Top Fuel domination, 1983 style
This season, there has been no stopping the U.S. Army team, thanks in large part to the uncanny tuning skills of crew chief Alan Johnson, the immaculate car preparation by the Jason McCulloch-led crew, and the steady driving of Tony Schumacher. Although they've shown the ability to knock it out of the park e.t.-wise on occasion, their key to success is in their flawless execution rather than their brutalization of the scoreboards.
Twenty-five years ago this month, before Schumacher even had his Illinois driver's license, Gary Beck won the 1983 NHRA Top Fuel championship in dominating fashion, and although his, too, was just about a wire-to-wire affair, the Larry Minor-owned, Bernie Fedderly-tuned blue rocket rampaged its way through the record books with a stunning series of clockings en route to four wins and a runner-up in 12 events.
I joined the National DRAGSTER staff in May 1982, so 1983 was my first full season behind the keyboard, and I'll never forget watching the Beck-Minor team come into its own. In 1981, I was a fan in the grandstands at Orange County Int'l Raceway when Beck – who had been the first in the 5.60s at the 1975 Finals – ran the first 5.5-second clocking, a 5.57 in the final round to win the World Finals (but lose the championship to Jeb Allen by two mph for not setting top speed), and watched in amazement the next year when Beck rode out a foot-high wheelie in Indy to the first 5.4 pass, a 5.48, dropping the record by a tenth of a second. Little did we know that was just the beginning and that in 1983 they would not only lower it by another tenth but record 16 of the season's 17 quickest passes topped by a stunning pair of 5.39s at the season's final two events, the Golden Gate Nationals in Fremont and the World Finals at OCIR.
By March 1983, Beck had already bettered the 5.48 with a national record 5.44 (and a 5.47 and two 5.49s) in
Beck clinched the championship, at the season's penultimate race, the Golden Gates, in stunning fashion. After rain washed out Friday qualifying, the Bay Area made amends by providing cool, moist air for the race's final two days, and the Minor team took full advantage.
Beck led qualifying for the eight-car field at "just" 5.55 – still a half-tenth ahead of Joe Amato's second-quick 5.60 -- and ran back-to-back 5.47s in the first two rounds, so few could have expected what was to come in the final against Northern California favorite Gary Ormsby.
Just ahead of the Top Fuel final, Frank Iaconio won Pro Stock with 7.69, 179.64 to defeat Lee Shepherd's 7.68, 175.78 in the quickest Pro Stock final in history. Then Billy Meyer set low e.t. with a 5.75 at 245.90 mph to edge Raymond Beadle's 5.78, 246.57 in the quickest Funny Car race of all time.
With the Top Fuel title in the balance and fans practically salivating in the stands, Beck powered to a 5.391-second clocking at 252.10 mph to beat Ormsby's event-best 5.54, 230.76 in what then was the quickest and fastest Top Fuel pairing in history.
The only thing that the Minor team left on the table was the national record, and, incredibly, they took care of that two weeks later at the next race when they duplicated the 5.39 to the thousandth during qualifying at the World Finals, backed up by a 5.43 in the first round. Beck didn't win the race, but he left his mark all over the season and walked on stage to claim the champion's trophy the next night.
But they weren’t done.
Two weeks later, Beck and team returned to OCIR for the Last Drag Race, where they captured Top Fuel honors in what was their only match-race date of the season. All in all, it was an incredible six-week finale to an incredible season. The 5.39 stood as the best run in history for more than two years, until Don Garlits ran 5.37 at the 1986 March Meet, and remained the national record until the 1986 U.S. Nationals, where Darrell Gwynn ran 5.34.
Longtime pal and DRAGSTER Insider reader Henry Walther was on the Minor team back then and got together at the recent California Hot Rod Reunion with Beck and fellow Minor crewmember Willie Wolter – all three of whom work on the Paso Posse nostalgia Top Fueler driven by Beck's son, Randy -- to remember those magical weeks for us.
"The 1983 Golden Gate Nationals was a great race for me personally," said Walther. "
"The 5.39 at
"Based on the performance at
"A couple of weeks later, we were back for the Last Drag Race at OCIR. This race was for the bragging rights, and it lasted well into the early-morning hours. My fondest memory of that race happened as we were preparing the car for the final round. Doug Kerhulas pulled up alongside of our pit in his Corvette and laughingly wished us luck in the final. This came as somewhat of a surprise as it was Doug that we were supposed to run for the title. He explained that he had broken his racer and couldn’t make the repairs, so he was headed home. Since it was the last run of the season, and the last pass for us at OCIR, even though it was a single, we gave the fans that stayed to the end a full-pull run (5.59). Unlike the Last Drag Race at Long Beach where runner-up Jeb Allen made the last pass down the track (trailing winners Kuhl & Olson), we had the distinction of winning and making the final Top Fuel last run down the fabled Orange County Int'l Raceway. It has been 25 years since that track closed, and as the time goes by, the loss becomes greater.
"I can also remember Gary and his wife, Ed McCulloch and his wife, Gordie Bonin and me and our dates greeting the following sunrise by hoisting some victory champagne while we were all still in GB’s hot tub. With some wins, you just want the moment to last forever."
Walther later found and restored the Al Swindahl-built 1983 car with the help of chassis builder Dave Uyehara, Tim’s Hot Rods, Tom Kelly, Dan Olson Racing Products, Barry Little of SAE, Kurt Walther, RCD Engineering, and former teammates Minor, Beck, Wolter, John Cox, and Terry Caldwell. Today it sits in the Duarte, Calif., museum of longtime Minor backer Justice Bros. alongside the McCulloch-driven Minor/Miller High Life Olds, which won the U.S. Nationals in 1990.
(Left) That was then ... From left, Larry Minor teammates John Cox, Henry Walther, kneeling, Willie Wolter, Gary Beck, and Bernie Fedderly in 1984. (Right) This is now. The group re-created its pose with the restored 1983 car (the 1984 car was actually the 1983 chassis with Miller Lite colors).