No. 24: Gary Beck
Like Gary Scelzi, who considers Gary Beck his drag racing hero, Beck won the first time he ever strapped himself into a Top Fuel dragster at a national event.
And it wasn't just any old race -- it was the granddaddy of them all, the U.S. Nationals. Beck met Jerry Ruth, the King of the Northwest and one of the greatest ever to drive a fuel car, in the 1972 final and won in a monumental upset when Ruth went up in smoke trying to become the first in the fives.
By the time he left the NHRA tour in 1986, Beck had won 19 Top Fuel titles and the 1974 and 1983 championships. Fifteen years later, he still ranks as Top Fuel's sixth-winningest driver, behind only Joe Amato, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Cory McClenathan, Kenny Bernstein, and Scelzi on the all-time win list.
Beck became a sensation overnight when he won Indy in 1972, but like Marvin "Who?" Graham two years later, he didn't magically appear out of nowhere. Beck may have earned his license just weeks before his landmark win, but he was an experienced racer - just not in Top Fuel.
"As far as being brand-new, like it said in a lot of stories, I wasn't," Beck said years later. "It's just that nobody had heard of me for a while."
At the time of his breakthrough, Beck was 30 years old and had been racing for more than 10 years. He'd driven Stockers and A/ and B/Dragsters and even had a Top Fuel start to his credit (a first-round loss at an event in Seattle) before he left for Indy.
All this does nothing to diminish his accomplishment. In his first national appearance, having made fewer than a dozen runs in a Top Fuel dragster, Beck won the sport's grandest event in its most controversial year. The 1972 season to many was an off year for Indy because of a rift between Pro drivers and NHRA that led many of the top drivers to hold their own race, National Challenge '72, in Tulsa, Okla.
Garlits, Don Moody, Dennis Baca, Steve Carbone, and eventual 1972 world champion Jim Walther weren't in Indy, but Clayton Harris, who had dominated NHRA racing all year; Don "the Snake" Prudhomme; Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen; and Mike Snively were.
The Indy Funny Car and Pro Stock fields were decimated by the Tulsa event, but Top Fuel suffered from far fewer defections.
Beck qualified the Beck, McLean & Lawrence dragster 10th in the 32-car field, right behind McEwen, and advanced through the preliminary rounds, running slower than Ruth but quicker than almost everybody else. He made the quickest run of his life, a 6.11 - just five-hundredths of a second slower than the national record Ruth established that same day - to win the final in a runaway.
The following year, Beck won even more convincingly, silencing critics who noted that his previous Indy win had come when Garlits and other big names were racing for a greater purse in Tulsa. He not only won the 1973 U.S. Nationals, beating Carl Olson, a driver he once described as "cool," in the final, but he qualified No. 1 and reset both ends of the national record with an aggregate best of 5.96, 243.90. He even trailered "Big Daddy" himself in the first round.
In 1974, Beck dominated the Winternationals with a 5.94 in his unpainted dragster, again defeating Ruth, whose World Finals win over Beck three months earlier in Amarillo, Texas, had made him the 1973 world champion. With the green and white of his sponsor, Export A, on his car for the rest of the year, Beck won the Le Grandnational and the Springnationals and was crowned the 1974 world champion, the first to win the title on the basis of a yearlong points series.
Beck won multiple IHRA national events in 1975 and led the NHRA Winston standings going into the final event of the season, but lost the title to Garlits when was defeated by Herm Petersen in the semifinal round of the World Finals. At that event, Beck became the first to run in the 5.60s with an unbelievable 5.69 in qualifying.
The honor of being first in the 5.50s, 5.40s, and 5.30s also belonged to Beck, and that is perhaps a greater part of his legacy than his championships and major event wins. Beck's 5.57 in the last round of the 1981 World Finals at Orange County Int'l Raceway left him just 31 points shy of Jeb Allen for the championship (the equivalent of three points under today's points system).
In 1982, Beck ran a 5.48 in Larry Minor's car at the U.S. Nationals - drag racing's first pass under five and a half seconds - but inconsistency eventually cost him the victory, as it did at many races that year. He was runner-up three times.
There would be no such problems in 1983, when Beck and crew chief Bernie Fedderly ruled all year, running a quickest-ever 5.44 in a Gatornationals victory and two 5.39s - the first runs in the 5.3s - in winning the Golden Gate Nationals.
In 1984, Beck finished second in points and won three consecutive races - Baton Rouge, Columbus, and Montreal - with Minor's Miller Lite team. Minor and Beck parted company in late 1986, and Beck competed only sporadically in the ensuing years, driving the McGee Bros. quad-cam dragster into the fours and occasionally serving as a test driver for Amato.
The 19th and last national event victory of Beck's fabulous career came in a classic 5.53 to 5.55 final-round showdown with Gary Ormsby at the 1985 World Finals in Pomona, where minutes earlier his future friend, Scelzi, had become a first-time national event champion in Alcohol Dragster. - Todd Veney