Jack Beckman said he has been “chompin’ at the bit to come back for the Winternationals.”
It’s no wonder, considering he won the Funny Car final at the same Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-closer last November.
However, the manner in which he earned his victory but lost the championship to final-round opponent Robert Hight by eight points was only one quirky component to a thoroughly messy final day of the season.
A first-round Top Fuel incident between Steve Torrence and Cameron Ferré left repeat champion Torrence with a hefty punishment. Greg Anderson legally manipulated the qualifying order in Pro Stock so he could have the chance to knock off three-time-champion-in-waiting Erica Enders, but his plan backfired. Jiana Salinas scored an upset Pro Stock Motorcycle victory, taking advantage of the mistakes or mechanical failures of every single opponent, all while resisting Matt Smith’s bribe in his bid for a fourth crown. And then came the unlikely scenario in the already tense Hight-Beckman match-up that would determine the Funny Car champion.
All points leader Hight had to do to record his third title was keep the car in his own lane (so as not to get a point deduction and hand the championship to second-place Beckman). And because he is a careful and even-keeled competitor, Hight was expected to do that easily – which he did. But that race was memorably weird from the start – and Hight and Beckman each recalled it from his own perspective during the recent PRO preseason test session at Las Vegas.
Hight said, “I don’t like drama. I like to do my business and try to win and get it done.” But drama is what he found himself in the middle of before the burnout was over. Hight performed a dazzling, smoky burnout. But the normally intimidating and reliable Auto Club Chevy Camaro stopped still down the racetrack. Hight climbed out through the roof, scrambled over the guard wall, and the Funny Car season was over, with a split decision: Hight was champion, Beckman the race-winner and runner-up.
“That really was all about just letting off the steam. We knew we won, so it was go out there and put a show on for the fans. They loved it. The fans went nuts. I got so many positive notes and a lot of encouragement about it,” Hight said. “So it was just like kind of relax a little bit. Didn’t mean for it to die. That also put Jack in a dangerous situation, leaving a parked car on the racetrack when he had to go make a run. That’s not good.”
From Beckman’s side of the racetrack, a completely different thought process was unfolding.
“It is interesting stuff that goes through your mind in a very short period of time, the 2012 series champion and driver of the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger said. “I saw Robert open the hatch after doing this massive burnout, which first of all, he never burns out before us. So I’m like, ‘Well, that was interesting.’
“But John [Force] did it against us when Brittany clinched the Top Fuel championship. He did a long-ass burnout and told us ahead of time, ‘Man, don’t worry about the race, I just want to do a big burnout for my baby girl.’ So I thought, against John, we we’re going to get a single, till I see him backing up at 90 miles an hour. I’m like, ‘Son of a bitch, we’re going to wind up racing here.’ And it was actually a good race. So with Robert I thought it was going to be the same thing until I see the roof hatch open and him come out,” Beckman said.
“And I thought, ‘Well, we just won the race, no matter what we do.’ And then I thought that if we idle down the track, this is going to suck for the fans. The world championship just been decided, one car is going to shut off, and the other’s going to idle,” he said. “So we’re waiting to get word from the starter what they’re going to do with the car, and they’re not going to do anything with the car and it’s not even in the middle of the lane. It’s over towards the center line there. So Guido [crew chief Dean Antonelli] and I made eye contact, and he just mouths, ‘Be safe.’ So I thought if it wiggled or if it did anything funny, we’d shut off.”
It’s still unexplained why officials allowed Beckman to make his pass with a disabled car down-track and scooted rather close to his lane. Some wondered if live-TV concerns had trumped safety. Whatever the reason, Beckman had more concerns before launching than he should have had to contemplate. He shrugged it off and made his run.
“But it was also nice to go out there and set low E.T. of the day and get the win with an exclamation point,” Beckman said. “You want to win, but if you could write the script you want to win in dominating fashion. We didn’t get to race in the final, but we did run the quickest run of the day. So I think that we ended all doubts there.”
Maybe not for Hight.
Meanwhile, an NHRA official sped over to Hight to get an explanation of what had happed with his car, and that official suggested to Hight that he had conceded the race willingly, just for show.
So Hight was accused of stopping his car on purpose.
“Yes, and I would not do that, Hight said. “I wanted to come back and I wanted to try to kick his ass, OK?, in the final. And I believe we could have. He ran 3.92. We could have ran that. So I feel that one slip away there, because I could have had a season with seven wins.”
He already had a career-best six victories. But, Hight said, “It could have been one more and more bonus money and everything else.”
For awhile, confusion reigned about the cause of Hight’s mechanical trouble. Immediately, he said on the public-address system that he had no clue why the car quit but reassured fans that the halt was unintentional. Then in the media center, he said the car had no gas. Finally, a crew member said during the winners-circle hoopla pointed the finger at a broken connecting rod or rods.
“That was wrong, and I’ve cleared that up,” Hight said. “I did run out of fuel. It didn’t run out of fuel as in no fuel in the tank. What happened was I did such a long burnout, the fuel tank was lower and I got on the brakes super, super hard to get the thing stopped, to get back so I didn’t hold up Jack Beckman. So when you hit the brakes, you decelerate and everything goes forward. Well that was enough less fuel in it, and it all went ran forward and the pump couldn’t pick it up.
“It was me. I needed to be a little more gingerly with the brakes and slow down smoothly and that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“And I was kind of bummed about that,” Hight said, “because we had a streak going. We didn’t kick the rods out of this thing one time last year, which is very, very hard for anybody to say that.”
So why would a mechanic say that?
“Well, because one of the guys thought that’s why it died,” Hight said. “And even [assistant crew chief] Chris Cunningham, he said, ‘You know, doing a burnout that long with it being that lean you could probably kick the rods out.’ Well it didn’t, which was really good, because we made it a whole season without kicking the rods out. That’s a big deal for as many runs as we made.”
“The fans got their money’s worth at the end of the day,” Beckman said.
Hight agreed, saying overall that “the drama was crazy, crazy. But in all honesty, that’s what the fans want to see, too. So that’s why we’re here as competitors. It’s not what we want. You want to have a big lead and do the best you can and wrap it up before Vegas [the next-to-last event of the year]. That’s the best thing, but it probably makes it more exciting for the fans, and that’s probably the most important. That’s why we’re here.”
The nutty possibilities start again this Friday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.