The car counts were as thin as the mile-high air, but the competition was thick at the National Hot Rod Association’s Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway. Thrilling side-by-side nitro-class final-round races Sunday restored the roar to Thunder Mountain, which was understandably subdued and solemn Friday as racers and fans — arguably the largest of any Ful Throttle Drag Racing Series event so far this year — tried to sort out the facts and their feelings about the theatre shooting in nearby Aurora just hours before the start of the event.
Fifty-nine people are at the hospital and 12 families are burying people. It’s tough when you put yourself in those families’ shoes. It’s unfathomable what they are going to have to deal with on this. And there’s nothing you can say to make this better for them.
Beckman said, “Fifty-nine people are at the hospital and 12 families are burying people. It’s tough when you put yourself in those families’ shoes. It’s unfathomable what they are going to have to deal with on this. And there’s nothing you can say to make this better for them.
“I think it’s one of those moments where you stop, you take a deep breath, and you’re reflective and incredibly respectful to those who lost something and appreciate everything that you’ve still got,” he said.
Johnson said news of the murders “makes this not very important, doesn’t it? Something like this brings everybody down to their knees and makes you think about what’s important.”
Perhaps Tim Wilkerson best explained the emotional struggled for the racers.
“I know [it] was a really tragic day for America, but it was especially a tough challenge for the people of Denver and Colorado. They’ve dealt with these awful wildfires all summer, and then the horror of that thing in Aurora would break most people,” Wilkerson said. “Everyone was thinking about it, and the flag was at half-mast here, but it’s our job to entertain people and we could tell they were doing their best to have fun at the drag races. If we helped a little, to make some people smile, we’re proud to have done that.”
And the NHRA racers did their jobs exceptionally well and made more than a few people forget their worries, at least for a few hours. Here’s a peek at what happened:
THEY’RE IN – Top Fuel points leader Spencer Massey is among the pro racers this past weekend to secure spots in the Countdown to the Championship, the
six-race playoff that will begin at Charlotte after the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Labor Day classic at Indianapolis. Also clinching positions were Funny Car’s Robert Hight, Pro Stock Motorcycle dominators Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines, and Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson, Allen Johnson, and Jason Line.
ME, TOO – Antron Brown brought Brandon Bernstein back down to Earth mid-Sunday afternoon, beating him by just 11-thousandths of a second in the Top Fuel final round. Bernstein and wife Tracey had welcomed son Landon last Wednesday to join daughter Lyla. Winning would have put a thrilling exclamation point on his week — and it would have halted his winless streak at 59. But Brown wasn’t about to let his friend have his first victory since 2009 at Richmond, Va., as a gift. Said Brown, “I know he wanted to win, but I wanted to win, too.”
BUSY BUSINESSMAN – Terry McMillen had an action-packed weekend. The Top Fuel racer qualified No. 2 early Friday, ensuring he would have a strong top-12 starting position. The Amalie Oil/UNOH/Motor State Dragster owner-driver flew from Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport on a Kalitta Lear Jet around 5 a.m. Saturday to Las Vegas, where he made a speech at the Bio Med national sales convention at The Bellagio (sharing the dais with TV football analyst/motivational speaker Lou Holtz), then flew back to Denver in time to make a pass in the early Saturday qualifying session. McMillen started fourth, but he exited eliminations in the opening round, as his struggle to break into the Countdown field continued.
I saw the win light, but I didn’t believe it.
NOT TEACHER’S PET – The Funny Car final round featured teacher vs. student, experience vs. youth, Don Schumacher Racing vs. John Force Racing. Jack Beckman, 46, and Courtney Force, 24, put on a thrilling show, and in the end, the teacher ruled — but just barely. The Traxxas Ford Mustang rookie missed out on her first professional-class trophy by just nine-thousandths of a second, 4.277 seconds at 293.79 mph to 4.289 / 283.49. Beckman was Force’s instructor at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Pomona before she entered the sportsman ranks several years ago. He also signed off on the competition licenses of her teammate and brother-in-law (and Funny Car points leader) Robert Hight, older sisters Ashley and Brittany, and even their mother, Laurie Force. Following his victory. Beckman teased, “I signed her license, and I was about to revoke the damned thing if she didn’t let me win.”
DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE – Antron Brown’s victory in Top Fuel and Jack Beckman’s in Funny Car — for a $100,000 jackpot — gave Don Schumacher Racing its second double of the season and pushed the organization’s event-victory total to 187. Tony Schumacher and Ron Capps had a DSR Double last month at Bristol, Tenn.
ELECTION YEAR – Current Funny Car champion Matt Hagan is on the campaign trail. He’s having a miserable year, which became even more frustrating in Sunday’s first round as he lost by mere inches to Jeff Arend. Neither is he qualified for the $100,000-to-win Traxxas Shootout bonus race that will be part of the Labor Day classic U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. He indicated he is resigning himself to the fact he probably won’t make the Countdown field to try to repeat his championship, but he is doing what he can to be eligible for the bonus-race prize. He has a You Tube video and new website — www.Vote4Hagan.com — to gather enough fan votes to enter that way. (He might have to “battle” Courtney Force, who carries Traxxas sponsorship on her Ford Mustang but hasn’t grabbed a spot yet.) Hagan has launched the first promotions, with a comical video that shows him working on his Virginia cattle farm and at the racetrack in his Aaron’s Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing. He makes his appeal to get into the race, even wearing a suit and tie, and closes it with the statement, “I’m Matt Hagan, and I endorse this message.”
Hagan was in no mood to sport the oversized campaign button his DSR public-relations representatives were handing out at Bandimere Speedway. He was disappointed about the loss to Arend. “Losing that early makes it almost impossible for us to qualify for the Countdown,” he said. “What makes it even worse is we only got one run on Sunday with our special Mopar body that salutes Mopar’s 75th anniversary.”
OUCH – Allen Johnson reset the track’s Pro Stock elapsed-time record and posted top speed of the meet with his 6.916-second, 198.70-mph pass in the first round. But it was lost in the nasty-looking accident for class newcomer Paul Pittman that was going on behind Johnson. Pittman, the No. 16 qualifier making his first start in four tries with his new Pontiac GXP, was unhurt, despite riding out a rollover and a jarring pinball-like ricochet off both guard walls, and climbing from the flaming wreckage. The Bloomington, Minn., racer, who won this event in the sportsman-level Super Gas class in 1998, began drifting toward the center line and tried to reel the car back in. But it fishtailed and barrel-rolled, darted into the right-side wall, slingshotted into the opposite wall, burst into flames, hit the opposite wall again and erupted in a bigger fireball.
“It just happened. It happened quick, but just like they say, it happened in slow-motion,” Pittman said. “I told myself, ‘Don’t go unconscious. Stay awake.’ ” He said he was “dazed” but walked from the car on his own power and even had a tender moment with wife Pat. He hugged her, then he dipped her and kissed her, striking a pose like the one in the famous Times Square photo. “That was intentional,” Pittman said, explaining that he always does that and he wanted her to know he still was able to do that. “I try to do it like Brando and Bacall,” he said, chuckling.
Emergency medical officials evaluated him and released him. Pittman had planned to compete at the next six races but the destroyed car was his only one, so he will be out of action until he can build another one. He said he plans to return for the 2013 season: “It’s not going to deter me.” He said reinvesting in the rather pricey but safe race car is cheaper than paying for a funeral.
JOHNSON KING OF THUNDER MOUNTAIN – In an all-Mopar-branded Pro Stock final, Allen Johnson won in dominating fashion and vaulted from third place in the standings to first. He qualified No. 1 with the track elapsed time record and defeated Lakewood, Colo., businessman V Gaines, 6.951 seconds at 197.31 mph to 7.144 / 160.35. Johnson scored his third victory here in five final-round appearances in six years. He said this third triumph of 2012 marked the first time in his 17 years he has won that many in a year. “This is a tough dang sport,” Johnson said. “But we came loaded for bear. For years we have come here and tested, and we’ve developed a tune-up that’s bad to the bone.”
This is a tough dang sport. But we came loaded for bear. For years we have come here and tested, and we’ve developed a tune-up that’s bad to the bone.
Anderson and Line both said they were at a disadvantage because, unlike Johnson, hey didn’t test in the thin-air, hot-temperature conditions. “We knew we would be a little behind the eight-ball,” Anderson said. “As a result, we . . . found ourselves fighting to catch up. Because we struggled in qualifying we had to run the toughest car on the grounds in the second round, and we needed a couple more passes worth of tuning data to really take the fight to him. . . . We’re disappointed with our overall performance. It’s expensive to come up here and test, and it doesn’t guarantee anything, but you can mark it down that we will be here next year, doing whatever we can do to find the right tune-up.”
TWO STRIKES – Jeg Coughlin Jr. didn’t stay around long in Pro Stock eliminations, but he reached the semifinals in the Stock Eliminator class. Greg Anderson topped him in the first round of Pro Stock action. “Greg put down a nice package as far as reaction time and E.T., and it would have been tough to beat him, anyway,” Coughlin said after his 6.983-second, 196.99-mph effort was no match for Anderson’s 6.978, 197.28 mph. In Stock Eliminator, the JEGS.com Challenger picked up quite a bit every round as he made his way through three rounds of eliminations before matching up with Stephen Hagberg, of Berthoud, Colo. “We made it through a couple of rounds and ran into a local who was really fast,” Coughlin said.
SEVEN AND COUNTING – The Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson tandem of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines have won all seven of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class’ races so far, and Sunday it was Krawiec’s turn with a 7.301-second E.T. at 182.28 mph. Hines, seeking his third consecutive victory, had a foul start by two-thousandths of a second, disqualifying his 7.285, 181.94. Krawiec attributed the team’s overall success to “making minimal mistakes” but said the team was having plenty of trouble early in the weekend. “To be honest with you, this race shouldn’t have been ours. We were struggling to keep up. We dug hard and went after it,” he said.
FULL GRANDSTANDS – The car count was low at this event that started the so-called Western Swing. But the Bandimere Speedway attendance — particularly given the near-triple-digit temperatures and the prominent news story of the Aurora theatre massacre on everyone’s minds — was phenomenal, arguably the best Friday and three-day crowd the NHRA has had all season.
FOR A NOBLE CAUSE – The drag-racing world also remembered those affected by the recent wildfires in Colorado. Bandimere Speedway, the NHRA, and popular Denver radio show host Willie B. from station KBPI joined an effort by NoCo Rebuilding Network — in track owner John Bandimere’s words — to provide “monetary relief, as well as emotional and spiritual encouragement.” Willie B. raffled off a 1958 Dodge Royal, offering tickets to fans making a minimum donation of $2. NoCo Rebuilding Network supports sustainable rebuilding and recovery by raising funds distributed directly to those affected by natural disasters.