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Saying Goodbye to Bandimere Speedway at the Final NHRA Mile-High Nationals

Tens of thousands of fans have poured through the gates at Bandimere Speedway, and they’re all on their feet as 16-time NHRA Funny Car world champion John Force addresses the masses from the top end. After NHRA on FOX reporter Amanda Busick asks Force what makes this Morrison, Colorado, facility so special, the iconic Funny Car driver gives an impassioned response that sends vibrations through the facility not unlike those created by his 3.92-second, 320-MPH blast down the Bandimere 1,000-foot dragstrip just moments earlier during Friday night qualifying. 

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #184, the State of Drag Special Issue, in September/October of 2023.]

“It’s Mount Rushmore,” says Force, the winningest professional driver in Bandimere history with eight wins spanning 24 seasons. “They built this in the side of a mountain. How do you do that? I sat on that hill in ’79 with my dad and [John] Bandimere Sr., and they’re gone now, but we love this place. I won it because I had great crew chiefs – Austin Coil, Bernie [Fedderly], and others that are with me now, but at the end of the day, this place is important to us. 

“I understand how the world changes, but look, we packed ’em in here and we’ll pack ’em in on Saturday and Sunday,” Force continues. “I know the world’s changing and everybody needs room and they’re building homes, but this thing is something special. This is God’s gift. This is mythical shit up here.”

Force is referencing the rapidly growing housing development on the other side of Colorado State Highway 470, one of the reasons fans have speculated that Bandimere Speedway is closing at the end of the 2023 season. But for one reason or another, the track is destined to close after celebrating 65 years of drag racing at one of the most picturesque dragstrips in the world. Fans and racers from nearby towns like Golden and Littleton and from around the world have made the pilgrimage to Bandimere for one final NHRA Mile-High Nationals. They’re here to reminisce, create new memories, and show their appreciation for the Bandimere family, and Force is right there with them.  

“I love racing,” Force says, “and I love this hill, and I want ’em all to know it.”

The 43rd annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals begins bright and early on Friday, July 14th with time runs for NHRA Lucas Oil Series sportsman classes like Super Street, Stock, Super Comp, Super Stock, and Super Gas. Later, Top Dragster and Top Sportsman will join the fold. Unlike most other national events on the NHRA Camping World Series tour, the fans have already started to file into the grandstands to watch racers like nearby Golden’s own Scott Burton, who will go on to win his fourth national event Wally in Super Stock on Sunday. 

“The atmosphere is always different here because the fans watch every run of every class,” says Brian Lohnes, the lead broadcaster for NHRA on FOX. “Even during the early part of the weekend, you’ll see people actively watching Super Gas the same way they would watch the fuel cars or Pro Stock. That has always impressed me about this place. The fans are dedicated to basically watching all of it.”

As the nitro pits start humming with action, a large crowd gathers around Antron Brown’s Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster pit area. Fans who follow the NHRA news cycle closely know six-time NHRA world champion Kenny Bernstein is set to warm up Brown’s Top Fuel machine, marking the 69-time national event winner’s first time back in the seat of a nitro car since his final Funny Car campaign in 2007. 

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The choice to have Bernstein do this warmup at Bandimere wasn’t an accident. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee met his wife here 42 years ago, and he’s won at Bandimere four times over the course of his career in Top Fuel and Funny Car. 

“When we heard that this was the last one, we wanted to come back for that, then Antron put the icing on the cake for me,” Bernstein says after the warmup. “There was no question I was coming back to be here for this. It’s a great place. The Bandimeres do a phenomenal job. I hope they get it going somewhere else. But the one thing about this place is there’s nothing else like it. It’s 5,000 feet in the air, it’s hard to run, there’s no air to push that wing down, and let me tell you, it’s a tough place. When you win here, you’ve had a good day.”

While Brown’s experience at Bandimere doesn’t go back as far as Bernstein’s, he’s won here nearly as many times with three Mile-High victories. Locking in more memories was on his to-do list going into the final running. 

“It’s one of those deals where you’re just trying to take it all in,” Brown says. “You take it in every year you come up here, but this year here, I’m really slowing down and looking at everything around me. Having Kenny out here being a part of it, it’s going to be a memory I’ll never forget.”

One of the fans who made a point to watch the Bernstein warmup is Mark Krekeler, who’s been coming to Bandimere Speedway since 1971. Before a complete overhaul added the modern pit-side grandstands in the late 1980s, Krekeler and his friends would park their cars along the edge of the ridge to watch racing. 

“I clearly remember the old round tower, and the original Christmas tree had square bulbs in it, not the ones we’re used to,” Krekeler says. “What I remember mostly, though, is Old Man Bandimere, Bandimere Sr., during the races on the weekend, he’d be back here with a backhoe hogging out the side of the mountain. He did most of that all by himself while the races were going on.”

Over the last 50 years, Krekeler has witnessed the evolution of Bandimere Speedway from a small proving grounds on the side of a mountain into its current status as a world-renowned professional drag racing facility. Fans like Krekeler were given a shot of optimism before the final Mile-Highs when John Bandimere Jr., the track’s current president and the son of founder John Bandimere Sr., announced during a media event that the family plans to build a new facility near the Denver Airport, possibly as soon as 2025. Krekeler views these changes as the latest steps in the Bandimere evolution. 

“Knowing that this is the last Mile-High Nationals, it’s a little melancholy,” Krekeler says. “Nothing really stays the same forever. You can look at this as a big disappointment or you can look at it as optimism for the future. Whatever comes will be better in every conceivable way than this could be, except for the location and scenery and things like that. There are so many things that will be improved upon. One thing that won’t change is nitro.”

As the crowd around Brown’s pit area dissipates, the eight Mountain Motor Pro Stock entries start pulling into the staging lanes for their first qualifying session. The class, which originated three decades ago in IHRA competition, is known for its 800-plus-cubic-inch engines. “They were big as mountains and most were built there, too,” said Ted Jones, IHRA’s former VP of Competition, in a 2007 interview with Competition Plus founder Bobby Bennett. While those mountains were much further east, it’s fitting that Mountain Motor Pro Stock got one last chance to race on “Thunder Mountain.”

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“It’s absolutely unbelievable that we’re going to get this opportunity,” says John DeFlorian, who pulled up alongside Richard Freeman as the first pair of Mountain Motor Pro Stock cars to go down the track in the first qualifying session. “I thank the Bandimeres and NHRA for inviting us up and allowing the Mountain Motor cars to be on the mountain. They belong here.”

DeFlorian was a part of the group that was supposed to race during the Mile-High Nationals in 2020, but circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the track from hosting its annual NHRA national event. Things finally worked out for this edition. 

“When we had this opportunity here, I really wanted to come,” DeFlorian says. “I’ve been here before as a spectator, but to be up here as a participant is altogether different. I want to experience what that’s like, to go down the racetrack at the last there ever will be of the Mile-High race. I’m actually honored and humbled that we did get the opportunity to do this.”

Following Mountain Motor Pro Stock Q1, as well as the first session for Pro Stock Motorcycle and 500-cubic-inch Pro Stock, Top Fuel rolls down the staging lanes for the first nitro session of the weekend. In the first pair, Colorado’s own Greg Carrillo throws down a 3.832 at a career-best 324.75 MPH. This gets the crowd roaring, and they give his crew a standing ovation as they head down the return road. The pass stands for the provisional No. 1 spot after the 14 other Top Fuel drivers made their first attempts to navigate the challenging track. 

“I’ll tell you what, it means a lot,” Carrillo says of his performance and the crowd’s reaction as he signs autographs at his pit area after the run. “I’ve won the Mile-High Nationals and divisional races here before in Super Comp and Super Gas when I raced in the sportsman classes. The guys are excited and we’re coming here to win. Last year, we were No. 2 on Friday night. This team’s not a fluke. This team’s here to stand our own ground.”

While Carrillo settled into the No. 8 spot by the time all four qualifying sessions were completed, his moment in the sun on Friday gave the part-timer a meaningful jolt of enthusiasm. With Santiago’s, a local Mexican restaurant chain, on board his car, which also featured Bandimere Speedway signage, Carrillo was a fan favorite all weekend. His pit area was a popular spot as fans came by to get autographs and ask his crew about their program. 

“Each guy individually here is great,” Carrillo says. “Glenn Mikres is our crew chief. Rip Reynolds came on board. Really, it’s Aaron Brooks who elevated our program. We owe everything to him. Without him, we’re not successful. To me, he’s the best out there and his influence is very deep on this team.”

Carrillo’s provisional No. 1 spot was later taken by Brown, perhaps influenced by “The King of Speed” warming up his Matco Tools entry earlier in the day. Brown was joined by provisional low qualifiers Matt Hagan in Funny Cars, Erica Enders in Pro Stock, Hector Arana Jr. in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and Freeman in Mountain Motor Pro Stock. 

As impressive as Friday’s crowd was, the Saturday turnout tops it. Bandimere Speedway announced a Saturday sellout days before the event even started. Traffic control signs posted up along the routes to get into the track declare tickets will not be available at the gate – a true sellout. Hours before nitro cars are due to hit the track, cars sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting to get into the track’s numerous parking lots, some of which had to be rented from local property owners. 

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“The three days of complete sellouts – like literally not selling anymore tickets days ahead of the end of the race – speaks to the people in this area, but the other thing to remember is this track always has been very strong on the crowds,” points out Lohnes, who first announced at the Mile-High Nationals in 2014. “This was a great sendoff for this place because of the fact that it’s always been good, but this becomes this all-time story of a grand hug from everybody that loves the sport, and this area is showing up and doing the best they can to enjoy the weekend.”

Once fans make it into the facility and find their seats, many of them stop by one of numerous souvenir stands located throughout the property. The track’s Competitive Threads flagship location behind the pit-side grandstands has multiple lines wrapped around it all weekend, while auxiliary trailers in other locations also sell T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, hats, stickers, hat pins, metal signs, and a number of other Bandimere souvenirs. 

Janet Arnold, who estimates she’s been coming to the Mile-High Nationals in some capacity for the last 30 of her 41 years, slings merch out of the Competitive Threads trailer located in the staging lanes. She’s worked the trailer for the last eight Mile-High Nationals, giving her a direct connection to the fans who attend this event.  

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Arnold says. “You can definitely tell that it’s hitting home that it’s the end. A lot of people are telling me stories of, ‘We wanted to come out for years, we just never made it, but now knowing it’s the last race, we’re here.’ The crowd size, the atmosphere – you can definitely tell people love this place and they’re sad that it’s going away.”

Like so many of the Bandimere employees, Arnold has fielded question after question about why the track is closing, if the Bandimere family will rebuild, and if so, where they will rebuild. While it’s tough to not have the answers to some questions, Arnold realizes the questions come from the fanbase’s passion for the track. 

“We’ve always felt love from the community,” she says. “Everybody has been very supportive. A lot of concern. I know racing in general struggles sometimes. It’s difficult to get the crowds and the competitors and all that together to have an event like this. So, I understand both sides of the coin. I think that everybody has really stepped up and embraced it.”

The fans who come out on Saturday are treated to two qualifying sessions that include some of the quickest and fastest passes in track history. Reigning Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force lays down a 3.724 at 337.33 in her Monster Energy dragster, setting a new track speed record. 

“We’re really proud of our run,” Force says. “I love this racetrack and I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. We want to leave our mark here, and to run 337, I’m proud of this entire Monster Energy team.”

Enders, driver of the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Camaro, joins Force as a No. 1 qualifier when her pass from Friday maintains its spot atop the qualifying order. 

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“It’s always challenging to come up here on the mountain,” says Enders, who’s also a part of the Mountain Motor Pro Stock field. “Pro Stock cars, we’re down quite a bit of horsepower and our shift points come at different increments than normal. Having said all of that, I feel like we performed pretty awesome this weekend and we’re going to try to continue that tomorrow.”

Race day Sunday begins with the Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. The crowd returns to the starting line for driver intros and opening ceremonies, which includes emotional remarks by John Bandimere Jr. and his wife, Lorraine. They’re joined by Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett, the honorary starter, as well as NHRA President Glen Cromwell and Dodge’s Mark Whitney, who present the Bandimeres with a special edition of National Dragster with the family on the cover. Bandimere Jr., who’s addressed the fans and held pre-race prayers each day, lets the weight of the moment shine through in his words. 

“What runs through my mind is relationships and family,” Bandimere Jr. says. “If it wasn’t for our family, we wouldn’t be here. We’re just a little bit fragile right now, so thank you, and may the Lord bless you.”

Thirty years after his father built the track in 1958, Bandimere Jr. put his own stamp on the family legacy by completing a multi-million-dollar overhaul of the facility in 1988. The second-generation track owner’s bet paid off, as Bandimere Speedway quickly became one of the destination tracks on the NHRA tour. The third and fourth generations of the family now work at the track, each adding their own influence on an incredible legacy. 

“I think the Bandimere family has been one of the handful of families that have shown people the right way to do this,” Lohnes says. “You put them in a very small group with the Bader family [of Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio], with the New family up at Firebird [Raceway near Boise, Idaho], and people in that ilk because this is the gold standard of how you operate a facility. Every part of this place looks like it was put here last week, and in fact, most of it’s been here since 1988 when they redid it. I think the significance they have and the legacy they have at this track is that if you wanted to see how the job should be done, this is how you do it.”

As eliminations progress, numerous captivating story lines develop into unforgettable moments for the drivers and teams that will now be able to say they won the final NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway. 

In Top Fuel, Clay Millican claims the second Wally of the season for second-year team owner Rick Ware and the Parts Plus team. He knocks down one of the winningest drivers in the class, Doug Kalitta, in the final round. 

“When you race Doug Kalitta, you can’t leave anything on the table,” Millican says. “Man oh man, what this group has done. We had not won a single round until Chicago. What do we do, we win the race. So, when we won first round here, I’m like, we’re winning the race. 

“It’s pretty amazing what [crew chief Jim Oberhofer] has done,” Millican continues. “When he gets it, he just does it over and over and over. I just can’t believe how good this was. It was exactly like Chicago – the only way for me to lose this race was for me to do something wrong. Thank the man upstairs, I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just incredible what happens when the first-round win light comes on. You hold a Wally.”

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The Funny Car win goes to points leader Matt Hagan, who repeats his performance from the 2021 Mile-High Nationals. It was truly like déjà vu for Hagan, as his path to the winner’s circle was the exact same both years – first- and second-round wins over Chris King and Ron Capps, a bye to the finals, then a final-round win over Alexis DeJoria. This time, though, he also earned his 50th career No. 1 qualifier and picked up the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge win for a sweep of the event. 

“I guess I need to go buy a lottery ticket,” says Hagan, driver of the Dodge Direct Connection Charger SRT Hellcat. “Honestly, it’s one of those weekends that’s just magical. I’ve been up here close to 15 years racing a fuel Funny Car, and to think that you’re not going to come back here – and then walk away with the Wally and the extra special trophy from the Bandimere family, to have the #2Fast2Tasty check, my 50th No. 1 qualifier. Just so many milestones and things to remember.

“It’s amazing and such an emotional weekend,” Hagan adds. “Just being here and seeing all these fans every time we make a run, it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s just a super special weekend and just incredible. I’m very, very blessed to be here.”

The #2Fast2Tasty Challenge winner in Pro Stock, Troy Coughlin Jr., also goes on to win the event on Sunday. He races past four of the toughest drivers in the class – Aaron Stanfield, Greg Anderson, Erica Enders, and Dallas Glenn – to earn his second win of the season in the JEGS.com Camaro. 

“What an exciting day to come out here and get a win,” Coughlin says. “You just take it one run at a time. We’ve got the best people in the industry at Elite Motorsports. They all work together and we have excellent power. I just had to stay focused. This is one of my favorite facilities and it’s an absolute honor just to be here.”

Gaige Herrera’s breakout season in Pro Stock Motorcycle continues with his fourth win of the year aboard the Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki. He’s now the most recent Vance & Hines rider to win at Denver, joining five-time winner Andrew Hines as well as Hines’ older brother, Matt, and teammate Eddie Krawiec, who both have four Mile-High wins. 

“I’m glad we bounced back here, especially in front of all these fans at Bandimere Speedway,” Herrera says. “These fans are incredible and this whole weekend has been amazing. I’m glad I’m able to add my name to the list of people from Vance & Hines who have won here. It was an adjustment for sure, but the bike was running good all weekend. It makes my job a little easier when you have a bike like that.”

Chris Vang, driving the Kramer family’s Colorado-based Camaro in Mountain Motor Pro Stock, breaks through to get his first Mile-High Nationals win. To do so, he lined up against five-time NHRA Pro Stock world champion and Mountain Motor Pro Stock rookie Erica Enders in the final round.  

“I can’t even describe it,” Vang says in an interview with NHRA announcer Jason Galvin. “I’ve been racing here since I was 18 at my first national event here. It’s never been my great race, but it was like, ‘Maybe this is it, maybe the last one.’ To do it against one of the best that’s ever driven a car, it’s unbelievable.”

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One of the most remarkable stories of the weekend comes in Top Dragster, where Josh Herman, son-in-law of track general manager John “Sporty” Bandimere III, is victorious. It’s the first time a Bandimere family member has won the Mile-High Nationals. Making the feat more impressive is the fact Herman wounded his engine in the first qualifying session and ran the rest of the event in a car he borrowed from another part of the Bandimere extended family, the Pennington family. That second qualifying session was his first time driving the car. 

“It means everything,” Herman says of his win when interviewed by Galvin. “This morning, I was talking to Lorraine Bandimere and she wished me good luck and I told her I would do my best. She told me, ‘You know, we’ve never won one of these as a family.’ This is our first one right here. It’s amazing.”

Also victorious at the Mile-High Nationals are Scott Burton in Super Stock, John Brimer in Stock Eliminator, Dale Maher in Super Comp, Norman Brungardt in Super Gas, Dan Smith in Super Street, and Bri Bergh in Top Sportsman. 

With the final NHRA Mile-High Nationals wrapped up, Bandimere Speedway fans near and far are left wondering what comes next for the storied facility and the family that operates it. The Halloween Spook-Trackular on Saturday, October 21, and the “Last Blast” test-and-tune the following day are the final events on the 2023 schedule. The property’s buyer hasn’t been revealed, though Bandimere Jr. noted during his media day interviews that the facility’s new use will be automotive-related rather than becoming a housing development. 

While there are few details regarding the Bandimere family’s plans to relocate to a larger piece of land, insiders like Lohnes are confident that this isn’t the end of drag racing in the Denver area. 

“I’m optimistic and not in a Pollyanna sense or in a blind hopeful sense,” Lohnes says. “I’m optimistic because the integrity of the Bandimere family remains intact to this day, and I do not believe with any part of myself that they would stand up in front of media outlets like the Denver Post and look at the cameras and say something that they didn’t actually mean. 

“My hopefulness or my positivity on a potential new facility comes from the fact that they have more integrity than a lot of people in the sense that they would never say something publicly that would tarnish their own legacy,” he continues. “That’s why I think they’re going to try to move forward earnestly.”

 

 

This story was originally published on October 20, 2023. Drag Illustrated

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