Commentary

Beckman secures Countdown spot with special win at Maple Grove

Jack Beckman earned the victory in Pennsylvania only a week after blowing the final in Minnesota. It was a special win against a special opponent -- Frank Hawley -- to secure a spot in the Countdown, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: August 18, 2008, 5:46 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

If hard work and determination are the two raw materials with which any individual can build their success, Jack Beckman is a man who exemplifies that principle.

His contagious and infectious "can-do" attitude has served him well throughout his professional Funny Car career, which followed his 2003 sportsman world championship in the Super Comp class.

How Beckman, 42, has always raced is a direct reflection of how he has always tackled life, and his victory Sunday at the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., is just another piece of evidence which proves beyond a doubt that "Fast Jack" is truly a rare cat.

Especially in light of the fact he has successfully rebounded back into his groove after throwing away a potential win the weekend before in Brainerd, Minn., when he left too soon and fouled out against reigning POWERade Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon in the final round.

In Sunday's final in Maple Grove, Beckman beat two-time champion Frank Hawley, who owns the drag racing school Beckman attended. After completing the course at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School, Beckman was hired by Hawley to instruct there.

"It's nice to be able to redeem yourself in a seven-day period," said Beckman, who debuted for Don Schumacher Racing in Reading in 2006. "It's funny, Hawley comes up to me before the final and says, 'Jack, I want you to completely get out of your mind what happened last weekend. Don't even think about that.' I said, 'Frank, we don't teach mind games at the school. We're not supposed to be doing that. '

"Obviously, I let the team down [in Brainerd]. We did have the best car last week. I screwed up. We had a great car this weekend and it was nice to get a chance to get back in the final, wait for the green light before I stepped on the throttle and get that win. And just to get to race Frank Hawley in the final was awesome."

Beckman's respect and admiration for Hawley is readily apparent when he is asked what racing against the experienced former champion meant to him.

"Imagine being a Little League player and you get to pitch against Mickey Mantle. Frank Hawley has been all of that to the sport. To have to race against him adds a whole other dimension to this … and hell, no, I wasn't going to cut him any slack.

"Like the last thing we needed was another tough Funny Car. I was so happy for him when he won his rounds, and he was happy for me all the way up to the final round, so that was cool. It was just a fairy-tale weekend, it really was."

Beckman was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, defied the odds and fought the disease into remission while racing his way to his Super Comp world championship. His victory Sunday was significant for Beckman, who clinched a spot in the upcoming Countdown to 1, as the other nine drivers advancing to the playoff portion of the title structure have now also locked down the remaining berths.

Beckman's Don Schumacher Racing teammate in Top Fuel did more than his part in giving the sport's biggest operation even more to celebrate.

[+] EnlargeJack Beckman
Courtesy of NHRAJack Beckman got the Reading win and a spot in the Countdown to 1.

Tony Schumacher continued his romp through the 2008 season with his fifth straight national-event win, a record-tying 10th overall, and the 51st of his career. The reigning and five-time champion stopped Larry Dixon in the final round, 3.845-seconds at 313.88 mph to 3.891/302.35.

Schumacher is now only a single victory away from tying another five-time champion, Joe Amato, at the top of the Top Fuel all-time wins list with 52.

"This has simply been incredible," Schumacher said. "There really aren't any words to describe it. It has been a gift of a year. Of all the years, this has been the most dominant we've ever been. It's just an awesome car. And every win we've accomplished this year has been a reflection of the team spirit our guys share with everyone in the U.S. Army.

"When we win, we think the Army wins, too, and that makes what we've done as good as it gets."

For Pro Stock team owner Victor Cagnazzi, it doesn't get much better than having both of your drivers facing each other in the final round.

Three-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Dave Connolly advanced to the Reading payoff round, and expectations were that the race would be decided at the starting line -- either via a holeshot or a redlight.

Connolly fell victim to the latter, handing Coughlin his second win of 2008 and the 40th of his career. One round earlier, Coughlin got a free pass into the final when Kurt Johnson also left too soon and fouled out.

"We were pretty fortunate here today," said Coughlin. "To have Kurt Johnson and Dave Connolly both go red against you isn't something you expect, and we'll take it, that's for sure. Sometimes that's what it takes to win, and I've been on the other end of those things a few times, so I know you hate to lose that way.

"We have a car that was capable of winning no matter what the other guys came at us with, so now we'll enjoy what we did today and get ready for the next race in Indy."

Last week, reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith battled through a painful case of kidney stones to pick up the event title honors in Brainerd. In Reading, the only pain to speak of was that which Smith dished out to his competitors as he raced past six-time Reading winner Angelle Sampey in the final, 6.957/188.81 to 7.061/186.28 to pick up his fourth win of the season and move back to the No. 1 spot in the standings.

"I certainly felt better, physically, today," said Smith, the son of long-time Pro Stock and Pro Modified veteran Rickie Smith. "All I had to concentrate on was doing my job and racing my bike, and it felt good not having to withstand all that pain that I had last week."

"My team has given me the best bike I've ever had, and I think we're going to be in pretty good shape heading into the Countdown after Indy."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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