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Remembering Dave Beebe

09 Oct 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

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.