NHRA'S GRUELING THREE-RACE WESTERN SWING KICKS OFF AT MOPAR MILE-HIGH NATIONALS IN DENVER MORRISON, Colo. -- There are many words used by NHRA drivers and crew chiefs to describe NHRA's Western Swing, the trio of mid-summer races that stretch...
NHRA'S GRUELING THREE-RACE WESTERN SWING KICKS OFF AT MOPAR MILE-HIGH NATIONALS IN DENVER
MORRISON, Colo. -- There are many words used by NHRA drivers and crew chiefs to describe NHRA's Western Swing, the trio of mid-summer races that stretch from Denver to Seattle to Sonoma, Calif. in a span of three weeks.
Grueling. Critical. Demanding.
The one word you won't hear race team members use to associate the challenge of the Western Swing: Easy.
Teams will travel approximately 2,115 miles during the 21-day mini-marathon so that their race cars can -- if all goes according to plan -- log a maximum of 6 miles (4.5 for Top Fuel and Funny Car) combined on all three race tracks. In between those 1,000-foot or quarter-mile runs, the teams will be pushed to the limit to service those vehicles in 75 minutes or less. Each race will present its own set of unique circumstances, whether it be extreme altitude, unpredictable weather conditions or sheer physical exhaustion from the task at hand.
The Western Swing kicks off with the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, July 10-12, at scenic Bandimere Speedway, just west of Denver. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel); Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car); Greg Anderson (Pro Stock); and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event, which will be televised by ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.
For Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA Dodge Charger R/T, the Western Swing is a cool part of NHRA history and a key stretch of each season that usually offers a sneak preview of the teams that will likely be there at the end, battling for the Full Throttle Series world championship crowns.
"It's pretty historic when you look back at who has done well in the Western Swing in the past," said Capps, a four-time winner this season. "You see a lot of drivers who have done well on the Western Swing in every category of NHRA racing go on to be the champions at the end of the year.
"When you stand back and look at it from a racer's view, getting into the Countdown (to the Championship, NHRA playoffs) is as difficult as it gets at this stage because you start off with a race in Denver, Colorado, where it's a mile high, there's hardly any oxygen and it's warm. It's very tough for a crew chief to make a car run there and physically, for a driver, it's one of the most demanding tracks we go to."
Once teams master the unique challenges that Bandimere presents, they are off to two races closer to sea level: the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash., and the FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals at Infineon Raceway in California's San Francisco Bay Area.
Capps, who has won races at two of the three stops on the Western Swing, says even though the altitude is left behind, it doesn't get any easier. "And the very following weekend we go to Seattle, Washington, where you go from one mile up to below sea level with lots of trees around and oxygen for the engine," Capps explained. "The conditions in Seattle are wonderful for the engine and you really have to be on your game because the track can be very fast , where you're used to being up in Denver where the times are two or three tenths slower than what they would be at sea level.
"Then, from there we go to hot and dry conditions in Sonoma, California, where again it's close to sea level but always very hot. It's a grueling three weeks because Denver separates the great crew chiefs from the OK crew chiefs. If you don't have your act together as a crew chief in Denver you're going to hurt parts because it's very hard on parts in the first place."
The Western Swing has been a part of the NHRA circuit since 1989. Since that time, only six pro drivers have swept the trio of races. Top Fuel legend Joe Amato did it in 1991 and was followed by Funny Car kingpin John Force in 1994. Top Fuel's Cory McClenathan did it in 1997 and Larry Dixon accomplished the feat in 2003. Anderson became the first Pro Stock driver to do it in 2004 and last year Schumacher capped a record-breaking season by holding a broom in the winner's circle at Infineon Raceway.
"Basically, it's as grueling a three-in-a-row stint as we're going to get on the NHRA Full Throttle circuit," Capps said. "This is when you start thinking a little bit ahead about where you want to be when the Countdown begins. We want to be the points leader. And right now there's some teams back there in sixth, seventh, eighth, all the way to 10th place and even 12th that are battling. And I was in that position last year. We were struggling a little bit. It's going to be great for the fans to watch those teams fight it out because there are going to be several very good championship-caliber teams that are not going to make the Countdown.
"This is the point of the season where you need momentum. If you have a bad three races now it could very well knock you out of the Countdown. We're at the front of the pack and we're expected to leave Sonoma with the Full Throttle points lead."
Other drivers joining Capps at the front of the Funny Car pack entering the Mopar Mile-High Nationals include series points leader Ashley Force Hood, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang and two-time world champ Tony Pedregon, driver of the Q-Horsepower Chevy Impala. Others to watch include past Denver winners Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, Robert Hight and Cruz Pedregon, the defending series champ.
In Top Fuel, Dixon enters the race riding high from his recent win in Norwalk, Ohio, the fourth of the season for the driver of Alan Johnson's new Al-Anabi Racing team. After failing to qualify for the season-opening race, Dixon has moved steadily up the points order to his current position of second overall. He is one of the few drivers to ever sweep the Western Swing.
"It's a very challenging swing for the teams just in the amount of mileage they have to drive and the work and prep that's involved in between the events," Dixon said. "Most of the legs are two-day drives, and they still have to have the cars and equipment ready to go. It's a lot on the teams. Having won at all of these races, I have good memories from each of them. They're fun races to win for different reasons. With the elevation at Denver, it's hard to make good power and have good downforce because the air is so thin. We've raced there before when the air is corrected to what you'd find at 10,000 feet so that makes it tough to make power and build downforce... Seattle has always had challenging track conditions so winning there is great accomplishment... Winning at Sonoma is fun because of being in California again...just being on the West coast. A lot of friends and family show up for that race, and being able to win in front of family and friends is always great."
Several drivers will challenge Dixon, including series points leader Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools dragster, and defending race winner and six-time world champ Schumacher, whose U.S. Army dragster team is now led by crew chief Mike Green. Veteran drivers McClenathan, Brandon Bernstein and Doug Kalitta also are among the pre-race favorites at Bandimere.
Jeg Coughlin, Mike Edwards and Jason Line have been the major headliners in Pro Stock competition this season, while the Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines tandem of Eddie Krawiec, who has advanced to five consecutive final rounds, and recent winner Andrew Hines, are atop the Pro Stock Motorcycle point standings.
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. on Friday, July 10 and 3:45 and 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 11. Final eliminations begin at noon on Sunday, July 12.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals by calling Bandimere Speedway at (800) 664-UWIN or via the Internet at www.ticketreturn.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 10 p.m. (ET) on Saturday July 11. On Sunday, July 12, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET).
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in four categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at noon on July 10. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at noon on July 11.