SUNDAY INSIDER: MOPAR MADNESS OVERTAKES THE MADNESS
We have one thing to say to the Mopar folks: If you weren’t thrilled by the turnout, the race and by the fact that Mopars dominated Pro Stock and also won Funny Car, you weren’t watching the same race we were. Sure, you expect the name “Mopar” to be bandied about as often as possible because this was, after all, the 33rd Mopar Mile-High Nationals. But, those mentions were made even more frequently because of the successes of those branded cars.
Every time you turned around Allen Johnson was winning another round or setting another record. And there were Mopar drivers V. Gaines and Vincent Nobile hanging right there with him. In Funny Car Jack Beckman’s Dodge-bodied NextGen Valvoline machine was doing the same – just not in record-setting fashion, but so what? He was going rounds, and every time he did so the Mopar people were jumping up and down. It was that kind of weekend for them.
But all was not sweetness and light on Sunday. Ironically enough, on the run when Johnson flat obliterated the track record with a stunning 6.916, 198.70 it was all but ignored because of the drama unfolding in the other lane. Paul Pittman, who had struggled to even qualify, found himself drifting towards the center line near the finish line. He may have over-corrected, but regardless, the car did a gentle flip, landing back on its wheels, but that wasn’t the end. The car then veered into the guardwall at a substantial rate of speed, with the impact locking the throttle open. The car headed back across the track at an even faster rate of speed before it center-punched the opposite and very unforgiving concrete barrier in a flash of flame.
Pittman did manage to extricate himself from the wreckage, and take our word for it, this was wreckage. There is no way this car can be repaired, and that’s a shame because Pittman had been planning on making the rest of the 2012 Full Throttle tour, skipping just one Countdown race. He’ll now have to go back to Minnesota and regroup, starting from the ground up, but at least he’ll be able to do so without casts on his arms and legs while suffering from post-concussion syndrome. Says a lot about the cars, doesn’t it?
Johnson was just unstoppable, and it took no genius on our part to pick him as the winner way back on Friday. He loves this track and obviously has the best high altitude setup of anyone in Pro Stock. His name is synonymous with final round appearances and victories at the Mile-High Nationals, a reputation he earned, not backed into.
Johnson’s final round opponent was local hero Vieri Gaines in his Kendall Oil Dodge. Every round that Gaines won elicited a supportive cheer from the crowd, which was kinda cool to witness. The only drivers beyond Gaines and Johnson to receive regular accolades from the crowd were John Force and his daughter, Courtney.
At the end of the day the three Pro Stock drivers who had an opportunity to clinch positions in the Countdown had all done so: Johnson, Greg Anderson and Jason Line.
Can you stand one more Pro Stock tale? Two drivers are walking through the pits, passing each other within a foot or two (and no, we are not going to name them!). One says to the other as they pass, “How’s that traction control workin’ for you?” Without missing a beat, the other responds, “Are you still filling your nitrous tank back here, or are you doing it up in the staging lanes?”
Surprise, surprise, surprise. The two Harleys ended up facing each other in the Pro Stock Motorcycle finale. True, they set neither Low E.T. or Top Speed among the two-wheelers, but when it counted the most they won the races they needed to win. Someone with far more experience and knowledge about the bikes than we have seriously suggested that Harley wizard Byron Hines is holding his charges back, and the Harleys can run considerably harder than they have thus far. We can only confirm that if and when Hines turns them loose – if it’s even true that he has more power than he’d demonstrated so far.
Eddie Krawiec defeated Andrew Hines again, and both qualified for the Countdown. They are going to be hard to beat, just as they are at present. But ya know what? If it’s true that Byron Hines has more power than he’s showing, we can’t wait for him to turn those guys loose.
Just as Greg Anderson was less than pleased to become Erica Enders’ first final round Pro Stock victim, thus becoming the answer to a trivia question he never wanted to be a part of, Tony Schumacher now finds himself in somewhat the same situation. When someone asks, “When Khalid alBalooshi won his first round of racing, who was in the other lane?” Tony Schumacher is the answer. Schumacher had a chance to clinch a Countdown spot, but had to go to the final to do it. Uh, guess not.
It probably would have been a safe bet to go with Spencer Massey for the big win on the Mountain, but a funny thing happened on the way to the finale. He got his butt kicked by Brandon Bernstein in the semifinal round. It was by far Bernstein’s finest performance of the year, but after downing Massey he was stopped by Antron Brown in the finale as both drivers notched nearly identical 3.95s. Brown was 0.008 quicker off the line and 0.002 quicker elapsed time-wise, and thus was Bernstein relegated to the runner-up spot. He was extremely upset by the loss, but a runner-up finish is better than a first round loss or a DNQ.
Massey did clinch a Countdown spot, but we’ll bet he would have quickly traded that for another win.
The Funny Car Countdown scenarios were pretty simple. Robert Hight could clinch by qualifying (he did), and Ron Capps could clinch by going to the final round (he didn’t). That was easy, wasn’t it?
It’s not a rarity when the Number 1 qualifier goes on to win a race, but it really doesn’t happen all that often. This was just one of those magical weekends for Jack Beckman. He could do no wrong, his crew could do no wrong and the same could be said for his Dodge. It performed flawlessly – four straight times. Now, before we go too far let’s acknowledge that Beckman had two redlights in his favor, the second coming from, of all people, John Force. Now that’s a rarity, but if nothing else it proved that Force is at least somewhat human.
Beckman faced the presumptive Road to the Future Award winner, Courtney Force, in the finale. Make no mistake about it, Ms. Force is going to win at least one race before the year ends. She has the equipment, the mentors and the drive. Since we honestly don’t expect to see her sister, Ashley, returning to active competition any time soon, if ever, Courtney will probably end up being the Force progeny who carries the family name forward into the record books.
Just like her dad, Courtney is a little animated when she climbs out at the top end (animated being a relative term), but so what? What do you expect, Courtney (or any other driver, for that matter) to climb out and act as if she just drove to the laundromat? These are three hundred mile per hour monsters that are a handful to control, and this young lady is doing a very credible job to date. Just look out, ‘cause when she does start winning – oh, baby!
Anyway, the race itself was really good, so good that the cars were glued together right to the finish line. The numbers may be boring, but hey, that’s what drag racing is all about, so here they are: Beckman – (0.068) 4.277, 293.79, Force – (0.065) 4.289, 283.49. Damn, it was a good one!
In fact, the whole race was a good one. The weather was terrific on Sunday, but still hot, with temperatures pushing into the low 90s. The skies stayed clear until the finals, when clouds rolled over the mountain and cooled the track just enough. Did we say the crowd was good? No, it was great! And they stayed late. It may be hard to fathom, but at some venues the fans begin filing out after the semifinal rounds. That may be because their favorites have already lost, just as it may be that they stayed at Bandimere to see Allen Johnson and (no offense intended, Jack!), Courtney Force. But regardless, they not only stayed through the finals, they mobbed the winners circle celebration afterwards.
The Mopar Mile-High Nationals is one of the best events on the Full Throttle series tour. The elapsed times and speeds aren’t the best because of the altitude, but that makes it all the more interesting. Everyone knows how hard it is to race in Denver.
If you think Bandimere Speedway is a cool venue now, we’ve heard there may be some changes before the 2013 race. The spectacular hillside grandstands may be extended several hundred feet, while on the downhill side of the track some grandstands will be removed, with a new hi-rise grandstand to be utilized near the starting line. But, if they don’t change a single thing, the Mile-High Nationals remains a must-see race.
SATURDAY INSIDER: WE PREFER OUR CROW BAKED!
We are here to eat crow, humble pie or anything else you call it after you make a bold prediction that doesn’t pan out. Yesterday we wrote that there might not be more than one or two six second runs in Pro Stock on Saturday, if even that many. How wrong we were, and how glad we are that we were.
In the first session alone there were a half dozen sixes, and in the heat of the day, that was impressive. The most impressive of all was Allen Johnson’s 6.956 at almost a buck-ninety-eight. In this altitude, that was something special, but Johnson wasn’t finished. In the last of the four qualifying sessions he notched a 6.951. We’re pretty certain that’s a new track record, but please, we’ve made enough errors already. Don’t hold us to that one, okay?
Oh, by the way, including the second session there were a total of 11 six-second runs, runs that were very much appreciated by the Mile-High crowd. And that begs the question: If we’re to continue assuming that the two nitro-burning categories are drag racing’s most popular classes, how do you explain the much stronger reaction the Pro tock times elicited from the crowd as compared to the fuel burners? We’re not suggesting that Denver has suddenly become a Pro Stock Mecca, but you can’t ignore the fact that the huge crowd that turned out for the final day of qualifying seemed to particularly enjoy Pro Stock.
And that crowd really was excellent. Several factors played into the turnout, of course, including the lure of Colorado’s only true national event. Suggesting that the NHRA Full Throttle series is a headline attraction is a truism. The show really is dynamite, and you know that if you’ve been out there in person (and trust us on this, no amount of Internet stories, or hours of television coverage can come even remotely close to experiencing these races in person). Another factor that can’t be ignored is BandimereSpeedway’s management style and “connection” with the local community. Put another way, when this track advertises a show, the fans know that’s exactly what they’re going to get. There’s no false advertising here. When Bandimere says you’re going to see the best there is in drag racing, that’s exactly what you get.
We said it earlier, but with just 16 cars on the grounds for Pro Stock there wasn’t much of a story to qualifying – until the big guns began to set the pace. Paul Pittman is probably destined to be first round cannon fodder for Allen Johnson’s Dodge, but anything can happen in drag racing. Pittman couldn’t get out of the high thirteens, meaning that, on paper at least, Johnson’s Dodge is twice as quick. There’s no prediction here. Uh-uh. We’ve learned our lessons! But, let it be noted that outside of Pittman, the two other non-regulars who made the field, Deric Kramer and Steve Kalkowski, performed well in cars that appeared to be immaculately prepared. While they may not yet be running on a par with the likes of Johnson and Edwards, their cars are anything but junkers. They look great, and run decently. They’re deserving of having the word “PRO” on their windows.
Rob Passey finally showed up from Salt Lake City, so we’ll have a full field of cars for Top Fuel. Spencer Massey remains in the Number 1 position, with Steve Chrisman on the bump with a depressing six second elapsed time. That will absolutely, positively and definitely not be enough against Massey in the first round (we can only hope our chef does a better job of cooking up the crow if we have to eat more, because today’s offering was kinda, well, feathery!)
Clay Millican never got down the track under full power as his young tuners took a very careful approach to their first outing in Denver. On Friday night the car appeared to be on a good one when Millican shut it off, and on Saturday it tended to bust the tires loose at about 300 feet. If they have mastered the situation Millican might be able to make a full pass on Sunday against Doug Kalitta, who has been able to make full runs. That does not bode well for the man from Tennessee.
In some respects this is an “opportunity race,” by which we mean that the conditions are such that a stroke of luck here and there could result in a surprising victory for someone who, at this point, we’re not even considering. There is also a lot at stake here. A handful of drivers are in a position to seal their involvement with the Countdown to 1 championship, but rather than report on that now, we’ll wait for the end of eliminations to bring you up to date.
We have now reached the portion of our story where a second, heaping helping of baked crow will be consumed. Yesterday we suggested that with 17 cars appearing for Funny Car qualifying the lone “loser” would be Texan Todd Simpson. We humbly apologize. Again. Simpson didn’t exactly light up the news wires, but his 4.951 was good enough to get him into the program. The odd man out thus became Todd Lesenko in Jim Dunn’s Tapit Chevrolet.
Jack Beckman wasn’t pushed at all and remains Number 1, with his two fellow four-thirteen performers, Robert Hight and Ron Capps, still right behind him. Some drivers, such as Alexis DeJoria, seem to be searching for the right combination. Well, maybe Alexis isn’t doing the searching. That would be tuner Del Worsham, but despite his experience at altitude, she could muster nothing quicker than a 4.631.
No one has yet grabbed this class by the throat and strangled it into submission, so our pick for Sunday is John Force. Huh? Yup, it’s time for the old master to show the youngsters how it’s done. Force likes this track and enjoys a close relationship with the Bandimere family. He’d like nothing better than to be able to hand John Bandimere, Jr. another Mile-High Nationals trophy, which he’s done in the past. He might do it again on Sunday.
Pro Stock Harley-Davidson, uh, Motorcycle, remains pretty much as it was after Friday. The Hectors are first and second and the Harleys of Hines and Krawiec are third and fourth. Steve Johnson’s Suzuki improved with a 7.313, and remains sixth, the quickest in his “class.” There may be some truth to the point that a lot of fans appreciate the Harley-Buell dominance, but among the competitors there’s considerable animosity. The rules are there to be followed, of course, and one can’t fault the racers for taking full advantage of them. The fault lies in those who make up those rules, but again, that’s another matter best left for another day.
It was hot on Saturday, actually hotter than it was on Friday, but there was just enough of a breeze to make the whole thing bearable. We said it before, though, and we’ll say it again. The Denver fans know what to expect and come prepared. We have never seen as many fans protecting themselves from the harsh sunlight with umbrellas as we have here in Colorado. If we didn’t know better we might think a photo of the grandstands had been taken during a rain shower, there were so many umbrellas!
Less than 24 hours after this is being written we’ll know who’s won the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, just as we’ll know which drivers have clinched positions in the Countdown. It’s not as if every run and every race that preceded this one wasn’t important, but we’ve definitely reached that point in the year where no one can afford to make mistakes and just chalk it off to “Oh, well. There’s always next week.” Those “next weeks” are flying by. It’s time to knuckle down and get serious. That’s what you’re going to see on Sunday, some very serious racers making very serious moves to enhance their points positions for the remainder of the Countdown to 10.
FRIDAY EDITION: COLORADO NEEDED A GOOD DAY, AND THIS WAS IT
In some unfortunate respects, Colorado has become the nation’s punching bag. After a series of horrendous fires left a good portion of the state scorched came the news that some truly reprehensible individuals had begun breaking into the unburned homes that had been evacuated in front of the fires. Then, last night in Aurora, came the unimaginable horror of the shootings at the midnight premier of the last in the Dark Knight trilogy. By Friday afternoon the fans that packed Bandimere Speedway – and this really was an outstanding spectator turnout – some who just wanted some respite from the shocking news that had filled the airwaves for the last month. The first day of the Mopar Mile-High Nationals provided that respite.
Yes, it was hot. In fact, at 8:00 AM it was already in the mid-80s, and 12 hours later it was still that hot. But, about six o’clock a few dark clouds edged their way over the mountain, and the air temperature cooled just enough to produce some great elapsed times and speeds, and the massive crowd ate it up.
If we can find any fault with the Mile-Highs it’s the fact that the turnout of cars is a little disappointing – but even understandable. Racing in the rarified air of Bandimere is not for the faint of heart. This is a very tough track that despite excellent prep work is just never going to offer up elapsed times and speeds that shatter the record books. Track records, yes. National records, are you kidding? Not going to happen.
But, this is also a sophisticated crowd. They not only know what they’re seeing, they know good numbers from the mundane, and react accordingly. When Allen Johnson’s killer Mopar stops the timers in six seconds, the crowd really reacts. When a Top Fuel car stops the clocks in less the four seconds, they cheer louder. When three Funny Cars notch 4.13s, they go nuts.
Another thing about these fans. They come prepared. No offense to our Buckeye friends back in Ohio, but the Norwalk fans seemed overwhelmed by the heat and humidity. Not so in Denver. Almost everyone we saw was holding a water bottle or something else cold to drink. They wore hats, sunshades and dark glasses. Some even wielded umbrellas. They’d been here before, knew what to expect, and handled the heat with ease.
The surprise in Pro Stock wasn’t Allen Johnson. Everyone, including his peer group, expected him to be the early qualifying leader. In fact, we had two prominent Pro Stock drivers tell us that Johnson will win on Sunday. That’s how much respect the other guys have for Allen and his engine-building father, Roy. They know how hard the Johnsons work on their high altitude setup, and brother, did they ever demonstrate it on Friday. Okay, so Johnson’s the early leader with a stellar 6.962, but the surprise is Mike Edwards, who’s right behind him with a 6.966. The other six second runners are V. Gaines (who got off the phone to California just long enough to run 6.975), Jason Line (6.988), Ron Krisher (6.995) and Vincent Nobile (6.998).
Others may predict Allen Johnson will win; we’ll predict that there won’t be more than one or two six second runs on Saturday, if even that many. And yes, we’ll happily eat crow if nine guys run 6.70s! But, with only 16 cars on the Mountain, qualifying is truly a low pressure situation. As it looks now, everyone’s going to race on Sunday.
There have been six Full Throttle series races including Pro Stock Motorcycle so far this season. All have been won by Harley-Davidsons. We have a reaction to that, but it’s best saved for an editorial! The first day of the Mile-Highs did nothing to dispel the Harley-Buell dominance. The “Hectors,” as Bob Frey has taken to calling Hector Arana Sr. and Jr., are atop the field with seven-twenties. Right behind them come the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harleys. The quickest Suzuki is Steve Johnson’s machine, way back in sixth place a full tenth of a second slower than the pole sitter. There’s no other way to say it, but things do not look good for the Suzuki believers, who seem to be in steep decline. It would be no surprise to find, at the end of the season, that every race had been won by a Harley.
Jack Beckman is the kind of guy who, in some sense, could have folded his tent and faded into oblivion after his crew chief was moved by team owner Don Schumacher over to the Ron Capps-driven NAPA Dodge. But that isn’t Jack Beckman, nor is it tuner Todd Smith. A very impressive 4.131 has Beckman atop the heap, and he intends to stay there. What we like about Beckman is his attitude. When he was asked about losing his crew chief he responded by saying “Revenge is sweet, and we’re going to get some.” Now that’s a guy who believes in himself and his team, and that’s a positive.
The other “thirteen” runners were Robert Hight and Ron Capps, but much like Pro Stock, a dearth of entries (17 in all) mean that qualifying may not be that important or difficult. Yeah, someone’s going home on Saturday night, and while we mean no disrespect by this, our bet is that it’s going to be Texan Todd Simpson. His car failed in the first session and in the second couldn’t get out of the fives. That is not going to get it against a field this good. It might be small, but it’s still good.
Is it time to say that this could be Spencer Massey’s year in Top Fuel? This young guy is running like the proverbial bat out of hell, with all the credit going to tuners Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler. Shuler was interviewed on the starting line after one of Massey’s runs, with Alan Reinhart having to pull each word out of him with a winch. Maybe it was the microphone, because in private Shuler’s a treat and usually pretty funny. You’d never know it from his interview with Reinhart.
A light field of cars? Truer words were never spoken when it comes to Top Fuel, for only 15 cars made runs on Friday. There are 16 cars listed on the official entry list, but we have not seen Rob Passey out of Salt Lake City, who usually makes this race.
Despite not being the quickest, we thought the most impressive effort of the day came from lightly regarded Terry McMillen, who clocked a 3.930. McMillen has been slowly but surely moving up the performance list, and by the time the weekend comes to an end he’s probably going to be no longer considered “lightly regarded.” In fact, he has all the tools to win. If not here in Denver, maybe Seattle or Sonoma.
Drag racing may be considered a sprint, but these weekends are anything but. These marathon days can wear down anyone, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Sitting here writing this, and knowing there are two more good days of racing ahead gives us goosebumps – even in this heat!
THURSDAY INSIDER: LOOKS LIKE THE ARMY DEAL IS GOOD TO GO
We won’t bother going into a specific political discussion, but it appears evident that all of the maneuvering and shouting over the possible end of the Army’s motorsports sponsorships was just that – political blather. You know, a lot of sound and fury indicating nothing.
The amendment which would have curtailed those sponsorships was introduced by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and co-sponsored by Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). In fact, this was an identical amendment to one introduced by Kingston last year. And, just as it was last year, the House voted it down again 216-202. The Senate had earlier eliminated a similar amendment in the Defense Appropriations bill.
Interestingly, during floor debate on the amendment more than one House member spoke out on the subject of micromanaging the military’s recruitment efforts, and how detrimental that would probably turn out to be. Some also referenced the fact that when enlistments decline the military has often resorted to offering financial bonuses to keep the services up to full strength. If, however, their recruiting efforts via motorsports sponsorships are successful, it actually lowers the costs to retain those men and women in the service.
Worth mentioning is that the NHRA worked hand in hand with ACCUS, Indycar and other motorsports organizations in trying to overcome this amendment. We are not suggesting that NHRA was solely responsible for this very positive move for motorsports, but their involvement certainly helped, as they led an effort to make sure politicians on both sides of the isle heard their views on military sponsorships.
With governmental roadblocks now removed it would appear that Tony Schumacher’s Army sponsorship will remain in place through 2013, but no contractual agreement has yet been signed. Schumacher’s deal with the Army is on a year-to-year basis, although senior Army officials have previously indicated their desire to continue the sponsorship.
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