Photos by James Drew
You Know What he Does, but do you Know who he Is?
John Russell Beckman has stared death in the face. Not behind the wheel of the Aaron’s/Valvoline Dodge Funny Car, which he drives for Don Schumacher Racing, although there is certainly an element of real danger attached to that. No, the man they call Fast Jack had his most intimate encounter with his final curtain in 2004 after a visit to his doctor’s office, and what he confronted, endured, overcame and achieved while bobbing and weaving around the Grim Reaper does much in telling the story of who he is.
The son of Robert and Joanne Beckman grew up in Granada Hills, California (Home of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme). Jack’s parents divorced when he was 10-years-old, and his dad, now living in Arlington, Texas, is a retired aerospace engineer, machinist and computer programmer who occasionally takes on consulting work for some of the country’s new age, high-tech military projects. Jack’s mom passed away from cancer in 1994 at age 50, after raising the Beckman family and working in the retail makeup industry. Jack spent four years in the Air Force, stationed in Clovis, New Mexico (birthplace of Kenny Bernstein), and following his tour of duty, appeared to be headed squarely into a blue collar career path rather than the high-speed, nitro-frenzy in which he now earns his living.
His 2003 NHRA Super Comp world championship was won amidst the demoralizing effects of carrying around the early symptoms of a potentially lethal disease. His professional drag racing exploits began in 2005 when he picked up his professional license in Dexter Tuttle’s Top Fuel dragster before competing in 12 national events that year. With sponsorship help from his close friends, Rodger and Karen Comstock—the owners of Mail Terminal Services—Jack was soon driving a Funny Car for Schumacher Racing in the seat formerly held by Whit Bazemore. As of this writing, Jack has scored 11 Funny Car national event wins, held both ends of the category’s national records in 2006, and picked up a victory in the $100,000 bonus F/C event at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in 2007.
Longtime NHRA TV commentator, writer and producer, Bill Stephens, who has returned to the Drag Racer Magazine roster of contributors after a seven-year absence, recently interviewed Jack, with his wife Jenna by his side, to uncover as much as he could about Jack Beckman: the man, rather than Jack Beckman: the racer. What resulted was a fascinating and revealing look at one of the NHRA’s most complex but candid professionals—a 45-year-old man who has stared death in the face but defiantly refused to go quietly.
STEPHENS: How did you first get bitten by the drag racing bug?
BECKMAN: I went to my first drag race in 1973 when my mother’s brother John, who was involved with a couple of race teams, took my brother Ted and I to Orange County Raceway. What I saw and heard did something to me. Even the smells—the nachos at the concession stand, the racing fuel, burning rubber, all of it. I watched the cars doing their dry hops and the dragsters getting their push starts. The sound of the exhausts, the candy apple paint; I was engrossed. But what really impressed me was how we could walk right up to the drivers in the pits and talk to them. I’ll never forget that.
STEPHENS: How long before you made your first trip down a dragstrip?
BECKMAN: In 1986, I was in the Air Force stationed in Clovis, New Mexico. My dad had bought a 1968 Chevy El Camino from the original owner in 1978, and I bought it from my dad in 1981. It had a 396-cube engine and while in the service, I drove it 100 miles to Lubbock, Texas, and raced it once. It ran a 15.06 E.T. and later that day it was a bit quicker, running a 14.50. After I got out of the service, I saved up some money and eventually put a 454 in it. On nitrous, it ran as quick as a 10.15 at 134 mph. I still have that El Camino. I dropped a 396 engine back into it—not the original one—and it will still run pretty quick, somewhere in the 12s.
At that time, I had no intentions of making drag racing a career. I was in the Air Force from age 17 to age 21. When I got out, I just wanted to make my car go faster, go to SuperShops and buy parts for it, and just have fun. I was working for Westinghouse Elevator at the time, making good money, living at home, and never considering becoming a professional drag racer.
STEPHENS: Obviously, that changed when you enrolled in the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School.
BECKMAN: Right. I had been an elevator technician for 10 1/2 years, from 1988 to 1998. In May of 1997, I went to Frank’s school and upgraded my license to Top Alcohol Dragster. I was offered a job as a teacher at Frank’s school and quit the elevator trade in November of 1998. I was giving up a good career with a good salary, benefits and job security. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But it was something that was going to take me in the direction I wanted to go in. I still work as a consultant for the school, but back in 1997, the chance I was taking didn’t matter to me. It was something I had to do.
STEPHENS: You became sick in 2003. How did you learn you had cancer?
BECKMAN: It was a long process. In late 2003, I started feeling bad. I caught what I thought was a cold, but it never went away completely. I’d feel sick for a couple of weeks and then feel better for a couple of weeks. I recall in September of that year I had to drive one of Frank Hawley’s rigs from Indianapolis to Gainesville [Florida], and as I was driving I was thinking how lousy I felt. Whatever it was that was making me sick, I never really kicked it.
This was all happening while I’m in the thick of a battle for the Super Comp championship. I was asking myself, “Could this be stress?”
In January of 2004, I had to renew my racing license. I remember telling the doctor who gave me my physical that I hadn’t been feeling well. But when the results of my physical came back, everything checked out. I had undergone an appendectomy in November of 2003, and I was thinking that maybe that had been the cause of my sickness, whatever it was, but the doctor said that wasn’t it. When the symptoms I had been feeling during 2003 hit me again, I started taking antibiotics. I developed a urinary infection and then in February, started having some serious pain in my left kidney and lower back. I went on painkillers and made several trips to my urologist.
I wasn’t getting any answers. Was it kidney stones? Was it HIV? Was it cancer? The doctor I was seeing told me it was just a bunch of little things. Two of my closest friends, Brent and Staci Cannon, who are my son Jason’s godparents, urged me to go have an MRI. Brent’s brother is a partner in a healthcare center, but I didn’t go to have one done for a while. Finally, I went and had it. During that time, the pain in my lower back was extreme. Then, my right kidney began hurting—feeling as if it were on fire—and my thought was that this has to be a kidney stone.
I made an emergency appointment to see a urologist because the pain was excruciating. The urologist I saw regularly was out of town and the substitute doctor I saw was the first one to tell me I had lymphoma. He was so matter-of-fact when he told me it amazed me.
STEPHENS: How did you take that news?
BECKMAN: You know what? The pain I was suffering with at the time was so severe, it took precedence over the news I had just received. He could have told me that both my kidneys had to be removed, and I would have been okay with it if it would relieve the pain.
STEPHENS: I remember in 2004, I was pit reporting for ESPN at the Fram-Autolite Nationals in Sonoma. You were racing your Super Comp dragster, and when I walked down to your pits and saw you, it shook me. You were so gaunt, and you had no color in your skin. I gave you a welcome hug and there wasn’t much of you there. I thought, “Dear God, don’t let this guy die. He’s too good a guy for this to happen.” What odds of recovering did the doctors give you when you began chemotherapy?
BECKMAN: They weren’t great—40-60 percent. The blood cancer had spread from my pelvis to my neck before I began chemotherapy. It had spread fast, and because it had been undiagnosed for so long, it had a pretty good head start. The first thing the doctor asked me before I started chemo was “Do you have kids?” The level of chemotherapy I was facing could likely make me sterile. The Thursday before the Division 7 points race in Bakersfield, I went to the sperm bank. Then I started my treatment.
STEPHENS: How tough was chemotherapy for you?
BECKMAN: It wasn’t painful but I did lose all my hair, felt lots of hot flashes and some nausea, and often just felt out of it. I had a problem maintaining my weight. At my best, I had been working out five days a week before I got sick, was a solid 193 pounds and was down to about 187 before the cancer really kicked in. As I continued through chemotherapy, I dropped down to 159 pounds. After the first treatment, I began getting skinny and it felt a strange sensation, like I had termites in my midsection. I thought, “They’re not getting it. I’m done.” I called my oncologist and told him what I felt and he explained to me what I was feeling was the chemotherapy working on the cancer. That’s what we wanted. That changed my attitude.
Just about this time, I got a call from my first general practitioner who had given me my physical in early 2004. He apologized that he hadn’t discovered the cancer. He said everything looked OK at the time and now he didn’t know what to say to me. I didn’t know what to say to him either, except, “I hope I live through this.”
The treatment protocol for the type of cancer I had was either six or eight cycles of chemo with one treatment every three weeks. During the treatments, I was feeling weak, developed lesions in my mouth, and wanted the chemo to be over. After the sixth one, I’m thinking, “That’s the last one,” but the doctors wanted me to go to eight because they felt that eight full treatments would increase my long-term survival chances. We could tell the chemo was working, but you have to keep poisoning the system to attempt to destroy all the cancer cells. It’s like weed killer. You want to be sure you’ve killed them all so the process isn’t over until that last application. Treatment number seven was the toughest. I had to get my mind around the fact I had to go back.
STEPHENS: Was there a point when you felt you had beaten the cancer?
BECKMAN: That’s the thing. Even if you know it’s working while you’re going through it, you wind up waiting to see if the cancer comes back again. The doctors told me that because I was so young and in such good shape, the chemo could be more aggressive than if I had been a 60-year-old man. The cancer had spread so fast and so far that the chemo they had to treat me with was as high a dosage as possible. The doctors said that the cancer wouldn’t kill me but the treatments would either cure me or kill me. The chemical they were using is so powerful, if you spill it on your skin it will burn you, and they were shooting it into my veins. The treatments were so strong; if the cancer ever comes back I can’t go through chemo again. My body couldn’t take it.
STEPHENS: Do you think the experience changed you in any way?
BECKMAN: I’m not an extremely emotional person. I usually can keep my emotions in check. Sometimes the little things bother me, but I’m not into throwing tantrums, throwing tools or losing control. So I can’t say the experience had a major effect on me. For the most part, I’m not a “flowers must be sweeter” or a “grass must be greener” kind of a person, but having cancer definitely helped put a lot of issues into perspective for me.
What has changed is my energy. It’s not back 100 percent. I don’t feel the same way I did before I got sick. My memory isn’t as sharp as it was before the chemo. I liked how I felt physically a bit more than I do now. Not many people would notice, but the chemo took away a little of my edge. Anyone who’s had a serious case of cancer never shakes the shadow of it. “What’s this stomach ache?” “Why do I feel this pain?” You’re not quite the person you were, and there’s that chance the cancer could come back. And having to battle through cancer a second time would be like working on building a car, putting everything you have into it, getting it just exactly the way you want it, and then stuffing it into a wall. After all that, do you really want to go through the whole experience again?
STEPHENS: Are you a spiritual person?
BECKMAN: I wish I was. I’m probably a little bit less than I used to be. I went through a change when my mother died. I thought there would be some kind of an epiphany, but that didn’t happen. One of the positive things that came out of my experience is I can talk to people who are dealing with cancer. I tell them it’s beatable and they’re not alone. I know there are times when they wonder if they’re going to make it or they feel they’re all alone. I try to give them a positive attitude. There will be days when they feel they’re not going to make it, but it’s OK to feel sorry for yourself a couple of days a week. But it’s important to get past those days and regain a positive attitude.
STEPHENS: Do you have a best friend in the sport?
BECKMAN: I don’t know if I have one best friend. I’d say I have a few that have best friend qualities. Brent Cannon would be one, although he’s not in the sport anymore but still looks after me. I’d say the Comstocks, Rodger and Karen, are very close friends, too. I have remained close with a lot of my former sportsman competitors, and it’s tough not to like most of the other Funny Car drivers—unless they’re in the other lane. [Chuckles]
STEPHENS: When your son Jason was born, how did that change your life?
BECKMAN: It’s funny, almost surreal. Like I said, I’m not a real emotional person, so when he was born in 2007, I didn’t hear the angels singing. It almost bothered me when they didn’t. But I love him more and more each day, and before he was born, I had no idea there was such a powerful force on earth as unconditional love. I can’t imagine loving another child as much as I love him, but I know when we have our second child that same love will be there. (Note: At this writing, Jack’s wife Jenna is expecting their second child, a girl.)
It was amazing that after I finished chemo, I took two fertility tests and they both came back with zeros in every category. I was sterile. The doctors said things could return to normal, but I was comfortable knowing I wasn’t going to be a father. I was really okay with it. Then to our surprise, Jenna conceived naturally and I closed the account at the sperm bank. The experience of becoming a father was completely fulfilling. It was the most wonderful thing that could happen.
STEPHENS: Is there anything you would like to change about your life today?
BECKMAN: It’s hard to complain. Sometimes I’ve got to pinch myself. I get paid to do what I worked overtime to do when I was racing my own cars. It’s still unbelievable to me that fans want to be around me, get my autograph, talk to me about what I do. That’s cool. Everyone should get to experience that in their life. My dream was just to make a run in a nitro car, and I did that for the first time driving Dexter Tuttle’s dragster. Now I’ve won national events in Funny Car and Super Comp. I’ve gone way beyond what my dreams were. In all honesty, I never could have imagined it.
STEPHENS: What’s Fast Jack Beckman’s overall philosophy on life?
BECKMAN: When it’s over and done, I want to disprove the theory that nice guys never win.