INDIANAPOLIS — Jack Beckman is a survivor.
He earned a GED, beat cancer and walked away from two spectacular Funny Car explosions that are still YouTube favorites.
So when Beckman went two seasons without a win, he didn’t fret. The 49-year-old drag racer revamped his team, put together a remarkable record-breaking season and is in position to win a second championship.
“Funny Cars are very unpredictable and that’s why I think you rarely see one team dominate,” Beckman said Wednesday in preparation for this weekend’s U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis. “That hasn’t been the case since John Force was in his heyday probably 20 years ago. But we have demonstrated that we can be extremely quick and extremely consistent.”
Nobody has been better over the past five weeks.
On July 31, Fast Jack lived up to his nickname by conquering Sonoma’s 1,000-foot straightaway in a record time of 3.921 seconds. One week later, in Seattle, he did it again, finishing in 3.912.
A one-week break couldn’t slow down Beckman, either. Though he didn’t win the title at Brainerd, Minn., Beckman produced his third straight record-smashing run in 3.901. Matt Hagan actually had a faster time in Minnesota, 3.879, but failed to produce a second run within one percent of the first time to certify the result. The technicality gave Beckman the official mark.
Beckman will be looking for a fourth consecutive historic weekend, though the expected warm temperatures at Lucas Oil Raceway might be a hurdle.
“We haven’t seen anything like this since (Don) Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein in their day,” Force said, referring to two long-time pillars in this sport. “He (Beckman) will get there. He’s running the best.”
Beckman was an Air Force sergeant who left the military in 1988, and he went to work for a drag racing team. When sponsorship ran out, Beckman got a job as an elevator technician. By 1992, he was racing cars in lower-tier divisions, and in 2003, he captured his biggest win — the Super Comp world championship.
Less than a year later, Beckman’s doctors diagnosed the California native with lymphoma, ordered him into chemotherapy and gave him about a 50 percent chance to live.
Rather than give in, Beckman fought back. He continued working as a full-time driving instructor and part-time driver, missing only two races that season. And once the cancer was in remission, Beckman returned to the drag strips with a new perspective as he chased speeds topping 320 mph.
“Losing still sucks and making a mistake behind the wheel can still be painful, but having a bad week at the races is put in perspective when you have a 50 percent chance to live,” he said. “They told me I had a couple of options and dying didn’t sound like a good one.”
Instead, Beckman started climbing steadily through the ranks. He was the 2011 runner-up and used the momentum from a midsummer rally to secure the 2012 championship. Then came a 54-race wineless streak, which finally ended when Beckman took home NHRA’s most coveted trophy, The Wally, in May at Concord, North Carolina.
Since then, Beckman has won four more times, taken a 50-point lead in the standings and become the first Funny Car driver with four consecutive times under 4 seconds.
What’s changed? Beckman credited his new crew chief, Jimmy Prock.
“In racing, I always say it’s about the track record and you look at that man’s track record and it’s incredible,” Beckman said. “I never knew we could get this hot.”
Or this popular.
“He went through that cancer and that’s enough to put anybody out of it. He fought through it,” Force said. “He’s a great guy. He taught all of my daughters at Frank Hawley’s driving school and he still gives them advice even now.”
But this weekend, Beckman faces another challenge at Indianapolis, a track that hasn’t been so kind to him.
Last year, Beckman qualified second in Indy and failed to win, and although he won the All-Star race in 2013, he finished second in the bigger race.
Now, in a city that embraces speed and openly roots for hard-luck fighters, Beckman has a chance to finally walk away the big winner.
“This season has beyond expectations — and I have very high expectations,” Beckman said. “I’d just like to leave here with The Wally.”