Little in NHRA Funny Car driver Jack Beckman’s life has gone as predicted.
He was extremely bright and curious, yet he struggled through school. He was the picture of health as a retired U.S. Air Force officer, drag-racing instructor, and four-time sportsman champion with more than 50 victories, but he was diagnosed in 2004 with Stage 3B non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He beat the advanced cancer (drag racing all the while, though most chemotherapy patients take months regaining their strength), but the doctor told him he never would father children. Today he and wife Jenna have two: five-year-old son Jason and year-old daughter Layla.
So there Beckman was April 1, in third place in the standings and clicking progressively with crew chief Rahn Tobler toward a possible first Funny Car championship. All of a sudden, he found himself swirling in the messy vortex of chaos from the race hauler next door.
Don Schumacher Racing colleague Ron Capps, mired in eighth place, had failed to qualify his NAPA Dodge Charger at the Las Vegas race. In the aftermath, Capps’ crew chief, Tim Richards, and mechanic-extraordinaire wife Kim Richards walked away from the team. By midweek, Beckman not only had a new crew chief, but he had an entirely new crew.
The team owner flip-flopped Capps’ and Beckman’s operations. Tobler, assistant crew chief John Collins, and all of Beckman’s Valvoline/Next Gen Dodge mechanics walked a few feet over and donned blue and yellow NAPA shirts. Beckman inherited the NAPA crew that had achieved top-10 status but simply had fallen into some quicksand in early 2012. And Schumacher hired newly unemployed Todd Smith to lead Beckman’s gang.
While the dramatic switch might have appeared to be a panicked fussing over Capps at Beckman’s expense, some blithe disregard for the momentum Beckman and Tobler had at the time, Schumacher assured that wasn’t the case at all.
Jack’s been an amazing driver who has done a great job for DSR forever, for as long as he’s been with DSR. – Don Schumacher
“That’s not taking anything away from Jack Beckman,” the team owner said. “Jack’s been an amazing driver who has done a great job for DSR forever, for as long as he’s been with DSR. That’s not taking anything away from Jack.”
Collins said after the change, “We still help Jack. We will not be leaving anybody behind.” Collins said Beckman “gets it and he still has a very good car underneath him.”
Restoring order, Schumacher said, “Rahn will help Todd get adjusted to the Valvoline NextGen team and become acclimated to our DSR operation. Rahn will make the final decisions for at least the next two races. We have a strong enough organization that we can assist Todd, but it wouldn’t take him long to become familiar with DSR and the Valvoline team. He has plenty of background in our sport.”
Smith, an Oklahoma City native living in Cooper City, Fla., had worked as a crew chief for Kalitta Motorsports, Darrell Gwynn Racing, Don Prudhomme Racing, and most recently for Kenny Bernstein Racing’s Brandon Bernstein from early in the 2010 season through 2011. While at Don Prudhomme Racing, Smith was co-crew chief for current DSR Top Fuel ace Spencer Massey. Smith had grown up in drag racing: his father is two-time NHRA Comp Eliminator champion Charlie Smith.
Contrary to public prediction but perfectly following the Beckman Trajectory, Schumacher’s move wasn’t a death knell for Beckman’s championship chances. Together Beckman and Smith and the former NAPA team have in just 11 races won twice, posted a 17-8 elimination record that would be the envy of much of the class, and produced eight top-half starts that include nothing worse than the No. 2 qualifying position during the Western Swing.
Moreover, Beckman hasn’t lost any ground in the Funny Car standings. He remains third as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour shifts to Brainerd, Minn., this weekend for the Lucas Oil Nationals. It’s the next-to-last race before the fields are set for the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
In the first three races with Smith, Beckman did have his own DNQ, at Houston, to break an 87-race qualifying streak that was the longest in the class. And he dipped to sixth in points entering the Topeka race.
Beckman naturally did go through a bit of soul-searching, saying, “When you have a streak like we did and it ends, it just completely deflates you. It completely resets your perspective and your priorities. Your priority is no longer winning the next race. It’s qualifying at the next race.”
During the first three races with the new team, Beckman’s Charger didn’t make two consecutive full passes in 17 attempts. At Atlanta, a first-round loss to rookie Courtney Force didn’t give the team any “Attaboys,” either.
But they triumphed at Heartland Park Topeka, in the next race, and again at complicated Denver — with mith never before having tuned a Funny Car at mile-high, oxygen-deprived, challenging Bandimere Speedway. That signaled that nothing can rattle Beckman as he battles for a title.
Words don’t matter, though Beckman has a million of them. The team’s chemistry and performance, including the contribution of assistant crew chief Terry Snyder, speak for themselves.
Smith uses far fewer words in a day than Beckman does. The two simply have different personalities. But they know how to converse with each other to get the job done.
“I feel really good,” Smith said. “The confidence level for me keeps getting better. We keep getting to all these different conditions and getting a handle on some of these weird scenarios. That, for a tuner, makes me really confident.
“I just couldn’t be any happier with this team,” he said. “Jack’s doing a great job of driving, and the whole crew has been pretty much flawless. They’re making my job easier. They do what they do and I do what I do, and it comes out good.”
Smith did admit, “I thought it would take longer. The fact that it came so fast, yeah, that has surprised me.
That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about all these [DSR] teams is that [the crews chiefs and assistants] have perfect chemistry. – Tommy Johnson Jr.
“I knew eventually I would get a handle on it. We just have a couple of issues that seem to bite us from time to time. All we can do is keep working on it until we can isolate how to make the right adjustments and go from there,” Smith said.
How they worked like a well-oiled machine at Denver was an outstanding example.
“Todd had never run a Funny Car on the mountain, but he is a very smart man and very calm,” Beckman said.
“He also has Terry Snyder as his assistant, and they work it like a partnership. The best crew chief and assistant crew chief tandems start thinking alike. It’s the unspoken stuff.”
According to DSR’s Tommy Johnson Jr., “That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about all these [DSR] teams is that [the crews chiefs and assistants] have perfect chemistry. I see that with about every team we have here. The crew chief and assistant crew chief are very well matched. If a crew chief was unable to attend an event for some reason, I don’t think you’d see one of our cars miss a beat. About every car here, in my opinion, has two crew chiefs — just one of them has the title of assistant.”
Seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher knows, too, that the crew chiefs and drivers must harmonize. “The personalities absolutely have to match. The driver and the crew chief lead the team, and the energy they put out will carry the team.”
All those elements were in place at Denver.
“Terry had notes from when he’s been up here with a Funny Car before,” Beckman said. “Before our best run on Friday Terry made a last-minute call to Todd on the radio for a tire pressure change, based on the starting-line temperature. There’s too much information for one guy to handle. Having Todd work with Terry and Terry giving good input is a big part of what is making this team special.”
They have been working at the Brownsburg, Ind., shop since the Western Swing ended Aug. 5 at Seattle to front-half the Valvoline Dodge chassis.
“Typically we would like to take it out and test it one time, and right after the Brainerd race we are going to have a two-day test session in Indianapolis,” Beckman said. “We just don’t have the time with all the other teams in the shop to get the front half put on our car after Brainerd. I’m cautiously optimistic going into Brainerd.
“It basically just kind of sets everything back to zero runs on the car. There shouldn’t be any sort of surprises on it, though,” he said. “Our goal is to win a championship. So we feel like doing it now and running this chassis throughout the rest of the year gives us the best chance to do that.”
Maybe pairing Beckman with Smith and Snyder and the new team back in April gave them the best chance of all.