Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – MORRISON, CO – While the start of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ famed Western Swing always presents one of the biggest challenges of the season, it also brings a smile to Tommy Johnson Jr.’s face.
The annual trek to scenic Bandimere Speedway for the Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil, which takes place July 19-21, means racing at an elevation of more than 5,800 feet, but it’s a challenge Johnson has always enjoyed.
It was the site of his first career NHRA final round and he’ll look for his first career win there as the race celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2019. It would mark a special victory for Johnson in his 11,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, but he enters the race second in points and racing well heading into a key point of the NHRA regular season.
“I’ve been going there for so long and it’s such a cool place,” Johnson said. “It’s so unique, so different and the one thing I think is really cool is to see the performance gains we’ve made there. You used to go there and everybody would slow way down and blow up a bunch of parts and not run really well, and now you go there and we don’t run much slower. That’s been amazing to see. Everybody knows how hard it is to race up there, so I think the fans appreciate the strides everyone has made there. It’s cool we’re going out there and running so well.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 and FOX, including live final eliminations on FOX at 3 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 21. It is the 14th of 24 events in the 2019 NHRA season and is the traditional starting point of the challenging and iconic three-race Western Swing, which includes stops in Sonoma and Seattle.
Johnson will look to keep his strong season going in Denver, as the team, led by crew chief John Collins, has performed at a high level all year. He has two finals appearances, racing to the win in Chicago, and advanced to five semifinals, thriving on consistency and small adjustments throughout the year. With championship aspirations, Johnson simply hopes to see his team maintain this impressive pace during the second half of the year.
“Normally the start of the Western Swing is where we start to hit our stride,” said Johnson, who has 18 career victories. “To already be in our stride, your focus turns to making sure we can keep this going. The way the team has performed, if we can carry that momentum and put together the back half with this year’s front half, we’ll be in good shape the rest of the year.”
He’ll have to get past the likes of points leader Robert Hight, Don Schumacher Racing teammates Matt Hagan, who won Sunday in Epping, Ron Capps and Jack Beckman, and defending world champ J.R. Todd to win in Denver, but Johnson always heads to the area with plenty of energy. It’s a thrilling weekend that starts with the Mopar Big Block Party on Thursday, July 18, and also includes nitro night sessions under the lights on both Friday and Saturday.
“There’s added responsibility, but I don’t feel any extra pressure,” Johnson said. “There’s pressure just from overcoming the mountain. The block party is one of the coolest things. It is phenomenal the turnout of the block party. There’s just so many people there and that really just gets you excited for the weekend. It’s one of the neat things to be involved in as part of the Mopar program.”
Pritchett won her sponsor’s race last year in Top Fuel, and she’ll try to pick up her first win of 2019 against the likes of points leader Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, Brittany Force and Clay Millican.
Anderson picked up his first Pro Stock win in Denver in a decade in 2018, looking for a repeat win while he faces off with points leader Bo Butner, Chris McGaha, Alex Laughlin and Deric Kramer.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hector Arana Jr. aims for a second win in Denver, though it won’t be easy squaring off with points leader Andrew Hines, defending world champ Matt Smith and Ryan Oehler.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport. Fans will want to be sure to catch the Dodge Pennzoil celebrity race on Friday as well as a No-Prep exhibition on Saturday.
After Nitro qualifying on both Friday and Saturday, fans can watch a pair of spectacular Muy Caliente jet cars. Jet cars are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with exciting pre-run flame shows. Friday and Saturday conclude with a spectacular pyrotechnic display.
Along with the exciting on-track action, the Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil will honor first responders with NHRA’s “Salute to First Responders” celebration. Actress and model Carmen Electra, who has graced the side of Jim Campbell’s Cattleman’s Cut Funny Car this season, will serve as the Grand Marshal for the event on Sunday.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Bandimere Speedway will host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Cruising with Castello Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil victories.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
The 18th annual Mopar Big Block Party Presented by Pennzoil will return on Thursday, July 18, from 6-10 p.m. in downtown Golden. The event includes an autographing signing with NHRA stars, as well as the chance to check out Dodge//SRT Mopar drag cars and FCA US production vehicles. The free-admission fan event includes live music from the Steve Thomas Band, the chance to grab seat time in Dodge Demon race simulators and Pennzoil virtual simulators, food and drink stations and much more. Fans can also share their Block Party experience on social media by using #MoparBP19 or #MoParty. For more information, visit the blog section at www.Mopar.com.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. on Friday, July 19, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, July 20, at 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 21.