The boys and girls of the NHRA have left Denver and are heading for the Sonoma Nationals.
Watching the NHRA Mile High Mopar Nationals at Bandimere Speedway is always a pleasure. The venue is fabulous with its hillside seating, the fans come out in droves and the racing is always exciting - even if it is a bit slower than what we see at ground level. The challenges for teams, engine tuners and even for the drivers is vastly different at Bandimere, which makes it quite the crap shoot for nearly everyone.
That’s nearly everyone. 2012 NHRA Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson and his Johnson & Johnson Dodge Dart team have a lock on this particular racetrack. It helps that Mopar, which sponsors their car through its Magneti Marelli brand, has sponsored this race for a long time and re-upped this week to be the naming sponsor through the 2018 event. They put on a grand display of Mopar muscle cars and events throughout the week, including a rollicking pre-race party in nearby Golden that’s not to be missed.
Allen Johnson easily won at Bandimere over teammate Jeg Coughlin for his fourth race win of the 2014 season. Coughlin was a bit too quick on the trigger at the start, fouling and allowing Johnson to earn his third straight Wally and sixth in eight years here. That’s dominance for Johnson’s Dodge Dart, which made its first start at this track after winning in debut at Gainesville in March. Instead of being nicknamed Thunder Mountain, the Bandimere family may as well re-name this place Johnson Mountain!
While Friday’s initial qualifying was temperate and it was a bit warmer on Saturday, Sunday dawned hot. Very, very hot. That slowed everyone, from Pro Stock Motorcycle, to Pro Stock, Funny Car and Top Fuel, but it didn’t hold back the winners, who were Johnson in Pro Stock, Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Robert Hight beating boss John Force for Funny Car honors and, finally, finally, JR Todd in Top Fuel.
Why am I so excited about the latter victory? The Denver-area track is where Todd earned his first victory and it’s been a long time since JR has had the kind of equipment and personnel to augment his extremely valuable talents. You might not know this, but here is a racer that can wheel dirt cars as well - there was a charity race held in honor of Todd’s friend Eric Medlen after that driver’s 2007 death and JR Todd won the thing - over such luminaries and exceptional dirt racers as current Funny Car standout Ron Capps and former champ Gary Scelzi, whose eldest son has taken to dirt, not straight-line racing.
Okay, so Denver is done and it’s back to near-sea level for the NHRA racers. They’ve got the Countdown to the Championship looming, and that begins after the 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway (nee IRP) on the traditional Labor Day weekend. Thus far there are only a few sure entries for championship bids, as parity is the name of the game in NHRA drag racing.
In Top Fuel, season-long points leader Doug Kalitta is being stalked by Antron Brown and both have qualified for the six-race battle. There are few other sure bets at this point, but the suspects like reigning titleholder Shawn Langdon, seven-time champ Tony Schumacher look sure to be in the mix. Todd moved to eighth place and his Denver runner-up Brittany Force lies seventh, based on her exceptional showings in Brittany’s sophomore season.
Funny Car is still a toss-up and, thus far only Hight has qualified, but John Force, Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr and Courtney Force look good to go. The points swing between now and Indy could be pendulum-like, depending on who in this class steps up to the plate. With very hot temps predicted for this weekend in the wine country, current 10th place runner Tim Wilkerson, who’s 468 points behind Hight, has shown a hot hand of late and seems to thrive when the weather produces a slick track for racing. Could this week be his break-through?
Pro Stock’s Erica Enders-Stevens has made the Countdown, but announced last week that her team intends to forego this weekend’s trip to Sonoma and next week in Seattle in order to prepare for the six-race battle. I find that kind of strange as racing best prepares you for more racing, but it’s the Elite Motorsports team’s choice. Erica’s hounded by her good friend Allen Johnson, his teammate Jeg Coughlin, Jason Line and former teammate Dave Connolly; she’s the sole qualifier thus far. As always, the Pro Stock class is among the most competitive, yet there’s more than 700 points between first and 10th place rookie Jonathan Gray, making Enders-Stevens’ position, while not unassailable, less of a free-fall should the guys chasing her move up.
Pro Stock Motorcycle is definitely tighter on points and the motorcycles will miss the third race of the Western Swing in Seattle. After a couple of years dealing with NHRA-mandated engine rules changes, the Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagles are back on top of the heap, Andrew Hines leading teammate Eddie Krawiec. Still, the Buell machines are in hot pursuit with Hector Arana III leading his father Hector and John Hall in fifth place. This weekend there’s a race-within-a-race for the bikes, which should enhance their standing with the Sonoma crowd and sweeten the pot for them.
As I noted above, we’re in for some wilting weather this weekend at Sonoma. Temps are predicted in the 90s for Friday and Saturday, while Sunday may be a bit cooler, in the mid-80s. The Friday night qualifying session will be the sole time for cooler temperatures and you can bet the nitro runners, in particular will take advantage of that.
Since there’s still time before the mayhem begins, excuse me while I take off for some wine tasting and fun in the Bay Area.