It was a bittersweet weekend on Thunder Mountain as the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals were contested for what is expected to be the final time at Bandimere Speedway. It was also a joyous celebration of 65 years with the devoted Bandimere family at the helm of one of the most favored yet challenging dragstrips on planet earth. In all, it was a weekend that will be impossible to forget, and it was a proper sendoff for an old friend. Here are five of those noteworthy takeaways.
There's magic on that mountain
Undeniably, there is something truly special about Bandimere Speedway, from its stellar, romantic sunsets to providing the perfect place (the Pro Stock pits) to lean over the fence and watch Sportsman racers manage the finish-line stripe from above. It is the epitome of picturesque, to the point of feeling almost magical. For Matt Hagan, it wasn't just about the view this past weekend. His magic came at every turn as he swept up the 50th No. 1 qualifier award of his career, the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge win, and the final Funny Car trophy at his sponsor's main event. Trying to make sense of the way the stars aligned, Hagan realized it was also his mom, Judy Hagan's birthday. She passed away just a few months ago and would have celebrated her 67th birthday this weekend. It felt like Bandimere Speedway held a little extra magic for the driver of the Dodge Direct Connection Funny Car this weekend.
It was no fluke
In Chicago, Clay Millican won his first round of the season with his new Parts Plus/Rick Ware Racing team, and that round win was a glorious achievement for the hungry driver and his deserved crew. They went on to gather three additional win lights that Sunday at Route 66 Raceway to win the event in stunning fashion. It did not immediately generate momentum, however, and after Chicago, Millican and company fell into another wave of hunger pangs as they were halted in the first round at Epping, Bristol, and Norwalk. Ever the optimist, Millican was not concerned. He talked his sisters into coming to Denver for the final race, and when he was able to repeat the "win one, win 'em all" format, they got to see their brother raise a trophy in NHRA competition for the first time. The pendulum of emotion swung high for Millican as he was finally able to celebrate victory with his siblings – and see for himself that the Chicago experience wasn't a one-off.
They've got (sweep) potential
The famed Western Swing – the strenuous trio of events spanning Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma – has been an opportunity for teams to showcase their ability to adapt. Conditions vacillate wildly between the three events; tuners battle a killer combo of hot racetrack and oxygen deprived engines in Denver, travel to Seattle where there are more oxygen-giving trees than humans, and then round out the Swing at typically toasty sea-level Sonoma ("but it's a dry heat"). If a tuner can dial into the demands of each of those facilities – and if the driver can keep his or her head in the game for three consecutive weeks – they have a very rare opportunity. Only seven drivers have ever won all three races in one "sweep," and after Denver, we now know who will have a shot. Pro Stock will not be contested in Seattle or Sonoma this year, but Pro Stock Motorcycle will – giving the two-wheelers a shot at the feat for the first time. Denver winners Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the ones to watch here.
Racers love a challenge
Mile-high conditions are no joke when it comes to drag racing. The combinations that are used in the thin air are unique set-ups that cannot, typically, be used anywhere else. Teams that do well up there are usually ones that test on the mountain relentlessly and reserve special parts and pieces for that event alone. It's a large challenge for tuners, and the cars and motorcycles react differently as well, so the drivers must relinquish their known rhythm and bend to what the mountain wants. It's tricky as heck, but again and again this past weekend, drivers and tuners stood in front of the burgeoning crowd and cameras with sad eyes and heavy hearts speaking about never getting to race at this particular facility again. Those emotions weren't for show. John Force, the most winning driver in Denver with eight Bandimere Speedway wins, was the most passionate in his speech, but he did not stand alone. As four-time Denver Pro Stock winner Greg Anderson put it, "It just means more when it's this much of a challenge."
Passion creates longevity
According to the dragstrip's website, John Bandimere Sr. had a two-fold goal for the hillside land he purchased in 1958 on the west side of Denver: to augment his family's auto parts business, and to provide a safe environment for young people to learn about cars and race them off the streets. As the Bandimere family grew, so did their racetrack. Over the years, significant upgrades for spectators and racers alike were implemented. The facility grew and grew in popularity and became a treasured destination, and for 65 years, the place has had a cloud of passion hovering over it as the Bandimere family has poured heart and soul into creating an enjoyable experience. Overseen by John Bandimere Jr. and his wife, Lorraine, the facility has been so special to so many because of their thoughtful attention to detail. Their passion, along with the dedication of their entire family, has forever lodged Bandimere Speedway into the hearts of racers and fans.