Burning rubber, money

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Drivers at annual Mile-High Nationals feeling the pinch like everyone else

By Brian Forbes

MORRISON — Drag racing is always about the numbers.

How many seconds does it take to cross the finish line, what is the top speed and was it all better than the car running next to you?

So with that simple and relatively pure way to look at things, some of the numbers hanging around this sport, which saw the top drivers and crews in the nation make their annual pilgrimage to the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway this past weekend, are quite sobering.

“Attendance is down, viewership — even on ESPN — is down, car count is down,” Lakewood-based pro stock driver V. Gaines said. “A lot of people are cutting back. It’s pretty … not good.”

With the poor economy squeezing every sport, drag racing is certainly not immune. Drives such as Gaines, who picked up the sport as a hobby/investment about 10 years ago after building Western Beverage Distribution Company into a hugely successful business, feel the squeeze on many different levels.

Gaines, who dropped to 12th Sunday despite running in the top three after the first round of qualifying, was surprised to see the pro stock field reduced to just 16 cars.

“I can’t remember the last time we had that few of cars,” he said.

It isn’t a death knell for the sport, but it could force some teams to make permanent decisions about their future in racing, especially if drivers see their business outside of drag racing suffer badly.

“The bad sign is the economy all around,” he said. “General Motors pulled back a lot of their sponsor dollars, Chrysler pulled a lot of their sponsor dollars back. A lot of teams are doing without major dollars. That has a big effect.”

Add to that the unique challenges presented to each team by racing at altitude. Bandimere is the only track on the circuit that forces teams to invest more money to buy different gear sets for their transmissions. Gaines, who is always chewing on a signature cigar when not driving, estimates he’s invested another $40,000 to $50,000 to race on the track closest to his home.

“We’ve been coming up here for enough years that we have a lot of those gear sets,” he said. “You only run them once a year, so once you’ve made the investment – it’s still got to be a little investment, but not as much.”

Also in the mix, Gaines estimates it costs around $5,000 each time they run their car down the track.

“We’re always trying to make trips down the track and always trying to figure out how we can make things better,” he said. “You keep trying and you keep spending the money. It’s just a vicious circle.”

Allen Johnson maintained his torrid start to win the pro stock division with a narrow victory in the final over Jason Line. Johnson ran 195.87 miles-per-hour in the final, needing just 7.004 seconds to cross the finish line. Line crossed in 7.001 seconds.

Antron Brown won the top fuel division as he needed 3.944 seconds to finish and running a speed of 295.21 MPH.

Ron Capps won the funny car division over Ashley Force Hood, while Eddie Krawiec’s Harley-Davidson won the pro stock motorcycle division.