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Speed specialists

Connie Steier
Special to the Daily
ALL |

EAGLE COUNTY – The tension mounts as the lights on the “Christmas Tree” turn yellow, one by one. Then, with a deafening roar, the two cars lurch forward as the lights go green. It’s only roughly seven seconds as the stands blur past in a blaze of speed, often approaching 200 mph, and the drivers race to the finish. As the parachutes deploy on cue, and the cars slow without mishap at the end of the 1,320-foot strip of asphalt, the crowd roars.Welcome to the drags, where drivers’ hopes rest on a single burst of speed. The competition is tough and the payoff often meager, yet, the power and speed is addictive.These aren’t your A.J. Foyts or Dale Earnharts. By day, you know them as your next door neighbor, your electrician, your plumber; by night, and on the weekends, they are speed demons – always looking for ways to go faster.

“It’s a need for speed, I guess,” says Mark Lovell Sr., a drag race from Eagle.There are at least a dozen area residents who are regulars on the drag racing circuit, who, when they finish their day jobs, head to the garage to fine tune their machines.Fred Holz and Danny VignolaFred Holz owns Valley Fabricators in Minturn. He raced quite a bit when he was younger, growing up north of Seattle.”I just grew up in the high school era, mid-1980s, where we all had cars – Camaros or Chevelles – and we would race them,” says Holz.But after he moved to Gypsum 10 years ago and became a fabricator, his lifestyle, he says, didn’t allow him to continue. A few years ago, however, he got back into drag racing, and has been steadily racing for the past five years.Although Holz nonchalantly refers to it as a hobby, “like golf,” he says, “It’s a thrill.” Gypsum resident Danny Vignola also got involved in drag racing at a young age in New Jersey. His first car was a ’56 Chevy that was “pretty fast.” He later graduated to a ’62 Chevy with a 409 cubic-inch motor – a “muscle car.”

“It did the trick back then,” says Vignola, who works for a local window cleaning company. His brother still races a ’32 Ford Coupe in New Jersey, but Vignola says technology has advanced too much for him to feel comfortable behind the wheel these days.However, Vignola knows a thing or two about mechanics. He helped Holz build his latest car, and crews for him at races. Their team also includes engineer Jim Armastead of Longmont and downvalley resident Greg Chaffee. Together they put in 1,000 hours to build Holz’ latest pride and joy, a ’67 Nova. Last year, Holz raced 15 to 20 weekends. Even during the winter, there are venues in Arizona or Las Vegas where the tracks stay dry. Locally, from May to mid-September, it’s Bandimere Speedway in Morrison.The team built Holz’ Nova from scratch. It’s a sleek, black beauty whose hood scoop hides an 812 cubic-inch engine capable of producing 1,500 horse power. The car is unlike anything you have ever seen on the streets. At the back of the shiny, carbon fiber body, the car sports a ‘wheelie’ bar to keep the vehicle stabilized when the car’s power lifts the front end at the race’s start, as well as packed parachutes to slow it down at the finish. The inside is even more alien, with a chassis that weighs just 99 pounds, a molded driver’s seat and some equipment to help Holz keep track of speed and car functions. Not something to cruise cross-country in.”It’s way faster then 85 percent of the other dragsters,” Holz says. Two weekends ago, at Bandimere Speedway, Holz’ put down a wicked 7.36 seconds, going 188 mph, making him the No. 3 qualifier of the day. Two days before, he was the No. 2 qualifier, at 7.5 seconds.

Mark LovellThe 2003 Dodge Viper Mark Lovell races is a beautiful, sporty-looking car that would attract attention even if it weren’t highly modified. Yet, it too, bears little resemblance to its street counterparts, with its wing and hood scoop.Lovell and his team of Mike Rieger of Fruita and Jim Lubbers and Roy Orr of Gypsum, built the Viper from scratch over three years. “It was just a tube chassis,” says Lovell. Before the Viper, he raced a 1970 Dodge Dart with the same motor and transmission.Lovell has been drag racing for about 20 years, and got his start racing on two-lane highways in Missouri. “I realized it was better to take it to the track,” he says. And he got hooked on figuring out how to make cars go faster. “It just went from racing a street car, to the faster you go, the more different the car has to be,” he says. “Now, we have a real nice one … I think.”An understatement, perhaps. He raced in Salt Lake City earlier this month and was the second fastest qualifier, at 196 mph. His fastest time is 7 seconds flat. Lovell also was the No. 1 qualifier ahead of Holz at Bandimere. But there are no hard feelings. In fact, Lovell, an electrical contractor for United Electric, completed the wiring for Holz’ new Nova.

Lovell was asked to display his Viper at the Grand Opening Ceremonies for the Mile High Nationals at Bandimere. Lovell first came to Gypsum as a child with his parents, who were farmers. Today, drag racing has become a family affair.”The kids come with me and we make it somewhat of a family deal, and have a lot of fun,” he says. Lovell’s 23-year-old son, Mark Jr., is also catching the bug. He already has a car waiting – after he finishes college.Chris WarnerWhen Fred Holz started building his race car, memories came flooding back to his buddy, Chris Warner – memories of going to the track with older teens who were into racing. He would follow in their footsteps.”I was always interested in drag racing and cars,” Warner says. But he took a sidestep away from racing as an adult, until about nearly four years ago. “When Fred decided he wanted to drag race, and started working on his vehicle, I thought it was as good a time as any to try and find a vehicle I like.”

Warner, who owns Warner construction in Gypsum, is now the proud of owner of a ’99 Firebird. His vehicle is factory made, with bolt-on parts to improve its performance. “It’s like the simplest way to modify performance,” Warner says.Now in his fourth season of racing, he still calls himself a newcomer. He competes at entry level, with speeds that typically fall between 10-14 seconds per quarter mile, depending on the track. The first year, Warner raced only about three or four times. Last year, he raced 15 times and has already raced six times this year. Recently, he laid down a respectable 12.18 seconds in Topeka, at 110 mph.”A lot of times, it seems like you have to build a momentum,” says Warner. “Every season you have little struggles – either the car’s not performing or the driver’s not.”Warner doesn’t travel quite as far afield as some of his friends – yet. He sticks mainly to the Western Colorado Dragway in Grand Junction and Bandimere Speedway. With a daughter entering college and a son in high school, Warner coordinates race trips with family schedules.Warner says his reasons for racing have changed over the past four seasons. He was first drawn to drag racing because of the fun of acceleration, the noise, and the competition. Now, he says, it’s more about “how cars can perform better; the seat time, and how to become a more consistent driver.”This article first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.Vail Colorado


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