Funny Car's Jack Beckman predicted as early as Halloween that fans at the National Hot Rod Association's Auto Club Finals hardly would use the seats they purchased.
"I think a lot of people are going to be standing up, watching every run that these cars make," he said.
He was right. And Beckman was part of the reason, as he slugged it out Sunday at Auto Club Raceway with Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps through the semifinal round and won the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series championship by a mere two points.
Meanwhile, Top Fuel points leader Antron Brown, both hands bandaged from a fiery first-round fiasco, stood by round after torturous round into the night to see if he, like Beckman, would earn his first series title.
Finally, in front of packed grandstands, he saw his own DSR teammate and sole challenger Tony Schumacher lose to Brandon Bernstein on a holeshot in one final, do-or-die, miracle-or-misery moment and hand him the crown by seven points.
Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) secured their championships by the conclusion of qualifying Saturday.
Johnson was the only champion also to walk away with the race victory Sunday. Besides Bernstein, season-finale Wally trophies went to Cruz Pedregon in Funny Car and Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
In the opening round of Sunday's Top Fuel eliminations, a fuel line broke in Brown's Matco Tools Dragster. It triggered a stunning loss to Spencer Massey, yet another DSR colleague and the only other one besides Schumacher who could take the title. Moreover, it caused a fire that spread into the cockpit and licked at Brown's legs and hands as he scrambled to escape.
Massey fell, also to Bernstein, in the second round. But Schumacher, master of the last-second miracles for championships, ran out of magic. For Bernstein, the event victory snapped a 69-race winless streak that dated back to October 2009 at Richmond, Va.
And Bernstein, who drives Morgan Lucas Racing's Protect the Harvest/MAVTV Dragster, said "there's a lot of joy" in helping good buddy Brown.
"It was nice to play spoiler and get those guys a championship," he said.
Brown, who had a mob of well-wishers hugging him, crying with him and picking him up in celebration, said, "I feel so blessed to be in this moment right now. This is a big, huge moment. To win a world championship with the way this competition has been this year in Top Fuel is incredible."
Tony Schumacher, whose 3.753-second elapsed time at 325.53 mph was decidedly quicker and faster than Bernstein's winning 3.762/320.81, was honest and gracious.
"There's no good way to lose," he said. "It's tough to get beat like that."
But, he added, Brown "is going to be a great champion."
Said Brown, "Tony is a class act. Tony has been my biggest supporter from Day One."
Schumacher's dad, team owner Don Schumacher, also was satisfied, despite his blunt admission that "I certainly wanted Tony to win the championship. He's my son." He quickly added, "But I certainly know that Antron deserved to win the championship."
The DSR boss also made no bones about it that he favored Beckman in the Funny Car chase as his organization was virtually guaranteed to win both nitro-class championships (despite Mike Neff's long shot for John Force Racing in the Funny Car class).
"Jack's been a fighter. He's fought through cancer. He's fought through everything else in the world. He deserved [to be] the world champion," the team owner said.
Beckman, indeed, had fought hard during this championship weekend alone. He had an engine explosion Thursday during qualifying that turned the DSR-owned Valvoline/Next Gen Dodge Charger into a convertible. It disintegrated the body and blew large pieces into the crowd. No one was injured, but certainly after the car continued to betray crew chief Todd Smith through Saturday qualifying, points leader Beckman's lock on the title definitely was in doubt.
He and Capps began race day separated by just two points. Beckman still had the lead, but Capps was coming on strong after failing to qualify both Thursday and Friday. He was No. 15 in the 16-car field after Saturday morning's third session and in danger of being bumped from the field in the final chance. But he roared to life, earning the No. 1 position by driving the DSR-owned NAPA Dodge Charger to a track-record 4.007-second elapsed time that held up as quickest of the meet.
To win the championship, one of the two simply had to last one more round than the other. And the hunt continued until the semifinals. Rookie Courtney Force defeated Capps, then gasped, "I hate being in the middle of this! Me being a rookie, I'll bet they didn't think I'd be helping decide who became champion. I didn't, either."
Beckman sat in the left lane, directly behind Capps, awaiting his semifinal match with Pedregon. He said he tried to peek around and between Capps' crew members -- the ones who had been his own for the previous three years plus four races until Don Schumacher ordered them in April to trade in an attempt to resuscitate Capps' career. Beckman said he finally realized he had won the championship when he saw one NAPA crew member drop his head in disappointment on the shoulder of another.
"I can't celebrate now. We have to go up there and win," Beckman said he thought at the time. Later, though, he said with a guilty laugh, "We didn't, and I'm not really all that upset about it, to be honest with you."
Pedregon won the semifinal and the final round against Courtney Force, but Beckman had the bigger prize, a $500,000 payout for Don Schumacher Racing.
It was a triumph for Beckman, who had overcome a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2004-05, defied his doctor's conclusion that we never would father children because of the treatment (he and wife Jenna have a son and daughter), earned his high-school diploma and went on to be an Air Force sergeant despite dropping out of school (because eye allergies made him feel like a bit of a misfit and that -- in his words -- "begat laziness") – and ended up being a drag-racing school instructor.
Once he got to DSR, he found more challenges to slog through.
He had worked with no fewer than seven different crew chiefs at DSR. He had watched his crew chiefs, sponsors, and even his mechanics rotate.
After the April shake-up, Beckman said, "I knew we would be OK. I didn't know we would be champions."
He had to adjust to new crew chief Smith, who hadn't worked on a Funny Car before. He said he quickly learned "that man is bad-ass."
Beckman had the privilege, but also the emotional complication, of having his former and currently Capps' crew chief Rahn Tobler (who he said was "beyond a gentleman"), assistant crew chief John Collins (who he called "brilliant"), and the NAPA crew (who he said "are all great friends of mine") take an active part in his progress this season.
When the changes occurred, true to DSR corporate culture, the NAPA gang "built us an identical car and babysat us for a couple of races," Beckman said. "I never could root against the NAPA team.
"Character is an important thing, win or lose. Before I even took my helmet off, I ran over and gave [Capps] a hug. You don't want to gloat. I felt bad for him, because I'd feel terrible if the situation were turned. There really wasn't anything to say. It's going to take me awhile to get my head around this [situation] in a positive way."
For Pro Stock dominator Johnson, this championship capped a 17-year struggle with father Roy, a two-time IHRA sportsman champion. Roy Johnson immersed his Greeneville, Tenn., family in his drag-racing passion, and son Allen embraced it after a brief period of shunning it in his teenage years. Then when he wanted to dive back into it, his father sold the equipment and ordered him to go to college and establish himself in the business world first.
Allen Johnson got a degree, became one of the most successful businessmen in the East Tennessee region, and went back into the racing business with his dad. Allen proved his driving skill and Roy his engine-building talent, but they soon learned that to be at the level they wanted to be, they needed more resources.
Through the years they built up their Mopar-loyal team, and Sunday at Pomona, Calif., about 2,200 miles from the modest shop in Greeneville, Tenn., they gave Dodge its first Pro Stock series title since Darrell Alderman did so in 1994. And the father-son tandem gave each other the ultimate gift: the $250,000 championship payout. They added $25,000 more for Sunday's race victory over Vincent Nobile, the rising Pro Stock star who is Johnson's protégé.
Johnson, in his Mopar Dodge Avenger, earned seven of his 16 career victories this season.
"It's been 17 long years -- a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of sweat. To finally realize this dream is unexplainable," Johnson said.
"We did it on our own," he said. "Like from an infant to an adult, that's what this is like. We learned how to win. Everything has been an emotional deal, because you're doing it with your dad. That's why I'm doing this, to give him the opportunity to be successful."
Andrew Hines beat newly crowned champion and teammate Krawiec for the Pro Stock Motorcycle event victory.
That completed a nearly perfect sweep of every event for the two Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson riders. Amid controversy about lack of parity and an NHRA deal-with-the-devil agreement with Harley-Davidson, Krawiec and Hines dominated the 16-race schedule. Each went to 11 finals, with Krawiec winning nine and Hines six. Only Michael Ray, at the Dallas Countdown race, cracked the code.
And Hines gave a season-parting shot Sunday to "the keyboard jockeys" who charge that he and Krawiec threw that Dallas race. "We wanted to have a perfect season," Hines said.
That was about as controversial as it got Sunday, or the entire past weekend, at Pomona. And perhaps it's one of the reasons an overwhelming number of NHRA officials and participants say they don't really have a desire to be like NASCAR. All of NHRA's "slugfests" were merely metaphoric.