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Posted by: Brad Littlefield
The location of the annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals has always made the race unique. The efforts and innovations of those at Bandimere Speedway have made it special.

The unique factor stems from the 5,800-foot elevation and the facility that is built on the side of a mountain. Racers have to treat the race unlike any other on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series due to the high altitude and low oxygen that make it difficult to create horsepower, and the low air density that makes it tough to create downforce. Some racers embrace the challenge of running in the thin air, though many throw around words like “survival” to indicate that they just hope to get through it with their points standing and most of their parts intact.

“Denver is a great place to visit and a hard place to race,” said Todd Smith, crew chief on the Copart dragster driven by Brandon Bernstein.

Smith and co-crew chief Donnie Bender referenced a checklist they made entitled “Denver Change Sheet.” The sheet covers 20 specific changes made on the car to adjust from its standard combination to its Denver setup. Exactly half of those changes are fuel system related, and the other changes occur to the wing, engine combination, compression, blower speed, and nitro percentage — teams usually prefer to run somewhere between an 86 and 88 percent mixture of nitromethane in standard conditions, but they run as close to the 90 percent limitation as possible at Thunder Mountain.

Fuel teams have the ability to raise the speed at which their superchargers pump air into their motors by changing the size of the top (blower) and bottom (crankshaft) pulleys. Most teams carry different pulley sizes in their tow vehicles regardless of the race location so they can change their blower speed in the staging lanes when conditions change. The performance of a blown engine doesn’t drop off as sharply as a naturally-aspirated engine that relies on atmospheric pressure in higher-altitude conditions for this reason, though racers encounter other issues when raising the blower speed. Being crankshaft-driven, faster blower speeds require more power from the engine. The increased speed of the blower’s rotors also causes more heat and more wear. Furthermore, inconsistencies in a team’s blower program are raised exponentially when the blowers are turned at a higher rate.

Fuel tuners find that the amount of change they have to make to adjust their tune-up is more drastic at altitude than it is at sea level.

“You can add a degree of timing for the same reason that you’d add a degree at sea level, and the car will just laugh at you,” said Tommy DeLago, crew chief on the Mopar/DieHard Funny Car driven by Matt Hagan.

Fuel cars are direct-drive, so they account for the difference in horsepower with the amount of weight bolted to the clutch levers, the clutch management system, and the amount that they retard the ignition system during the trouble areas of a run. The main differences for nitro drivers is the amount they might have to steer their cars due to the lack of downforce and dealing with dropped cylinders that are more commonplace.

Pro Stock cars and motorcycles face a more drastic horsepower drop off, and racers adjust their cars with the clutch, radically different transmission ratios, and raised starting-line rpm. The latter two areas make driving in Denver different for Pro Stock drivers and Pro Stock Motorcycle riders. They typically have to shift out of low gear much sooner, causing them to worry about hitting the rev limiter, and shift into their 1:1 gear much later, causing them to worry about short-shifting.

The uniqueness of racing at altitude brings more attention to track records than at any other particular facility. Major e.t. and speed barriers that are broken at Bandimere Speedway are remembered less than the same barriers that are broken for the first time at an NHRA race. For example, Eddie Hill making the first four-second run at Texas Motorplex in 1988 is the most memorable four-second pass in Top Fuel history, and Lori Johns running the first “four” at Bandimere Speedway in 1991 would likely be the second most remembered Top Fuel four-second run at a particular racetrack.

One of the things that makes Bandimere Speedway a special place is the cooling system that was installed at the track prior to the 2008 event. Pondering a way to give the fans better side-by-side racing during the event’s summer date, Bandimere Speedway Executive Vice President-Operations Larry Crispe and P.J. Harvey came up with the idea of putting cooling coils in each lane to control track temperature on the starting line.

The cooling coils are in 20-foot-wide grids in each lane that extend 160 feet (from 40 feet before the starting line to 120 feet downtrack). They keep that part of the track 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the racing surface, which allows better initial grip for race cars to gather momentum before transitioning onto a hotter surface. The Bandimere family took a big risk by installing the cooling system beneath their brand-new, all-concrete racing surface — the second of its kind on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series — but it has paid off so far in the last four years, having hosted some of the track’s best racing.

“The pad helps us get off the starting line here,” said Rahn Tobler, crew chief of the Aaron’s/Valvoline Funny Car driven by Jack Beckman. “We slow the Funny Cars down anyway at 1.6-1.7 seconds into the run, so coming off the pad isn’t too dramatic of a change.”

“When we go to Denver, I turn the knobs all the way up,” said DeLago. “When you come off the pad, you turn the knobs to the left.”

Further defining characteristics of the Denver race are the amount of fans that show up and the awareness of the event in the surrounding areas. Even on the day before the race, the streets of nearby Golden, Colo., are flooded with people attending the annual Mopar Big Block Party. The exciting racing and scenic landscape gives fans a lot for the money, just as the challenging atmospheric conditions make the crew chiefs work hard for theirs.


The Fast Five

There’s no shame in having the third-best car on a three-car team when the other two cars are tuned by Mike Neff and Jimmy Prock, both of whom merit legitimate arguments in a discussion of who is the best tuner in the Funny Car class today. It might compare to being Chris Bosh, an NBA All-Star who plays on the same team as MVP-caliber players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. However, 15-time champion John Force drives for this team, and they had been shut out of final rounds for the first 11 races while Neff and Robert Hight scored four wins apiece. Force and the Castrol GTX High Mileage team got the job done this time in dramatic fashion. A valvetrain failure during Force’s last qualifying run on Saturday led to a spectacular body-launching explosion, and his crew was at the track until midnight making repairs. The hard work paid off because Force ran well enough to earn win lights against Tony Pedregon, Neff, and Jeff Arend before drawing a red-light against Matt Hagan in the final. “Our team cars have been running so flawlessly and carrying us, but they’ve been motivating me and Ron [Douglas] as crew chiefs, John as a driver, and all our crew guys,” said Dean “Guido” Antonelli. “We all work out of the same pool, so we just stayed positive and told ourselves that we’re not far off. I think we're a top four car wherever we go, but it never panned out for us until now. I’m thankful that John and our sponsors kept their faith in us.”

Spencer Massey
got it done in Top Fuel for the third time this season. His win highlighted a performance showcase by Don Schumacher Racing in which the team’s three dragsters combined for a maximum possible nine round-wins for the second time this season; it occurred at the Atlanta event, during which Massey lost in the semifinals, and teammates Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher battled in the final with Brown emerging victorious. This time, Massey got the win light against Brown in the semi’s and stayed in front of Schumacher in the final after both drivers hazed the tires near the eighth-mile marker. Massey clinched a spot in the Countdown to the Championship, put some distance on third-place Larry Dixon, and made significant ground up on points leader Del Worsham.

Here are Mike Edwards’ elapsed times, in order: 7.01, 6.98, 6.98, 6.98, 6.97, 6.96, 6.97, and 6.97. The driver of the Penhall/Interstate Batteries/K&N Pro Stocker certainly had one of the top three cars at the event, along with the Dodges of Allen Johnson and V. Gaines. Gaines took himself out with a late light against Larry Morgan in the second round. Johnson, the No. 1 qualifier, took care of business on his side of the ladder to meet Edwards in the final. A.J.’s bid for a Denver three-peat ended with a -.009 red-light. Edwards, on top of making good runs, made himself difficult to beat by earning the starting-line advantage in all four elimination rounds. He’s now just six points behind leader Jason Line in the points standings.

Karen Stoffer
scored a triumphant win at the same event where she made her Pro Stock Motorcycle debut in 1996. Stoffer, who reached the final round last season, ran well on the GEICO Powersports Suzuki throughout the event, and she sealed the deal by doing some of her best riding. Stoffer had reaction times of .028 or better during eliminations, including a near-perfect .002 in a semifinal holeshot win against Eddie Krawiec that gave her the points lead. Stoffer’s most recent win was at the 2007 Atlanta event more than four years ago, and she had left empty-handed in her last five final-round appearances (three of those occurred this season). The popular rider and the Jonco Motorsports team collected their sixth NHRA Wally when they outran a resurgent Michael Phillips in the final.

Matt Hagan got down the track on all eight attempts. He made the quickest runs of the last two qualifying sessions and last two elimination rounds. Hagan has never qualified worse than No. 3 at this event during all three career starts. Crew chief Tommy DeLago credits his prowess in Denver to mentor Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, who helped his high-altitude tune-up in 2008. McCulloch tuned Ron Capps to a win in 2009 and a track record of 4.12 seconds, which lasted until Cruz Pedregon ran a 4.09 during qualifying at this year's event. Hagan outran John Force in the final round but lost the battle with a red-light.



Special Awards

Stat of the race: It had been eight years since Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher faced each other in the opening round. They raced each other in the second round at Schumacher’s first race, the 1997 U.S. Nationals, and in the first round four times between 1998 and 2003 (Dixon held a 3-1 advantage). The last first-round matchup between the two occurred at the Madison, Ill., event in 2003, which Dixon won. That event was the third race of Alan Johnson’s tenure with the U.S. Army team. Schumacher holds a 38-36 advantage over Dixon in career head-to-head matchups.

Crew chiefs of the race: This could go to the tuners of either Top Fuel finalist, but I’ll give it to Mike Green for supplying the U.S. Army dragster with enough power to trailer three of the event’s four quickest losers; Tommy DeLago got the Mopar/DieHard Funny Car down the track in all eight attempts and had the quickest times of half the elimination rounds and half the qualifying sessions; Terry Adams and the rest of the decision makers on Mike Edwards’ Pro Stocker were a part of near-perfect runs throughout the event; Gary Stoffer and Greg Underdahl put a great bike underneath Karen Stoffer, which couldn’t have hurt her confidence as she chopped down the Christmas Tree all day.

Best races:
Matt Hagan vs. Ron Capps, Funny Car round two: The teammates did battle with Hagan getting a slight edge to the 60-foot mark, extending his lead to 330 feet, and hanging on while Capps’ NAPA Charger made up ground. Hagan got him by .006-second at the stripe.

Mike Berry vs. Steve Johnson, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: The Colorado native cut a .008 light on Johnson's LAT Racing Oils Buell and held on for a holeshot win by a .0065-second margin as Johnson chomped the lead away at every increment.

Larry Morgan vs. Ron Krisher, Pro Stock round one: 16-thousandths of a second was all the jump Morgan’s Lucas Oil Ford needed on the starting line to hold off a nice run by his oil adversary — Ron Krisher in the Valvoline Cobalt — by .0059-second.

Quotes of the race: “It’s about time. We’ve been pulling their weight all year.” — Mike Neff, cracking wise with Jimmy Prock, Robert Hight’s crew chief, about teammate John Force’s first final-round appearance of the season

“We’re not racing for the No. 10 spot. We’re racing for No. 8 or 9.” — Bob Vandergriff Jr., who is outside of the top 10 but has renewed confidence after the performance of his two-car team with crew chief Rob Flynn now calling the shots for Vandergriff and Mike Guger directing the Yas Marina Circuit/DIGIORNO dragster driven by Rod Fuller

“We made some really good runs in testing after Chicago. I could make excuses for why the car wasn’t as good this year as it had been in the past, but Don Schumacher doesn’t want to hear it. The Army doesn’t want to hear it either. Let's just fix it.” — Mike Green, crew chief on the U.S. Army dragster driven by Tony Schumacher

“If we can do what we need to do and keep throwing rocks under Johnny Gray’s tires, we might be OK.” – Tim Wilkerson, who is battling Gray and Tony Pedregon for a spot in the top 10

“We do so well on ‘the Mountain’ that maybe we need to deprive Jimmy Prock of a little oxygen when we get back to sea level.” — Robert Hight

“When we’re on all eight, we’re mean.” — Brian Corradi, crew chief for Antron Brown, who had low e.t. of eliminations in round two but dropped a cylinder in the semifinal


 
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