Beckman wins Mike Aiello Award


 Jack Beckman won the National Hot Rod Association's 2003 Super Comp national championship and is in the running for the 2011 Funny Car title as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series drama comes down to its final day Sunday, Nov. 13.

He's licensed in eight NHRA categories an has taught more than 6,000 students at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School. He and wife Jenna have two beautiful children. He drives for Don Schumacher Racing, one of the sport's premier teams. He served in the U.S. Air Force and has visited hospitalized soldiers and pediatric cancer patients.

He has the perfect, charmed life. Or does he?

He dropped out of school but earned his GED and has reveled in being a teacher and inspiration to youth. He survived a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, although his doctor told him he never would father children because of the chemotherapy effects. Four years after miracle son Jason was born, the Beckmans welcomed daughter Layla this summer. He began this NHRA season addressing rumors that he was going to lose his driving job at DSR. He's ending the season vying for the championship, just 12 points away from leader and DSR mate Matt Hagan as the final day of competition dawned.

For overcoming his poor choices as a youngster to become a contributing member of society, for proving himself stronger than cancer, for building his loving family, and for ignoring rumors to race to a legitimate chance to win the Funny Car championship, Beckman received a special award Saturday, Nov. 12 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

He was named the fifth recipient of CompetitionPlus.com's Mike Aiello "Spirit of Drag Racing" Award, which recognizes someone who has persevered, remained positive in spite of hardship, and succeeded.

The award honors Aiello, a longtime drag-racing fan, one-time NHRA Pro Stock crew member for Jerry Yeoman, and Competition Plus contributor who spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, Aiello not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among racers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior.

 

Aiello, a Houston native, passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39, in Santa Monica, Calif.

An emotional Beckman accepted the award with a story about Aiello and what his friend taught him.

"Mike was a great friend of mine," Beckman, who presented the first Mike Aiello Award in 2007 to John Medlen, said. "It's truly humbling to have Mike's name live on. I'm truly humbled."

 

Beckman said he remembers trying to phone Aiello at UCLA Medical Center, only to learn that Aiello had passed away the day before. He said that's "the one thing that has nagged me and dictated never to procrastinate. It tells me never, never, never say, 'I'll do something tomorrow.' I missed the chance to spend one last day with Mike. Don’t ever say, 'I'll take care of that tomorrow, because for some people there's not tomorrow."

Beckman, of Norco, Calif., is one of the Funny Car championship contenders in the Don Schumacher Racing-owned Valvoline NextGen / Aaron's Dream Machine Dodge Charger. This season he has three victories (Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix) in five final-round appearances and with one more race to complete has compiled a 33-18 elimination-round record. Overall he has 12 victories and 15 runner-up finishes and a 167-115 race-day record.

And none of it came easy for the Southern California native.

Beckman dropped out of high school, although he got his GED later. He wasn't exactly a hellion, and he certainly was no dumbbell. As a fourth-grader he was placed in an accelerated learning program. But just as some children are self-conscious because they stutter or have a weight problem, Beckman struggled with an eye allergy. Any foreign particles that found their way under his sensitive eyelids caused trouble, scratching his cornea when he blinked. His vision suffered. ("I still have a tough time when I'm taking pictures," he confessed.)

 

When he was in elementary school, his teachers would apply eye drops throughout the day, and he was able to keep up with his peers. But along came middle school, which is tough enough with puberty, image concerns, and awkwardness. Beckman had the added aggravation of flawed vision, squinting, feeling insecure about physically maneuvering the hallways between classes, and . . . well, you name it. It was overwhelming, trying to sort it all out at that age.

And seven hours of that every day wasn't appealing to him, so, he said, "I would ditch the first couple of classes, until I felt better about myself. I discovered I still could pass my classes if I went just three days a week. My eye allergy begat this laziness, and not going to school became more tolerable."

 

His parents tried everything they could to correct his behavior. "They took my car away. They did everything," Beckman said. But losing his driving privileges didn't stop his willful behavior. He quit school and took a job in a tool warehouse and found that his passion was . . . not working in a tool warehouse. But college, he decided, wasn't his calling, either. "I didn't apply myself when it was free. What would make me think I would apply myself when I had to pay for it?" he reasoned.

 

Eventually he got his GED -- got a high-school proficiency equivalent, scoring better than 92 percent on the United States Air Force entry exam.

During his four years in the service, Sgt. Jack Beckman worked in avionics, helping fine-tune the "black boxes" for the F-111 "Aardvark" fighter-bomber aircraft. He took his first trip down the dragstrip at Lubbock, Texas, while in the military. Eventually, as a civilian, he found a home in drag racing, teaching at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School, earning his own licenses and winning a sportsman championship, driving one of his beloved Top Fuel dragsters, setting the Funny Car quarter-mile speed record, and being a perennial Funny Car contender representing DSR.

When he has spoken to youth groups, Beckman makes sure to refute the argument that "You dropped out of school and you ended up OK." He tells them, "Yeah, I ended up OK, but I had to do extra work, way more than if I had just done what I was supposed to. Shortcuts seem like the fastest way to get somewhere when you're young. The advice you get from your parents is perfect, although you don’t see it at the time. But if you try to take shortcuts you'll be farther behind than if you had just done it the right way the first time."

What he might want to tell the rumormongers might not be fit to print. He simply said, borrowing Mark Twain's line, "The rumors of my death were highly exaggerated, huh? Hopefully this solidifies our chances of being back here for years to come."

He has triumphed in more significant battles. Not long after winning the 2003 Super Comp championship on the sportsman level, he got a diagnosis of cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"I had the drag racing to keep me going. Throughout all the chemotherapy, I was lucky. I missed only two drag races and only two days of teaching at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School. So two of my biggest loves kept me in the game."

The price of survival, the doctor told him, was that he never would father children. However, in March 2007, Jack and Jenna Beckman became parents of son Jason Russell. This July 12, they welcomed daughter Layla May.

 

In congratulating Beckman, Don Schumacher Racing Vice-President Mike Lewis said, "This proves that drag racing isn’t just about E.T.s and win lights and Christmas Trees. It's about people."

Beckman said, "I'm just unbelievably fortunate to get a paycheck driving a car that's competing for the championship right now. It's hard to explain how fulfilling that is."

Here's a hint: At age seven, his Uncle John took him and brother Ted to iconic Southern California dragstrips Orange County, Ontario, Irwindale, and Bakersfield. Said Beckman, "I still can remember the smell . . . the ground and how it shook you . . . I even remember what the nachos tasted like. It woke something in me. As soon as we'd get to the track, I jump out of the car and start running."

He laughed at the sight of his flustered uncle trying to corral him. "I drove 12 races in the Top Fuel class in 2005, and I still run toward the grandstands when the dragsters run," he said.

Beckman's focus, though, is the Funny Car class. He opened the 2011 Countdown by rewriting the national speed record at 318.99 mph at Charlotte. He seized the lead in winning Oct. 16 at Phoenix but yielded it 14 days later at Las Vegas.

By the ultimate event, the Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, he switched from hunted to hunter, but he took it in stride.

He said he's not certain what winning the championship would mean. "I don't have any idea what it would mean," Beckman said. "It's a little bit of an intangible. I don't think it would change me. I think it gives you credibility. It gives you a better resume.

"Ultimately the reason we race is competition," he said. "And the best thing that happens in competition is you're standing on top of the mountain at the end of the day, all by yourself."

That, he could vouch, is no piece of cake. But how sweet it would be for Beckman to rise above the negatives one more time this year.

Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson (2008), Pro Stock's Mike Edwards (2009), and International Hot Rod Association racer and journalist Michael Beard (2010) also have accepted the award.

Despite all his experiences, Beckman said, "I can't say anything to change anybody's life. I can wheel the toolbox up to your car, but you have to use the tools inside it."

He did, and that's what the Mike Aiello Award is all about.

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