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Mile High Air Tough On Humans And Cars

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 19 2014

The air is rare up there in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and that is a challenge for athletes.

There is a sign at the entrance of the visitors’ locker room at Denver’s Mile High Stadium which reads: “ELEVATION 5,280 FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.” It was put there as a psychological weapon.

Competing in athletic events in Colorado has been a challenge forever. Doesn’t matter which sport you’re talking about. The thin air at altitudes of a mile and much more above sea level affects performance and can affect it in a dangerous way for those not acclimated to its vagaries.

The human brain needs oxygen and in the high country of Coloardo it just does not get as much as it does at sea level. It doesn’t matter how good one’s physical condition is: Performance at altitude drops for the “flat landers” who visit and compete.

Over the years, teams and individual athletes who visit Colorado have employed a lot of different strategies in attempts to cope with the effects of the altitude.

NFL teams, for example, have tried coming to Denver earlier in the week in an attempt to acclimate. Basketball and hockey teams have worked on their players’ minds by insisting that rarified air had no real effect.

Nothing has worked.

Colorado natives take cruel delight in that fact. Sports teams, by way of locker room and stadium signage, remind visiting athletes that they are about to compete in thin air. People who live in Colorado have been known to use thin air and the way it affects the human body to prank flat-land visitors – take it from a somebody who has been both a prank-ee and a pranker.

See, the only effective way to deal is to acclimate gradually over a period of months – that is why the United States Olympic Training Center moved to Colorado Springs several decades ago. It is why professional bicycle racers and endurance runners have flocked to the state to train.

This weekend, the 2014 edition of the NHRA’s Western Swing kicks off the with Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver.

And therein likes what is perhaps the biggest of obstacles to sweeping the Swing: Cool old Bandimere is considerably higher than a mile above sea level. In terms of altitude, nothing comes close to it on the NHRA schedule.

Drivers and crew members will tell you that even though drag racing is not an overly physical sport, the thin Colorado air makes their job more difficult. Small walks, tearing down engines between rounds, even wiggling one’s way into a drivers suit sap strength and affect concentration.

And the effects become cumulative over their three days in Colorado.

“You want to be in shape,” Funny Car veteran Ron Capps says, “because maybe not the first day, but you’re reminded when you walk up to the pit area from the parking lot, you’re winded just walking up the hill even when you’re in shape, you get a little winded. As the weekend goes on, those of us drivers that are in a little better shape are going to be better on Sunday mentally and physically.”

It’s not just the humans who affected by high altitude.

For those who tune cars which are powered by internal combustion engines, there is no place that represents a bigger challenge than Bandimere.

The air up there  ”on the mountain” is extremely so thin, competitors will tell you, that getting the proper tune on engines and on chassis setups to get maximum downforce, is a tough proposition – no matter how thick the notebook.

“When you get on the mountain the air changes so you have to have a special set-up,” Funny Car driver Robert Hight, whose boss, John Force, was the last to sweep the Swing back in 2994, said.

Capps talked about racing at altitude during a teleconference earlier this week, too. It’s a different kind of gig, he said.

“The very first run and really the first day you do big time,” Capps said when asked if he has to change the way he drives at Mile High. “You can ask any driver, after the first run you make, it sounds like the car is going to blow up at 40 feet out. It sounds like crap. They just don’t sound normal like they do.

“They just don’t have the oxygen. So as a driver, you’ve always been trained to save the parts, save any damage you can by lifting when the car doesn’t sound good. Well, up there in the mountain, every run sounds like that. Sometimes I laugh on the radio to the crew guys or the crew chief as I’m rolling up the stage, I’m like, this thing sounds like crap, and then it goes out and sets low ET.

“As a driver, it just takes longer and it doesn’t sound as good, as then even though you’ve got a hill, you’ve got to remember that when you pull the chutes, it doesn’t have air to grab to slow you down, so you’ll find all these guys that don’t run a lot or forget about it will be off into the sand trap because they think being uphill and going slower would allow you to slow down better with those chutes, but you’ve got to remember there’s no air to grab, so you always have guys that don’t get the chutes out on time, and that’s huge up there.”

After the Mile Highs, the Western Swing is all down hill as it heads to sea-level events at Sonoma and Seattle. There will be oxygen aplenty for both humans and machines. Things will return to near normal.

But for all but three teams and drivers, hopes for a Western Swing sweep will be left gasping for air up on the mountain.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 19 2014
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