He's one of the most unlikely champions in motor sports today, a 46-year-old former high school dropout who only a few yeas ago believed he'd never have a shot at driving at the most elite level of drag racing. But make no mistake: Right now no one in the world can cover a quarter-mile faster than "Fast Jack" Beckman, a one-time Air Force sergeant and a cancer survivor who happens to be the reigning NHRA Funny Car champion.
"Drag racing is the rock concert of motor sports," he said. "If there was a passenger seat and I was sitting in it before a race, I'd be hooting and hollering because you're about to go on the greatest thrill ride that exists on earth."
Indeed, drag racing at its highest level -- the Top Fuel dragsters of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) -- arguably features the most intense four seconds in all of sport. That's how long it takes these speed machines, which boast 7,000 horsepower (about 37 times the regular street car), to cover the quarter-mile drag strip.
• The dragsters accelerate from 0 to 100 miles per hour in less than .8 of a second. A street Porsche 911 Turbo is about 11 seconds slower.
• Dragsters blast off from the starting line with the same force of the Space Shuttle when it launched from Cape Canaveral. Also, a dragster's acceleration is faster than a fighter jet.
• Top drivers such as Beckman reach speeds of over 280 mph in the length of four football fields in less than five seconds. Last year, while winning his first NHRA title, Beckman's Funny Car set a national mark of 320.58 miles per hour in a U.S. record time of 3.986 seconds at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pa.
• When a parachute deploys to slow the cars, it's not unheard of for a driver's retina to detach.
• The NHRA is among the most dangerous racing series in the world. Since 1971, 14 drivers have died in competition.
"When I'm in the seat I take a deep breath and look at the lights [in front of me] for the signal to go," he says. "I'm big on visualization. I've got 10 to 12 minutes in the car to visualize what I'm about to do. I try to be a sniper. When the Christmas lights flash on" -- the electronic starting device between the lanes -- "the throttle goes to the floor. Immediately my eyes go to the finish line. A lot of mental preparation goes into it and almost a lifetime of practice. It took me a long time to get where I am today."
A native of Granada Hills, Calif., Beckman competed in his first drag race when he was 20-years-old and in the Air Force. After being honorably discharged after four years of service at age 21, he raced in the Super Comp class -- a lower level series -- for nearly two decades, working on his own car as he raced on strips in front of tiny crowds. To support his expensive hobby, he worked during the week as an elevator repairman at Westinghouse in Southern California. In 1998, after 10 years of wrenching on elevators, he became an instructor at Frank Hawley's NHRA Championship Drag Racing School, where he would teach more than 7,000 students the art of the sport. In 2003, in a car he built himself that he dubbed "The Blackbird," he won the Super Comp national championship, but at age 37, didn't believe he would be given a chance to prove himself at his sport's highest level.
"I'm not really an optimist by nature and I thought I'd be driving my own car for the rest of my career, and I was fine with that," he said.
Beckman's odds looked longer in 2004 when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I started feeling like I had a cold and for two weeks it didn't go away," he said. During six months of aggressive chemotherapy treatment, he lost 30 pounds, but missed only two races that season, winning NHRA Division 7 Person of the Year honors. He's now been cancer-free for more than eight years, and is a spokesperson for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, detailing his story to groups virtually every week and everywhere he races. This year, he's helping cancer patients across the country debunk common myths about treatment as part of a campaign called Chemotherapy: Myths or Facts.
"If anything, after the cancer I'm more aware of my mortality and less fearless than I once was," he said. "What cancer really made me recognize is that a bad day at the track is only just that: a bad day at the track, nothing more."
In April 2005, less than a year after his cancer battle, Beckman debuted in the NHRA's elite level, Top Fuel Eliminator, with funding from contacts he met through the Hawley racing school and qualified for all 12 events that he entered. Near the end of the 2006 season, Don Schumacher Racing hired him to drive one of the team's Funny Cars, and Beckman needed all of four starts to win his first event (Las Vegas 2). Last fall, Beckman beat teammate Ron Capps by two points to win the closest championship in NHRA history. Over the last 16 events of the 2012 season, he collected three first-place trophies and qualified first four times while setting the two national speed marks cited above.
"I've had a lot of obstacles in my career, but I'm still looking forward to that next race," says Beckman, who is currently fourth in the 2013 Funny Car standings. "I'm definitely not afraid of the car. I never have been. I have great respect for it, but cancer hasn't changed the fact that I don't drive out of my comfort zone."
Quite an intense comfort zone it is.