Adding a few drag racing magazines to the collection has turned into something much bigger for Funny Car star.
Jack Beckman is the 2012 NHRA Funny Car champion who drives for Don Schumacher Racing.
A student of history, Beckman is also the leading collector of Hot Rod and Drag News magazines in the NHRA paddock.
One of the things that gives Beckman the biggest kick outside of a race car is correcting drag racing history through his own research.
Jack Beckman discovered this year that sometimes you don’t choose a quest. Sometimes a quest chooses you.
Beckman, the 2012 NHRA Funny Car champion and current driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for Don Schumacher Racing, is knee deep into a journey to preserve and share drag racing history. It’s a journey that began innocently enough with a simple question from someone wanting to know if Jack might want some old drag racing magazines.
Check that. Beckman is not knee deep. More like waist deep.
No. Beckman is in over his head on this project. Literally.
While Beckman, 54, is used to the flames associated with an NHRA Funny Car, he’s spent by his own account more than 400 hours gathering, cataloging, researching, sharing and keeping the flame of drag racing history burning through what’s become a massive collection of old magazines.
“I didn’t start out on a quest,” Beckman told Autoweek. “It’s just one of those things, I don’t know, serendipitous.”
The quest chose Beckman just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NHRA for the spring and early summer months. Beckman, thinking he might be taking on a little light reading, took on what turned out to be some heavy lifting.
“Back in February, a friend of a friend told my friend, ‘Hey, I’ve got a bunch of old drag racing publications. Do you think Jack might want them?’ Now, I’m not a pack rat, but I am accused of being a little disorganized. My wife is the polar opposite, she saves nothing.
“I always realize subconsciously the price I pay if I lug stuff home.”
It’s safe to say the price was pretty high this time.
“I go over to this guy’s house and I figured he had a box of old stuff for me,” Beckman says. “He had 23 boxes.”
In other words, that was the moment that Beckman added archivist to his resume’.
“If you wanted to read about drag racing in the early days, there weren’t many places you could read about it,” he said. “Hot Rod magazine started covering it in 1950—I believe that’s the first reference you’ll see of drag racing in Hot Rod magazine. The NHRA didn’t even start until 1951. But, really, the first dedicated publication would have been Drag News that came out in March of 1955.”
The first drop off of boxes became what Beckman calls “Widget A.”
“So, this guy says, ‘I’ve got every issue of Hot Rod.’ They went from ’55 to ’78,” Beckman says. “So I brought them home. He’s got them in boxes, in bags, and I inventory everything. He’s missing about 160.
“Here’s the thing. If you’ve got a collectible piece, and you’ve got two out of 100 of them, you’re fine with just having two. But you have 98 out of 100, you’re almost obligated to go find the other two. So, what happens is, I put some feelers out. And then there’s another buddy of mine, Don Hampton, a guy who is 86 years old, runs his own supercharger company, works six days a week. The guy has has been running a nitro car since 1959. He calls me and says, ‘Come get all my stuff.'”
“I never intended for this to happen.”
Yep. More boxes.
“I never intended for this to happen,” Beckman says. “When I got the first collection, I realized this is more than just a couple boxes of stuff. This is an archive that can be made available for people to research, and I’m feeling that I’m more the custodian of this. But, now I feel like to do this correctly, I have to complete it.”
Back to the widgets.
“To complete this, let’s call that Widget A,” Beckman says. “I go get this enormous collection of this guy’s Widget A, B, C and D. Now I’ve got to come home and sort them all out into their different decades, into their different years, into their months. So, that fills in about 30 more of the Hot Rod collection.
“Then another guy, who also used to be a supercharger manufacturer and a Top Fuel racer, Larry Bowers, says ‘Come and get all my my stuff.’ By the time I get all his stuff and get it back home, I’m still missing 100 Drag News, but now I’ve got almost every Hot Rod magazine.”
Beckman had a start to this crazy obsession, er collection, right under his own roof even before all the boxes started filling up not one, but two, garages.
“My dad got his first Hot Rod magazine when he and his family were on vacation—they lived in Maryland, they were down in Florida on vacation,” Beckman says. “My grandfather bought it for my dad off the newsstand, and it was August of 1950. I still have that magazine. My dad started subscribing in March of 1951, and I have all his stuff from ’51 through ’62.
“I had them in plastic up in my attic, and I had never looked at them in the 30 years that I’ve had possession of them because they’re old and I didn’t know what would have been interesting about about reading a 1951 Hot Rod magazine. I started subscribing in ’84, and I read all the car magazines then, every single month. Years ago, I went through my attic and I got rid of everything from ’85 and newer because I just didn’t have any room.”
Truth is, he still doesn’t have the room, but it hasn’t stopped him. Just slowed him a bit.
“Now I’m getting close to filling my Widget A’s, and I’ve got almost every Widget B. So, just because of social media and me talking about this stuff, literally a fan from St. Louis chatted with me and brings me four Hot Rod magazines that just about fill in my whole collection from 1948 to 1983. I had to pick a stopping point there.
“With a wife with OCD, this does not do much to endear me when I bring another truckload of stuff home and start inventorying it. I still am dealing with a garage full of the C, D, E and F widgets. Now I’m trying to figure out which ones do I keep, which ones to I get rid of. And it’s time to box these up and put them in another garage that I built a few years ago.”
Beckman knows that he’s sitting on a historical gold mine. The question is how to share it with drag racing fans and his fans.
To that, Beckman turned to social media and his own website. He’s produced and stars in a series of 10-minute videos, each covering one year of drag racing history. He’s knocked out the ’50s already. The history series videos can be found on Beckman’s website.
These videos are nothing fancy, mind you.
“It’s me sitting on a milk crate in my garage surrounded by boxes,” Beckman says. “I did that very intentionally because I want people to recognize this isn’t me sitting in front of a computer, this isn’t a team of experts doing this. This is a guy who’s a hot-rodder that got a bunch of periodicals and just started sitting down and reading them and wants to impart what’s going on.
“Take the video for 1955. I sit down on the crate and say, ‘Drag Racing. 1955. Chevrolet small block comes out and revolutionizes the performance world. So now you’ve got the Chrysler Hemi, you’ve still got the last couple years of the Ford Mercury V8. You’ve got the Oldsmobile and Cadillac overheads. Lions Drag Strip opens up October 8. They’re just breaking the 150-mph barrier. Here’s some of the safety rules that are in place. Here’s what NHRA is doing.’ “
You get the picture.
“It’s 10 minutes of me just talking about facts,” he says. “My mother-in-law watched one of them and said, ‘I don’t get it. You’re talking too fast and there’s too many stats.’ And I said, ‘I totally get it, and I appreciate your opinion, but recognize you’re not my target audience.’ “
Beckman realized that he had hit on something pretty special when he heard from one of his racing heroes.
“Gary Densham is a Funny Car racer. I inducted him into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame three years ago,” Beckman says. “He’s kind of a badass. When I was a kid going to the races, he was driving a Nitro Funny Car. I very much value the fact that we’re friends now.
“It’s also not lost on me that it’s a little bit like being the high school baseball player going up through the ranks and one day realizing your friends are Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. So, Gary calls me up one day and says, ‘I’m addicted. When’s the next episode coming out?’
“That’s exactly what it was targeted for. If Gary Densham says, ‘These are awesome, give me more,’ that keeps me going.”
A byproduct of this project has been that Beckman has been able to right some of the wrongs of drag racing history. Wrong dates and wrong facts, that is.
“The more I read on the ’50s—I’ve only really gotten to 1960 in my research—the more I realize just how stunningly badass that era was in drag racing. I’ve educated myself a bunch.
“I’ve also cleared up a whole bunch of bad information. I have sources that I can rely on, Phil Burgess at NHRA is unbelievable. I’m going to leave out probably 30 people who deserve to be mentioned. Dave Wallace Jr. is certainly one of those guys who is way up there. My two titans are Bob Frey (the voice of the NHRA) and (historian) Bret Kepner. Bob is in New Jersey and Bret is in St. Louis area. They’re my phone-a-friends on this stuff.
“They are are far better researches than me. I don’t think there’s any drivers out there doing more than I am or who are more interested than I am in drag racing history. There are some that are as interested, but I closed my eyes and jumped right in.”
Diving in has led to a lot of interesting discoveries.
“Prior to 1955, a lot of articles are fraught with errors,” Beckman says. “If you did an Internet search, you’ll find that the first commercial drag strip that ran successfully was Santa Ana Drags at what is now the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.
“If you set out to find ‘What was Opening Day at Santa Ana Drags,’ nine out 10 Internet searches are going to yield June 19, 1950. There’s a book written by Bob Post, a curator at the Smithsonian. It’s probably the most researched book on drag racing. His book says Sunday, June 19, 1950.
“Well, Bob didn’t have the benefit of the Internet then. June 19, 1950 was a Monday. So, he can’t be right that it was Sunday, June 19, 1950. Now, the best I can tell, and my friends corroborate this as well, it was actually Sunday, July 2, 1950.
“My search took me to Jerry Hart, an 82-year-old guy’s house. He was a 36-year retired Anaheim, Calif., fireman. His dad happened to be C.J. “Pappy” Hart, the man who opened Santa Ana Drags in 1950. I spent six hours at his son’s house combing through paperwork, and I found some stuff that was just gems. And I see something that says July 2, 1950.”
“If you’re a researcher and try to corroborate something, and you read June 19, 1950 and then you go another source, and then you go to Bob Post’s book and all of those say June 19, 1950, guess what? At your seminar, you’re going to say it was June 19, 1950,” Beckman says. “You figure that all those people must be good at research and they came up with that.
“All you just did was perpetuate a falsehood.”
You’re telling us that Wikipedia is not always right?
“So, oftentimes, when you’re the first guy who says, “Hey, wait a minute, that date’s wrong.’ You get a lot of pushback because it’s one against 200 at that point. Somebody let bad information get out there. So much of our history is something we heard or read and we take it for granted. A lot that is bad information.
“It’s been awesome overturning some of this bad information.”