Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – MORRISON, CO – There are still a few items on Matt Hagan’s bucket list he would like to check off, including sweeping the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ famed Western Swing, which begins at this weekend’s Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil. But to do that, a more immediate item on that list is in front of him: winning in Denver for the first time.
Hagan and his team have never been able to solve Bandimere Speedway throughout his standout, championship-winning career, advancing to the final round at the scenic track in 2011. Since then, it’s been one frustrating result after another, something Hagan hopes to change this weekend in his 11,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane/Pennzoil Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. Coming off his third straight win in Epping, N.H., this might be as good as time as any to change his fortune.
“Going to Denver, it can humble you, so you have to have a pretty good gameplan,” Hagan said. “You go in there knowing anything can happen. It’s a huge race for us because it’s a Mopar race. We’ve had a runner-up there, but we never could seal the deal, so hopefully we can do that. It’s all about trying to win championships and trying to make that goal happen. I feel good about our chances. We’ve got a good car, my lights have been good and confidence breeds confidence.”
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 2019, and Denver marks traditional starting point of the challenging and iconic three-race Western Swing, which also includes stops in Sonoma and Seattle.
But to have any chance of sweeping the Western Swing – something only the legendary John Force has done in Funny Car – a quick start and a Denver win is necessary. After a stretch of just one round win in his previous six races, Hagan and his team, led by crew chief Dickie Venables, made a swift turnaround in Epping in the heat. That was meaningful for Hagan, who picked up his 31st career win and moved to seventh in points, but also had a huge impact on his team.
“Momentum comes just from the morale,” Hagan said. “The guys were pumped after the win and that’s what you take into Denver. You take that momentum of the guys feeling good and positive, and hopefully it translates to more success. It just shows you how fast things can change in this sport. The last couple years we started off strong and not done well in the back half. I’d like to finish strong this year, but you have to win 2-3 races in the Countdown to win a championship.”
Hagan believes the talent is there on the Don Schumacher Racing team to do that, but he knows consistency will be key. That is especially true in a talented class that includes points leader Robert Hight, DSR teammates Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman, Bob Tasca III, defending world champ J.R. Todd and Shawn Langdon. But after the recent win, Hagan thinks his team is taking an entirely different mindset to Bandimere Speedway.
“I’m glad to see Dickie got his confidence back, but we still have a lot of work to do and there’s a lot ahead of us,” Hagan said. “It all goes into cycle, but I wouldn’t trade my crew chief for anybody. Friday will be make or break for us. If you don’t go down the first lap, you’re behind the eight-ball. Going down the track – even if it’s not as fast as usual – sets yourself up for the weekend.”
Leah Pritchett will try for her first win of 2019 and second straight in Denver against points leader Steve Torrence, who has seven wins in the past eight races, Brittany Force and Antron Brown.
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.