Ramblings/The excitement is accelerating

Former Queen Anne resident Lee Beard returned to the Northwest recently and had a very successful week-end racing with the National Hot Rod Asso-ciation at a jammed Pacific Raceways in Kent.

Beard, the crew chief for the Matco Tools Dodge driven by Whit Baze-more and owned by Don Schumacher, tuned the Fuel Funny Car to an impressive runner-up spot behind 12-time Funny Car Championship holder John Force in the finals of the Carquest Auto Parts NHRA nationals.

The 8,000-horsepower engine in a fuel-burning drag car is like an enigma wrapped within a conundrum, a puzzle within a puzzle. There are so many adjustments that could produce more power, but at the same time, that power must be transferred successfully to the ground. That's why top crew chiefs earn well-into-six-figure salaries.

Beard, prematurely silver-haired at age 50, has many fond memories of Queen Anne and Seattle. "I've been interested in fly-fishing since my early days in Pueblo, Colo., where I was born," Beard told me. "Then, when I moved here, I used to go over to the Chittenden Locks to watch the salmon come through the fish ladder, and dream.

"Then, of course, other attractions were the Pike Place Market and all the varieties of food offerings you come across there. You find things there you never knew existed," he said. "I really loved and miss the many types of different restaurants that Seattle offers, from steaks at the Metropolitan Grill to seafood at Elliot's.

"I used to enjoy riding my motor-cycle over at Alki, too."

Beard became interested in drag racing when one of his high-school instructors in Colorado turned out to have a Top Fuel car. The young man would go to races with him and help on the car. He began his career as an owner/driver in Top Fuel in the early 1970s, racing his own car.

While racing in southern California, Beard met and competed against Jerry Ruth, the self-proclaimed "King of the Northwest." A friendship devel-oped, and Ruth recognized Beard's skills as both a tuner and a driver.

Beard left Colorado and moved to Seattle, where he found himself in the seat of Ruth's "Competition Specialties" Mustang Funny Car. Since giving up driving and becoming exclusively a crew chief in 1976, Beard has tuned cars (Top Fuel and Funny Car) to 43 NHRA national-event victories. His record also includes a Top Fuel season championship when he tuned the late Gary Ormsby to the NHRA title in 1989. That same year, Beard was voted Crew Chief of the Year by Car Craft magazine.

In 1992 he played an instrumental role as team manager when Cruz Pedregon earned the Funny Car championship. From 1994 to 1997 he tuned Cory McClenathan to victories in Top Fuel for Joe Gibbs Racing. Before moving to Schumacher Racing, Beard spent three years as crew chief for Kenny Bernstein.

Just as in other forms of motor-sport, it has been established in drag racing that it's advantageous to have multi-car teams if you are running for the championship. This year Schumacher Racing fields three Funny Cars - for drivers Whit Bazemore, Scotty Cannon and Gary Selzi - and, for Tony Schumacher, a Top Fuel dragster. Because all four teams use basically the same engine, the crew chiefs can confer about engine setups, clutch settings and tire combinations that are working particularly well for them.

Before each run, the car pulls into a puddle of water and then does a burnout, spinning its tires from the starting line to about 300 feet out. This lays down a strip of warm rubber that will give even more traction than the strips of cold rubber right alongside it. There is a definite sticky groove down the center of the strip if you're trying to get 8,000 horsepower to bite.

The burnout is done with a barely cracked throttle; it doesn't take much to get a big, wet slick spinning even if it is 15 inches wide. When you're crouched behind the wall with a camera, this cloud of rubber smoke drifts over you. Inside the cloud are all these little particles of rubber dust that cover you, so you point the camera down to protect the lens.

If you've ever smelled nitro-methane, it's something you don't forget. Just a whiff and knowing smiles spread. Pop. Liquid horsepower. A nitro car is actually louder because the fuel charge is still exploding as it is being pushed out of the combustion chamber and into the exhaust pipe. That's why at night nitro cars throw flame out of their headers for 4 feet.

Fuel cars buck and snort as they back up and stop - getting ready for a run. The crew quickly raises the body for a final adjustment, and then the cars slowly inch forward into the starting-beam lights. The engine rpm climb as the car tenses against the brakes and clutch.

The starting green flashes, and the car explodes toward the finish line in a mechanical orgasm. Ahh ... drag racing.

And maybe, in just a little more than four seconds, yours will be the first car to be a quarter-mile in the distance and running more than 300 miles an hour.

As the late Jungle Jim Liberman used to say, "Drag racing is FAR OUT!"

Freelancer Gary McDaniel is a Magnolia resident. His column appears in the News every other Wednesday. He can be reached via qanews@nwlink.com

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