It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the loss of Raymond Beadle a week ago Monday has surely resonated within the NHRA community, and my request last Friday for your personal tales of what Beadle meant to you was welcomed to the, ahem, max.
I know how I felt about Beadle as a giant in the class, so I wasn’t surprised to see him referred to by some of you as a god and other superlatives.
Let me kick this off with some words from someone I probably should have included last Friday, Don Schumacher, who put Beadle into the saddle of one of his three Stardust entries — Schumacher drove one and Bobby Rowe the other — in late 1972, and later transitioned into the Wonder Wagon cars. I spoke to Schumacher earlier this week while working on the Jimmy Prock news story, and he was happy to share his memories of Beadle.
“Raymond had a remarkable sales ability that led to real changes in the sport in merchandising but also sold himself to me to get that ride,” remembers Schumacher. "He was a great driver and a real character; no matter what, you had to respect Raymond Beadle. What he accomplished after he partnered with Harry, I have my hat off to. He left behind a remarkable record. He was a good guy, and I always enjoyed seeing him at the Dallas race and at Indy once in a while. I missed seeing him there this year. We mourn his loss.”
met Beadle in 1972 when Beadle just started driving for Mike Burkhart. “I approached Beadle about shooting the car for Drag Racing USA
. Beadle didn’t know me from the man on the moon, but he just smiled and said, ‘Sure let’s do it.’ Before we parted that day, he had filled out my tech sheet and made sure I had the correct info. No other racer had or has ever done that.
“Our paths would cross on the Funny Car match race circuit for the next six years. When I worked for Argus Publishers as their photographic director, out of the blue (no pun intended), Beadle calls and wants to know if I’d like to go to England with the Blue Max gang. A chance to tour with the Blue Max? Hey, I’m ready. I ended up going twice to England with Beadle, ‘Waterbed,’ and Emery in 1978. All I can say it was a once in a lifetime tour, and we had a great time.”
Scott New, whose family owns famed Firebird Raceway in Idaho, will never forget his first brush with Beadle and the Blue Max. “The Blue Max made a number of appearances here, including a one-night match race with Kenney Goodell on a Tuesday night (who was a last-minute substitution for John Dekker's Assassination Funny Car from Denver, who couldn't make the mid-week bash after breakage, I think). I'm pretty sure the special race in the mid-‘70s was likely a mid-week stop gap between similar events in Seattle and Portland. To no one’s surprise, the place was packed.
“When Dad booked him in for one of our original Nightfire 500 events (as it was originally called), all of us New boys really thought the Lord was making an appearance at our track, especially after Bill Doner lit up the Boise airwaves with a slew of radio spots clamoring that the legendary Blue Max was coming all the way from Texas to join a field of fiberglass fantastics. My father was thrilled when Beadle won our Nightfire in 1978 — it was a huge highlight for all of us in the New Crew, a memory that is virtually etched in stone up here in Spud country. I think my dad wore his Blue Max cap with those gold sewn military-style ‘eggs’ on that Max hat for the next decade or even two.”
Howard Hull, a former employee at Orange County Int’l Raceway and a frequent contributor to this column, shared his remembrances of a memorable moment with that Blue Max team that occurred at the 1977 Winternationals in Pomona.
“Bill Doner, the great drag racing promoter in the ‘70s and ‘80s, who had all the racetracks on the West Coast, had me drive him out to the track in his limo that he had purchased from the driving school at OCIR. I would carefully park it next to Blue Max pits and hang out with Harry [Schmidt] and Fred [Miller], and Bill would grab his briefcase and walk around and meet with the racers and the NHRA officials Friday and Saturday. Fred and Harry were working on the car, so I got to help between rounds, twisting wrenches with them and setting the valves. I took a school notebook and started making notes on the settings each round as I learned on how to tune the race car and the setup — quite different from today. At the end of the day, Doner would come back, gather me up, and home we’d go. After Saturday’s qualifying, I pulled some ice-cold Coors out the cooler in the trunk and gave them to the guys. Doner yelled at me for giving his beers away. I told him, “My friends let me work on the car this weekend, and we qualified well,” and Beadle jumped in about me knowing anything at all about the engine. As I was telling my side and the teams I had helped at OCIR over the last few years, Harry quietly showed him two bad gaskets that I had caught along with a cracked head bolt. Beadle then walked up to me and gave me that famous Beadle smile and turned to Doner, ‘[Expletive] off, he’s working for me now.’ Doner start laughing and headed us home."
(Above) Beadle lost the 1977 Winternationals Funny Car final to Don Prudhomme, but Jerry Ruth (below) beat Don Garlits win Top Fuel.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday: Beadle’s pit was a circus for sure. Grant McNiff, the former manager of Seattle Raceway, with Doner, his kids, and Bill’s kids were all running around. The late Steve Woomer, owner of Competition Specialties, was along with us; it was a fun Sunday at the races. Just before the semi’s, Beadle told the kids, who had been riding in the back of the tow vehicle from the starting line to the finish line, that they couldn’t ride this round: ‘We may blow up, so you guys have get off.’ Beadle wins that round with the foot mashed on the pedal through the lights and a motor with a hole in it. The thrash was on.
“Unlike today’s teams with eight guys and all of the technology, back then it was 90 minutes and three guys, so we all jumped in. Either Chip or Jason McCulloch went running over to Goodyear to get a new set of tires while I pulled the heads off and had to grind them down on the edges to make them fit the new block. We had several other racers working alongside, changing out the used fire bottles, wiping off the oil, and changing out the parachutes. ‘Jungle Jim’ was in charge of crowd control with a cocktail in one hand and the pennant string of flags, holding back the crowd as we worked frantically on the car.
“The car is finished, and we — kids and all — pile into the limo and roll through the staging lanes; this has to be a first as all of the NHRA officials just waved me through. I parked close to the starting line, and we watched as each class makes their final run, but Don Prudhomme beat the Blue Max in the final. However, Jerry ‘the King' Ruth, from Seattle is in the finals next to Don Garlits and has Competition Specialties on the side of the car as sponsor. Ruth wins big, and we all pile into the car, and I slowly drive down the racetrack to the finish line. I pull up next to Beadle and ‘Snake’ as they are chatting, and Bill opens the trunk. ‘Snake’ comes over and looks inside and starts laughing and says, ‘I like how you boys travel.’ He and Beadle grab a cold Coors and wish each other the best as they walk off to their tow rigs.
"As I drove the car home that Sunday evening — the kids sleeping, the adults chatting away — I slowly replayed that weekend’s events through my head; I wondered how much of a letdown high school was going to be the next day after spending the weekend helping out on the Blue Max.”
, who was married to one of Beadle’s ‘70s peers, Tripp Shumake, remembers well the Blue Max halter tops for which Beadle and Co. became famous.
“Raymond made sure all the ladies in the pits had one on,” she remembers. “I was fortunate enough to get one from him and wore it often. The races back east were always hot and muggy. Years later, my daughter, Heather, came across it and continued the legacy by wearing it during her college years. Raymond was not only a great racer and friend but also a smart business man who certainly knew what he was doing when he came up with the Blue Max halter top.”
Here’s a sampling of some other Raymond Beadle memories I received.
Murray McDonald: “Growing up in Western Canada, I never got the chance to see the Blue Max in action until my first trip to Indy in 1981, but I was a fan long before that. Reading National Dragster, SS&DI, and seeing the occasional race on TV made me a Blue Max fan. I remember getting a postal money order and mailing it to Texas for a Blue Max T- shirt; when the package arrived, it contained two T-shirts and two English Leather ‘on the go’ kits, which was awesome because I only ordered one shirt. I also recall sending fan letters to various racers, and the only replies I received were from the Blue Max and Terry Capp. This thoughtfulness only made me more of a fan. In this current world of computers and social media, I finally gave in and joined Facebook and signed up to follow the current edition of Blue Max Racing. A few months ago, I saw a post from Raymond Beadle asking what the car ran. I thought it was so cool to see a post from him, and it took me right back to the early ‘80s with the same excitement I had then when receiving my Blue Max parcel. For my generation, it truly was the golden era of drag racing, and there was no bigger star than Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max. Rest in peace, Mr. Beadle.”
Pat Welsh: “The 1979 Summernationals were magical for one reason: Raymond Beadle. I was 13 years old and attended all four days. During Thursday qualifying, Beadle ripped off the first five-second pass in a Funny Car at Englishtown. There were maybe 800 people in attendance, and I was honored to be one of them. After the run, he hopped on the highway to catch Bruce Springsteen in concert, I think in Philadelphia. He himself was a rock star. He came back on Saturday to run a 5.94 that paced the field by nearly a tenth of a second. He would go on to win the event over second-time finalist John Force.
"That same event had the Blue Max Top Fuel dragster with Dave Settles behind the wheel. He ran a 5.79 or thereabouts for the No. 1 qualifier. They went on to the final and lost to the unbeatable Jeb Allen.” [PB note: According to Settles, a brand-new input shaft broke on the run while he was leading Allen.]
“The next year, Beadle came back with that beautiful deep blue Chaparral trailer that was just immaculate. There wasn't a detail in that operation that wasn't first class. I was thoroughly impressed. That same trailer is still in operation on the current day Blue Max Nostalgia Funny Car. Raymond Beadle, thanks for the great memories. They are forever etched in my mind.”
John Jamison: “After reading your wonderful, heartfelt story on Raymond Beadle, I had to send this picture to you. It was taken Oct. 19 at Mo Kan Dragway in Asbury, Mo. It is a small track that opened in 1962 that has somehow managed to stay viable through all these years. I grew up nearby in Joplin, Mo., having been baptized on nitromethane from the likes of Terry Ivey and Omar Carrothers back in the early ‘70s. The Blue Max was in for a one-day match race with Ronny Young in the seat. I was able to speak with him, and he shared many stories of the Max and, of course, Raymond.
“When driving home, I was so excited for what I had seen, taking me back years when drag racing was, for me, the best. After learning of his passing the following day, I suppose what I also experienced was RB making his final spiritual pass down the quarter-mile. RB is certainly in a heavenly place now, but thanks to him, the Blue Max will live on forever.”
Kelly Westphal: My dad, Bob, who passed away in June 2013 from cancer, was hired by Raymond in the winter of 1979 to run his newly formed machine shop. My dad had been the shop foreman and head engine builder at Ed Pink’s from 1969-1977. He first met Raymond when they did engines for Don Schumacher. Long story short, in addition to doing his Funny Car engines, machine work, etc., Raymond appointed my dad to build the engines for the new sprint car team with driver Sammy Swindell. There was an alley that separated the buildings at the shop, on one end was the dyno room, and across was where Pat Foster built the Funny Car chassis. My dad was having troubles with an engine and got mad, to which he grabbed a few quarts of oil (Cam2 was our sponsor) and stepped outside and hurled them towards Foster’s shop, splattering oil everywhere! Foster comes running out to see the commotion, and Raymond steps out of the shop where Emery, Fred, and Dee were working on the car and casually walks to my dad and says, ‘You know you have to clean that mess up, don't you?’ LOL.”
Russell Cox: “Raymond was in and out of my life starting about 1977. I was working part time for ‘Moose’ at T-Bar chassis on Gasoline Alley (Reeder Road) in Dallas, and there was always a group of who's who in the shop. I was so thrilled to meet Raymond one evening. I was a nobody, but he was kind and friendly. Raymond had a new chassis there from Tony Casarez (T-Bar did most of Tony's tin work; this was before Raymond hired Pat Foster as his full-time chassis builder). A couple of years later, I went to Raymond looking for a crew job; he had nothing. However, on his own long-distance nickel, he called Paul Candies and inquired on my behalf. That was class. I ended up working for the late Gordon Mineo, where we crossed paths a good number of times.
"As I ‘grew up’ with a real job, Raymond and I crossed paths once again. He was now the owner of Chaparral Trailers, and I was with Prior Axle, the supplier of all the solid bar trailer axles used on those trailers. This continued on until the closing of Chaparral. We are all terminal, but Raymond's passing is as hard to accept as Gordon Mineo's was. What an honor it was to know them both!”
Garry McGrath: “Living on the other side of the world and being a drag race fan had its drawbacks, but thankfully we had Wide World of Sports on TV occasionally and various magazines to catch up on the latest happenings in the world of the quarter-mile wars. When I finally was old enough and had the bucks, I flew out to the States and took in my first NHRA race to see if what I was reading about and watching on TV occasionally was in fact real.
“During a walk through the pits in Arizona, I was totally a blubbering mess seeing the race cars and teams along with the drivers and had to sit for a while to take it all in, then, to my surprise, this cooler-than-cool dude was walking towards me chewing on a piece of chicken and walking like he owned the joint. It was the man, Raymond Beadle, and I lost it. As I stood up and walked towards him, he — in the smoothest way possible — tossed the chicken bone at my feet and said, ‘Howdy.’ I stood there and watched him pass by like I had just seen a god, not able to speak. I will never forget that image, and to this day, I try to eat chicken that way and say ‘Howdy’ to people. They look confused, but I know they see Beadle every time, and that, for me, feels cool — crazy, but true. He remains to this day my favorite driver and character of all time. He was an inspiration for me to enter the quarter-mile wars. My condolences to all his family and friends. He made a larger-than-life impression on people all over the world.”
Paul Seglund: “I was merely a fan back in the ‘70s when the Blue Max team seemed to burst on the scene but always rooted for them for obvious reasons. I was more involved with NASCAR and was really glad to see they used their expertise from a derided sport to beat the good ol’ boys for a while. It sure is tough losing all great people but glad you have a well-written forum for truly the golden age. Godspeed Raymond.”
Randy Johnson: "I was stunned (as was everyone else) by the news that another one of my drag racing heroes had graduated to that great dragstrip in the sky. My experience with Raymond was simple — he always made time for his fans. I specifically remember speaking to him in the pits at the ’82 Gators, not long after he flipped the Blue Max EXP racing against Al Segrini. Raymond was frustrated at himself but still found humor in the event. After ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits and ‘the Professor’ Warren Johnson, Raymond Beadle has always been my favorite drag racer. That fact made the decision very easy to purchase the item (above) when it was offered to me. I purchased the body from a local racing shop in Fort Lauderdale [Fla.]. They had gone to Beadles’ auction and won pallets of clutch parts for their Alcohol Funny Car. They didn’t know the lot they had won included three Blue Max bodies. Fortunately for me, I bought the last one left. A buddy I worked with at Florida Power & Light also worked in the evenings on their Funny Car. He told me to stop by their shop as there was something I might be interested in purchasing. I paid $600 for it, and it’s in amazing shape. It means even more to me now that Beadle is gone.”
Kris Miller: “I was astounded when I got to the roll-over picture. My first of 20-plus years attending the Gatornationals was in 1982. I can honestly state the one thing I absolutely remember from that race is the Blue Max car on its roof. My bud and I drove up to G-ville, and we did not know where the dragstrip was located. We followed the signs for the airport, and it got us there. We pulled up to the ticket booth that was literally in front of the track entrance adjoining the parking lot and bought our tickets. That was the only year we sat on the side of the track opposite from the pits. I also saw the Blue Max in 1971-72 at Maple Grove when 32 Funny Cars raced under the lights and was always a fan of the car.”
David "Mick" Michelsen: “I went to my first drag race in 1976 in Lakeland, Fla., and the first Funny Car I saw run was the Blue Max. You can re-read my email to you back when you did the column on “My First Drag Race.” After seeing the burnout, dry hops, and the run, I was hooked on drag racing, especially Funny Cars. I’ve been to every Gatornationals since 1978, so I have seen all of the Blue Max Funny Cars and one Top Fueler race there. The time he rolled the Blue Max at the Gatornationals, I was standing at the fence on the spectator side when he hung the left; he was headed right at us, so we all dove to the ground and didn’t get to see the results until it came out on the And They Walked Away video.”
Herb Edwards: “I was one of the ‘little people’ that was there from 1970 on. I’d do whatever it took and enjoyed it all, drag racing and being on the team. I was a mechanical engineer working at Texas Instruments in Dallas and hung out at Beadle’s shop as much as I could. My wife said I ‘lived’ there. He also had a speed shop in Dallas for a while, and I’d hang out there, too. I’d watch Tharp beat his chest, bragging about his driving, and I’d look over at Beadle and he’d raise his eyebrows, look up, and smile. It was one big family back then.
“I knew Raymond when he drove a Top Fuel car for Prentiss Cunningham in Lubbock and used to take his 6-year-old son to Six Flags when I worked at Chaparral. I’d see all the racers every day that are legends now. I was talking to Beadle one day, and the Ford factory rep walked up and slapped Beadle on the back and said, ‘I’m sorry, Beadle, we can only give you $5 million this year as we’re doing a Who concert with Budweiser, but I promise we’ll do better next year!’ He kept the Ford people happy sponsoring his Funny Car while at the same time having Pontiac sponsor his NASCAR operations when Rusty Wallace was driving. He was a master at doing that. When he got offered the driving job with Schumacher, he asked me if I thought he could do it. I told him he could beat anyone. I am a very lucky man to have experienced the racing life with one of the best.”
Tony West: “I can’t believe Raymond Beadle is with us no more. Only yesterday I hung two press kit covers to my study wall that I managed to get from a memorabilia show at Indy! I watched the Blue Max every time the team came over here to the UK to race, couldn’t find a more approachable and friendly group like the Blue Max!”
Chuck Dewandeler: “My memory of Raymond is how dominating his presence was at the Motorplex. Crisp white, starched dress shirt. He was watching his son, Ryan, and I go through the Roy Hill Drag Racing School in '99. Very pleasant and he was kind enough to sign my completion certificate (from Roy). I treasured that as much as the whole racing experience.”
Gary Crumrine: “We’ve lost another hero. Man, did he have a heavy foot and fear was not in his vocabulary. One of the guys that could run with the Chi-town Hustler, Prudhomme, Hawaiian, you name it. Really miss the Blue Max.”
As I mentioned at the start of last week’s column, writing about those who we’ve lost has been an ongoing part of this column and a dual-edged sword. While it saddens me to have to share their life stories because they’ve passed away, there’s a genuine sense of honor and duty to do it, for them, for their friends, family, and fans. I don’t take the responsibility lightly, and I can tell that you guys get that.
All of that brings me to a very telling and well-written submission by Insider reader Eric Widmer that I thought you might enjoy and relate to.
‘Tis a sad day today which will not end with the day’s passing. For most folks, Fridays are exciting as they are at the forefront of an emerging weekend with all kinds of niceties awaiting. Then, this guy who writes and edits and some other stuff for NHRA got the notion to write some cool articles that any racing fan looks forward to. But not anymore. I, mean we do, but it’s with trepidation and for quite some time.
We cannot resist the anticipation of looking forward to pictures of cars we thought we’d never see again, of reading of the personalities that made life great in the racing world, which is the real world for many, perhaps the only world. But the angst is momentarily paralyzing until it happens, with the striking of the right buttons in the right order, and ‘Voila’, it happens. The emotions ascending or descending depending on the opening line which starts the ‘read,’ and there it was.
When I was a little boy in the ‘60s, my mom took me to this great war movie. And then a few years later, there it was. You see? They had just built a racetrack named OCIR, and I begged and begged my mom to take me there. She finally relented in 1969 and did. After a couple of outings, a race car showed up with the movie’s namesake on the side of it. Could it be? There was no doubt. That name meant that car was a winner and something to be reckoned with. A fan was born. Kinda!! OK, not really a loyal fan. I mean, come on, "Mongoose" and "Snake" were there first for me. But think it through, man! These incredible, metal-flake and pearlescent paint jobs adorning raw power in the form of Funny Cars and dragsters.
I have to admit the intrigue I had with this gorgeous candy blue Mustang Mach I. And it furthers when the body is flipped up and a cowboy emerges from the cockpit. What a car, but then any car that looked great grabbed my attention. But that Blue Max emblazoned on the side, no matter the year, always looked great and ran great until the end crept up.
And now the cowboy that furthered the dream met an end that crept up. ‘Tis a sad day today which will not end with the day’s passing.
Anyway, I was trying to have fun when writing you, but this is miserable from any angle other than I’m delighted we had a Raymond Beadle in the first place.
And thank you for keeping us informed and in the loop, Phil. And for your dedication! I don’t know how this could work, but maybe there’s a way to write some features on the living legends while they’re still living. I mean, it really stinks that Raymond has left us along with Harry, and I’m glad we still have Fred Miller and Dale Emery.
Not to be morbid, but I am not looking forward to the future loss of greats as Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, and such. I just cannot imagine this world with them gone, nor do I want to. I had no idea that R.B. had such great relationships with Richard Tharp, Don Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, and the others you wrote about. How great would it have been to know this stuff while they’re still with us. I guess what I’m trying to say, today is a huge reminder of tremendous loss in one individual known as Raymond Beadle. It’s a reminder of former greats we’ve already lost and a little bit of drag racing itself has passed away. And I’m concerned with future loss.
And as far as I’m concerned, Raymond Beadle and all the greats are still alive, just in a different arena that we can’t see or hear. Still tough on us who are still here.
I definitely get what Eric is saying — Billy Meyer joked with me the other day that I ought to have a separate column just for tribute obituaries to keep the Insider on a happier vibe (like I’ve got time to do both — ha!) – but if you browse through the archives that are at the top right of every column (organized first by year, then by date), you’ll find more than 650 articles (OK, 654, but who’s counting?) and quite a few profiles of those still with us: Roland Leong, Richard Tharp, Jeb Allen, Herm Petersen, Jake Johnston, Marvin Graham, Dale Emery, Simon Menzies, Whit Bazemore, Clive Skilton, Shirley Shahan, John Peters, Jeff Courtie, “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry, Bill Pryor, Larry Sutton, Jay Howell, Ron Pellegrini, “Capt. Jack" McClure, Bob Pickett, Leroy “Doc” Hales, Chip Woodall, Keeling & Clayton, Kuhl & Olson, Gerry Glenn, Bobby Vodnik, and many more.
Yet scattered through that list are also far too many goodbyes of some of our great heroes. Like Eric, I can’t imagine a world without “Big Daddy” and “Snake” and “Mongoose,” yet we all know that’s coming someday. (Sorry guys.) I have amazing friendships with both Prudhomme and McEwen, guys whom I grew up idolizing and would have given anything to have gotten a “Hey, kid” from them back then yet guys today who I can call (and who even call me). It still sometimes seems like a dream. Yes, the day that either of those guys leaves us, more than the drag racing fan in me is going to be sad.
Personally, I hope they all live to be 120-something and I’m gone long before then because I can’t imagine how you could ever honor them big enough and well enough to match their contributions to the sport.
Until then, let’s all continue to celebrate them every chance we get.
ust last week, Insider reader Richard Pederson was reveling, with me, in the fact that last Friday’s column had been a joyous one, sharing great old photos instead of having to talk about another drag racing luminary who had passed away.
That feel-good moment lasted until 6 a.m. Monday, when I got a text from Richard Tharp. Honestly, I didn’t even have to read the text to know the news would not be good. Reports had been coming out of Dallas for the last month about the deteriorating condition of one of the sport’s all-time greats and grew even sadder over the weekend. Tharp’s text read simply: “Raymond Beadle died at 4 a.m. Dallas time.”
Beadle, who had been too sick to travel to Michigan in September to accept the most recent honor in a feted career – induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America – died after being unwell for the past few years, including having a heart attack two years ago and another in July. In the end, multiple issues arose, and his body gave out two months short of his 71st birthday.
Beadle's success in so many arenas is well-known and well- qdocumented – in drag racing (three Funny Car championships each in NHRA and IHRA, including both in 1981), NASCAR (1989 world champion), and the World of Outlaws, the latter two as an owner – that I don’t really even need to relate it here. I’d steer you instead toward the thoughtful and encyclopedic biography that Todd Veney wrote for us in 2001 as part of our Top 50 Drivers list (Beadle was No. 20). If you want to see all of the Blue Max cars (and a few others) that Beadle drove and a history of what each accomplished, check out the companion column I wrote this week for the National Dragster website, Raymond's Rides, or relive the history of the Blue Max in this column I wrote here two years ago, which includes an interview I did with Beadle and his memories of those early days with Harry Schmidt.
No, Beadle gave so much joy to so many folks – his friends, family, fellow racers, and, of course, the legion of fans who clamored for the Blue Max – that I wanted this column to be about the man and those who knew and loved him. Naturally, I had spent time interviewing Beadle throughout the years, but this list needed to be more personal. Tharp. Don Prudhomme. Kenny Bernstein. Billy Meyer. Dave Settles. Dave Densmore. Steve Earwood. “Waterbed Fred” Miller. Dale Emery.
In just two days, I tracked them all down, and each was eager and honored to speak of his memories of a great racer and generous friend who was a whole lot of fun to be around. They shared some great stories; unfortunately, many of them began with, “You can’t print this, but …” What I can print is presented below, with deep respect and appreciation.
From left, Don Prudhomme, Richard Tharp, and Raymond Beadle in 2011 at Prudhomme's birthday party
harp and Beadle were inseparable buddies since the 1970s, two larger-than-life Texans who raced and partied together and still enjoyed one another’s company long after the party ended. They lived less than five minutes apart in the Dallas area, talked pretty much every day, ate supper together sometimes five nights a week, and just plain ol' hung out with Beadle’s other close friend, Tommy “Smitty” Smith. For Tharp, losing Beadle was like losing a brother.
That he had to watch his friend’s long and painful descent to his passing has worn heavily on him, as he was there every step of the way, encouraging and consoling – and even chastising -- his pal. When the end neared and Beadle’s body began to shut down, Tharp could barely stand it, and his passing, though seemingly inevitable, hit him like a ton of bricks.
“It’s tough, tougher than I thought it would be,” he admitted, the sadness clear in his voice. “This got my attention harder than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I still really can’t believe he’s gone.”
True to his nature, through his last tough months, Beadle put on a brave face for his friends, insisting he would be all right, but when he allowed his daughter, Michelle, to admit him to the hospital last week, Tharp knew the end was near. “It just killed me; he was trying so hard not to have anyone go out of their way or feel sorry for him.”
The long friendship that ended Monday began in the late 1960s, when both were racing in Top Fuel. When Beadle moved to Dallas in the early 1970s to drive for Mike Burkhart, Tharp was already there driving the Blue Max car, whose lineage they would later share when they reunited in the late 1980s and Tharp took over for Beadle in the cockpit in a last hurrah.
As Beadle progressed in the 1970s from Burkhart’s ride to Don Schumacher’s well-funded team, Tharp went through a series of rides, and they faced off occasionally until Tharp went back to Top Fuel with the Carroll Brothers and later Candies & Hughes.
“Even though we were racing in different classes, we went everywhere together,” he said. “We’d fly to the races together and hang out before and after. We had a good time. He was just a good, good guy. I don’t remember anyone being mad at him, and if they were, they didn’t stay mad for more than 10 minutes. You might want to break his neck one minute, but 10 minutes later, you’d want to hug his neck.
“One thing about Raymond: When you were his friend, you were his friend forever, and, believe me, I tested him pretty good. He bailed me out of a lot of trouble over the years. He helped so many people over the years, and you never had to ask him to help you. He’d just show up with whatever you needed to get back on your feet.
“I’ll guarantee you one thing," he added. "When they made Raymond Beadle, they threw the mold away. There’ll never, ever, be another guy like him.”
Old pals reunited: from left, Beadle, Bill Doner, Billy Bones, and Prudhomme, at Prudhomme's party in 2011 (Gary Nastase photo)
ven though he was the guy who ended Prudhomme’s four-year reign as Funny Car king, “the Snake” always liked Beadle, from the heat of Funny Car battle in the 1970s right until the very end. After a family visit to Louisiana, Prudhomme stopped in Dallas and got together with Tharp to see their old friend the week before he died.
“He couldn’t leave the house, and I think he went back into the hospital that night, but when I left there, I pretty much knew it was going to be the last time I saw him; that hurt a lot,” he said. “We sat and talked for a long time; it was cool to have that time with him.
“Raymond was always a guy that I really, really liked. We used to battle each other on the track, but we used to have fun when we hung out. He was always a pleasure to be around. We used to pal around with a bunch of guys – ‘Waterbed Fred’ and Billy Bones, Bill Doner, Richard Tharp – to hang out in Dallas, go to Campisi’s; we were tight. Outside of ‘Mongoose,’ I don’t know there was anyone inside of racing that I was tighter with than Raymond.”
That Beadle felt the same was obvious when he and Tharp flew to Los Angeles in April 2011 for Prudhomme’s surprise 70th birthday party at the NHRA Museum. It was a long and mutual admiration and friendship.
I asked Prudhomme how he – a notoriously all-business guy when he was racing – was friendly with one of the few guys who could hold his own against the Army cars.
Despite waging war throughout the 1970s, including in the exciting 1975 U.S. Nationals final (above), Prudhomme and Beadle remained great friends.
“I wasn’t friendly with anyone who could beat me; let’s make that perfectly clear,” he said with a laugh, mostly at the memory of himself. “I always wanted to not like him, but I couldn’t help but like him. He’d beat you, and at the other end of the track, he’d almost always sound like he was sorry he beat you. It’s funny to think of it now, but we were all best friends. Hell, I was the best man at ‘Waterbed Fred’s’ wedding. We were a lot tighter than anyone ever knew or could imagine.
“That whole Blue Max thing was pretty impressive, with Raymond and ‘Waterbed’ and Dale Emery and their 10-gallon hats, cowboy boots, and long hair,” he marveled. “And, I’ll tell you, you never had a bad time hanging out with Raymond, before or after the race.
“What I remember about that team was I think Raymond was one of the first guys who only drove. Most of us back then were drivers and tuners, but he actually had a crew chief [first with Schmidt and then Emery]. I was working my ass of on my car, and I’d see him kicking back and relaxing. He took that to the next level that you see today and taught us all something.
“He was always thinking; when he had his NASCAR team, he was the first guy to have a condo – hell, he bought two – [on the first turn] at the Charlotte track, and now they’re worth 10 times what he paid for them. We’d go there and hang out with him, and he’d treat us like gold. He treated everyone that way. Even if he didn’t have the money, he’d buy everyone dinner. He wouldn’t let you buy. I remember the first time I bought him a meal, he was almost insulted.
“We had a lot of good times; Fred Wagenhals [of Action Performance] had a cabin, and we’d all go up there: ‘Waterbed’ and his gal, me and my wife, Lynn, Raymond and [wife] Roz, and Ed Pink and his wife would go to the cabin, and Raymond would be up early every morning cooking for us, bacon and sausage and gravy stacked up -- he could fix a meal. He loved cooking and loved to eat.”
He ended our conversation by saying, “I can’t say enough good things about him,” and apparently he couldn’t. A day after we talked, I got a late-night text from Prudhomme that read, in part, “Just thinking about Raymond … He was probably the coolest guy I ran into in drag racing. Going to miss him.”
Wow. If “the Snake,” the epitome of cool (as even the L.A. Times noted), calls someone else cool, you know he was. Awesome.
(Above) Beadle and Billy Meyer, friends since the early 1970s, shared a laugh during a Legends Q&A at the 2011 national event at Meyer's Texas Motorplex, where Beadle was a regular visitor. (Below) Beadle also took part in that year's Track Walk.
illy Meyer was feeling pretty melancholy when we talked about Beadle’s passing. This was the first year since he opened Texas Motorplex in 1986 that Beadle hadn’t been there, first as a racer and in the 25 or so most recent years as an honored guest in Meyer’s private tower suite. Beadle was too ill to come to the race.
Meyer’s admiration of the legend stems from his earliest days in the sport, in the early 1970s, when Beadle became a mentor to him, not so much with driving tips but how the teenage Funny Car phenom with a sometimes short fuse should handle himself otherwise in the world.
“He was a really good friend,” said Meyer. “He was about 10 years older than me and showed me the ropes about sponsorships and how to handle stuff, when not to blow up at people. I was a ‘damn the torpedoes’ kind of guy back then, and he helped me calm down.”
Meyer, who was still in high school during his first two years in Funny Car, would often ride to the races with Beadle (who then was driving for Burkhart) while both raced on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit, and Beadle’s wife at the time, Holly, would tutor him in English. “I was not a good student in school,” he admits.
Meyer has fond memories of being with Beadle and Paul Candies, with whom Meyer was especially close and whom we also lost last summer, for huge post-victory dinners that either would stage if their teams won. “We’d go to dinner, and I know they spent more than we won. It was the best food you could get, Bananas Foster and bottles of champagne. Somehow I was in on that clique. It’s amazing the fun we had. Now they’re both gone. It’s a big loss.”
Beadle could also thank Meyer for “Waterbed Fred” Miller, a key member of the Blue Max crew. Miller had worked on Meyer’s car until it had to be parked as part of his land-speed effort in 1975 and joined Beadle’s team during that time.
Meyer also acknowledged Beadle’s business acumen, especially when it came to apparel. Beadle is widely accepted as the guy who moved the needle on fan engagement with wearables. Racers had been printing and selling T-shirts for decades, but Beadle took it to a whole other level. I can’t tell you the number of foxy chicks I saw running around the pits with Blue Max halter tops in the 1970s.
“He really took it to a whole new level, and I think that’s because he was selling the Blue Max brand and not his own name,” agreed Meyer. “The name ‘Raymond Beadle’ on a T-shirt is not going to sell like the Blue Max. He got so successful at it that NHRA had to begin to regulate how those sales went on, which led to MainGate [NHRA’s souvenir vendor, then known as Sport Service] and the racer T-shirt trailers you see today.”
It wasn’t the first time that Beadle got NHRA's attention. Along with Meyer and Candies, the trio, leaders of an owners association, orchestrated the legendary Funny Car boycott of the 1981 Cajun Nationals, demanding higher purses and, secondarily, better safety.
Densmore, who with Earwood was doing NHRA’s PR at time, noted, “The drivers specifically targeted the Cajun Nationals because it wasn’t one of the major [events], and Raymond told us they didn’t want to hurt the NHRA, they just wanted to get someone’s attention. It worked.”
"Waterbed Fred" Miller was a key member of the Blue Max crew from beginning to end. (Below) Miller, right, shared the winner's circle at the 1975 U.S. Nationals with car owner Harry Schmidt, left, and Beadle.
s mentioned earlier, Miller was one of the trio of key Blue Max crewmembers during the championship years, along with Dale Emery and Dee Gantt. He actually preceded the other two, joining forces with Schmidt and Beadle after Meyer parked his team after a late-season match race at Orange County Int’l Raceway. It was a chance encounter with Schmidt at Pink’s Southern California shop just days after becoming unemployed that got him hired to wrench on the Max, which Schmidt and Beadle had recently decided to resurrect.
Miller, not a Texan like the rest of the gang but a native of Mansfield, Ohio, was working in the motorcycle shop owned by Bob Riggle (of Hemi Under Glass fame) in the early 1970s when he met Emery and Gantt, who at the time were working (and, in Emery’s case, driving) for Jeg Coughlin’s Funny Car operation. They offered Miller a chance to crew for them for the weekend, and he never looked back. When Coughlin parked the car after the 1973 season, Miller went to work for Meyer, then a year later as the lone crewmember on the new Blue Max. Beadle, Schmidt, and Miller barnstormed the country, running NHRA, IHRA, and match races until Schmidt burned out.
When Emery and Gantt joined the team a few years later, it was a strong mix of experience. Emery had become famous driving the Pure Hell fuel altered and raced in Funny Car until breaking his arm in a scary crash in Burkhart’s Camaro at the 1977 U.S. Nationals. (It was also Emery who bestowed upon Miller his indelible "Waterbed" nickname, not for any '70s-style debauchery Miller had committed but for his repeated failed attempts to repair a leak in his water mattress; "It started out as a pinhole and by the time I was done 'fixing' it, there a hole big enough to stick my head in," recalls Miller. "Emery would see me and say, 'There goes 'Waterbed Fred' and it just stuck.") Gantt also had a long history in the sport, wrenching for guys like "Wild Willie" Borsch and Fred Goeske, and was on Larry Fullerton’s 1972 NHRA championship-winning Trojan Horse team. It was a powerhouse team, and Beadle treated his people well. Miller also thought there was none better than Beadle as a driver and a boss.
“I don’t ever remember him raising his voice,” he remembered. “Even if someone made a mistake, he’d never be up your ass about it. He always had the same demeanor, whether he was racing at Indy or walking around the shop. He never got rattled in the car, never paced before getting into the car. He had ice water in his veins. He had a good eye for hiring people, and he hired the best guys around to work in our shop, and he treated everyone well.
“Pat Galvin was telling me the other day how he and Donnie Couch were just ‘two grunts’ working on race cars – not even on the Blue Max -- and how Beadle would grab them up to go to dinner or to a Bruce Springsteen concert with everyone else. Everyone went; that was how Beadle was. He didn’t choose who was cool or not; he treated everyone the same. It wasn’t like he ate at the steakhouse and you ate at McDonald’s.”
Miller, Beadle, and "friends." Beadle saw to it that there was always a good time to be had in the Blue Max camp.
Miller was there “for every win and every loss” of Beadle’s great Funny Car run with the Max and later took a position in Charlotte with Beadle’s NASCAR team, where he saw firsthand Beadle’s impact on that sport, thanks to his drag racing roots.
“We had been using titanium on the Funny Car for a long time, and when we brought it to NASCAR with titanium driveshafts and spindles, they freaked out,” he remembered with a laugh. “They didn’t have a clue what it was. It was like it was moon metal and scared the crap out of them. We had been coating our pistons and camshafts – anything that moved and had friction -- for years, but we were one of the first guys to do it in NASCAR. I thought they were going to have a cow. And the people that Raymond hired, they all went on to greater careers in NASCAR because of him.”
Beadle seemed to know everyone, especially in the music industry, from Willie Nelson and Bob Seger and the guys in their bands, and he was good friends with E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons and the guys in Springsteen’s band, including “the Boss” himself. When the Springsteen show pulled into Dallas, there was a special Blue Max room backstage, and everyone had all-access passes for the whole Born in the U.S.A. tour.
(Side note: As a huge Springsteen fan, I went to a lot of his concerts during that time and remember seeing Springsteen at the L.A. Coliseum in 1984 return to the stage for encores wearing a Blue Max hat and singing “Stand On It,” a racing-themed tune. I may have been the only person in the place who was wowed by that, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.)
Miller, who went on to work with Action Performance in the collectibles world, stayed in touch with his longtime boss and friend. “We still talked a lot on the phone, and I would see him at various functions. When I’d come to Dallas, I’d stay with him. I'll miss that."
(Above) Beadle, left, and Dale Emery won four Funny Car championships together from 1979-81, including both NHRA and IHRA crowns in 1981. (Below) Before they joined forces in late 1977, they raced against one another, including earlier that year, with Emery driving for Mike Burkhart, for whom Beadle had driven earlier in his career. (Steve Reyes photo)
The recent Blue Max reunion: front row, Beadle and Richard Tharp; back row, from left, Dale Emery, former Blue Max driver Ronny Young; Fred Miller; crewman Scott Nelson, and Tommy "Smitty" Smith.
hile Beadle was the marketing and driving force behind the Blue Max, crew chief Emery was certainly his mechanical enabler. Emery, an Oklahoma native afforded full-on Texan status by his affiliation with the Blue Max and his current residence in Denton, Texas, went to work for Beadle in late 1977, after breaking his arm in an accident at the U.S. Nationals. After a problem-plagued 1978 – highlighted only by a win at the season-ending World Finals – they won the NHRA championship in 1979, 1980, and 1981 and joined the last one with a simultaneous IHRA championship. (Beadle won his two previous IHRA championships before Emery joined the team.)
The duo first met at Chaparral Trailers, where Emery worked while not racing; Beadle stopped by looking for a trailer for the new Blue Max effort. After his crash in Indy, the plaster was barely dry on Emery’s cast before Beadle offered him a job. Emery hadn’t intended to retire from driving but was intrigued by Beadle’s offer to tune the Blue Max. The fact that he already knew Gantt and Miller certainly didn’t hurt. Beadle headed off to England for a series of match races, and both guys mulled it over for two weeks before Emery accepted.
“I told Raymond I’d never tuned for anything I didn’t drive but that I would try it; it seemed to work out OK,” he said. “We did pretty good.
“He always treated us right; if we needed something, he’d help us out. He really gave me an open hand of what I could do with the car, and I liked experimenting, which is why I came up with the dual-mag deal and some other things. I was always trying to make it run better.”
When it came to rating his driver, Emery didn’t hesitate. “He was a money driver; he never got rattled,” said Emery, with the admiration clear in his voice. “If we made it to a final, we knew we never had to worry about him being late.”
Emery stayed with the Blue Max to the bitter end in 1990, when the car was essentially underfunded and not equipped with the best parts. It was at least in part Emery’s urging that got Beadle to finally sell the team.
“He was pouring all of his money into the NASCAR team because that was his deal at the time,” he remembered. “I talked to him and told him we couldn’t keep on doing what we were doing. We didn’t really even have parts good enough to run match races. I told him he needed to sell the deal while it still had a good name, and he did.
“We all got together –- Beadle, me, Fred, and a few other guys -– for a Blue Max reunion a couple of weeks ago in Dallas,” he said. “It wasn’t a great big deal, but it was great to get everyone together one last time. I still talked to him every week. I would just check up on him and see how he was doing. We’ve always been good friends; we raced together and had a lot of fun. I really liked the guy.”
Kenny Bernstein, left, and Beadle watched the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" unfold.
hen most drag racing fans think of a tie between Beadle and Bernstein, they inevitably think about the 1981 Winternationals and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” in which Bernstein offered up one of his spare bodies to Beadle, who had blown the roof off of his car in winning his semifinal race. The roof from Bernstein’s Budweiser King Arrow was cut off and crafted to Beadle’s Plymouth Horizon in time to make the final (which Beadle lost).
But the two go way, way back further than that: They were junior-high and high-school classmates in Lubbock, Texas, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although they knew each other, they didn’t hang out, and it wasn’t until Bernstein returned to Lubbock after attending college in Dallas that he realized that Beadle was interested in racing.
Bernstein drove Top Fuel for Vance Hunt, the Anderson brothers, and Prentiss Cunningham early in his career, and Beadle also later drove for Cunningham before both transitioned to Funny Car in the early 1970s.
“I spent a lot of time with Raymond after that, at a place we called Gasoline Alley in Dallas, where we’d all hang out or had shops. I was with the Engine Masters [Ray Alley], and he was driving for Burkhart. We raced against each other a lot in the 1970s and ‘80s when we were in our heydays of racing.”
Bernstein, long acknowledged as drag racing’s master marketer, thought highly of Beadle, who, unknown to many, had taken marketing classes himself.
“He was a great promoter; he was always hustling and putting things together and trying to take it to the next level,” said Bernstein. “He was a real go-getter, in everything from sponsorships to merchandising.”
Despite their tough battles for Funny Car supremacy in those days, the two former school chums remained friendly. “We stayed pretty close throughout the time until he got out of racing, then we kind of lost touch as we both did our own things, but the times we had together were very special and memorable,” said Bernstein.
(Above) Dave Settles drove the short-lived Blue Max Top Fueler for Beadle and two partners in 1979. (Below) Settles, left, and Blue Max crew chief Dale Emery
ave Settles was another fellow Texan with a long relationship with Beadle. Settles saw Beadle socially throughout the later years, always in Meyer’s suite at the Dallas event and regularly at the yearly winter get-together of former Texas racers in Denton. The former driver and crew chief, who remains active in the sport building fuel pumps, met Beadle in the early 1970s while driving for the Carroll Brothers team. Although Beadle also raced Top Fuel at that time, he soon went to Funny Car and Settles stayed in Top Fuel, and they never did race one another, though they did race together.
In 1979, Settles was the driver of the short-lived Blue Max Top Fueler, which was owned by Beadle and financed by well-heeled Dallas-area developers Foster Yancey and Brad Camp, who also were minority owners of the Dallas Cowboys and handpicked Settles as the driver and crew chief. The car debuted midseason and ran only eight races – winning the IHRA Springnationals and scoring a runner-up at the NHRA Summernationals – before being parked.
I asked Settles why Beadle, who was en route to winning his Funny Car championship, would also put his foot into the Top Fuel waters.
“Raymond was big on getting exposure for his sponsors and his team, so it made sense for him, I guess,” said Settles. “He thought he could never get enough exposure, and when it came to that, he was always on his game. Me, I just wanted to hit the pedal.
“The car’s first race was the big IHRA Springnationals event in Bristol; I’ll never forget it,” he recalled wistfully. “I pulled up there for my first run Friday, and people started cheering and going on and on. I couldn’t figure out what they were cheering about – it’s just a couple of Top Fuel dragsters. It didn’t dawn on me until later that it was because of the Blue Max name.
“I think Foster and Brad realized the value, too. The Blue Max was the ‘in’ deal in Dallas; everyone knew about it – no matter what sport you were in -- and everyone knew Raymond. Being around Raymond was a fun place to be; there weren’t too many dull moments.”
s mentioned earlier, Earwood was running NHRA’s Publicity Department with Densmore in Beadle’s heyday, and as a fellow lover of good times, they enjoyed one another’s company.
"He believed in taking care of his sponsors and press and publicity before a lot of the rest of them did,” he recalled. “He was great to me and Densy.
“He really changed our industry, no doubt. He was a great businessman racer – in a different mode than a Rick Hendrick or a Roger Penske -- but also just had a lot of common sense. He was first-class all the way. When he started racing NASCAR, back in those days, if the guys had a wreck, they’d just beat the fender out for the next race, but ol’ Beadle wanted his cars perfect every time.
“Raymond got along with everyone --Bernstein, Meyer, ‘Snake’; sometimes you couldn’t even put those guys in the same room at one time, but Raymond got along with all of them. He got along with everyone. And generous? When he’d take people to dinner after a race, it would be 40 or 50 people. He’d just call the hotel and rent out the restaurant. We had a lot of fun back then. He was a helluva personality; we’ll never see another one like him. He was really something. He lived a very full life and did it right.”
eadle was a superstar of the 1970s and 1980s, so it was only fitting that we’d hear from today’s Funny Car star, John Force, who inducted Beadle into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, as you can see in the clip at right (thanks to reader Dave Wesolowski for the link!).
Wrote Force, "In my long career, there have been five people that I have looked up to: ‘Big Daddy’ [Don Garlits], Shirley [Muldowney], [Don] Prudhomme, [Tom] McEwen, and Raymond Beadle. I have taken his passing very hard, and it hurts me personally. I saw what kind of team owner and driver he was as well as what kind of creative promoter and teammate. He had the most loyal team with guys like Fred Miller, Dale Emery, and Dee Gantt. They were together through good times and bad. Our legends are getting older, and we have to appreciate them every day.
"I saw Beadle roll the Blue Max over in a terrifying crash. He has ice water in his veins because he just got out and put his hands over his head in triumph. I have never heard the roar of the crowd like that.
"Raymond surrounded himself with the best people, and they fought together every day. That is how I have run John Force Racing every day. Loyalty is the key, and so are principles. Raymond taught me that, and that is why I will miss him so much. In my early days, he helped me so much, and I thanked him every chance I got. He was a legend and one of the best who will be missed every single day."
will close with this great essay written by Densmore, who, like Tharp, felt the loss of Beadle on a very deep level. He sent it to me the day that Beadle died, and I want to share it here.
I know they say life goes on, but for me, at least, it will go on with far less enthusiasm, less fun, less intrigue and less real joy in the absence of Raymond Beadle, the face of Blue Max Racing Inc. who on Monday lost his battle with heart disease and a variety of other physical demons in the ICU ward at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
The irony is that it is the same ICU ward in which I spent so much time with John Force after his 2007 crash at the Texas Motorplex. Force finally walked out of the hospital. After suffering an apparent stroke, Raymond did not.
I’ve had to deal with the passing of so many of my heroes the past few years – Wally Parks, “Diamond Jim” Annin, my dad, Dr. Al Densmore, Dale Ham, Eric Medlen, Lee Shepherd, Paul Candies. All of them enriched my life and, through their very presence, made even my worst days somehow palatable.
But this death has been particularly difficult for me to accept. I don’t know why, but I do know that I have a hole in my heart as big as Texas. We were friends for almost 40 years, linked by our West Texas roots, our love for drag racing and our mutual disdain for the status quo. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” was a mutually irritating phrase.
Of course, that outlaw attitude is what made Raymond larger than life. He was Force’s idol long before the 16-time champ won his first race. In fact, Force still likes to tell how Raymond provided his team’s first uniforms. They were only Blue Max T-shirts, but when Raymond gave them to Force at Spokane one year, they became the first matched outfits in Brute Force history.
At a time when 90 percent of the sponsorship in drag racing was automotive, Beadle went after the mainstream market and landed deals with English Leather and Old Milwaukee beer. The English Leather era is itself worthy of a tell-all book, but he also had deals with NAPA and Valvoline and, at the end, Kodiak tobacco.
Raymond approached the sponsorship equation not with hat in hand, as was typical of the era, but from a position of strength. He put together deals with Ford and later with Pontiac, although I’m not sure GM ever got back all its cars. Having studied marketing in college, he applied those lessons to the sport. The result was the creation of what today is a massive collectibles market.
He sold so many T-shirts and hats and hat pins and halter tops, especially those that came with the “custom fit option,” that it compelled the NHRA to rewrite the rules governing sales. In essence, he made it possible for MainGate to enjoy the success it does today because NHRA determined that if they were providing the arena for such entrepreneurship, they should get some of the profits.
He was, in my estimation, the perfect driver because, like Lee Shepherd, he was totally unflappable.
When his first wife, Holly, grew temporarily hysterical after his 1982 crash at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, an unruffled Raymond told her that if she was going to react like that, he wasn’t going to let her come back because it was very distracting.
That crash also demonstrated his flair for the dramatic. After barrel rolling the Blue Max and with the crowd holding its collective breath, he climbed out through the escape hatch, hands over his head in mock triumph.
Although he won just 13 times, he won three successive NHRA Funny Car championships (1979, 1980, 1981), the first ending Don “the Snake” Prudhomme’s four-year reign in the U.S. Army car.
His calm demeanor was aptly demonstrated in 1975, the year he convinced Harry Schmidt to partner with him in the resurrection of the Blue Max. That first year, he was in the final round of the biggest event in the sport, the U.S. Nationals, and he was racing one of the biggest names on the planet, “the Snake.”
After the burnout, the car sprung a small oil leak. Fellow Texan Richard Tharp, who was at the starting line as a spectator, raced back to the crew cab for a wrench, but before he could return, "Waterbed Fred" reached in and hand-tightened a loose fitting. Raymond then calmly pulled to the starting line and, ignoring all the drama, won the race.
How big was Raymond Beadle? Well, when Bill Center, the erstwhile motorsports writer for the San Diego paper got a new dog in the ‘80s, he named him “Raymond Beagle.”
Having conquered drag racing, Raymond moved on to NASCAR, where he won races with Tim Richmond and a championship with Rusty Wallace. He also went racing with the World of Outlaws, where he almost won a title with Sammy Swindell.
Those were unbelievable times. It was, as I am fond of telling each new audience, a time when sex was safe and drugs were legal. That’s only a marginal exaggeration. We flew to NASCAR races, flew to sprint-car races. It was the best of times, and Raymond always went first class, with or without the wherewithal to do so.
There was a time when money was really tight, and every day included phone calls from irate creditors. Raymond knew every dodge in the business, any scam that might win him a little more time to “put something together.”
“Forgetting” to sign the checks, envelopes without postage, items sent to erroneous addresses, but my favorite was one day when he signed a batch of checks and gave them to the office staff. The girls dutifully put them in the proper envelopes for postal pickup.
Unbeknownst to them, Raymond had snuck back into the office and liberated the envelopes so, when the calls began anew, the staff was none the wiser, informing callers with proper indignation that “I know we sent them out because I put them in the envelopes and in the box myself.”
Raymond always was making deals, and irate creditors were part of doing business. He used to tell everyone in the office not to get so mad. “It’s nothing personal. They only want their money.”
It was amazing to me that he could leave even some of his closest friends hung out on this deal or that deal and, still, when it came to crisis time, they’d be there for him. It was that way up until Monday.
He moved comfortably in any circle. He was pals with princes and paupers. Those in his circle regularly were treated to Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen concerts, and the late Clarence Clemons and other band members were regulars at the races – and at the victory parties that often followed.
Raymond got Willie to perform at SEMA, a function at which he and Holly got involved in a marital spat that resulted in her storming out and flying back to Texas. When Raymond returned, she asked him about her mink. She’d left it on the back of the chair. Raymond left it there, too.
Part of Raymond’s ultimate undoing was the fact that he developed a love for cooking. Actually, he developed a love for eating what he cooked, and, as a result, let’s just say that he was a little above his fighting weight at the end, which recalls one final story.
Former National DRAGSTER staffer John Jodauga is an accomplished artist who Raymond commissioned to do a caricature for a press kit cover in the ‘80s. It was typically well done, but J.J., the consummate professional, sent it to Raymond for final approval and asked if there was anything else he could do.
Raymond asked him to take about 10 pounds out of his cheeks. And he meant it, too. Rest in peace, R.B.
Amen. He'll be missed, but the legend of the Blue Max will fly on forever.
I invite fans and friends of Beadle to share their thoughts and memories of the man for a future column; send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
People collect all sorts of things, from cars to beer cans to movie posters and magazines, all of which require a lot of research and an outlay of dollars to build a substantial collection. For race fans like us, amassing an impressive collection of some of the things that mean the most to us is as simple as right-clicking your computer mouse.
What I’m talking about, of course, are drag racing photos that are posted all over the Internet (including, of course, this column). The photos are either saved for personal enjoyment or reposted and shared elsewhere. There are message boards, like The H.A.M.B., that have entire threads devoted to showing off great photos from the past (one thread, cited by a poster as "the best photo history of drag racing anywhere," has more than 1,200 pages!), and I get that. I know you do it (heck, there’s one guy on Nitromater who seems to republish only the photos that appear in this column, with nary a credit), and I understand the thrill of the hunt, the joy of finding a photo that evokes a personal memory, and sometimes sharing it with others.
I’m right there with you guys, though my “collection” is really small (as compared to a certain former National Dragster staffer and current Top Alcohol Funny Car racer whose collection exceeds 20,000 images for his own personal consumption), but that’s probably because I’m a bit spoiled. Just across the hall from my office is the NHRA photo library, with nearly 50 four-drawer file cabinets stacked two-high to the ceiling on all four walls each packed with thousandths of images. Just down the hall is the collection of books containing the proof sheets of every photo taken at every NHRA event from the mid-1950s through the early 2000s (when we fully converted to digital photography), which we estimate at more than 2.5 million images. And we're adding about 7,000 digital images at every national event, which are stored on massive hard drives to which I have easy access, so, as you can see, if I want to spend the afternoon looking at cool photos, I don’t need the Internet. When I do cruise the Internet for research or even enjoyment, I’ll save a photo here and there, either because I really dig it — for artistic, historic, or personal reasons — or because I’m looking ahead to a future column.
So by this time, I bet you're wondering, “So what makes Phil (right) click?” (You’re also probably wondering, “Can we just get on with it already?”) Before I show my hand, first a quick disclaimer:
This column relies on photos taken by others, including the collection of relentless vagabond road warriors who roamed the country in the 1960s and 1970s, preserving this time for us to enjoy decades later. I’m honored to have forged such great relationships and trust with guys like Steve Reyes, Jere Alhadeff, Tom West, Bob Snyder, Bob Plumer, and many others who have given me just about carte blanche to reuse their photos as I see fit because they know my intentions and my goals and that I always, always attach photo credits when I know the photographer. The Internet has trampled on photographer copyright in every walk of life, and the ease with which the images can be captured (and even cropped to remove watermarked credit) has certainly made that easier. I think many have given up any hope of controlling the images once they’re “in the wild,” but I still think giving photo credit goes a long, long way toward making them feel a little better about it. The problem is that the creator’s name is seldom attached to the image, and with each republishing moves further and further away from its origins and its identity. If your photo is included below (or you know the photographer), please drop me an email and I will credit it immediately. It’s my goal to have every one of them credited, so when you save and “reuse” them (and I know you will), the credit might stay with the image.
So, without further ado, here’s Part 1 of a collection of photos worth talking about.
I’m not sure which photographer had the guts to get down low with “Stormin’ Norman” Weekly ready to blast off the line at Pomona, but I’m very impressed with his ability to hang in there.
Calvin Rice cemented his name in the NHRA history books when he drove the J.E. Riley and Sons dragster to victory at the first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kan. I haven’t seen many color photos of the car.
Another great, rare color photo from the 1950s, this is the famed Cook & Bedwell dragster, owned by Cliff Bedwell and driven by Emery Cook. According to legend, it was this team’s stunning 166.97-mph run at Lions Drag Strip in February 1957 that prompted concern over lack of stopping distance at dragstrips and led to the “fuel ban” of 1957-1963.
What did it cost to build the car that won Top Eliminator at the 1962 Nationals? If I’ve done my math right, well less than $8,000. That’s priced according to this great photo-illustration of Jack Chrisman’s dragster
Don Garlits didn’t get the nickname “Big Daddy” for nothing. The devoted father and loving wife Pat would bring their two daughters, Gay Lynn and Donna, to the track, and many of his foes took to deriding him as over the hill — “Daddy Don” some of them called him. As the story goes, NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge created the famous nickname at the 1962 Nationals after a spectacular run, saying something to the effect of “Well, looks like we’re going to have to start calling him ‘Big Daddy’ now.” I love this photo of the girls, Gay Lynn, left, and Donna, riding with “Big” on a parade lap, in what looks like 1967.
Like Garlits, Connie Kalitta earned his nickname. “The Bounty Hunter” famously painted the names of his most serious competition on the side of his dragster, then crossed them off as he beat them. Looks like a pretty good record so far.
In my “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” column
, I talked about the days when teams would thrash on their cars in the parking lots of their hotels. Sometimes it was out of convenience — especially on the day leading up to a race before the track was open — and sometimes the tracks wouldn’t let the teams keep their cars in the pits overnight. Here are two of the sport’s heroes — Don Garlits (above) and Tom McEwen (below) — hard at work.
Here’s something you don’t see every day: a shirtless Don “the Snake” Prudhomme working on Don Garlits’ dragster.
Here’s another Snake”-driven rarity. Although he was running Funny Cars exclusively by this time, when Prudhomme landed the Army deal for the 1974 season, he painted his old Top Fuel dragster in Army colors. Although the front wing is different, I think this might even be the Kent Fuller-built Yellow Feather car from late 1971. This car never ran in competition -- this photo was only for a handout card from Wynn’s -- but that didn't stop Revell from making a model of it.
If there’s any doubt about how wild the Fuel Altereds of the 1970s were, this four-up photo of Dave Hough taking flight in the Nanook should give you an idea.
Longtime fans will recognize the name Beeline Dragway as the longtime home to the AHRA Winternationals (and, briefly, NHRA’s pre-Winternationals Winter Classic). The Arizona track was well-known for its impressive three-story timing tower — perhaps one of the first ever built — that was located behind the starting line, but this is the first shot I’ve seen from before the tower was built.
Call these two photos the beginning and the end of Orange County Int’l Raceway. (Above) A great photo, shot from the adjacent Interstate 5 freeway, as the iconic tower was under construction. This would have been the spring of 1967. (Below) An aerial photo that I believe was taken shortly after the track closed in late 1983. The tree-lined pits and the I-5 clearly visible, as well as the famous three-quarter-track drainage ditch that crossed under the track. The grass is yellowing, and the place is no longer the grand palace it once was.
Coming next week: Part 2
P.S.: I’ll be at the California Hot Rod Reunion this weekend in Bakersfield. Flag me down if you see me!
Usually I write about racers in this column, most of them heroes of my youth whose exploits I watched from the other side of the magazine page, and all too much lately, I’ve written about not just their careers but their lives in the past tense, as we’ve been losing them at an alarming rate. They’re obituaries in the guise of biographies and my final salute to them and their stories, eulogies that I feel compelled to give.
Today again I come to eulogize two more fallen drag racing heroes, though these two never won a drag race, never performed a smoky burnout for an appreciative crowd, and never had their names speed-read in a Steve Evans radio commercial.
They were parts of the NHRA family that I joined three decades ago, people who became my kin not just through association and familiarity but in dedication to the cause of promoting hot rodding and the NHRA. In the course of just a few days last week, we said our final goodbyes to former NHRA Safety Safari member Bud Evans and Phillis Jean “P.J.” Partridge, wife of former NHRA Division Director and Vice President Bernie Partridge.
I don’t use the term “family” here lightly or for lack of a better word.
When I joined the NHRA staff in May 1982, the headquarters was still in North Hollywood, and it was a small group – probably fewer than 30 people – but I could instantly tell there was a family there. Wally Parks was our stern but guiding father, Barbara the fiery yet devoted mother, and everyone else was like aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews. I thought it was very cool that so many husbands and wives were working together: the Parkses, the Partridges, Dale and Glynanna Ham, Darrell and Polly Zimmerman, Greg and Martee Xakellis, Buster and Ann Couch, and so many more.
I'd never seen such a dedicated group, dedicated because long before I got there, most had been forged in the fires when nothing was easy, when they had to scrape and scratch for every ounce of respect. They had to earn it through good old-fashioned legwork and the moral high ground. In those earliest days, every victory, every reluctant group of town fathers or law-enforcement agency won over must have felt like another brick laid in the foundation of Wally's dream, the dream they all believed in. You could tell that everyone there believed in the mission; these weren't people just cashing a paycheck.
The going was not easy, nor was it swift. There was no Internet or social media to spread the message, just the willingness of those who believed it to carry the message forth. Instead of email and fancy graphic flyers printed on slick stock in four-color, it was black and white and probably run off by hand on one of those old mimeograph machines we all remember from school, then tucked into envelopes and mailed to the early supporters.
From left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman, on safari, 1955
The crew, reunited in Indy in 1994: from left, Rickman, Cannon, Coons, and Evans
The message also was delivered by hand, and Evans was one of those who helped. As a key member of the NHRA Drag Safari that began crisscrossing the land in 1954, Evans and his dedicated cohorts brought what Wally liked to call “hot rodding know-how” -- long before NAPA Auto Parts started using the term – to the masses. Southern California back then was the hub of acceleration activity, and years of setting up drag races and speed runs on the dry lakes gave them a lot of experience that they were willing and eager to pass along.
Led by Bud Coons, a former sergeant in the Pomona Police Department handpicked by Wally as the field director, they packed into a station wagon hitched to a trailer that carried everything needed to set up a mobile event: early timing equipment, a PA system, field telephones, a one-cylinder generator, and miles of stainless-steel wire to bring all the electronic equipment to life. Evans was the leader and mouthpiece to the multitude of car clubs who eagerly awaited their arrival at each stop. Chic Cannon, who had a background in engineering and car building, ran tech. Photographer Eric "Rick" Rickman was along to chronicle the action to be published in Hot Rod magazine, where Wally was still the editor. Evans, a lakes racer and announcer at the dragstrip in Colton, Calif., was, naturally, the announcer.
Typically, they’d roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials, and Coons would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.
Evans, who was a member of the Winders Car Club and the SCTA, didn’t join the team full time until 1955 – in 1954, it had been Coons, Cannon, Rickman, and assorted others, including Evans. Evans often joined Cannon at the pre-race tech inspection and created a large file of index cards with information on each car -- the engine and drivetrain specs, where it was based, and how fast it had gone – to aid his announcing.
With his bird's-eye view, Evans also was one of the first to spot potential trouble, whether an issue was brewing in the pits or whether some hot dog hot shoe was pushing a car beyond its or his limits. “When they ran, if they weren't straight arrow, I was screaming bloody murder,” he told Hot Rod in a 2009 interview. “Because as the meet progresses and they go faster and faster -- dump the can to it, you know -- if he's not good in the beginning, he's going to be worse as he gets going.”
Evans, 86 who remained a constant visitor to the drags twice a year in Pomona, is the second of the iconic foursome to pass away. (Rickman died Jan. 24, 2009 at age 90.)
"Peej" and "the Bird": so happy together
P.J. and Barbara Parks: Two forces to be reckoned with.
The Partridges, right, with Wally, far left, and Barbara, center, and Dale and Glynanna Ham, who ran Division 4.
P.J., right, with Rondi, left, and Joni Elmslie, circa mid-1980s
Unless you were a Division 7 racer, you probably didn’t know P.J. Partridge -- “Peej” to her close friends – but her influence and fingerprints were all over NHRA’s West Coast operations. Bernie died in April 2012 after a long illness and was joined by his loving wife just two years after; she succumbed to a brain tumor Oct. 5, at her home in Hawaii.
In the early 1980s, when I first sat down at an NHRA typewriter, NHRA’s National Field Office was not located within NHRA headquarters as it is now. As I mentioned, the HQ at that time was in North Hollywood in the famed San Fernando Valley, but the NFO was in Upland, Calif., about a half-hour ride east. For a kid who grew up in the population-dense South Bay area of SoCal, Upland might as well have been on the moon, the NFO staff like early settlers in a distant region.
The Partridges ran the place, where the important task of coordinating divisional activities and approving competition licenses took place, and like Barbara was the den mother in NoHo, P.J. held an equally tight rein in Upland.
Before it was brought into NHRA headquarters in Glendora, the Partridges ran NFO in Upland while the NHRA was still in North Hollywood, and P.J. helped run the operation with a firm hand. P.J. had been married to Bernie since the early 1960s and was there throughout his rise in the NHRA ranks, from track manager of Inyokern Dragstrip to NHRA regional advisor to division director and chief announcer to regional director, national field administrator, and, finally, to vice president-field administration before his retirement in 1989. P.J. stayed on an extra year before she, too, left the company to enjoy the golden years with Bernie and left behind indelible memories for those she mentored there.
Joni Elmslie, my longtime National Dragster colleague, was one of a group of young women under P.J.’s charge back in those days, a group that also included her sister Rondi as well as Billie Petty, Cindy Gibbs, and Carman Mitchell.
“I was a very young and naive 17-year-old when I went to work for ‘Peej’ on the timing clocks in the tower during the Winternationals and World Finals at Pomona, knowing very little about drag racing,” Joni recalled. “I remember always wanting to do the best job I could (many nights during the races dreaming in e.t.s and mph), not so much for Bernie, our always-entertaining track announcer, but for P.J., the true matriarch of the National Field Office family.
“I still remember the day she told me that it was approved and official, I was now a full-time employee of the NHRA: Dec. 1, 1980. P.J. always ran a tight ship and allowed Bernie to be the ‘out-front’ entertainer. Although always working side by side for endless hours, whether at a divisional or national event, P.J. was tireless and expected the same of those around her.
“When the NFO and HQ merged in Glendora in 1987, I was given the opportunity to try my hands at something different and work for National Dragster. My only apprehension with taking that position was leaving P.J., not that I would be miles away, but just down the hall behind the ND glass door. I remember she took me aside and told me she didn’t want to hold me back; she wanted me to take the step, so I did. Thanks, P.J., for teaching me that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Godspeed.”
Billie, who also came to work for ND after a while, working in the Membership Department, remembers P.J. as “an amazing dichotomy: the consummate old-fashioned gal and the ultra-modern woman. There is a very long list of successful women that have been mentored and promoted by P.J.’s efforts, yet she never sought the limelight herself, comfortable as the wife of Bernie and the mother of their four sons. Her love and loyalty for Bernie and her family is beyond measure.
“The first time I met P.J. was through her family. She was warm and welcoming; thus began a relationship that would endure for many years. She gave me my first office job, as she did for many other young women. She taught me how to use the English language in new and surprising ways – vocabulary was huge with her – and she was a master of the hug!
"The last time we all had dinner with P.J. was right before she moved to Hawaii. We all laughed and talked about our lives and what our future plans might be. At the end of the evening, several of us were talking about when we might see her again, as her new adventure was taking her to the islands. We were excited for her but saddened for ourselves, just as we are now that she has once again moved on to another great adventure. P.J. was a very private person, and as a sign of respect, I will continue that legacy for her. Each of us has our own memories of a very special woman, and she will be missed. Her care, concern, and mentoring will always be appreciated and recognized as a contribution that created who we are today and gave dimension to the sport of drag racing!”
Cindy Gibbs, daughter of former NHRA Competition Director and Vice President Steve, also was among the young ladies who learned from P.J.
“My memories of P.J. are all over the place, from being a young girl, getting a ride-along with my parents in Bernie and P.J'.s speed boat on Puddingstone Lake to delivering a special egg-salad-sandwich lunch to only her during the Pomona events to watching her put a wayward drag racer firmly in his place,” she reminisced. “Lemme tell ya, no one could do that quite like 'Peej.' I giggle when I say that I was deathly afraid of her when I was young; yes, always pleasant to me, but I knew I never wanted her angry with me, for sure. As a mother of four boys and running the Pacific Division with her husband, she needed to be that way; it was absolute self-preservation, as I would find out firsthand many years later.
“I went to work for NHRA in 1985 as part of the National Field Office under Bernie and P.J.'s guidance and had some of the very best years of my life during that time. The team of people I worked with will always be family; with racing in my blood, I loved every minute. P.J. taught me so much, much more than I ever realized until I found myself in Spokane [Wash.] 24 years later, in a racetrack-management position. I would sit at my desk, having just dealt with a fired-up racer, and I would think of her. It took me a good year or so to grow some thicker skin like P.J. always had yet not lose myself in the process. I'm happy that I got the chance to thank her the last time I saw her for those lessons she taught me; she flashed me her classic P.J. grin, and I knew she was pleased. Her last comment to me was 'Ohana' ['family' in Hawaiian], sealed with a hug.”
As I mentioned earlier, the sense of camaraderie and unity of purpose I felt way back then still resonates with me. Losing Barbara and then Wally, Dick Wells, Bernie, P.J., and many others who helped forged the path, not just for drag racing but for me, is heartbreaking. I was so blessed to be surrounded by so much dedication and purpose.
The day that Barbara died, in 2006, I was driving down the freeway, listening to the radio and thinking about her. She had been tough and fiery and scared us all yet perhaps misunderstood as an unforgiving taskmaster when really what it was about was an unflinching, unrelenting desire to help Wally forge the dream. I remember the radio playing “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray, and this verse summed it all up for me when I think about those passionate people who let me be part of the family and part of the effort.
Thanks for the joy that you've given me,
I want you to know I believe in your song.
The rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You helped me along, makin' me strong.
To all of them, I say thanks from us all for all that you did. Thanks for giving us the joy of a sport we love. Thanks for being the ones who created the verse and melody for us all to dance along to. Thanks for everything you did to make us strong. And I still believe in your song.