Heroes and surprises in Denver

Can NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series possibly top the first round of its Western Swing, held this past weekend at Bandimere Speedway just west of Denver? It will be difficult, says Anne Proffit.

Heroes and surprises in Denver
Tony Schumacher, John Force, Allen Johnson, Andrew Hines
Funny Car winner John Force
Andrew Hines
Funny Car winner John Force
John Force
Allen Johnson
Pro Stock winner Allen Johnson
Tony Schumacher
Tony Schumacher
Tony Schumacher
Andrew Hines
Pro Stock Bike winner Andrew Hines

The series’ 14th of 24 races was a barn-burner for sure, featuring three new winners for the season and the continuation of dynasties in the straight-line arena. For starters, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force's Chevrolet Camaro was front and center throughout the three-day meeting, running fast and strong.

Force has been all over the place this season but that changed when he beat his youngest daughter, Courtney Force in a very tight family feud final round, using his quicker reaction time to win at 3.965/319.45 over Courtney’s 3.963/314.75. It was the father’s first chance to hold a Wally winner’s trophy high since winning in June of last year at Epping, N.H. Force loves racing his kids - and beating them - and seems to get momentum on his side when running against his children.

This was the 144th victory of Force’s career. The win slots John Force into the Traxxas Nitro Shootout for eight nitro-running winners, meaning all four John Force Racing drivers will compete in that race within a race at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend; by virtue of already winning a race, Courtney Force and Robert Hight will compete on the Funny Car side; daughter Brittany Force’s Top Fuel victory makes her eligible to race as well.

“I needed this real bad,” Force said. “We’ve been getting beat up lately by the Schumacher and Kalitta teams’ so it’s a great day to come here and look like we know what we’re doing.” Although Force’s three Funny Car entries moved to Chevrolet from Ford in 2015, it wasn’t until this spring that John Force Racing debuted a new Chevrolet Camaro body, which took some time to dial in. This was Force’s seventh win at Bandimere Speedway.

In Top Fuel there was vindication for eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, who hadn’t picked up a winner’s Wally trophy since his victory at Joliet, Ill. last summer. The win marked the 82nd of Schumacher’s illustrious career as he outran teammate and current Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who slowed with mechanical difficulties halfway down the 1,000-foot racetrack but retains the category’s point lead.

Schumacher lies 229 points behind, in fifth, but this victory gave him the final earned slot in the Top Fuel Traxxas Nitro Shootout, despite a difficult year as he and his Mike Green-led Don Schumacher Racing team struggled to find the right combination.

“I thank God that we figured it out and we worked at it, because you start to lose a little faith when you make big changes to a car and you don’t see those win lights,” he noted. “To win a championship, you don’t try to bring out a car equal to everybody else. You try to have very smart people design very smart cars that do things other people’s cars don’t do. And it’s what we are great at - the adaptability, being able to look at the situation and adapt to it, win races like this.

“We don’t have a race anywhere else on the circuit like it, and we can come here and pull off a victory - it’s just a fantastic day.”

The results in Pro Stock were equally exciting as Allen Johnson became the first driver to halt the 13-race-winning KB Summit Racing duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line, who had rampaged through the category since February. Neither one of Ken Black’s drivers were in the finals this weekend - Johnson used a holeshot victory to defeat Anderson in the semi-finals while Line fouled in his semi against Vincent Nobile.

That Johnson, racing in his 10th final round at the Mopar Mile High Nationals and driving a Dodge Dart, beat the Chevrolet Camaro of Nobile on what everyone considers “Johnson Mountain” was justice for the driver and his family team. He tied Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden in terms of Bandimere Speedway stats, as both now have seven wins on the mountain.

Yet Johnson qualified an uncharacteristic 10th for this race, even after testing the week before. But he defeated Camaro driver Drew Skillman, Erica Enders and Anderson on his way to the finals, whereupon he vanquished young lion Nobile, 6.982/197.39 to 7.037/196.82.

“I thought we had about a 1% chance at winning this race,” Allen Johnson said. “This team dug deep down - and we got better every run. We maybe had a break or two today but the magic is just on our side up here for some reason. We’ve done it for Mopar many years and now we get to do it for [new sponsor] Marathon Petroleum.”

Neither rain, heat, humidity or altitude could halt Andrew Hines’ march to Victory Lane on his Vance and Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod motorcycle. The five-time champion has now won the most races in Pro Stock Motorcycle, 45, beating the late Dave Schultz’ record. In arriving at the Winners Circle, Hines managed to re-set the track elapsed time record three times over the race meeting and won an all-H-D final round, against teammate and points leader Eddie Krawiec.

“I grew up around this sport, but never dreamed that one day I’d set a record like this. The record will likely stand for a long time, and represents a lot of hard work by the Screamin’ Eagle team over the years. Dave Schultz was one of the founders of this class and raced with passion and drive; we lost him when he was still winning races and would have undoubtedly added to his total,” Hines said. “I’m really honored to be in this spot today.”

Pro Stock Motorcycle has 16 races on the season and this was the sixth event for the class; between them, Hines and Krawiec have total sway on the class with three victories each.

And now it’s across the Rocky Mountains and to near sea level at Sonoma, Calif. this weekend for the 29th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals. Zero rain is forecast for the weekend and temperatures will dip from an anticipated high of 85 on Friday (low of 53 so the second session Friday night should be cool and exciting), while Sunday’s eliminations should be in the mid-to-high 70s, perfect weather for fast and exciting NHRA drag racing.

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