “This couple (Scott and Terri Basom), I see them all the time now and I always laugh. I go, ‘You guys are still married?’ But they now fly to probably a quarter of the races all over the country. I think they've been to probably every track on the tour.
“They got a band playing and all that and we did it on the stage before the band played. It was a whole thing that they put on and the TV covered it for the weekend, and they aired it during the TV show. I've been asked to be a best man, but seeing Gary Scelzi as a priest, that was worth all the money in the world. That was epic.”
COLORADO’S KRAMER WILL MISS BANDIMERE SPEEDWAY — There has been countless drivers in the 65-year history of Bandimere Speedway, one of them is Pro Stock veteran Deric Kramer from Sterling, Colorado, which is two hours from Morrison.
The closing of the facility at year’s end was a tough pill for him to digest.
“I've been going there since I was born and racing there since I was 8,” Kramer said. Yeah, it's a huge blow. I thought I'd be racing there for another 30 or 40 years, so yeah, it's tough.”
Kramer did mention some memories at the Mile-High Nationals that standout.
“Both my dad (Dave) and myself getting No. 1 qualifier on our respective classes, Comp Eliminator and Pro Stock in 2018 — my first year in a Camaro. That was pretty big,” Kramer said. That memory would be followed by him winning in 2002 in Comp Eliminator. And then before that would be, I had tons of wins in junior (dragsters) up there.”
“I did not, no” know the track was closing. “It was definitely a blow. I was surprised. We hear rumors of the track closing every year. When the city of Denver is getting bigger and more development. You look up off the track out towards the cityscape of Denver and it was field and field and field and field and then city. And now, you look across the street and there's homes and condos and stuff being built right there.
"Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I would've bought one of those condos so I could live right next to the track, but the track is closing, so it's not going to help. I think all of the years of having to fight sound ordinances and stuff like that, I'm sure that weighs heavy on the Bandimere family, and I can't imagine the difficulty it is to do that year in and year out. I don't blame anybody, but it definitely is a huge blow, and they're definitely going to be sorely missed.”