Is this the year Jack Beckman wins the Funny Car championship? If not, he'll probably be close – he is every year.
“My goals are the same every time: three wins and a legitimate shot at the championship when I roll into Pomona for the Finals,” says Beckman, driver of the Mail Terminal Services/Valvoline Funny Car. “The way I look at it, my job is to not screw up. The best driver in the world won't win with a bad team, but even an average driver can win with a great team, and this is a great team.”
Crew chief Rahn Tobler, who led ex-wife Shirley Muldowney to multiple Top Fuel championships in the 1980s, returns as crew chief, and every mechanic on the team is back for another tour of duty. “Not one crew guy left in the off-season, and that's a first in my nitro career,” Beckman says, “so it will be great to get back to Pomona for the Winternationals and see the same faces I saw when we left there last year after the Finals. I'm not sure, on a mechanical-aptitude test or on a stopwatch, who the best people are, but collectively, this is the best group I've ever been associated with. The feeling of unity is always there, and I don't feel like I have to fall on my sword and blame myself every time we lose.”
Losing wasn't much of an issue last year, when Beckman earned five final-round appearances and had fewer first-round losses than anyone in FC. The problem was that just one of those finals came in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“You hate to say one race is less important than another – there's a trophy on the line every weekend. But obviously the last six races are the ones you really want to win,” Beckman says. “Robert Hight [in 2009] showed everybody that you can struggle all year, barely make it into the Countdown, then get hot over the last six races and win the whole thing. In the Countdown, you can get away with maybe one first-round loss, but that's all. You have to average a semifinal finish, at least, and bang out about 12 round wins, and that's not an easy thing to do.”
Beckman won the Arizona Nationals, the second race on the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour, and appeared in four more finals – but lost all four. “I haven't won a race in almost a year, but on the other hand, hey, we were in five finals,” Beckman says. “Would I have been happy with that 10 years ago, when I'd never driven a Funny Car? You bet I would. There was a time when I'd have been happy just to take a ride in one of these things, maybe qualify for a few races, and here I am, running for the championship every year.”
Beckman has won at least once in every year of his FC career, and, since joining Don Schumacher Racing toward the end of 2006, has always had the best equipment and personnel available. “With a Funny Car, the crew chief and the crew are probably 85 percent of it – a lot more than the driver, whatever the percentages are,” he says. “But once that pre-stage light comes on, it's all on me. I look at it like if I do my job right, we'll win – all I have to do is leave on time and go pick up my trophy. Driving these cars is all about your mind and having the right approach. To get better, you have to be mature enough to realize negative thoughts will creep into your head from time to time, and you have to learn how to overcome it.”
Beckman, who, as an instructor at the sport's pre-eminent driving institution, Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School, has taught some 7,000 people how to drive Super Comp dragsters, has always focused on the mental side of racing. “I've always ended each year thinking about what to do to take my game up another notch,” he says. “One time, I decided to make every run like it was the final round of a national event so that when I really got to a final, it wouldn't be something new.
“I'm always working to get better. I'll never say I've got it all figured out. The difference between a good driver and a great one is the great driver is better at managing all the little things. It's gotten so involved. Things you'd never think of – your speed as you roll through the water for the burnout, how fast you back up – really affect how hot the clutch gets and how the car runs. Very few times have I gotten out after a run and thought I did everything perfectly.”
Since the multi-car team era began in the mid-'90s, no one outside a multi-car team has won the Funny Car title, and Beckman benefits from being part of the seven-car Don Schumacher Racing juggernaut. “I talk to our other drivers from time to time,” he says. “I try to be, like Tony Schumacher says, a machine, where nothing will rattle me. Ron Capps has a great seat-of-the-pants feel – he's been driving a Funny Car a lot longer than I have, and he can tell me, ‘I've felt what you're describing, and here's what the car's actually doing.' Matt Hagan's only been driving Funny Cars a couple years now, but he's a former football player. You don't have to be an athlete like him to drive one of these, but you do need that confident attitude to run for a championship.”
Beckman knows what it feels like to win a championship – just not in Funny Car. In 2003, in NHRA's sportsman division, he outdrove more than 1,000 Super Comp drivers to win the NHRA championship, but eight-second runs in a 170mph car don't compare to driving a fire-breathing Funny Car against the biggest names in drag racing. Nothing does.
“These cars are accelerating harder now than they ever have,” says Beckman, who held both the e.t. record (4.662sec) and the speed record (333.66mph) when races still were conducted over a quarter-mile. “Since NHRA shortened the distance to 1,000 feet a couple years ago, crew chiefs found other ways to go fast. We're moving harder when the clutch locks up than we ever were; that's why the speeds keep climbing. Tony's already up to 325mph with the Army dragster, and it's because we do so many things in-house now at DSR. I don't know how a team could be better equipped than we are.”
So is this the year? “It sure could be,” Beckman says. “When you've been down for a while and then finally win a race, you think, ‘Man, this might be the last one I ever win.' But when you're running well, every time you win another race it's like, ‘I want 15 more of these. I want to win every race for the rest of the year.' I know we have the right crew chief, the right guys working on the car, and all the right parts and pieces.
“I know one thing for sure: I have nine Wally trophies as a Funny Car driver, and nobody's ever taking that away from me.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.