Teen Terrors of the '70s: Billy MeyerFriday, October 23, 2015

Of the Teen Terrors of the ‘70s that I’ve profiled the last few months, there’s no disputing that Billy Meyer enjoyed the longest and most successful career of all of them. He won national events in NHRA (12) and IHRA (eight) Funny Car competition, was a three-time NHRA championship runner-up and a world champion in IHRA, owned and ran IHRA for a year, was named Car Craft Person of the Year, and, of course, built the fabulous Texas Motorplex that I wrote about last week. But you probably knew all of that, didn’t you?

But who would have guessed that a Texas (by way of Miami) teenager from a broken home, a high-energy kid who was nicknamed “Wild Bill” by his mother and “Wide Open” by his friends, a guy who barely avoided failing out of high school, would become such a phenomenal success in life? See, there’s lots you still don’t know about Billy Meyer.

Although Meyer’s parents divorced when he was 14, by then he had already not only absorbed but also adopted the tenets of life and business as set forth by his father, Paul, whose companies, Success Motivation Institute and Leadership Management, were the largest sales-training and goal-setting companies in the world. “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass,” was his father’s go-to mantra.

Well, young Mr. Meyer vividly imagined and ardently desired from a young age to be a race car driver, and, with the financial help of his father, enthusiastically acted upon that need for speed by racing go-karts, and quite well at that, winning four major Texas International Karting Federation championships in sprint karts, some of which could reach 140 mph.

“Although my parents were supportive financially, I was pretty much on my own otherwise, but I was blessed to have friends who knew my family was splintered at the time, and they would come pick me up and take me to the races,” he remembers. “My parents turned out to be phenomenal people, but it was a bad time in their lives.”

  Billy Meyer was a championship go-kart racer but got his first taste of Funny Car racing with the Steakley Brothers team and its Camaro (above). Meyer started as a crewmember but eventually licensed in the car.
Grover Rogers (left) was the full-time driver of the Steakley car at the time and became an early mentor and, eventually, a partner with Meyer when Meyer bought into the operation, which was rechristened Meyer & Rogers (below).

Fortunately for Meyer, he found a mentor in Grover Rogers, who, in addition to his interest in karting, was the driver of the Steakley Brothers Chevrolet-backed Camaro Funny Car. One thing led to another, and before long, Meyer was not only accompanying Rogers and the team to the drags as they worked the Texas nitro circuit, but also was offered a chance to drive the car. Meyer was not old enough to race in the faster “C”-class karts – you had to be 21 – but drag racing had no such restrictions for the ambitious 16-year-old.

Meyer, who had just received his Texas driver’s license, strapped in for his first Funny Car ride at McGregor Airport outside of Waco, Texas, and later earned his license on the dragstrip set up on the runway at Fort Hood Army base in Killeen.

“Grover will tell you that he never thought I would succeed in drag racing because I was very cautious and did not get in, hit the throttle, and go,” he remembers. “I think the first time, I didn’t go very far. It took me a while to get used to it, plus Grover was racing somewhere nearly every weekend, so I didn’t get to drive much, but a couple of times when he couldn’t go, I got to drive. Then he ended up getting hurt in one of my go-karts – he broke his hand and was out for three months – so I ended up being the driver.”

Paul Meyer bought the team a new Camaro body, and his son actually bought a stake in the team, which was renamed Meyer & Rogers.

“Dad had given me stock every year for my birthday – five shares of this and 10 shares of that – and I sold all my stock – I think it was worth like $3,500 – to buy into the car,” he said. When he was ready to move on, his dad also helped him get a bank loan for his first car, an S&R-chassised Mustang that would quickly put the name “Billy Meyer” on the lips of Funny Car fans everywhere.

(“The weird thing is that my dad had been the only person who ever called me Billy,” he recalled. “I was having ‘Bill Meyer’ lettered on the car, and the lettering guy told him that I was stupid if I didn’t take advantage of my age and go by 'Billy the Kid' or something like that, so I had him put ‘Billy Meyer’ on the car instead.”)

Meyer’s first race on his own with the Motivation Mustang was at the 1972 IHRA Fallnationals at Bristol Dragway, where he probably should have made the final round but shut off too early in the semifinals and Shirl Greer passed him. His next race was the huge Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway, then the nation’s premier Funny Car show.

Meyer’s Mustang, which he was tuning himself – most people don’t know that until the last six months of his driving career in 1987, he served as his own crew chief – reached the final round of the Chicago-style eliminator by virtue of having one of the two quickest elapsed times of the first three rounds.

(Above) Meyer stunned the sport in October 1972 when he wheeled his new Motivation Mustang to a win at the prestigious Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int'l Raceway, earning him congratulations from Linda Vaughn (below).

Meyer pounded out a 6.51 at 218 mph in round one to beat Jim Murphy; the run turned out to be low e.t. of the meet and his ticket to the final. Ron Colson, meanwhile, had shoed the Austin Coil-tuned Chi-Town Hustler to a second-round 6.57 to beat Danny Ongais to earn the other berth.

The final was a wild one. Both drivers fought for traction, with Meyer outpedaling Colson, 7.37 to 7.82, for the win. Meyer’s victory, combined with Richard Tharp’s three-win outing in the Blue Max Mustang, helped Ford to win the manufacturer crown.

The following weekend, he won the Division 4 points meet in Amarillo, Texas, but, surprisingly, Meyer was nonplussed by his immediate success.

“The way I was raised, with everything my dad’s company taught, was without giving any mental recognition to the possibility of defeat,” he said simply. “My whole life has been lived that way. None of it ever affected me. I just thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I know that sounds crazy.”

About the only thing that came close to defeating Meyer was school, where, despite being gone to the races several school days each week, he graduated, though barely, with a D average (1.41 GPA).

“I probably went to school only two to three days a week,” he remembered. “It was really a combination of my racing schedule and coming from a dysfunctional family where no one was watching me because they had their own issues. I used to ride to the races in Raymond Beadle’s truck [when Beadle was driving for Mike Burkhart], and his wife, Holly, would tutor me. Still, I think I flunked two or three classes every year and had to go to summer school to make up for it.

“But honestly, I believe that doing well in school doesn’t necessarily reflect on your intelligence. I never took algebra or geometry, but I am very good with both of them because of my racing career. I had to learn all of that because I was my own crew chief, and there are not many people who experimented more than us. Today, math is one of my best subjects.”

(Humorously, Meyer credits a lot of his 1972 success to the “A” grade that he received that year in English. His father had inspired/bribed him with the promise of an Ed Pink short block if he aced any class, and he took maximum advantage of his strategic position in the middle of the class and his English teacher’s limited physical mobility to better his odds, if you know what I mean.)

Meyer's first NHRA national event final round was a big one, at the 1974 U.S. Nationals, where the 20-year-old set the national record at 6.19.

Meyer, who was one of the first and best drivers to utilize the hand brake on launch to compensate for track conditions, reached his first NHRA national event final round at the 1974 U.S. Nationals in just his second full year on the tour and just a few months after his 20th birthday (he was not still a teenager, as was widely reported; he was born in May 1954) and probably should have beaten the legendary Don Prudhomme in the final. But, truth be told, he was lucky to even be at the event, let alone in the final of the biggest drag race on the planet against one of its biggest stars.

“I wasn’t even going to go to Indy that year,” Meyer confessed. “I was bankrupt, out of money, had blown up a bunch of stuff, and was running horrible. Sid Waterman, who helped me more than anybody in my career, told me he would put an engine together for us, which he did, but he changed my whole combination.

“We were making some decent runs, but I felt like Sid’s combination was so conservative, so when we came up for one of our first runs one morning, he wasn’t there yet, so I retuned the car to my own specs. He got there when I was next to run. I was already suited up, so he leaned in there and asked, ‘So, what did you change?’ I told him, and he just shook his head. Then we ran the low e.t."

Meyer qualified his new Mustang II in the No. 1 spot with a 6.28, just edging out Prudhomme’s 6.29. It was more of the same come Labor Day Monday. Meyer ran 6.22 in round one against Gordie Bonin, then a national record 6.19 in round two (backed up by the .22) to best Ed McCulloch and a 6.26 in the semifinals to trailer Don Schumacher. McCulloch had won Indy in 1971 and 1972, and Schumacher had done it in 1970, so, e.t.s notwithstanding, those were some pretty big scalps.

Meyer was the performance star of the 1974 U.S. Nationals and very well may have won the event had not a water line failed in the Tuesday final while racing Don Prudhomme's Army-backed Barracuda.

Prudhomme, who was the defending event champ, reportedly had been pacing himself, running just as hard as needed to advance, and his best race day e.t. was 6.36, so, based on performance alone, Meyer was given good odds of beating his more experienced rival.

Then Mother Nature intervened. Rain began to fall, forcing the final round to a Tuesday finish. And Meyer made what amounted, in hindsight, to be a disastrous tactical move. NHRA offered the finalists a checkout run prior to the resumption of eliminations. Meyer took them up on their offer, testing the traction and his clutch setting.

When he and “the Snake” launched in the final, Meyer’s car stared hazing the tires, the result of a broken water line with one pass too many on it. He still ran a remarkable 6.45 but was no match for Prudhomme’s 6.33.

“We had bought that water line at a little auto-parts store in Englishtown,” Meyer lamented. “It wasn't stainless, and it stuck to the header and melted. If I hadn’t taken the time-trial run, I would have won Indy.”

Despite his success, Meyer planned to take a hiatus from racing and signed a contract to drive the land-speed car owned by Bill Fredericks. His contract prohibited him from owning a team, but not from driving, so as the land-speed project plodded along, he drove in 1975 for Gene Snow (who was recovering from back surgery) and for Keeling & Clayton, and then for Plueger & Gyger into the early part of 1976. When the land-speed project continued to fizzle, Meyer decided to reform his team and spent the remainder of 1976 doing that and returned in 1977 with the SMI Motivator Camaro.

By that time, Meyer was 22 and well beyond the scope of the Teen Terror lens upon which I am focusing. As I mentioned in the opening and wrote about last week, his driving career –which ended in 1987 – and his business career were phenomenal, filled with wins and a championship, but, as you’ll read next week in “The Perils of Billy Meyer,” they weren't always easy, and they certainly weren’t painless.

Happy birthday, Texas MotorplexFriday, October 16, 2015

By the time you read this, I’ll be in Dallas for my annual trip to the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Billy Meyer’s Texas Motorplex, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. I won’t say I’ve been to every NHRA national event held there, but I’ve been to most of them, and I’ve seen some incredible things happen during the years.

From the time it opened in 1986, not only did the Motorplex and its unique all-concrete quarter-mile became the place to set records, but the facility also set the bar for customer amenities unlike those seen at a dragstrip since the short life of its Texas-sized predecessor, Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway, in the 1970s.

I spoke to Meyer earlier this week – it was a dual-purpose call, to learn more about the history of the Motorplex and to gather more information for the next installment of my Teen Terrors of the ‘70s columns – and hung up with enough information for a half-dozen columns, but I’ll work on boiling it down to just two (but no promises): Motorplex this week, Teen Terror next week.

So what inspires a guy like Billy Meyer, still a very successful Funny Car racer at the time, to build the Taj Mahal of dragstrips and pave the way for many future tracks? Although Texas Motorplex rose into drag racing lore in 1986, the seeds were planted long before Meyer bought the famous plot of land on Highway 287 outside of Ennis, Texas, and came out of what Meyer viewed as a necessity for the sport born of a bit of a personal embarrassment.

In 1981, U.S. Tobacco’s Skoal brand of chewing tobacco was making its first foray into motorsports, sponsoring both a NASCAR stock car and Meyer’s Chevy Citation Funny Car. Hal Needham, the famed stuntman who owned the Skoal-backed NASCAR team, had worked with Meyer on a jinxed land-speed-record car that Meyer was supposed drive in the 1970s and had provided Meyer the ”in” with Skoal. The stock car would debut at the Daytona 500, so when Meyer’s Hawaiian Tropic/Skoal Bandit Funny Car made its debut at the Winternationals a few weeks before that, Needham naturally wanted to see the launch of the Skoal Motorsports program.

Needham and his wife, Dani, arrived in Pomona for the event in a Rolls-Royce, she in a mink coat. Of course, there was no VIP tower there at the time, and before long, her beautiful coat was covered in “Akron fallout” from the burnouts, and the TV helicopter destroyed her hairdo. “It was an absolute disaster; she swore she’d never come back,” recalled Meyer. Making matters worse, the couple then traveled to Daytona to see the stock car’s debut, where they sat in a private suite sipping champagne and eating caviar. Can you see where this is going?

Meyer finally convinced Lou Bantle, the longtime board chairman of U.S. Tobacco, to come see the drags for himself. Unfortunately, the first race he could get to was the Summernationals. Raise your hand if you remember Julys in New Jersey? That’s right, 100 degrees with 95 percent humidity, a rowdy crowd holding “colorful” signs in the grandstands, and no permanent bathrooms. Another nail in the coffin, and Meyer’s Skoal contract was not renewed for 1982.

“I knew we had a major-league sport, but we were playing it in Little League ballparks,” said Meyer. “It was just stupid.”

Billy Meyer chose to break ground on this plot of land outside of Ennis, Texas, largely because of its easy access from four-lane Highway 287.
(Above) This sign, predicting a late 1985 opening, proved a little too optimistic. (Below) Heavy rain and mud certainly didn't help speed construction.
Using a new process known as post-tension, Meyer created a seamless, all-concrete racing surface on which records were quickly set.
The centerpiece of the facility was this racetrack-spanning VIP tower.
Kenny Bernstein was among those providing jaw-dropping performances at the opening NHRA national event at Texas Motorplex in 1986.

Meyer didn’t have the money at the time to fix the problem, but he wasn’t the only one thinking the same thing. When Dallas Gardner became NHRA’s second president in 1984, one of his key initiatives was the improvement of facilities, and he had led the charge toward purchasing the tracks in Indianapolis and Gainesville to “experiment” with, and soon each had a VIP tower sprouting from the earth. Other tracks – most notably DIMS, Bristol Dragway, and Atlanta Dragway – had led the way with multistory towers, but soon everyone could see the advantages.

The loss of the Skoal deal turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise for Meyer, who soon was partnered with the Southland Corp. and had sponsorships from its flagship 7-Eleven and Chief Auto Parts brands. Meyer had the foresight to request front-loaded contracts, which gave him some immediate working capital that not only funded the race car, but also allowed him to make some smart property investments. By 1985, he had enough money to not only buy the land outside of Ennis, but also to make another strategic purchase that eliminated a competing bid to build a dragstrip to service the Dallas area.

“I ended up choosing the Ennis plot for two reasons,” said Meyer. “First, it was on a four-lane divided highway, and at the time, there wasn’t a racetrack in America that was on a four-lane divided highway; most of them were on county roads where you couldn’t get in, and you couldn’t get out. Second, it was in a county of 50,000 people, so I could do an industrial bond loan. It needed to be in the Ennis city limits, and it initially wasn’t, so I spent months getting it accepted into the city limits. I also felt like I was safer inside the city limits because I could be controlled by city laws regarding curfew and noise abatement, so no one could sue me for those things; they’d have to sue the city.”

There was some opposition locally, especially in nearby Reagor Springs (the residents of which erected signs proclaiming “Don’t allow rowdyism”), but construction quickly began in early 1986 with some lofty goals.

“My goal was to service the three most important parts of the sport: the spectators, the sponsors, and the racers because I felt like that had never been done at the same time,” said Meyer. “Because of the issues I had back in 1981, bathrooms were a huge thing for me, so I mandated that we had to have more permanent restrooms than they had at Texas Stadium [home of the Dallas Cowboys], and I wanted to be able to say that, and I wanted attendants in all of them. I wanted more opportunities for sponsor signage and a place for them to sit in comfort. And, of course, as a racer, I thought we needed the perfect racetrack."

The facility grew into having a stadium feel of its own, with seats not just flanking the track but wrapping around to meet the tower, which straddled the track behind the starting line with a pass-through tunnel beneath, a design so commonplace now.

Of course, it’s where the rubber meets the road that real ground was broken. Although race cars had been running on concrete surfaces on abandoned or closed airport runways for decades, those all were made of concrete slabs with expansion gaps that made traction tricky. Dragstrips had begun incorporating concrete into their starting areas, first a few feet, then a hundred, then a few hundred, but there was never a complete quarter-mile concrete track.

Meyer contracted Texas-based VSL, which had developed a process known as post-tension that allowed for a continuous, seamless pour (read all about it here) that provided, in essence, a 1,320-foot concrete launchpad. The track opened with a Division 4 event in August and the national event, the Chief Auto Parts Nationals, thanks to Meyer’s ongoing relationship with the company (he was still driving the Chief Auto Parts Funny Car at the time).

Legendary drag racer Don Prudhomme remembers the first time he ever saw Texas Motorplex: "It was like a Field of Dreams."

So, how did the first national event go? On his very first pass down the track, national record holder (5.34) Darrell Gwynn became the first Top Fuel driver to run in the 5.20s and the first to exceed 275 mph with an astounding 5.280 at 278.29 mph. He later ran as quick as 5.261 at 278.55 to reset both ends of the national record. The Top Fuel field sported a record bubble and featured six qualifiers in the 5.30s or better. Funny Car king Kenny Bernstein, whose 5.50 in Indy a month earlier had been otherworldly, not only became the first to run in the 5.40s, but also blasted deep into the .40s with a mind-numbing 5.425. The Funny Car field was also a record grouping of 16 cars. A year and a half later, in April 1988 during a brief alliance with IHRA during Meyer’s reign as sanctioning body president, Eddie Hill recorded the sport’s first four-second Top Fuel run at Texas Motorplex.

“That track has held up so well,” said Meyer proudly. “We’re on our 30th anniversary, and all we’ve had to do was grind it one time. Next year, I’ll be 62 and the track will be 31, and it will have been part of my life for half my life. We’ve had some problems with weather the last few years where the track performances aren’t what we were used to, but we’re really looking forward to this year’s race. The forecast is stupid good, and we’re looking for the return of those big numbers.”

Me, too.

Remembering Dave BeebeFriday, October 09, 2015

Another hole was torn in the fabric of our racing family last weekend with the passing of Dave Beebe, whose surname was one of the more famous in our sport thanks to the accomplishments of he and brother Tim in the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. We lost Dave last Friday, just two weeks shy of his 78th birthday, after a long battle with a myriad of afflictions, not the least of which was congestive heart failure.

As you’ll come to know Dave Beebe through this column, you’ll learn what I did, that he was a family man who, despite championship-caliber driving skills, chose numerous times to forego the life of a touring professional and the fame that might have come with it to spend the latter half of his quite impressive racing career plying his trade locally to stay close to his family, his wife, Janet, and four kids, plus the extended Beebe family that numbers several dozen.

The Beebe brothers first hit the national radar of drag racing fans with the Beebe Bros. & Sixt front-engine Top Fuel dragster, which was runner-up behind Pete Robinson at the 1966 World Finals in Tulsa, Okla., with Dave at the wheel. That car was predated by the Bantam-bodied J&S Speed Shop fuel altered.

The brothers got their love of racing through familial genes, beginning with father Merrill, who raced midgets and sprint cars at the local circle tracks in Southern California. According to Dave’s eldest daughter, Kathy Knight, with whom I spoke earlier this week, her grandfather had merely been a teenager crewing on cars until one of his drivers didn’t show up and was asked to fill in, and he won the first race in which he ever competed.

Dave was the oldest of nine Beebe children – six boys (Dave, Roy, Jerry, Tim, Richard, and James) and three girls (Ruth, Margaret, and Jeannie) – born to Merrill and Francis, but it was Tim who had the first second-gen race car, a 53 Olds, then a ’56 Chevy and finally a Fiat altered with brother-in-law Frank Fedak that was driven by neighbor John Mulligan, whose name would become indelibly linked with the brothers in the coming years.

(Above) Dave Beebe, right, with brother Tim, center, and Lee Sixt started campaigning a Top Fueler in 1966 and nearly won the world championship that season, losing only to Pete Robinson in the final round of the World Finals.

After the brothers combined forces to field the J&S Speed Shop roadster, Tim ached to move up to Top Fuel, which they did with partner Lee Sixt. Tim tuned, and Dave drove, and they were very successful in the Southern California hotbed, racking up more than a dozen wins, including at the UDRA Winternationals at Lions Drag Strip, Carlsbad Raceway’s Jackpot Pro-Circuit, the Division 7 event at Sacramento Raceway, several major wins at Irwindale Raceway (including the Grand Prix), and the Division 7 championship.

Their successful season qualified them to represent Division 7 at the 1966 World Finals at Southwest Raceway in Tulsa, where they were actually – at least in the eyes of some media – the prohibitive favorite to win.

They beat local hero Bennie Osborn – who would win the championship the next two years – in round one and the Gene Goleman-driven, national-record-holding Creitz & Greer entry in round two, then defeated SoCal rival Tom McEwen’s Baney-Pink machine in the semifinals. Robinson’s Ford-powered killer had run as quick as 7.19 – under the 7.26 record that Vic Brown had run a month earlier in Bristol in the Creitz & Greer machine – while Dave’s best was 7.26. Neither driver matched that number in the final, but Robinson stormed out in front to claim the championship with a 7.27.

The brothers did a little record setting of their own in early 1967, making the first six-second pass on AHRA timers at the Springnationals in Odessa, Texas, a 6.94 (albeit an altitude-factored time); it was just the second six-second time slip ever after the 6.95 run at Carlsbad in late 1966 by Mulligan in the Adams-Warye-Mulligan machine. Earlier that year they had been runner-up at the March Meet to Mike Snively and The Hawaiian.

Despite those successes, Dave, a stay-at-home kind of guy dedicated to his family and to his job as service manager at Cone Chevrolet in Fullerton, Calif., turned over the seat of the family car to the talented Mulligan – once their fiercest rival and now their ace driver – and the Beebe & Mulligan Fighting Irish team quickly became one of the most feared on the planet, racking up track records and top-five performances everywhere, culminating with another just-missed championship with a runner-up behind Osborn at the ’68 World Finals in their new Woody Gilmore-built car, and 1969 seemed primed to be their season.

The team shed its “bridesmaid” nickname and finally struck paydirt when they won the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona and later that year switched from their reliable old 392 to a Ramchargers-built 426, and they were on a roll when they hit the U.S. Nationals, qualifying No. 1 with a stunning 6.43 blast that was not bettered for almost two years. Sadly, a violent clutch explosion and resulting fire in round one grievously injured Mulligan, who would die from those injuries three weeks later.

OCIR track manager Mike Jones pours Dave a celebratory glass of champagne after wheeling Bill Crossley's dragster to victory.
While brother Tim stayed in Top Fuel with neighbor John Mulligan, Dave began driving in Funny Car for the likes of Nelson Carter (above) and Ed Wills (below).

While brother Tim had been concentrating on the Fighting Irish team, Dave had been driving in Top Fuel locally, most memorably for Bill Crossley, before making the jump in 1968 to Funny Cars primarily in Southern California, shoeing for the likes of Nelson Carter’s well-funded Super Chief (in which he set the national record in August at 7.68) until Carter, too, decided to go on tour, and Dave once again deferred. Dave later drove locally for the Dean Hofheins and Dallas Furgeson-owned Dodge Fever and for “Big John” Mazmanian (subbing for Rich Siroonian), and he scored a huge win at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Nitro Championship in July, ending Danny Ongais’ incredible four-month unbeaten streak in Mickey Thompson’s Mach I in the final round.

After Mulligan’s death, the brothers reunited on a Funny Car and took over the Dodge Fever Charger but stayed close to home and spent the entire 1970 season racing locally in Southern California and reset the national record at 6.99, the class’ first sub-seven-second record.

In 1971, Tim wanted to go on the road again and built the Fighting Irish Funny Car. He hired Dick Rosberg as his driver and headed out on tour. Dave, with his family continuing to grow – first Kathy, then Dennis and Karen; Daniel would come much later – stayed local and began driving for Ed Wills in the Mr. Ed Funny Car.

Daughter Kathy remembers the time well, hanging out with the kids of the other racers at places like OCIR, where they’d play in the drainage tunnel that ran under the racetrack, and of time spent with her extended family or uncles, aunts, and cousins who would come out to watch the brothers do their thing.

“Racing was absolutely a big family thing for us,” she recalled fondly. “Everyone was involved, helping on the cars. My mother used to make sub sandwiches for everybody. She’d go down to Cortina’s delicatessen in Anaheim, Calif., to get the ingredients and make hundreds of them to share. I think I have more than 30 cousins.

“What I remember most about my dad was that it seemed like he won all the time,” she said proudly. “I remember when the race cars would come to our house in Anaheim, and they’d work on the cars in the garage. I’ll never forget having the Mr. Ed car there, and I practically had all the kids from my elementary school over at the house looking at the car and getting autographs. The body was lying in the grass and all of the kids would be crawling under it. It was awesome.

“We got to go on the road with Mom and Dad quite a bit, too,” she added. “I remember going to Texas and to New Jersey. I think we were only with babysitters twice in our whole life.”

Dave Beebe finally got an NHRA Wally of his own when he drove Larry Huff's Soapy Sales Challenger to victory at the 1973 Springnationals.

Dave reunited with Carter in late 1971, drove Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell Demon for a period, and finally got his first NHRA Wally trophy in 1973, driving Larry Huff’s Guasco-wrenched Soapy Sales Challenger to victory at the NHRA Springnationals.

Dave qualified No. 2 at 6.57, just behind Don Prudhomme’s 6.52 in the Carefree 'Cuda and just ahead of Pat Foster’s 6.66 in the Barry Setzer’s Gatornationals-winning Vega. He beat Leroy Goldstein, Shirley Muldowney, and a tire-smoking Jim Nicoll to reach the final, where Foster surprisingly went up in smoke and watched Dave streak to a 6.71 victory.

(Dave had quite the sense of humor. Early on, perhaps even predating Jerry Ruth, Dave painted “the King” on his helmet. Later on, after winning the Division 7 championship in Huff’s car, the lettering across the top of the window read: Dave “the Champ” Beebe. In an interview I did with him a few years ago, Dave’s nephew – also named Dave and the son of brother Jerry – told me, “The nickname is from pure ego. Prudhomme being ‘the Snake’ and McEwen 'the Mongoose’ -- well, John was ‘the Zookeeper’ for those two. Dave was 'the King’ of everybody! Dave was well-known for walking through the staging lanes and trying to get into his opponent’s head. It wasn’t just racing the track for him.”)

Dave reunited with Wills and drove the Whipple and Mr. Ed Satellite at the 1974 Winternationals but stopped driving not long after that following the birth of his youngest child, Daniel.

Family was never far away when Dave raced. (Above) He shared this winner's circle with brothers Richard, left, and Tim after a win with their Dodge Fever entry. (Below) Daughter Kathy got to share the limelight of this OCIR victory.

“There had been a lot of accidents at that time, and he didn’t want to leave his kids without a father or his wife without a husband,” Kathy explained.

Although he never drove again and opened Beebe’s Truck and Auto and a U-Haul business in Porterville, Calif., where he lived the rest of his life, racing was never far from Dave’s mind. Sons Dennis and Daniel both drove dragsters, running in Super Comp, under the watchful eye and guidance of their father. They even traveled together in the 1980s to Indy, the site of the Mulligan tragedy. Dave had been with the Fighting Irish team at Indy in 1969, backing “the Zookeeper” up after the burnout for the fateful run, sharing eye contact the entire time, and when Dennis cleared the finish line on his first run, Dave burst into tears, according to his daughter, thankful that his son had survived what his friend had not.

Although he enjoyed Angels baseball, USC Trojans football, and his beloved “L.A. Rams” football team – refusing to acknowledge their new home in St. Louis – racing was always Dave’s life, and even as he lost Janet, his love of 52 years and wife of 48, three years ago and began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and heart disease, racing was what kept the pieces glued together.

“The last few months of his life any time that Uncle Roy or Uncle Tim would come to visit him, he could sit and talk to them for hours at a time and it wasn’t like he was sick at all,” Kathy told me, her voice quivering with emotion. “When we brought him home for the last time, he’d be lying in the bed, he was always fixing the car [in his mind]. It was his greatest love, other than my mom.”

The family will hold a celebration of life Oct. 18 at Dave’s home in Porterville. Kathy has plenty of inspiration for a themed celebration, as her mother had kept boxes and boxes of memorabilia from Dave’s career, everything from firesuits to jackets to time slips, and she plans to decorate the tables with the different cars that he drove. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren will all be there to celebrate his life, a fitting send-off for a guy who was always putting his family first.

Randy and Gary Allison, circa 1972.

Imagine, if you can, two young brothers with zero nitro-racing experience deciding to try their hand at Top Fuel. It’s not a scenario you can even begin to contemplate today, but back in the late 1960s, it sounded like a pretty good idea to Gary and Randy Allison.

It was late 1968, and Randy was just 16 at the time with only a few months of driving experience in a 10-second, injected, Hemi-powered C/Gas '64 Plymouth that the siblings had put together before Gary, who was four years older, went into the Navy. Growing up in rural Vista, Calif., the brothers had begun driving at a very young age and had fallen in love with the drags from the repeated trips to Pomona.

“We loved the fuel cars,” remembers Randy, now 63, “so we decided to buy a used, front-engine dragster from Ron O’Donnell. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we did it anyway. We just kind of stepped into the dark. I know that sounds like a pretty big jump, but that’s just the way I’ve always been. I’ve always been a climber, always trying to become more than I am.”

Funny thing is, Randy’s use of the word “we” to describe the purchasing decision is a little generous.

“I didn’t know anything about it at the time,” recalled Gary, now 67, with a laugh when I shared Randy’s version with him. “I was overseas, and all of the sudden I get a box of photos from Randy — with no letter or explanation — of him sitting in this old dragster. It’s a pretty funny story because he saw an ad in National Dragster for the car, some parts, and a trailer and got a cashier’s check and, with one of his high school buddies, went to Ron’s shop in Garden Grove [Calif.]. Now remember, he’s only 16 or 17, so you can imagine that Ron was a little suspicious of all of this and made Randy go to the bank and get cash instead.

“I got really excited about it, and by the time I got home, he already had a firesuit and everything and had started the car — and blown it up, I believe. One of our neighbors was Joe Lee [later of “Smokey Joe” Funny Car fame], and he helped Randy with it. The Lee brothers had a wrecking yard out in the boonies around Vista, and the only road to push-start it was a downhill, winding, rutted road in front of the yard. That had to be quite an experience.”

The Allison team — from left, Dewayne Warriner; Mel, Randy, and Gary Allison; and Sid Waterman — in the winner's circle at Lions Drag Strip.
Randy found himself in the hot seat a lot with their first front-engined dragster.

The Allison family team, which included father Mel, younger brother Fritz, and brother-in-law Dewayne Warriner, were fortunate early on to meet Sid Waterman, famous then as an engine builder and later renowned for his fuel-system expertise, who took them under his wing and coached them along — and later employed them at his shop — showing them how to mix the nitro and pack the parachutes, but the boys pretty much ran the tuning part of the show, which wasn’t always pretty at first.

“I got my license but had to go through a couple of nasty engine blowups and fires,” Randy remembers. “This was late 1969, early 1970, and I was just 17. This was before Jeb [Allen] or even [Fred] Mooneyham [Jr.]. I think I was the only teenager out there running in fuel, but I loved it, and all the older guys treated me real well. I think they all wondered what the heck we were doing, but they were all great to us. They’d drag us along going out to dinner.”

“Back then, you had to run within 10 percent of the national record to get your license,” remembers Gary, “and it seemed like every time we got close to doing that, someone would lower the record. It probably took us a year to get Randy his license, but we learned a lot about how to run and tune the car.”

The switch to rear-engine cars in Top Fuel came none too soon for Randy, who was tired of getting coated in oil and cooked by fire. In 1971, they commissioned Woody Gilmore to build them a new dragster, and Waterman built them a late-model 426 engine, and they were one of the first to run a two-speed transmission, which at the time were primarily used in Funny Cars, and also one of the first to run a high-volume fuel pump. 

(Above) The brothers' first rear-engine car was this Woody Gilmore beauty. Randy burns out at OCIR as Gary runs ahead. (Below) Randy preferred a foot-operated shifter -- to shift from low gear into high, but not the other way -- so after a burnout in high gear, a crewmember had to pop the car back into low for the run using the rod that is visible here below the Halibrand quick-change rear end.
The Allisons' second rear-engine car was highly successful, carrying them to a No. 1 qualifying spot and a semifinal finish in Columbus in 1973.

It was also at this point that Randy committed himself fully to racing, dropping out of junior college when a teacher would not allow him to reschedule a final exam so that he could run at the Bakersfield March Meet. Initially, the brothers stuck close to the West Coast, running Lions Drag Strip, Orange County Int’l Raceway, Irwindale Raceway — all within about an hour’s drive from their home — with occasional ventures north to places like Sacramento Raceway while they learned the ropes.

“We were a pretty good team,” Randy remembers. “Gary was really good with the engine and transmission, and I got pretty good with the injectors and clutch. [John Force actually credits Randy for helping show him how to adjust the clutch back when he was just getting started.] It just clicked for us, and before long, we weren’t blowing up hardly any parts. It was a cool time; you could have a 32-car show right here in Southern California, and we could run against all the heavy hitters.”

The brothers also became so confident in their skills that they often had their own ideas about how their engines should be built (bore and stroke, etc.) and even designed their own camshaft profile to fit their combination.

The new car hauled ass in 1972, as they finished second in the Division 7 Top Fuel standings — just behind perennial king James Warren but ahead of names like Don Moody, Dennis Baca, Bob Noice, and Larry Dixon — and won a number of major match race titles, and the brothers actually held the Lions track record at 6.03 until Moody ran 6.029 at the track’s Last Drag Race in December 1972.

The brothers, who by then were working at Waterman’s shop — Gary in the machine shop and Randy in parts —ordered another Woody car for 1973 with which they planned to tour. Their grandfather loaned them $16,500, which back then was good enough to buy a brand-new car, engine, and trailer — amazing.

While the new equipment was being readied, Randy hopped into T.B. Smallwood’s car for a few races and scored a runner-up at the famed Bakersfield meet behind Dwight Salisbury when their new Milodon engine kicked a rod in the final. The wait for the new car was worth it because the purple charger carried them to the No. 1 qualifying spot at the 1973 Springnationals in Columbus with a low e.t. run of 6.28. On Sunday, Randy defeated world champ Jim Walther and future champ Gary Beck but smoked the tires in the semifinals against John Wiebe, who went on to capture his only NHRA national event win.

A few months later, Randy made another run at a national event title, surprising everyone at the prestigious U.S. Nationals by qualifying No. 17 and upsetting low qualifier Jim Bucher in round one and veteran Vic Brown in round two before falling on a holeshot to fellow WRE employee Carl Olson, 6.09 to 6.06.

Carl Olson, near lane, not only raced against the Allisons at places like Lions but also was their boss when all three worked at Waterman Racing Engines.
The Allisons sold their car to Henry Velasco and Lee Cohon, and Randy drove briefly for them in 1974 before hanging up his helmet.

“Should have won that race,” Randy said matter-of-factly.

Olson remembers the brothers well and fondly from his time at WRE.

“Their dragster was more or less the WRE ‘house car,’ and they ran all of the WRE products on their extremely competitive Woody car," he said. "They were exactly the kinds of young men you wanted to work with: punctual, talented, enthusiastic, and hard-working. 

"I have nothing but the highest regard for both of them. Randy was an excellent driver, and the brothers ran a very ‘buttoned-up’ operation that was a threat to win every time out. I loved racing against them, as there was never any ‘hanky panky’ involved. They were straight-up kinds of racers, just as they were in their employment at the shop. In my position as WRE general manager, I was blessed with all great workers, including Neil Leffler, with whom the Allisons worked very closely and who taught them a lot about machine work."

But, as was the case with a number of drivers in this era, the cost of racing was increasing exponentially, and the sponsors who are so prevalent today were still a few years off. The brothers were trying to fund the operation themselves but just couldn’t.

“We tried to get sponsors — and got close a few times — but it finally became a real financial burden to keep state-of-the-art equipment,” said Randy.

Reluctantly, they sold their hard-running car to Henry Velasco and Lee Cohon, and Randy drove it for a few races in 1974 before hanging up his driving gloves.

 Gary (left) and Randy, today

Randy went to work at Race Car Parts (later Russell Industries), where he became general manager. Gary also left Waterman and went to work at Donovan, where, more than 40 years later is still employed today, working as shop foreman. Today, Randy is into real estate development, and while he takes part in some of the lunchtime gatherings of the old guard that take place fairly regularly in Southern California, he keeps his distance from the dragstrip itself. “I just couldn’t go back to the races,” said Randy. “Even today, if I went out there, I’d want to do it again.”

“I’m proud of what we accomplished,” added Gary. “We were competitive in a tough era, but we just loved what we were doing. We have a lot of great memories of those times and made a lot of great friends.”

“I think we did well for what we had,” Randy reflected. “I wish we had been able to stick it out for another year or two and maybe gotten a sponsor. Who knows what else we could have done?”

Previous Entries
Next Entries