Jack Beckman (left), celebrates in the winners circle at Denver in July with team owner Don Schumacher and Top Fuel teammate Antron Brown, who's on the verge of securing his first NHRA crown as well. - Ron Lewis
POMONA, Calif. -- Only four points separate Don Schumacher Racing teammates Jack Beckman and Ron Capps as each pursues his first National Hot Rod Association Funny Car championship. But their showdown this weekend in the Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway really is a collision more than 45 years in the making.
Points leader Beckman, 46, was seven years old when his mother's brother, John, took him and his brother to Orange County International Raceway.
"The first time I saw those cars, felt those cars, smelled those cars, listened to them and watched them, everything about them was absolutely thrilling," Beckman said. "And from that day, I knew that I wanted to drag race.
"My dad was a hot rodder. He liked working on cars. He wasn't a drag racer, but he was always mechanical, so I got that from him."
He also got his first race car, an El Camino, from him. He took his driving test on his 16th birthday on it, then he began tinkering with it – " intake manifold, headers, cam shaft, stuff like that," he said.
At age 17, Beckman joined the Air Force and was stationed at Clovis, N.M. He drove the El Camino 100 miles to Lubbock, Texas, "and that's where I made my first run down the dragstrip.
"I still have my time slip somewhere – it was 15.06 [seconds] at 90 miles an hour," he said. "And from that day on, I got out in '88 and I started bracket racing pretty regularly. Then I saw that you could race for a trophy. Then I saw these guys that were getting money for races, and then I started racing for money, and it's kind of come full circle. I'm right back to the only thing that matters is that time slip and trophy anymore."
He wouldn't mind the $500,000 for the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series title, though.
Neither would Capps, 47, who said he was "in my mom's belly at my first race."
"She used to drive," he said. "She actually drove a front-motor car when she met my dad, and my dad raced. He was kind of the track champion at the Santa Maria, California, track.
"As far back as I can remember we went to the March Meet, whether my dad was racing or just in the stands in a camper. And then I was also at Lions Drag Strip, so I've got a picture somewhere of the sky writer airplane above me writing the last drag race when I was six years old. I grew up going to the drag strip."
Capps said he wanted to be a racer, but he "didn't have rich parents or a sponsor or anything."
"I learned how to work on them and grew up working on them with my dad," Capps said, recalling how he had the desire to drive but had to learn the business from the unglamorous side first. "I was a crew member on an alcohol dragster for several years and hung around Alan and Blaine Johnson, and they took me under their wing and taught me a lot of things. So that's kind of how it was."
Beckman paid his dues, too.
"When I got out of the Air Force in '88," he said, "I went on the road with a nitro Funny Car team, [with driver] Tim Grose, and I thought that was going to be a ticket to eventually get behind the wheel. And I was the bottom end guy on that car. Unfortunately even back in '88 things were the same, it took money to run these cars, and after a couple months the sponsorship wasn't coming in. I had a good job offer from Westinghouse elevator, and I wound up going and doing that as a career for 10 years and racing my own car."
"But like Ron, my dad wasn't famous and he didn't have a lot of money," Beckman added, "so there's a lot of different paths to getting to where we are."
Capps said his father "lives through me. And my mom does, as well. It's funny to be in this position."
Both say they have flashbacks to the days when they were the mesmerized youngsters idolizing the pioneers of the sport.
"It's weird for me still to walk out of the trailer and see little kids out there at the ropes, because I feel like it's yesterday being at the March Meet and watching Garlits work on his car and we were huddled around one and a half feet," Capps said. "I remember handing him a ratchet that he dropped on the ground. I was maybe eight or nine years old. And there was no ropes back then, and he had his fire suit on tied around his waist, and I leaned over and I handed him the wrench, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever."
"It's strange to be in the position that I'm in, to be paid to it what I love to do, get paid to do what I used to be such a huge fan of as a kid," he added.
Said Beckman, "Yeah, I totally agree. When I go sign at the ropes, it's still a little bit surreal to me, because to me I am looking at a seven-year-old, and that's me 39 years ago. It's just hard for me to put myself in the frame of the drivers when I was a kid because I thought they were 30 feet tall and could do no wrong, the James Warrens and the Don Prudhommes. We both have a lot of these pinch-me moments. We get a paycheck to do what we absolutely love to do."
Somewhere this weekend at the Los Angeles County Fairplex, in the pits watching Beckman or Capps, hoping to be the kid getting the autograph or handing his -- or her -- hero a wrench. And maybe one day that will trigger some nostalgia in the heat of a championship chase.