NHRA: After rough 2014, the “Fast” is back with Jack Beckman

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Funny Car driver Jack Beckman is back on a roll in 2015. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

In the course of two seasons, Jack Beckman went from NHRA Funny Car champ to a virtual “Whatever happened to?” query.

After roaring back to win the 2012 Funny Car championship, the Southern California native’s performance fell off-track like the elevators he used to repair before becoming a full-time drag racer.

No one could diagnose what went wrong. It wasn’t like Beckman forgot how to drive a race car. But as 2013 and especially 2014 played out, Beckman went from his nickname of “Fast Jack” to “Whatever happened to Jack?”

The harder he tried, the worst his overall performance became.

“I can’t put my finger on why we performed poorly relative to our expectations,” Beckman told MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “That frustrates me, because if you can find the smoking gun, you can eliminate the problems.

“That was probably the most frustrating thing, that I thought we had all the ingredients for a successful combination. We just didn’t find those results.”

Then, late in the 2014 season, team owner Don Schumacher pulled off one of the biggest thefts in drag racing history, luring Jimmy Prock away from his longtime home at John Force Racing and his role as crew chief for 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

As 2015 debuted, things were once again a bit shaky on Team Beckman. He failed to qualify in the season-opening Winternationals and it was starting to look like more of the same, a carryover from last year.

Jack Beckman (photo courtesy NHRA)

“I knew we were better than that,” Beckman said. “In fact, I wasn’t as upset at that as I thought I might be. I knew we were going to turn things around – and we have, in a big way.

Indeed, Beckman has.

As the NHRA begins its vaunted three-race “Western Swing” this weekend with the Mile-High Nationals in suburban Denver, Beckman has won three of the last 12 races (along with a runner-up finish), is tied for third in the standings and is eyeing a second title by season’s end.

“I’ve never had a year since 1989 that I didn’t win at least one race in a season, until 2014, and that’s a tough pill to swallow, to not win a single race,” Beckman said. “If you ask somebody who’s done something long enough, you’re going to see highs and lows, but things eventually balance out and the pendulum swings the other way.

“We’re enjoying a great deal of success right now, and I don’t see any reason to expect that to slow down any time soon. Funny Cars are inherently unpredictable, but its gratifying to know you drive for a team and drive a car that can win every race you pull into.

“That’s the frustrating part of 2014. We had everything we needed: we had the talent, the parts and the people. We just didn’t get it done. What made the pill even more bitter is not only didn’t we win a race, we didn’t finish in the top 10 after finishing in the top-five every other year.”

Beckman, who turned 49 last month, even began to second-guess himself and his ability last season.

“I’ve always said that you never know if your last win will really be your last win,” Beckman said. “That’s not a fatalist viewpoint. I’m a cancer survivor. It’s a matter of perspective.

“Sure, you question yourself. You can have the second-fastest car and lose in the first round at one of these places. Or, you can have a mediocre car and luck your way into the final round, although that’s tough to do in Funny Car.

“So, yeah, you start to wonder, ‘Is it just not going to happen for me ever again?’ But the bigger picture is not just if I’m capable of winning other races, but will I have a job next year. There’s not a lot of job security.”

He then added with a laugh, “If you’re the team owner and a Mega Lotto winner, you’ve got job security.”

But when Prock jumped Force’s ship and came onboard with Beckman, and The Infinite Hero Foundation stepped up to sponsor Beckman’s Funny Car this season, things took off in the right direction Beckman had been hoping for.

“Had it not been for Terry Chandler (who finances both Beckman’s Infinite Hero Foundation race car, as well as the Make-A-Wish ride of teammate Tommy Johnson Jr.) putting her checkbook where her heart is, I’m sure I’d be back fixing elevators or doing something else.

“As far as I’m concerned, Terry saved my career.”

And how long will that career go? After all, one of Beckman’s top rivals, John Force, is 65 years old and still at the top of his game.

“I have an 8- and 4-year-old, and I’m a cancer survivor,” Beckman said. “I think my perspective as an older father and going through the health issues I did, whatever happens, happens.

“I have 18 wins in a nitro Funny Car and a championship. I never thought I’d be here. I want to win every day I go out there. I’d love to keep doing this for 10 more years. I know that someday it’ll end. You’d love to be in control of when it ends, but the reality is almost when the money goes away, not when the desire goes away.

“My short term goal is I want to continue with this job, because if I continue doing that, the winning the races and everything else will come with it. I think we’re going to be as tough as any other car out there.”

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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500