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.

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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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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”