Bandimere and the Rabbits

When I was a teenager, an aunt of mine took me to see the drag races at Bandimere Speedway — Thunder Mountain to motorsports junkies — just north of the mountain town of Morrison, Colorado. The venue has been popular for decades, partly because of the unusual racing environment of high altitude: the quarter-mile strip offers a rare challenge to drivers used to better piston compression at lower altitudes. The racetrack hosts the National Hot Rod Association’s Mopar Mile-High Nationals, a prominent racing event.

I don’t remember if this was the event we were there for, but thousands of people were pushing for entrance to whatever spectacle was to take place. Traffic going into the event was so backed up and late that my aunt had to pee in an empty water bottle while we sat still in a van on a highway exit ramp — she’d not have reached a restroom in time.

We eventually took our seats on the bleachers, adjacent to the strip where dragsters spouted dragon fire from their rear ends, pushing them forward in skidding spurts without the wheels turning, until they reached the starting lines. From our seats, there was safe access to bathrooms and enough proximity to the vehicles to feel the fire. People packed the facility, which had the feel of a high school football stadium on a Friday night. Electricity hummed in the dry, thin air.

The track rests on the Dakota Hogback that leads into the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains, ominous terrain that sweeps dramatically upward for hundreds of miles on a north-south axis in the state, toward the Continental Divide, where North America’s rivers diverge. It is home not only to motor heads but also some of the most famous and beautiful wild land in the United States.

Denver area cattleman John Bandimere built the Speedway in 1958 to partially subsidize a family auto parts enterprise. The track’s popularity grew so much over the years that the parts shop took a backseat to the racing. Bandimere’s son, John Bandimere, Jr., acquired a number of prominent sponsorships, including that of motorsports giant Mopar, through which he funded a $4-million expansion of the facility in 1988. The Bandimeres run the Speedway to this day.

Bandimere is a bright marker of modernity nestled next to quaint Morrison. The Speedway is imposing observation towers, rising stacks of exhaust smoke, rednecks chugging Bud Light, mechanics and safety officers in ear muffs and scantily-clad girls wearing cowboy hats blowing kisses to cameramen. It’s a loud, paved, combustible place.

Humans are not the only spectators. Nearly 50 acres of the facility are paved over, but there are thin strips of grass, perhaps 10 feet wide, between the bleachers and the tracks. The grass strips are carefully kept, and one side is separated from the track by thigh-high sponsor banners. It is perfect terrain for rabbits who take advantage of the forage — as well as any concessions food dropped from the stands.

If memory serves, between 10 and 15 adorable lagomorphs mulled in the green space between our perch at the bleacher fencing and the track, several hundred yards down from the starting line. The dragsters revved up, spewing great flames, intense heat and a savage high-pitched roar into the night. I plugged my ears with my fingertips, but the rabbits did not react. My aunt told me they were deaf, their delicate ear anatomy having long since been decimated by the acoustic violence of the dragsters’ thunder.

Someone threw a flag, and the dragsters exploded over the starting line, shaking the ground. The vehicles rumbled past the rabbits, who suddenly panicked in a directionless frenzy about the grass until the grand tremor was over and they sat still again. It happened over and over, many times.

An anonymous blogger wrote of a race she attended at Bandimere in 2014, during which she could not take her eyes from the rabbits. She noted the incredible anxiety she felt for the animals but realized as she observed that the rabbits did not seem stressed. They have adapted, she wrote:

Ecologically, it makes perfect sense. The grass is well maintained. The entire venue is nestled in the base of the foothills so natural food and resources are abundant as well as people-food from the concession stands. Their natural predators steer as clear of the race track as a car-hating Amish person would. The chances of them getting run over by a car are extremely minimal because the track has to be very specifically maintained and prepared for races. A bunny on the track, alive or dead, is not acceptable. However, even after all of this rationalization, I couldn’t help but feel wronged on behalf of these rabbits.

The younger Bandimere told me in a phone interview that the rabbits have never represented a threat to the racecar drivers, and in the facility’s six decades its vehicles have rarely killed one.

“If we’ve killed two rabbits on the racetrack, that’s a bunch,” he told me.

The elder Bandimere, who died in 1986, had gotten his start in the livestock industry on the plains of Eastern Colorado, so the younger had grown up around animals, having developed a deep affection for them. In fact, before the older Bandimere threw the family headlong into the motorsports business, Bandimere, Jr., wanted to be a cattleman and to attend the state’s primary land grant institution and ag school, Colorado State University. But his job today, helping his son John Bandimere III run a premier racing facility, has little to do with ranching. Still, he seemed in our phone interview to be very aware of the ecological dynamic of overlapping human-wildlife environments. He said people at his home feed the squirrels, which have become overpopulated. Bandimere traps and relocates them.

At the Speedway, in contrast, the Bandimeres rely on natural predation from raptors and coyotes to regulate the rabbit population; the Speedway does not cull or relocate them. Bandimere could not say for sure what species the rabbits belong to, but the surrounding Rocky Mountains are known to be a home to the cottontail and the mountain cottontail. Like squirrels, these animals will become habituated if fed, but Bandimere contradicted the anonymous blogger, saying no one feeds them concessions from the bleachers. He was unable to confirm whether they are deaf. I couldn’t ask my aunt where she got that information, since she has passed away, though my instinct is that she simply inferred it from observing the rabbits.

Bandimere seemed satisfied that the Speedway lives with little conflict with the local wildlife. If there has ever been a problem, he said, it has been rattlesnakes, driven westward by housing developments in nearby Denver suburbs Littleton and Englewood, which are part of a dramatic population boom on Colorado’s Front Range. Construction crews stir them up, and they migrate to the Foothills. But again, Bandimere said, a proliferation of bull snakes, which eat the former serpents, has maintained some balance.

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.

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