Gary Beck - Drag Racing's Master Showman
By Brian Wood
Gary Beck always had his game face on. Photo by Bruce Biegler
If you were lucky enough to attend a major drag racing event, particularly in the 1970s, the highlight of your weekend at the track was almost certainly the fast and ferocious Top Fuel competition. Snapping and cackling as they eased into the staging beams, the stinging clouds of nitro fumes took your breath away until, after what seemed an eternity, the lights came down, and the cars exploded into the night.
Trailing twin plumes of yellow-orange header flames as they plummeted into the darkness, it was over as quickly as it had begun. For a split-second, there was an unearthly silence, and then, reacting as one, the crowd erupted in wild applause. Over and over, this surreal ritual was performed, and the nitro junkies in the stands loved every minute of it.
Today, nitro-fueled competition is as popular as ever, but unlike the tale Gary Beck is going to relate, much, much more regulated. Thanks goodness!
Beck, who was labeled "The Quiet Canadian" in press reports of the day, was actually an American, born and raised in Seattle, Washington. In the late 1960's, he teamed up with Gaines Markley to campaign the successful Markley & Beck BB/Gas Dragster in NHRA Division Six competition. After marrying wife Penny in 1969, however, Beck moved to her hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, with every intention of settling down and leaving drag racing behind. Eventually, and dare I say, predictably, he soon gave in to the urge to be close to things loud and fast, and joined the local Capitol City Hot Rod Club.
Little did Gary, or anyone else for that matter, realize that this innocuous little club was destined to become the launching pad for some of the most famous names in the history of professional drag racing. Among its members were some guys named Dale Armstrong, Bernie Fedderly, and Graham Light, among others.
Gary Beck was perhaps the most dominant top fuel racer of the '70s and early
Photo by Bruce Biegler
Not able to stay away from racing any longer, Beck listened enthusiastically as another club member, Ken McLean, laid out his plans to form a Top Fuel team. In 1970, the pair bought the front-engined Kalivoda & Hamlin "Joker" dragster from Seattle's Dick Kalivoda, which McLean would drive. It was not to be a match made in heaven, however. After two frustrating years, in spite of moving up to a new rear-engine car, the Canadian team struggled mightily to find the right combination that would enable them to mount a serious challenge on the national event trail.
When sponsor Bob Lawrence expressed interest in joining Gary as a team owner, Beck wasted no time in buying out McLean, securing his own Top Fuel ticket and taking over behind the wheel.
It didn't take long for the "rookie" driver to hit his stride, and by October that year, Beck found himself posing for photos in the winner's circle at the U.S. Nationals in Indy, where an elapsed time of 6.11 at 229 miles per hour was good enough to lead him to his historic first victory.
In 1973, Beck won the U.S. Nationals again, running 5.96 to set a new national ET record. By this time, Edmonton engine builder Ray Peets had bought out Lawrence, and the Beck & Peets Reliable Engine Service dragster had been unleashed on the world. A year later, Beck and Peets captured their first NHRA Top Fuel World Championship, along the way winning an amazing 79% of the NHRA and AHRA events they entered, 59 wins in 74 runs.
Just as important, perhaps, was the fact that in '74 their racing effort was underwritten by MacDonald's Tobacco Company and their Export "A" cigarette brand. They were one of the very first teams in professional racing to fly a corporate banner, something that, of course, is the lifeblood of the sport today.
As a condition of their Export "A" sponsorship, however, the team's activities weren't restricted to the quarter-mile. A show car was built, and Beck and Peets were required to attend numerous car shows and corporate extravaganzas where they, and the car, were put on display. And thanks to some innovative marketing, the team found themselves running their rail job at some places a nitromethane-sucking straight-line machine was never intended to go.
A great example was the time that Gary ran a lap around the famous road course at Mosport, near Toronto, Ontario. He swears this is true, so it's best told in his own words:
"Export was sponsoring a road race at Mosport in 1974, and some marketing genius decided that it would be great if we went out and made a lap around the track before the race. Our main concern was getting enough fuel in the car, but we loaded her up and went for it. The traction was great, so right off the starting line, after doing a huge burnout, I just kept going, down past all the fans along the front straightaway. Let me tell you, you can really move down through there with a dragster, and I was really liking it.
"Of course, I had to slow down some to get around the corners, but I eased it through, and was having a great time until I got to the hairpin turn. For that one, I had to stop and work myself around, but I made it. Coming out of the hairpin, I loaded the engine up, dropped the clutch, and carried the front wheels two feet off the track all the way down the back stretch. Now it's really making a hard move as I fly up and down some hills and around some more corners.
"Finally, about three-quarters of the way around, I pull the chutes and just drag them around to put on a show, crossing the finish line just as the fuel ran out. Later I found out that we had run just a few seconds under the Mosport track record! If I had known how close we were to breaking the record, I'd have hustled a little more through that hairpin. Just think - we nearly set the track record with a Top Fuel dragster!" Now that's something you don't see every day.
And the MacDonald's people weren't through. A little later that year, they were sponsoring a stock car race at Delaware Speedway near London, Ontario. Again, they brought Beck and Peets in for a show. The plan this time was to have the car do a fire burnout off the starting line, then roar around the paved, banked oval short track. Who came up with these ideas? Anyway, things were going pretty well as Gary dumped the clutch, lit the gas with his header flames, and carrying the wheels, made a fast move into turn one - just as someone turned all the lights out to make the show more impressive for the fans!
The most unimpressed person in the place was Beck, who, suddenly blinded, somehow managed to negotiate the tight turn, all the while keeping his foot in the throttle to keep the header flames burning for the spectators. Coming out of turn two, the lights came back on, so Beck, ever the showman, nailed it again and carried the wheels all the way down the backstretch. With apologies to Bob Frey, to say that the crowd went wild would be a huge understatement!
Beck was outstanding throughout his career as a record-setting driver, his first run in the 5.6s in 1975 being just one example. After joining with multi-millionaire potato farmer and racer Larry Minor of San Jacinto, California in 1980, Beck went on to became the first Top Fuel racer to run in the 5.5's (1981), 5.4's (1982), and 5.3's (1983).
That last year, 1983, would turn out to be Beck's greatest season behind the wheel by far. Minor and Beck's dark blue Al Swindahl-chassised dragster, with old Capital City Hot Rod Club crony Bernie Fedderly now turning the wrenches, won four times, and amazingly, was low qualifier at ten of twelve events that year. At the Gatornationals, in mid-march, Beck set a new national mark of 5.44. In October, at the Golden Gate Nationals in Fremont, California, Beck trashed Gary Ormsby in the final with the sport's first 5.3-second blast (a 5.391) and then followed it up with a backed-up 5.391 at the World Finals event at Orange County International Raceway. Gary had his second Winston Championship, won during a season that saw him run 17 of the quickest 18 runs in Top Fuel history. It was a totally dominating performance
During the next three years, Beck drove Minor's car to second, seventh and ninth place finishes. But, times change, and in racing, sometimes a lot faster and more often than anywhere else. At the end of the '86 season, Gary was informed that his services were no longer required, and he decided to call it a career. Well, almost.
"After my 'official' retirement, it took me about ten years to get racing completely out of my system," Gary said with a chuckle. "I raced from time-to-time with various teams, the last being the Peek Brothers about five years ago. I think I'm done driving now, but I still love the sport, and I'm sure I always will."
And in the country he represented for so many years, his accomplishments will never be forgotten. In 1999, Gary Beck and Ray Peets were inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, joining old friends Dale Armstrong, Bernie Fedderly, and Graham Light on the Hall's prestigious roll of honor.