The Family on Thunder Mountain

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports MagazineClick here to read the full digital issue.

The Patriarch

From the beginning, the tale of Bandimere Speedway is one of family.

The Bandimere saga – unlike the 300 million year history of its Morrison neighbor, Red Rocks Amphitheatre – begins just 58 years ago, in 1958, when John Bandimere Sr., an auto parts dealer in Downtown Denver, purchased a parcel of land along the Hogback southwest of Denver.

It seems that John’s son, John Jr., who grew up five blocks from Lakeside Amusement Park where he listened to stock cars racing on Lakeside’s oval on Sunday nights, had a penchant for driving fast cars fast, beginning with his first car, a 1953 flathead Ford with a McCulloch supercharger. He graduated to a 1957 “Black Widow,” a mythical, fuel-injected, 315-horsepower, V8 that was an unauthorized-by-Chevrolet early NASCAR racer. Junior was a good kid, an all-conference tight end and basketball and baseball player at Wheat Ridge High School but he “just kept getting tickets.”

He and his buddies would street race on Kipling in front of the Federal Center in Lakewood. A state patrolman named Red Hasty, whom John Jr. remembers to this day as “having it in for me,” kept writing him citations. That’s when John Sr. decided to build a drag strip in Morrison so that his son and his friends would have a place to learn about cars and safely race them off the street. And without getting busted by Red Hasty.

John Sr., who was inducted into the Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1980 and passed away at the age of 78 in 1986, could never have envisioned that his “driving school” would become a major family business, a state-of-the-art facility sanctioned by the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) and a host to over 125 events a year.

Like Father, Like Son

John Jr., who in 1957 went to CSU because he loved animals and envisioned a ranching career, finally realized that the track was where he needed to be and began to take a more active role in managing Bandimere Speedway in 1978. He realized that they needed larger and more frequent events in order to make the facility viable as a business.

That same year, Bandimere hosted the first NHRA national event in Colorado, the NHRA Sports Nationals. John Jr. continued to attract and create more events and worked to improve all aspects of the track, including helping to develop the Compulink timing system which became the standard for drag racing throughout the country.

Then, he opened his wallet even wider in 1988 as the Speedway underwent a $4.2 million renovation that occurred concurrently with the construction of C-470 from I-70 to I-25. There was a time during the renovation when the economy tanked and John Jr. could feel the breath of bankers and creditors on the back of his neck. Some people stepped up in a big way to help Bandimere through some dark hours, but John has always felt that help came from a higher source.

Realizing how treacherous the financial landscape could be caused John Jr. to increasingly pursue sponsors, landing Mopar Parts as the title sponsor of the Mile-High NHRA Nationals. In an industry of fickle and fleeting sponsors (hello, Invesco, Sports Authority), he is proud that Mopar has maintained its support of Bandimere for 27 years, the longest running sponsorship in motorsports.

Memorial Day is a national holiday for every American. For John Bandimere Jr. it’s a day that since 1973 he’s always spent working.

Then again, he never really saw this day as “work.” Bandimere was built for kids, and on every Memorial Day (as well as Labor Day) Bandimere belongs to them. The Pepsi High School Drags on Memorial Day has become a Colorado institution and an event that is close to John Jr.’s heart because of his own experience as a teenage scofflaw.

This past May 30 was no different. John Jr. was buzzing around, bouncing from one conversation to the next, one stack of papers to the next, one building to the next. Although his dad was the originator of this one-of-a-kind high school event, John Jr. has taken great pride in continuing the tradition. His passion for kids and high school sports and activities isn’t dedicated only to motorsports though.

He coached youth football and girls fast-pitch softball in the Wheat Ridge area for years. He was a longtime season ticket holder at the state high school basketball. Twenty-five years ago, he reached out to the Colorado High School Activities Association and invited them to hold a meeting every year at Bandimere where the members of the staff and Executive Committee raced on the drag strip. He always got in a plug for the auto shop kids, the gear heads. He urged schools to participate in the high school drag days and convinced a number of athletic directors to award letters to kids involved in preparing cars for the high school drag days.

At 78, John Jr. is still involved, although no longer as active in the day-to-day operation of the Speedway. His wife Lorraine is involved, too; she still pulls cards for the announcers during the elimination rounds of the high school drags. Back in the day, of course, she did it all and had a lot to do with the Speedway’s growth. On this day, John is out and about, talking to high school kids in the staging area and sorting entry cards in the tower. No one was deferential to him or acted surprised to see him; he was just one of the crew.

One gets the feeling that even when he’s not physically at the track his influence is always there. Everyone you meet associated with the Speedway reminds you of the best employees at your favorite restaurant. John Jr. notes that a big part of racing is waiting around. A driver might spend eight hours on the grounds and maybe thirty seconds on the track.

“You’ve got to give people a lot more than just an opportunity to race,” he notes. “You’ve got to make them feel like you’re happy to see them, glad that they’ve come to Bandimere. If someone has a problem with their car, we don’t say ‘tough luck;’ we help them fix it.

“My dad always told me, ‘You don’t need all the customers in the world; you just need to take care of the customers you’ve got.’”

The Grandson

During the High School Drags, John C. “Sporty” Bandimere III sits at a makeshift desk in the modest headquarters of the Speedway’s famed “control tower.” It’s a cross between an accountant’s office and what you might imagine the air traffic control center at DIA to be. Everything runs through this office; most everything eventually runs through Sporty.

It’s clear that he shares his dad’s passion for automobiles, the track and particularly for the young people involved. He expresses concern for the future of cars and kids, noting that participation in their high school drag days (there’s also one on September 5, 2016) has steadily fallen from a high of 700 cars in the mid to late ’70s to 250 cars today.

“The relationship between kids and cars has certainly changed,” he says. “There’s no auto shop classes, no driver’s ed. Cell phones connect kids to all their friends and the world beyond. Fifty percent of kids age 16 to 17 don’t have driver’s licenses. I learned to drive here in a 1967 Chevy pick-up when I was 12. I drove my dad around as we emptied the trash cans here. I couldn’t wait to get my license.”

He sees a change in the demographics of young people who are car enthusiasts, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of Bandimere’s Colorado State Patrol “Take it to the Track” Test Nights each Wednesday from April though mid-October. Instead of American muscle or high priced German machinery, kids are turning to and tuning Subarus, Nissans, Hondas and other Asian makes. The “kids” are often just out of high school or colleges like Mines or Arapahoe Community College (while not often spoken in the same breath as Mines, A.C.C. has become the Harvard of automotive tech schools with a waiting list and rigid entrance requirements) and are computer and tech savvy rather than fitting an archaic image of back-alley, knuckle-busting mechanics. Wednesday nights draw kids from a wide variety of cultures and nationalities.

The Progeny

All three children of Sporty and his wife Debbie, a marketing assistant for the track and the Nitro Knockout Crew Chief, went through the Junior Dragster program. The oldest Bri, 25, is a NHRA sportsman racer and runs the Speedway’s fuel store. Ashlie still works on weekends and Scooter (John C. Bandimere IV) works in facilities and maintenance.

Sporty believes drag racing truly helped his kids develop. You can hear the passion in his voice when he talks about the benefits of drag racing and the physical and mental demands that few people realize go into the sport. At age 50, John III still races five or six times a year at different tracks around the country for a friend who owns two jet dragsters.

He didn’t mention it but his dad noted that he joined the 300 mph club a few years ago driving a jet dragster. These amazing machines develop up to 11,000 horsepower and will reach 100 mph in the first second off the line before reaching 300 as they cross the quarter-mile finish.

Where is Red Hasty when you need him?

Of course, that’s not the end of the family involvement in the operation. John Jr.’s oldest child Tami Bandimere-Shrader, 53, is the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Speedway. All three of her kids – Edie, Emily and Alex – were regular participants in the High School Drag Days.

Johnna Crispe, John Jr.’s and Lorraine’s middle child, is the Competitive Threads manager at the Speedway and is married to Larry Crispe, the executive V.P. of operations and facility operations. Their sons, Cale and Cody, known as “The Traction Twins” are involved in facility operations and are internationally known for their track preparation.

So, if you’re counting – beginning with the patriarch John C. Bandimere – 14 Bandimeres have been involved in the operation of Bandimere Speedway over the past seven decades. If you think back to your last family holiday gathering, you realize what a feat the Bandimere clan has accomplished in not just getting along within a family but in developing a model business and race track.

The Pepsi High School Drags

On Memorial Day (and again on Labor Day), the high school kids and recent grads start snaking up Rooney Road a little before 10 a.m. on their way to participate in Bandimere’s High School Drags. They pay $30 each to drive a pair of quarter-mile runs which dial in their times for the afternoon elimination rounds.

They produce licenses and registrations for the Bandimere crew, which treats them like family and transforms insecure teenagers into smiling car guys and gals. You get the idea that most of the participants aren’t the class president, honor society member or volleyball team captain types. They’re sharp kids but they may not fit neatly into the “in-crowd” at school. They fit in here.

The track announcer, Kinsman Boisseaux, a 1985 nearby Green Mountain High School graduate who raced a Yamaha 125 motorcycle and a ’69 Chevy El Camino at Bandimere as a kid, maintains the upbeat tone, welcoming the kids, providing necessary information without sounding like a social studies teacher who has one year left before retirement. The kids move from registration to the tech area where their cars must meet certain safety and mechanical standards.

The cars waiting in two long lines to be verified by the Bandimere crew represent a wide geographic diversity (as seen by the town and school names marked in white letters on the rear windows), although there seems to be a Northern Colorado bias (Poudre, Thompson Valley, Windsor, Brighton, Prairie View, Frederick, Berthoud).

There is a car from Cheyenne, Wyo., a couple from Colorado Springs and one from Pueblo (belonging to Nicholas Contreras, winner of the High School Division). Adams City, Broomfield, Northglenn and Thornton are represented, as are Littleton and Castle Rock. John Jr.’s Jefferson County stomping grounds produces only a handful of entrants, notably from Arvada West, Pomona and John’s alma mater, Wheat Ridge. Denver doesn’t seem well represented, although Sergio Fbarra from Denver won the Pepsi Class later in the afternoon.

The cars run the gamut from beaters to one near-new Porsche 911. There are a number of late model Mustangs, Camaros and Dodge Challengers. There are VWs, Nissans, Toyotas, Scions and plenty of Hondas. And – this is Colorado – plenty of Ford, Dodge, GMC and Chevy pick ‘em up trucks, from new to vintage. There is even a tall diesel semi truck cab that wears “Smoke ‘Em If You Can” and “Girl-Powered” signs. Later, on the track, it belched plumes of black exhaust from its two towering vertical side exhausts as it barreled down the track while posting a respectable elapsed time.

And then there are the “Dad’s first cars.” Kelsey Harvey, a recent graduate of Poudre and one of at least 30 female drivers, sat proudly in her father’s 1966 Ford Fairlane with a bench seat, four-on-the-floor and a potent 302 ci V8. She and her dad prepped the jet black beauty with a red interior on which Dad taught her to drive a stick at age 13. She doesn’t know a lot of classmates who can drive a manual.

Justine from Strasburg, who has her name painted in flowing script on the door of her highly customized, sapphire blue, 1967 Pontiac GTO, drubs a Jefferson County motorcycle cop in a challenge drag race. There are lots of policeman there (Kelsey Harvey forgot her license but a cop was able to verify that she is in the system) and a kid can go up to one and challenge him or her to a drag race. Or ask a Bandimere staffer to arrange one. Safe, fun and legal.

Ryan Blom, a new graduate of Prairie View, has his dad’s new 5.0 liter, 435 hp Mustang and runs a 13.55 quarter, crossing the line at almost 106 mph. Better here than down South Cabbage Street in Brighton.

Cynthia Gartner, a 2014 graduate of Poudre High, is in her 1999 Pontiac Grand Am GT that she drives to work everyday. She notes, “I just wanted something to do today.”

A pair of brothers – Cameron and Nathaniel Byerly – seem to epitomize the Bandimere ideal of fun and family. Cameron graduated from Brighton High School in 2014 and is working for a company that builds gold recovery equipment. Nathaniel, who still has a year left at Brighton (although he takes classes at Prairie View) is working towards becoming a master welder and is already producing some beautiful motorized trikes (see byerlybuiltfab on Instagram). Dad Jim, a 1986 BHS grad, worked for 25-plus years on the DIA tarmac and is now a de-icing trainer/auditor for United. Jim’s wife Camie, also a BHS grad, is there, bursting with pride and having a ball. And Joe James, a lifelong buddy and BHS grad is there in case anything breaks. Where do you find families like this anymore?

Several years ago, Jim offered Cameron and Nathaniel a choice: Buy a turnkey dragster or work together restoring Jim’s first car, a 1965 Mustang. Their sentimental choice led to a project for the whole family that included sanding, painting and installing a 351 Windsor crate motor.

Nathaniel dialed in the Mustang’s best-ever time of :12.15 and made it to round three of the Pepsi High School Class before falling to a newer black Mustang. Cameron, running in the Alumni Class, red-lit (preferable to “sleeping on the line”) and was DQ’ed in the first round. While the boys didn’t win, they continued to learn the intricacies of drag racing while taking pride in the car they developed with their dad. Plus, they have other interests; the Byerlys will be dirt biking somewhere in the Rockies next week.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Bandimere attracts people like the Byerly’s who understand the value of families bonding over a common goal.

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