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Dark Memories Of Atlanta

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 14 2010

Jack Beckman had a memorable weekend in Atlanta last year. (Photo courtesy of the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The way Funny Car driver Jack Beckman has it figured, if you’re going to be the underdog in a drag race, your best friend is a dramatic change in racing conditions.

Last year’s Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway provided him just the opportunity he needed to upset Ashley Force Hood, who had dominated the race weekend from the start up until the final run.

A change in conditions would be putting it mildly. The finals a year ago were held in almost surreal conditions.

Atlanta’s NASCAR track is usually the one that has to deal with rain, but this time it was the dragstrip north of town. All day long on Sunday, a slow but persistent drizzle kept dragging out the racing program.

Ashley Force Hood

Finally, long after dark, the track was dried sufficiently for the Top Fuel and Funny Car finals. The Pro Stocks wound up being pushed to Monday morning.

With rain obviously just a few miles from the track and closing, and fog and mist already moving in, the fuel finalists rolled to the staring line.

In Top Fuel, the on-again, off-again fire from the exhaust headers of the two cars was a sure sign that a major pedal fest was under way between two previously winless drivers, Morgan Lucas and Spencer Massey. Finally Lucas crossed the finish line, broken blower belt and all to get his first ever Wally.

When the Funny Car finalists pulled to the line, the darkness became an even bigger factor because of the limited visibility offered by the cockpit of the cars.

The smart money was on Hood, and she appeared to have dispatched Jack Beckman, but just before she crossed the finish line, the fire from her headers disappeared, and Beckman slipped by to take the win.

Hood said on this week’s NHRA teleconference that running in near darkness was an all-new experience for her and led to her defeat that night.

“I just hadn’t been in that situation before going down the track,” Hood said. “Most every event is set up pretty good with the lights.  We’re usually not running at that time of day…When I was going down the track, I couldn’t see.

“We pinpointed it to a reflection on the track, maybe the spotlights at the end of the track that were there to help everyone to be able to see.  If you were looking at it from the right angle, it could kind of blind you.

“I got down track. I was on probably one of our best runs we ever had, of course.  But when you can’t see, you’re not going to win a race by crossing a center line or hitting a wall or doing anything unsafe.  I decided to lift.”

It was a decision that was hard for her to accept at first.

“I was really bummed,” she said. “I was upset. When I went back and talked to my team, they said they backed me up for what I did. There’s always another race. If there’s a race where you can’t see or feel uncomfortable, shut off. They would have been mad at me if I hadn’t.  If you’re going 300 miles an hour, you’re not seeing where you’re going… “

Beckman said the lighting definitely was a factor, and it wound up being the break he needed.

“Atlanta’s not exactly baseball-stadium brightness,” he said. “We were racing under 100-mile-per-hour lights. Unfortunately we were going 300 miles per hour.”

But Beckman had years of bracket racing experience in situations with similar lighting, and he knew just what to do.

“I thought that alone gave us a little bit of an advantage,” he said.

But he emphasized that there’s a lot of difference in running nitro Funny Cars and a Saturday night drag car. Funny Cars have a steep windshield angle, and the windshield is made of plexiglass. Plus there were ideal conditions for fogged visors.

Beckman was already dealing with a foggy visor when he rolled to the line. It was there that his Saturday night experience came into play.

“I didn’t stare directly at the ambers on the Christmas tree, because it’s like a flashbulb going off and then trying to focus on something dark,” he said. “I stared down at the bottom of the tree and used my peripheral vision. As soon as tree activated I found my spot. When you’re looking at tree and the lights flash on and your pupils constrict, it’s going to be tough at night to get your bearings down at the end of the race track.”

But he kept his eyes on the target and got a Wally for it.

“It was a great win for me because we did it from an underdog position,” he said.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 14 2010
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