Jack Beckman, a former U.S. Air Force Sergeant, doesn’t have a traditional corporate sponsor for his NHRA Funny Car. The vehicle is funded by the late philanthropist and racing enthusiast Terry Chandler. Instead of a corporate logo, Beckman’s car features the insignia of the Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF), a not-for-profit that helps wounded military veterans. Beckman, the 2012 NHRA Funny Car World Champion, likes to give back. He is a cancer survivor himself.
We sat down with Beckman, a 51-year-old high school dropout and former elevator repairman, to get some perspective on how he thinks about life and racing. Following are edited excerpts from a longer conversation.
Jim Clash: How did your cancer diagnosis in 2004 change your life?
Jack Beckman: That’s a tough question because I can’t go back and not have cancer and relive the rest of those years. We don’t get that Jimmy Stewart “It’s a Wonderful Life” experience. I think if you knew me then and know me now, I’m not a completely different person. I think it took something away from me. I was more fun, a little sharper before the cancer. I don’t know that anybody necessarily would notice that. But I think it’s made me a more useful person. I talk to people with cancer all the time. Not a week goes by where I don’t get an email or text. At our Houston race, I visited the oncology ward of the Children’s Hospital there. I think talking to somebody who has been through a similar experience makes you realize you are not alone and there’s hope.
Clash: I’ve heard that you over-prepare before you get into your Funny Car.
Beckman: I understand when I get into the car that something can go wrong. So I wear more than the required minimum listed in the rulebook. You don’t have to wear the inner gloves or the inner shoes under your boots. I do. Everybody who has ever strapped me in the racecar – and I’ve had a number of crew members do it – has commented that no driver ever wanted to be that tight with the harnesses. Most drivers say, ‘I don’t want to be in that tight, it hurts.’ But if I’m in an accident, then it’s too late. So I think I do a good job of over-preparing. I also think I do a good job of knowing what the imitations of the car are, and when it’s time to abort a run.
Clash: What’s it like to go 300 mph?
Beckman: Everybody thinks it’s “fun.” I have another dragster that goes 180 mph. It’ll run 7.25 seconds in the quarter mile. That’s fun. It’s fast enough to feel and enjoy it, and it’s slow enough where you can pay attention to what’s going on around you. These Funny Cars are not slow enough to pay attention to anything around you. You’re so focused in those four seconds on making sure it goes to the finish line correctly, and, if something bad happens, reacting instantly. You don’t get to enjoy it. If there were a passenger seat, sign me up because you would love it. You would have no responsibilities. It’s the roller coaster effect. I’m not responsible and I can sit back and enjoy.
Clash: How do you react to a catastrophic malfunction in he car?
Beckman: Sometimes bad things are going to happen, and they happen in a hurry. It’s not like you’re driving at the top end of 320 mph and say, ‘Wait a minute, that camshaft doesn’t sound right.’ The idea is you don’t want to become a passenger at that point. You want to do everything you can, even when the body blows off in a million pieces and you have fire in your face. I don’t want to go into that other lane and crash into the wall. We can stick another body on the car, but if I crash the chassis into the wall, we’re out a racecar, plus I could get hurt – or hurt the driver in the other lane.
Clash: Lots of drivers have gone through the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School. You have taught there and are a graduate yourself.
Beckman: I met Frank in 1997. I wanted to upgrade my license to top alcohol dragster. I was already racing my own car in Super Comp. My dad wasn’t rich. I didn’t have a famous last name. If I were to get to the next level, I had to figure out how to open some doors. I thought that getting my alcohol license was a good line on my resume to open those doors.
(For more information on the Infinite Hero Foundation, visit: www.infinitehero.org.)
James M. (Jim) Clash, a New York-based journalist and Fellow at The Explorers Club, covers extreme adventure and culture. He owns a ticket to fly in space with Virgin Galactic.