For 65 years, the Bandimere family has promoted and produced drag racing meets at their self-named Bandimere Speedway outside Denver in the city of Morrison, adjacent to the famous red rocks area that’s west of the city and at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. They’ve always sought to satisfy their fans with the best racing possible, at one point cooling the first part of their drag strip to allow better 60-foot times on this very difficult strip, one that saps power from even the most powerful of nitro-drinking Top Fuel and Funny Cars.
The reign of Bandimere Speedway is nearly over – or at least it will be at the close of the 2023 season. As NHRA alights for its 43rd and final time at this track, starting the vaunted Western Swing that takes the tour to three western venues in three succeeding weekends, there’s both excitement and dismay in the pits. Most everyone is sad to see Bandimere’s tenure at the feet of the majestic Rockies end, but we can all understand the lure of profits, because anyone in this business realizes the best way to make a small fortune in racing is to begin with a large fortune.
There will be enough action during this Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals race weekend to satiate everyone in attendance or watching the finals on FOX Sunday afternoon. In addition to the four qualifying sessions, the latest round of Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge racing takes place throughout Saturday, with challenge rounds for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. There will be a special treat for those on-site this Friday, when NHRA legend, 69-race national event winner Kenny Bernstein, returns to Bandimere Speedway to warm up 72-time national event champ, and three-time class titleholder Antron Brown’s dragster prior to the first qualifying session of the day.
Brown, a three-time event champion on Bandimere Mountain is the last driver to earn three-race Western Swing trophies in one year, sweeping the 2009 three-races-in-three-weekends challenge. Brown is currently No. 7 on the all-time win list; Bernstein is No. 8. Bernstein’s warm-up is scheduled for 2:30PM Mountain Time. The 10th race of the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series campaign will have an honorary starter in its final appearance: 2022 Bandimere Speedway Top Fuel winner Leah Pruett of Tony Stewart Racing has that nod as she attempts to win again on this mountain. Last year Robert Hight won Funny Car, Matt Hartford took Pro Stock and Matt Smith earned the Pro Stock Motorcycle winner’s trophy.
Not everyone makes the trip to Denver for this race. It is tough to make power at Bandimere’s elevation and that’s a turn-off for many who live to make sufficient power for their cars and motorcycles. As such, there are 16 racers on the entry list in Top Fuel, and one who’s bent on making a mark this weekend is reigning dragster champ Brittany Force, who has been chasing a victory at this track since she entered the pro ranks in 2015. Winless after nine events this year, Force has been the No. 1 qualifier for the past two visits to Denver but packed up after the second round each time. “This is a race track I’ve been going to since I was a baby,” she said. “There’s just nothing like this racetrack and we’re really upset to see it go away.”
Force currently holds fourth-place points and, like everyone else is trying to figure out how to slow down Justin Ashley, whose grip on the class has him leading four-time champ Steve Torrence by 97 points. Pruett is third, while Force’s teammate Austin Prock is in fifth place, leading Brown, Mike Salinas, Josh Hart and the Kalitta drivers, Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon, the latter flying SealMaster colors this week, in the top 10 points standings. Langdon is a gaping 328 points behind Ashley. All of those drivers are coming to Denver, along with Joliet winner Clay Millican, Buddy Hull, eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher, Terry Totten, Rob Passey and Greg Carrillo.
Even with a short field, it’s never easy to win a race, especially at altitude. Current Funny Car points leader and three-time class champ, Matt Hagan of Tony Stewart Racing, who earned his first win at Bandimere Speedway in 2021 in his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, knows how tough it is to earn a winner’s trophy at this track. “It was tough to win that first Mile-High Nationals Wally trophy,” Hagan admitted, “but I love the scenery and the atmosphere at that track with the fans. We have to thank the Bandimere family for giving us one of the most outstanding drag racing facilities in the world,” he said.
Hagan has a miserly four-point advantage on reigning and fellow three-time champion Ron Capps’ Toyota GR Supra and, while Hagan has won three times this season as was runner-up at Norwalk, the most recent event, the standings could easily change after four rounds of qualifying and four rounds of eliminations. Behind these two former Don Schumacher Racing teammates lies 2022 Denver winner Robert Hight and his Jimmy Prock-tuned John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS, followed by the Ford Mustang of Chad Green, the consistent Toyota GR Supra of Alexis DeJoria, Bob Tasca III and Tim Wilkerson’s self-entered Mustangs, 16-time champ John Force’s Camaro SS, J.R. Todd’s Kalitta Motorsports Toyota GR Supra and Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, which is 275 points behind Hagan’s Charger.
Lurking just behind this group are Blake Alexander, Alex Laughlin, Terry Haddock and Bobby Bode III (three of them racing Mustangs, the Jim Dunn Flopper not assigned to a manufacturer), the latter 500 points in arrears. The weekend lineup for this race includes all in the top plus Laughlin, Haddock, Chris King’s Charger and Steven Densham in a Mustang. King, making his second start of the season after beginning near his Chicago home, qualified 14th when he last ran at Bandimere in 2021. “I want to make some more memories here,” the Chicago area racer said.
Toyota, which reached its 199th race win in Bristol, is attempting to win its 200th NHRA Camping World race this Sunday and has a bunch of racers hoping to fulfill that destiny. On the Top Fuel side, Toyota has Ashley, Torrence, Brown, Kalitta and Langdon wanting to win for the Toyota team; in Funny Car it’s Capps, DeJoria and Todd. “Anyone that’s raced at the Mile-High Nationals can tell you it’s one of the most difficult tricks on the tour. For the racers, winning at Denver is the most gratifying win you can have,” Capps explained. “The conditions up there will put any team under duress. If you can leave with the trophy, you’ve done everything you can.” Capps has a single victory at this track and is seeking his milestone 75th career victory.
Pro Stock has a 16-car field for the Mile-High Nationals, with KB Titan Racing-backed points leaders Dallas Glenn and Matt Hartford, the latter a winner in Norwalk two weeks ago and here in 2022 on the prowl to take the final edition of this race. Despite the fact that the altitude at Thunder Mountain saps all engines of their power, winning in Denver is a feat everyone in the class wants to experience. There’s a 353-point lag between first and tenth in this class, with Deric Kramer, Troy Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield, Greg Anderson, reigning titleholder Erica Enders, Camrie Caruso, Cristian Cuadra’s Mustang-bodied car and Bo Butner III comprising the top 10. The Chevy Camaro body rules the class.
Behind this grouping are Kyle Koretsky, rookie Jerry Tucker and Mason McGaha. They, along with Mason’s dad Chris McGaha are accounted for this weekend, along with Fernando Cuadra and his son Fernando Jr. The latter pair drive Mustang-bodied Pro Stock cars from Elite Motorsports, which has nine (!) cars entered in both Pro Stock and Mountain Motor Pro Stock, which is making one of four appearances at this track. Incredibly, Bandimere Speedway is one of only a very few tracks where Enders lacks a winner’s trophy and this weekend is her last chance to take victory on this track. At least she’s got two opportunities as she’s entered in both Pro Stock and Mountain Motor Pro Stock, competing against team owner Richard Freeman in the latter class. This weekend marks the first anniversary of the passing of Royce Freeman Sr., patriarch of the team owner’s family.
It’s a short, 13-motorcycle field for Pro Stock Motorcycle this weekend and, in some respects, that’s just fine. The riders who are making this trip to Denver are serious about their crafts and in it to win it. Last year’s victor on Bandimere Mountain, Matt Smith is still looking for his first 2023 victory; the six-time and reigning champion is working to find the sweet spot on his Suzuki motorcycle, even as he preps the Suzuki bike of teammate Jianna Evaristo (currently eighth in the standings) and the Buell of wife Angie, who is just behind him, sixth in points.
Of course everyone continues to chase Gaige Herrera, who signed to ride for Vance & Hines in the off-season and who has won all but two contests thus far in the 2023 Camping World season. Herrera has looked almost human the past two races, allowing Suzuki stalwart Steve Johnson to win when he fouled at Bristol and losing to Evaristo in the second round at Norwalk, where Hector Arana Jr was the winner. The big question – did he peak too early? Likely not, but coming out of the gate looking ready to plow down every racer in sight makes competitors work harder. And the fact that anyone using Vance & Hines’ four-valve heads had to add five pounds to their motorcycles before Norwalk pleased only the Suzuki Monster users and the Buell riders like Arana Jr.,
The Pro Stock Motorcycle points are still led by Herrera, who has a 189-point gap to Arana Jr., followed by Johnson, Herrera’s Vance & Hines teammate Eddie Krawiec, Matt and Angie Smith, Chase Van Sant – who is the sole WAR rider this weekend, hoping the lack of a second Suzuki rider (nominally John Hall) might help the WAR Racing team center their attention to his motorcycle – Evaristo, Buell riders Marc Ingwersen and Ryan Oehler. Reed Motorsports is stepping away for a bit to center their efforts, leaving Joey Gladstone to work on cars rather than prep his own motorcycle, while Chip Ellis isn’t entered, although Kelly Clontz is on-site hoping that being in Denver might bring her closer to entering the top 10. Lance Bonham’s Buell and Chris Bostick’s Suzuki are both on the entry list.
Weather is always a factor at Bandimere Speedway and this weekend is looking to continue that. We’re expecting the warmest temps on Friday and Sunday, with race day topping out sunny and near 90 degrees. While the forecast is calling for a lack of precipitation it always seems to at least sprinkle a bit, although Saturday’s 24-percent is the highest chance – at this point in time.
In addition to the Camping World racers, NHRA has a good complement of Lucas Oil sportsman ready to run, Friday through Sunday. Expect to see Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Super Street Top Sportsman, Mountain Motor Pro Stock and Top Dragster entries going to the water box. No doubt everyone will miss the hospitality of the Bandimere family and their preparation put into making this final professional contest on this 65-year-old family-owned business one that every attendee will remember.