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Gary Beck

by Ken Sitko

Much has been written about 2-time NHRA drag racing champion Gary Beck’s storied career; I hope I can put a bit of a different spin on this legend of drag racing. I want to go deeper into the beginnings of his racing career, what prompted his early success with the Beck and Peets car and also the orchestration of his domination of the class in the early to mid-80’s. I talked to Gary at length about his career, so there will be some first-hand quotes from Gary as well.

For those who don’t know, Gary was one of the most prominent top fuel racers of the 70’s and 80’s. Maybe there are some millennials out there that don’t know the names Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, or Gary Beck, but they should, as these were the most dominant personalities and racers of the time. I remember waiting, very impatiently, for my National Dragster magazine to arrive so I could read about the latest NHRA National Event results. Gary racked up a total of 19 National event wins in his career, won numerous points races, and 2 World Championships. Waiting weeks for the National Dragster to arrive after each race was painful, but it was the only way to find out how badly Gary smashed the record books.

The BEST was when Diamond P started televising the National Events; it was so exhilarating to actually watch the runs and his domination of the class. National records seemed to fall every time he went through the quarter mile, and race fans could watch the excitement of NHRA drag racing only weeks after the event. Steve Evans would interview Gary at the end of the track, then between rounds would show some of the innovations that helped to propel his car to quicker and quicker times. To date Gary has been inducted into the International drag racing hall of fame (1998), the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame (1999), the NHRA Division 6 Hall of Fame (2015), and the Canadian Drag Racing Hall of Fame (2017). As Gary says, “Sometimes it’s good to be Gary Beck.”

In the fall of 1982, Gary and Penny Beck stood together in the shutdown area of Orange County International Raceway clutching their corked bottle of champagne, hoping that the result of the semi-final round in top fuel would go in their favor. Gary had a miscue with his car in the second round, losing to Gary Cornwall, giving Shirley Muldowney the opportunity to catch him in points and thus capture the 1982 World Title. Shirley had waded through the rounds and made it further than Beck, and a win against the same Gary Cornwall would allow her to capture the 1982 championship. Shirley left first and won the race handily, and as she throttled down going past the Becks, they had to think about the one that got away. They waited for Shirley to round the corner and jump out of her car. Her expression was of pure excitement as she was able to come from behind to win her third of 3 championships. Gary gave her the bottle of champagne as a class act of sportsmanship. On top of 2 championships that Gary had won, he also lost 4 by less than a round.

Gary’s outstanding racing record didn’t start with team Minor though. Going back to the beginning, he proved to be a brilliant crew chief, innovator and driver almost right away. He grew up in Seattle and graduated from Lincoln High School. He was exposed to drag racing when he joined the Emperor’s Car Club. They had a race car that didn’t run real fast, a 1934 Ford 2 door altered, so he and Gaines Markley built a blown Desoto engine for it. Gaines would drive one week, Gary the next. They were so impressed with the horsepower that they built a dragster. Eventually, Gaines and Gary found that they couldn’t beat anybody with the Desoto, so they put a blown Chrysler engine in it. Gary raced the dragster in 68 and 69 and won the Division 6 championship in Super Eliminator both years.

In 1969 Gary moved to Edmonton and married Penny. He started hanging out with members of the Capital City Hot Rod Association (CCHRA), where he met Ken Mclean. The two teamed up and in 1971 they purchased the Joker front engined top fuel car from Kalivoda, Hamlin, and Norton (Seattle). Ken Drove the front-engined car and won lots of races.

Rear-engined cars were coming out fast though, so in 1972 they ordered a rear engine car from Woody Gilmore. Bob Lawrence started out as the primary sponsor and shortly became a partner. “Ken had a hard time driving that car, he really struggled.” In Montreal, after qualifying number one, they raced Jeb Allen first round and had the race won, but shut it off early and lost. Bob and Gary wanted to change drivers, and McLean ended up leaving the team. Now they had a dragster with no driver. Gary thought he would give it a shot so the team figured they would go to a few more races before the end of the year. Gary set the track record on his licensing pass in Edmonton, then next weekend went to Seattle and got beat first round by Hank Johnson.

They went to Indy as planned anyway, where Beck qualified his blue and white top fuel dragster in the number 10 spot, with 77 top fuel cars on the property. One thing they had to get used to was the roller starters on the starting line, they had never done that before. He seemingly came from nowhere, winning the U.S. Nationals only 2 weeks after getting his license, defeating a tire-smoking Jerry Ruth in the Indy final. Gary estimates that the entire value of the team at that time was $17,500, and they had just won $10,000.00! “We were in Hog Heaven,” says Gary. They ran the Last Drag Race at Lions in December 1972, but exploded the clutch and sawed the car in half. Gary phoned his sponsor at Lawrence Customs Brokers to see how they could fix this, but Bob had been with the team a long time, his business was growing, and he wanted to quit… Ray Peets and Gary started talking, and Ray Peets bought Bob out. They didn’t go to any National events except Indy, running mostly in Edmonton. Gary became an employee of Reliable Racers and was paid a salary.

Gary and Ray’s penchant for innovation made the car even quicker in 1973. The rules for the top fuel class in the early 80’s were virtually unlimited, this was even truer 10 years earlier. Reliable Engines was able to make stroker crankshafts that were not available anywhere else at the time, so while all Gary’s competitors were running a stock 426 configuration with cast iron block and cast heads, Ray was making cranks that were first 1/2″ stroke, then 5/8 and even 3/4. They had more cubic inches than almost everyone else, which of course makes more horsepower. They named all their motors; Tiny Tim (426) Big Bertha (496) and Barney were a few. Gary won the Indy race again in 1973, defeating Carl Olson in the final. They were also able to make their own camshafts, which no one else could do.

In 1974, the Beck and Peets team made the jaunt to the WinterNationals and won the race. Ray Peets had been courting a number of sponsors for the fuel car, and with the Winter Nationals win as an affirmation of their abilities, he used his considerable marketing skills to entice Export A to come aboard. The deal was signed 2 days before the Gators, and if you look closely at the photos of the time, Export A was painted onto the top of the wing, as there was no time to paint the car that quickly. This was the beginning of the Icon Gary Beck, the Green and White Export A machine was a front-runner at every race they attended. The Beck and Peets team, along with an unprecedented corporate sponsor, became a real force in the top fuel world. Gary also went crew chief hunting again, this time it was Jerry Ruth’s guy, Ronnie Capps. Ronnie ended up being a great asset to the team, and Gary quickly became as dominant as Don Garlits, Jerry Ruth, and Shirley Muldowney. He had already won the biggest race of them all (Indy), twice, in 1972 and 73 and the Export A money made it possible for the team to go on tour. In addition to winning the WinterNationals in ’74, the Export A team also won the SpringNationals in Columbus, and the Molson GrandNationals in Montreal, plus the Division 5 title, which added to his points total. Gary won the NHRA championship in 1974, with his big intimidating #1 on the side of his car.

In the early 70’s there were no rigid qualifying sessions. For all classes, cars would pull up to the staging lanes whenever they wanted, and they would let the cars run when they had rotated through all the preceding lanes. This is how I saw Don Garlits strutting through the pits while Gary Beck was on the starting line with his Export A car. It was at the Grand National Molson race in Montreal, and the announcer was going crazy because Beck already had this huge reputation as a strong runner, and it didn’t hurt that he was a transplanted Canadian as well. While the announcer was building Beck up during his burnout, Garlits walked right by our Sitko/Garritty pit and exclaimed “OK Canadians, put your hands on your hearts! ” I thought it was funny at the time, but I didn’t realize until recently that there was much more to the Beck/Garlits relationship. Gary raced in Cayuga, Canada a lot. One year, he had run the Turkey Trot Nationals, which was Garlits country. Gary got booed mercilessly, so when he was to race Garlits back in Cayuga, he went up to the tower and did an interview and talked about the Florida event. He beat Garlits that weekend, and the crowd went wild. They paid him back tenfold for what happened in Florida.

In 1975, after the season had already started, NHRA announced that the first FallNationals would be held in Seattle, Gary’s hometown. Gary had committed to go to 4 IHRA races that year and had already completed 3. Says Gary; “I went to IHRA and said I want to go to the FallNationals, that’s the Division 6 National event, it’s my hometown!” They were fine with it at first, as Gary promised to run a different IHRA race. “Garlits had a conniption fit, he wanted IHRA to ensure that I went to the Bristol race instead of Seattle. IHRA and Garlits sued me for breach of contract. They got an injunction to prevent me from racing in Seattle; I was served the injunction at the track. I raced anyway because I was still completing my obligation to IHRA, and won the Seattle race.” The breach of contract suit was obviously thrown out, but Gary was fined $1000 for not obeying the injunction.

Garlits and Beck didn’t like each other very much, that’s putting it mildly. “It was always a battle. He is a great racer, and very hard to race against,” says Beck. The 75 season was a real battle, they both ran IHRA and NHRA. Garlits did not race NHRA in 1974 but came back in 1975. “Both raced all 3 series. Gary won 7 AHRA events and 4 IHRA National events. ‘Garlits won many events and was their champion most of the time”. So Beck and Peets had won the World championship in 1974 and were battling Garlits all year in 1975. By the end of the season, Beck was a round ahead of Garlits going into the World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. He had to lose in the semifinals, and Garlits had to win the event to win the championship. This was the infamous race where the top fuel records were blown away by Beck and Garlits throughout the event. I asked Gary what made the ’75 race so phenomenal, and other than the improvements to the Beck and Garlits cars, the track prep was better than it had ever been. Also, weeks earlier, Gary was sitting with Keith Black in his office, and Mr. Black had an idea to make the fuel system better. The idea was to be the precursor to the Pete Jackson barrel valve. They decided that they needed to improve the ramp in the spool to give the engine the right amount of fuel at launch. The two of them came up with an idea, and made the change, even though Gary had just won the FallNationals only weeks earlier with the Enderle spool. It was a big risk. It paid off though, as Beck smashed the Top Fuel record with a 5.69 right out of the trailer at the World Finals.

Says Beck, “Garlits had trouble the first day, and he loaded his car up and left the track. He came back the next day and ran very good. What he did, as I understand it, he took his engine apart and put a high compression setup in it. He also was running M&H tires. He had a huge set saved in the trailer. M&H tires were not made very consistent, they were all over the place in size. He now had the high compression motor with the large tires, and it came alive.” Garlits ran 5.65 and 5.63 to take the record back from Beck. Also from Beck, “Garlits put a bounty on me, and in the semi’s, Herm Peterson burned me down pretty good, so I lost the championship.” Gary’s performance was well ahead of Herm’s, but the engine got too hot. “I think Herm still has the cheque on his wall but never cashed it. Garlits only gave him half anyway.”

The Beck and Peets team had a contract on paper for the 3rd and 4th year (’76 and ’77), but the Export A sponsorship would suddenly disappear because the Canadian government had come down very hard on the cigarette companies as to where they could advertise. Gary was used to dealing with 2 marketing people that were assigned just to him, but when he called for the 76 season, the whole marketing department was gone, all 30 of them. That left them with no sponsor. Sometime in the middle of the 76 season, Ray signed Thrush for 3 years. The years passed quickly and Gary bought Ray out in 1979, he got a great deal on it. It was to be the only time he had ever owned a team.

The Thrush car occasionally ran well but did not dominate like the Export A car did. In 1976 Beck did win the Division 4 championship, as well as the Molson GrandNationls, and the Professional Drag Racing race in Orange County. In 1977 there were no wins, and in 78 there were a lot of runner-ups but no wins. In 1979 Gary owned the team by himself, and he fielded the Indy Style car, which never really caught on. Gary feels that the top fuel dragsters were in a rut; he and Garlits had run in the 5.60’s at the World Finals in 1975, and it would not be until 6 years later in 1981that Beck would run the sports first 5.50.

In 1980, Gary, as a new team owner, had his eye on Jim Wright, who was Larry Minor’s crew chief. Gary was trying to steal Jim from Minor. Jim said, “You know Gary, I shouldn’t go to work for you, you should come work for us.” Beck and Minor sat in the crew cab in Indy, and they hammered out a deal. “Larry was financially the kind of guy that should own a race team. It wasn’t easy working for him; he was a tough customer”, said Gary. Larry came from sand drags and off road, had those type of vehicles. Bill Wolter, Terry Caldwell, and Gary were the team at first. They had a Sherm Gunn car, raced that for a while, then switched to a Swindahl car in 82 and started running very well. Gary was now going after Bernie Fedderly, and if you’re getting the picture, he was good at stealing crew chiefs. Gary would win the championship with Bernie in ’83 and put a second dragster together for Larry. There was a time when they had the 2 quickest cars in the country. Larry said the second car won’t affect your racing at all but had Gary on a shoestring budget, and the team had to fix 2 cars all the time. I guess you can’t complain when you are running that good.

So Gary had persuaded Bernie Fedderly to join the team. Fedderly and Terry Capp, both from Edmonton, were good friends. This was before the canon clutch. Gary was a pedal clutch guy, but Bernie liked the centrifugal clutches. Fedderly had already helped Capp to win the 1980 U.S. Nationals, and when he joined the team, he insisted that Gary switch to the centrifugal type clutch. Gary had always used the Hays and Shiefer models, which were pedal clutches, but before the era of clutch canons and multiple fingers on the hat, there was no way to slip the clutch on the starting line then lock it up later in the run. Nitro cars make so much power that this is a real problem, too much pressure on the clutch at the start can cause instant tire smoke. The centrifugal clutch solved that. Once Bernie implemented this, the car had a whole new dimension to it.

One thing that a lot of people might not know is that Gary was a brilliant crew chief, and was not afraid to innovate ways of adjusting the fuel system to match the changing needs of the motor at various stages down the quarter mile. The top fuel class, especially in this era, was virtually unlimited, and without the advent of computers, timers, air valves, etc, he instead decided what the motor wanted, and installed manual mechanisms to maximize the horsepower. One trick Gary Beck and Bill Wolter developed was brainstormed in the trailer while waiting out a rainstorm in Columbus. They installed a check valve in front of the port check that bled the fuel off at the launch and had a lever on the dash that he would slam that shut 100 feet out. It was like leaving the starting line again! Says Gary, “If you get what I mean, we were very heavy at idle, the engine has a jet in it that would clean up all 8 cylinders, and allow it to launch, and then slam it shut again so the motor had enough fuel. Connie Kalitta, Richard Tharp, etc would stand on the starting line to try to see what the fuel pressure on the dash was doing.”

The Minor team had stuff that no one else had, and they were inventing it at every race. The car came alive, and they kept expanding on that concept. Then, the car started turning the tires on the starting line, Minor said, “We need wider rims for a bigger footprint.” He had lots of sets of wheels with different offsets, so they mixed outers and inners, and came up with 18 inch wide wheels. Going into the 82 season, we got wide rims, a good fuel system, and Bernie is coming. “It all matched up,” said Gary. “We typically could unload at any race track and set the track record.” 1981 brought a lot of performance improvements and a few wins. The team almost captured the Championship this year as well but got beat by less than one round of racing when he had some catching up to do with Jeb Allen at the final race of the season. Gary had to win the race, set low e.t., and top mile per hour to eclipse Jeb. He did win the race, and set low e.t., but missed top mile per hour by 2.

This era of dominance was all achieved in the Larry Minor era. The first 3 years with Minor were mostly winning and record-setting, culminating in a Championship. The 2 near misses were filled with great performances and wins and were a prelude to their tremendous 1983 season. That year Gary dominated the NHRA circuit, qualifying number 1 at almost every race, and seemingly setting National Records at every event. He stunned fellow racers and fans alike by being the first in the 5.50’s, then running a barrage of 5.40’s before uncorking a back-breaking 5.39 in Fremont to lock up the 1983 Championship. The 5.39 was run immediately after putting the Waterman red pump on, obviously, the engine still wanted more fuel. He then repeated the 5.39 at the year-end Ontario Motor Speedway race to re-set the National record. That record would stand for more than 2 years before Don Garlits eclipsed it, then Darrell Gwynn claimed the record as his own in Indy with a 5.34. What most people don’t realize is that this was a small team, comprised of Gary Beck, Bernie Fedderly, Bill Wolter, and Terry Caldwell. They were a very hard-working group, especially when Larry added his own car in 1983, double the trouble, double the fun!

Gary had been fired many times from Minor racing, but they mostly patched things up within a few days. Gary related about one time; “We were racing Columbus, it would have been with the blue car, it was before Bernie, and I got beat second round by Lucille Lee. The next race is Montreal. I was mad, I made a mistake driving and I got beat. I had her covered, but I hit the parachute early. What I did, it was that low-speed lever on the dash that I had to slam shut, but I hit the chute instead, I made a mistake. We loaded our stuff up and headed for Montreal. I had to call Larry at 7 pm California time every day and talk to him. So we drive until 7 pm the next day, and we are a long ways east. I call Larry, he answers and just says You’re Fired, bring that shit home. I said, “Hey Larry, wait a minute, let’s talk about this.” He said, “There is no talking, bring that shit home, you’re all fired.” So the team got a hotel and talked about it. They had all just been fired.

In the morning, they decided they had better start back towards Hemet, California. So I call Larry at 7 pm the next day, but his wife answers, and asks Gary, “Where are ya?” “Well, we’ve turned around, we’re on our way back to Hemet.” “Oh thank goodness,” she says, “Larry thought you were going to leave the rig there and fly home.” So I didn’t call Larry the next 2 days. He was sitting in his race truck waiting for us to get back; waiting for the rig to show up. He says, “Jump in the truck,” and we drive all over the potato fields for hours, talking. Finally, he said, “Alright, let’s put it back together, let’s go to the next race.” It was too late to go back to Montreal, so we went to Englishtown. That’s what it was like working for him. Gary ran very well again in 1984; he finished second in points and won 3 consecutive races: Baton Rouge, Columbus, and Montreal. His last National event win was a 5.53 to 5.55 final round against Gary Ormsby at the 1985 World Finals in Pomona. By 1986 the team had lost their magic, Gary figures that their tune-up was tied to a certain super-charger and once they lost it, nothing was the same. Once, while Gary was struggling, he was interviewed by Steve Evans. When asked why he didn’t just go back to the 5.40 tune-up, Beck said, “You know, sometimes in the quest to move forward, you change things, try different parts, and in the process, you forget how to go 5.40.” In 1986, Gary got fired for the final time. Gary wanted to make more money and needed to enhance his income. Larry wanted no part of it. Gary wanted a bigger rainbow at the end of the year, but Larry was tough and ruthless. There were no real hired driver positions available at the time, so he became the test driver for the McGee quad cam car, tested for Joe Amato, and drove for Mike Peek. All this allowed him to come down from professional racing without having to quit cold turkey.

Nevertheless, Gary Beck was a major player in the top fuel ranks for almost 20 years. A gentleman to be admired and respected for his achievements in drag racing, his ingenuity, and his quiet, laid-back personality that has allowed him to maintain his many friendships to this day.

A very special thanks goes out to Gary Beck and Ray Peets for their patience through the interview process, and to all the photographers that contributed.

Bob Boudreau
Bob Snyder
Tom Nagy
Cami Beck
Andrew Casey
Les Hitchcock
Vern Scholz
Ernie Morris
John Free
Tom West
Rich Carlson

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