story by Tim Hailey with team reports from all teams involved; photos courtesy of NHRA
Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil Buell rider Hector Arana Jr. has been fastest every time Pro Stock Motorcycles have run at the 33rd annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, and the reigning NHRA Rookie of the Year hopes to keep that streak going four more times on Sunday. Arana Jr. topped all four qualifying sessions, earning 12 bonus points and his first No. 1 qualifier of the season after leading the class with seven during his rookie season in 2011. “This weekend, the most important thing is to be consistent,” said Arana Jr., whose pole-winning run was 7.238 seconds at 184.57 mph. “All runs were .23 to .25 in the heat or the cool weather. It’s really awesome, and I’m really excited. We haven’t really made big adjustments, just teeny-tiny little adjustments. As you can see, we’ve been very consistent. The goal is to do that tomorrow.”
Arana Jr. has been to two final rounds in 2012, including at the most recent race, in Norwalk, Ohio. Plus, he’s reached the semifinals in the last three races as he chases the top two riders in the Pro Stock Motorcycle points standings. “Getting everything together, getting all the little bugs worked out, getting all our new things lined up – just like last year, everything’s coming together,” said Arana Jr., who charged from 17th in points after the first race of 2011 to finish second. “Hopefully, with more experience that I have, we’ll try to get a championship.”
He’ll need to garner as many points as possible, just as he’s done in Denver. “It’s real big, anything we can do to try to sneak up on those Harleys,” Arana Jr. said. “Those guys are a real strong team and they do an excellent job. The turnaround is coming at the right time, right before the Countdown. I’m really excited.” Harley-Davidsons have won all six races in 2012, but with Arana Jr. and his dad, Hector Arana Sr., going 1-2 in qualifying, that streak is in jeopardy. “It’d be great to have two Lucas Oil bikes in the finals,” Arana Jr. said, “and break that streak in the finals.”
Hector Arana Sr.
Hector Sr.’s bike failed to start for the final qualifying session. “Definitely, it’s better this happened today rather than tomorrow,” H1 said. “I’ve been plagued that way before where the bad stuff happens on raceday. I guess in a way I’m lucky because this happened in qualifying, and we were already well in the show. It’s OK.
“The down part is I was still trying to tune the clutch, and see if I could grab that No. 1 spot that my son took.” He couldn’t, and now will face Matt Guidera in the first round of eliminations. Guidera qualified No. 15 with a pass of 7.429 seconds at 176.65 mph. Arana made three stellar runs in qualifying, earning six bonus points, before his problems in the waterbox before Q4.
“This problem started in Chicago during eliminations,” Arana said. “We’ve been changing parts, and every time we change parts, it runs good for a run or two, and you think you’ve fixed it. Then, it acts up. It definitely acted up in Norwalk, and we changed some more parts. I thought we had it. Three runs in Denver, and they were excellent, no mishaps. Now, the fourth run, it wouldn’t even start this time. But it’s easy to fix.”
Arana remains confident, however, considering the recent performance of his bike. He’s reached the semifinals in four consecutive races, and raced to the finals in Englishtown. Plus, a smile comes over his face at the prospect of facing his son in the finals, as they’re on the opposite side of the ladder. “I’m definitely waiting for that, the day we could both be in the finals,” Arana said. “I think about, and I don’t know which way to go because it doesn’t matter. The way I look at it, the team won, and Lucas Oil won.”
Pro Stock bikes head up The Mountain
Defending Denver Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Karen Stoffer returns to Bandimere Speedway for the 33rd annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals this weekend in hopes of securing another victory on her GEICO Suzuki. Stoffer beat Shawn Gann, Jerry Savoie, Eddie Krawiec and Michael Phillips en route to her sixth career victory last year in Denver. “We’re going back to a track where we did well last year,” Stoffer said. “Hopefully, we can do well again. We’ve got to turn this season around if we want to stay in the top 10. We certainly have to make some moves now and get our game straight.”
Stoffer is sixth in the points standings after six races, winning at least one round in all but one event of 2012. Still, the veteran racer hopes for more, and Denver could be the place where she and crew chief/husband Gary Stoffer post their best performance.
The longtime racer won’t be intimidated by Denver’s altitude, which starves engines of oxygen and slows the bikes down by about three-tenths of a second compared to other tracks. “I’m from the West coast, and I live in a high-altitude area near Lake Tahoe,” said Karen. “I’m not too scared of the altitude. Gary is used to tuning at altitude, and we have a high-altitude track where Gary races his bracket car. He knows what it’s like, and we did well last year, so we’ll pull up last year’s tuneup and work from there. Hopefully, the weather will be the same, because that always helps, and I’ll get back on my game.”
The forecast calls for temperatures in the 90s all three days, cooler than the scorching conditions in Norwalk, Ohio, where Stoffer posted her best qualifying effort of the season, fourth. “I think Norwalk prepped us for the heat,” Stoffer said. “It’s usually pretty hot in Denver, and we sometimes have to fight a little rain. Just as the Baders did in Norwalk, the Bandimeres keep that starting line nice and cool. They have the cool water running underneath the starting line (really, they do), which helps out.”
Andrew Hines won last time out in blistering Norwalk and beat Stoffer in the 2010 Denver final
Denver should be a favorite for Stoffer, as she’s reached the finals there the last two seasons. In 2010, she fell to Andrew Hines in the finals before winning last year’s race.
“We’re on our last motor here,” Stoffer said. “This is our only good motor. It lasted through Norwalk, which is what we wanted, and is a great thing considering all the heat and torment we put the motor through. The fact that it stayed together is props to Vance & Hines because the heat is not only treacherous on humans but also on motors.
“We’re going to put that GEICO bike down the track well, and I’m going to do my job riding well and Gary’s going to do his job tuning. Hopefully, we’ll go four rounds again on Sunday.”
Lucas Oil Buell rider Hector Arana Sr. sees this weekend’s Mile-High NHRA Nationals as an opportunity. But he also knows it’s a challenge not to be taken lightly. “Denver, you’ve got to be careful,” Arana said. “It can get you. It can bite you hard if you miss your tuneup. We have notes from last year, so we’ve got to look at them and stay within those parameters of the math work we’ve done and the calculations on the clutch. We should be OK.”
Arana will use a different engine for Denver, installing “Charlotte” in place of the engine he uses everywhere else, “Forrest.” (His engines are named after Lucas Oil founder Forrest Lucas and his wife Charlotte). But he carries a lot of momentum up the mountain, as Arana has qualified first or second in the last five races, with three No. 1 qualifiers. Plus, Arana has reached the semifinals in the last four events, including the finals in Englishtown. “I’m definitely feeling confident going to Denver,” Arana said. “We have learned a lot, and we think we’ll be great here.”
Denver is the first of two races in a row out West, a long-haul grind for the Lucas Oil team. Arana and teammate/son Hector Jr won’t return home to Milltown, Indiana, until after the meet in Sonoma, California. “We will probably be gone for three-and-a-half weeks before we get back home,” Arana said. “That means we had to rebuild quickly (from the last race in Norwalk, Ohio) and get loaded up. The Countdown is starting pretty soon, and that’s when we have three races in a row, so we have some long-range things to get ready. The summertime is crazy, but I like it.”
“We got home from Norwalk and went through all our motors, inspecting them to make sure nothing was wrong,” Arana Jr. said. “We pulled out the motors we were running and put some other ones in that have more runs on them for Denver. That way, we don’t ruin our parts because Denver is really hard on parts and we don’t like to run the motors after Denver.” Instead of “Grace” – the engine named after his mother Grace Arana – Arana Jr. will have “The Replacement” powering his Lucas Oil Buell in Denver.
“We should be able to be right up there,” Arana Jr. said. “Maybe not as quick as we usually are, but we definitely have the power to go win the race. We’ve just got to strategize, play it smart and run our best. We’ll try to be flawless, and hopefully everything works out and we can leave with a Wally – finally.”
Arana Jr. won three races in 2011 en route to winning the Auto Club Road to the Future Award as NHRA’s top rookie driver, but despite two final-round appearances this year, he’s still looking for his first win of the year. And that’s what Arana Jr. is focused on: Winning. He’s third in the Pro Stock Motorcycle points standings and is close to locking up a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. “We’re not really worried about the playoffs too much,” Arana Jr. said. “My dad and I are third and fourth, right there close to each other, and we have a little bit of cushion to fifth. To be third and fourth is pretty good. We’re definitely secure, and we know we’re going to be in the Countdown. Once the Countdown starts, everything resets, so we just need to focus on dialing in these bikes so once the Countdown starts, we can come out swinging.”
The Sovereign-Star Racing team expects their hard work to pay off this weekend in Denver. Star Racing owner, George Bryce, and his crew have been working long hours during the short week and a half break between back-to-back races to ensure that they get the best performance possible out of their two S&S-powered XB12R Buells. “We’ve changed the engine tune dramatically because there’s typically 15 percent less oxygen at the Mile-High Nationals,” said Bryce. “The engine would be getting too much fuel the way it was, so we have to change the tuning to get the air/fuel ratio correct. There’s a proper air/fuel ratio at every altitude and we have to adjust the fuel injection to get the best power.”
After a weekend of improvement at Norwalk, the team’s racers, Scotty Pollacheck and John Hall, are looking forward to this weekend’s competition in Denver, despite the added challenge of the high altitude. “I’m excited. I like Denver. I like the racetrack,” Pollacheck said. “It’s gonna be interesting to see how much different it is on the Buell racing at the high altitude. I’m used to racing the electric bike (KillaCycle) there because that’s where it’s from, and it’s probably one of the few things that goes faster there because the altitude doesn’t really affect it like it does the gas-powered bikes.”
Hall said, “I gained a little momentum in Ohio as far as qualifying and grabbing another Round win, so I’m hoping to take that into this race in Denver. We still need to step it up as far as stringing rounds together, but I think we’ll really have a shot at that in these next couple of weeks.”
“In addition to the engine changes, we’ve also had to change the gearing on the bikes. Pro Stock Motorcycles don’t run 190-something miles per hour at high altitude, they run 180-something, so we have to change the gearing. Since the bikes are gonna go slower, our drivers have to be patient and wait for the shift light to come on before they shift to the next gear,” Bryce said.
The West Coast races pose an additional challenge for the Georgia-based team since they had to quickly prepare everything before packing up both bikes and their engines for the long trip across the U.S. The crew’s truck and trailer, which left Tuesday for Denver, will not return to Americus, Ga., for two weeks after racing in both Denver and Sonoma.
The team’s Sovereign partner, Jeno Rujp, will return to the track with them this weekend in Denver. After attending his first NHRA event in April at the Houston race, Rujp is making another two-week visit from Hungary to support the racers and crew. “We’re excited about Jeno coming to the next two races in Denver and Sonoma,” Bryce said. “It’ll be great for him to see how much we’ve improved as a team since he’s been here last in Atlanta. I think he’ll be really surprised by the difference the altitude makes, too. “
“There’s a little added pressure because you want to do a good job in front of Jeno,” Pollacheck said. “It was fun the last couple of times he was out because he has a great camera and took some really awesome pictures for us. He would bring them back to the pit and we could see things about our runs that we wouldn’t normally get to see. So, that was really helpful.”
“We just have to keep concentrating on steady improvements,” Hall said. “I’m sure Jeno will be able to see the progress we’ve made throughout the season. It’ll be a great weekend for us to show him first-hand what we’ve been working on and trying to perfect.”