Lee Beard - Don Schumacher Racing interview

Lee Beard , Crew Chief On The Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus Funny Car Driven by Whit Bazemore INDIANAPOLIS (Nov. 10, 2004) - Lee Beard has blazed his own trail as one of the premier nitromethane tuners on the NHRA circuit. The veteran ...

Lee Beard , Crew Chief On The Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus Funny Car Driven by Whit Bazemore

INDIANAPOLIS (Nov. 10, 2004) - Lee Beard has blazed his own trail as one of the premier nitromethane tuners on the NHRA circuit. The veteran tuner, who joined Don Schumacher Racing in 2001, helped position Whit Bazemore and the Matco Tools car to put on an impressive second-half surge in the final 12 races of their first season together, in which Bazemore qualified No. 1 nine times, accumulated more points than any other Funny Car driver in those 12 events, won three races and recorded the fastest speed in Funny Car history at the time of 325.69 mph.

In 2002, Bazemore qualified No. 1 three times and won twice. The 2003 season saw Bazemore coming close to snagging his first Funny Car championship with three wins in eight final rounds and three No. 1 qualifiers. He led the point standings for the first time in his career and the title came down to the penultimate race in a head-to-head contest against his only competitor for the crown, Tony Pedregon. In an exciting final, Pedregon won the race and the championship by inches.

The 2004 season has been a frustrating one for Beard, the Pueblo, Colorado, native whose passion for fly-fishing began at an early age. The Matco Tools Dodge team came on strong in the first half of the year, with Bazemore leading the points and extending his lead with two wins and setting a national E.T. record of 4.713 seconds at the fastest speed ever recorded by a Funny Car at that point, of 333.25 mph.

In the second half, however, the team has struggled to overcome the new rules mandated by NHRA (lowering the nitromethane percentage to 85 from 90, and a new tire), and finds Bazemore sixth in points, as the season enters the final event this weekend, the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway.

Beard, age 51, has been a crew chief since 1976 and has tuned cars (Top Fuel and Funny Car) to 50 NHRA national-event victories. He tuned the late Gary Ormsby to the Top Fuel title in 1989 and was team manager when Cruz Pedregon won the 1992 Funny Car crown for Larry Minor Motorsports.

Beard also tuned cars to second-place finishes in NHRA series' championships - Ormsby in 1990 (Top Fuel), Cory McClenathan in 1997 (Top Fuel) and Bazemore in 2001 and 2003 (Funny Car).

He was instrumental in U.S. Nationals victories earned by Cruz Pedregon in 1992, 1994 and 1995, Cory McClenathan in 1996, Bazemore in 2001, and Ed McCulloch in 1992 (a double win with both McDonald's cars of Pedregon and McCulloch).

He was named to the 1989 Car Craft All-Star Team as the Crew Chief of the Year and was named the same year, along with Ormsby, as the magazine's Person of the Year.

Beard is one of the few tuners who have collected all five rings available to crew chiefs, including NHRA season championship, Cragar 4-second Club, Car Craft Magazine Crew Chief of the Year, Car Craft Magazine Person of the Year, and the Slick 50 300-mph Club.

Prior to joining Don Schumacher Racing, he worked for Kenny Bernstein (Sept. 1997-2000), Bruce Sarver (1997), Joe Gibbs Racing (1995-1996), Larry Minor Motorsports (1992-1994), Gary Ormsby (1983-1991), Jim Barnard (1982) and Jerry Ruth Racing (1976-1981). Beard also drove Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the early 1970s.

He has a degree in Industrial Arts from the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo and lives in Indianapolis with wife Rhonda and their sons, Zach (14) and Nick (12).

The Interview:

Q: How difficult has this season been for you?

LB: Well, actually the season started off fairly well. We were in five final rounds, and won a couple of races and reset the national record for elapsed time at 4.713 seconds and ran the fastest speed in the history of the sport at the time, 333.25 mph. Everything was going along fairly well until the Darrell Russell incident (in St. Louis) which caused a domino effect of the rules to be changed. The NHRA lowered the nitromethane mixture from 90 to 85 percent and also implemented a different tire that had considerably less grip than anything we had previously run on.

That was a major turning point to our season and really put our team out in left field. We did not adapt to those rules changes very well at all and watched ourselves go from first place in the points to second, to third, and on down.

So that's kind of the way that things went. It wasn't from lack of effort. We tried hard, we did a lot of testing, we changed a lot of things, but we just didn't adapt to the new rules very well.

Q: John Force then moved right in and took the championship. How frustrating is that?

LB: Obviously it's frustrating because the whole reason that Don Schumacher assembled the Funny Car teams was to win a championship and beat John Force. Actually, I don't think Force was doing all that well until the rules got changed and then it was like the rules change really played into his hands and his car all of a sudden became the car to beat.

Q: Was he testing at 85 percent long before the rules came out?

LB: I don't know when Force and his team became aware of the rules changes and if they were testing prior to that. There were rumors that they knew about it well in advance before the other teams did and were actually testing with it, but we don't know that for sure. It could be just a rumor.

Q: A lot has been said about your rivalry with John Force and the confrontation he had with you in Memphis in 2003. Force showed some frustration on his part. Where did that come from?

LB: Basically what was transpiring was our team had become the dominant car, performance-wise, and we were passing John in points. As a matter of fact, we took over the points lead at that race. And John could see this coming and sensed we were about to take him out of the spotlight. And when you've been champion and in the spotlight for such a long period of time, as he was, obviously you become very frustrated to see somebody else come along with a potential to take over. You've been King of the Mountain for all these years and now somebody else is about to take that spot. It was frustrating for him and it kind of all came to a head at Memphis.

The confrontation was really a mistake on his part thinking we were intentionally doing something during qualifying (taking too long to stage) to mess up his qualifying runs. After he had some time to really analyze the situation and realize he was wrong, then at the end of the season, during the awards ceremony, he publicly apologized to me for that confrontation. A lot of people don't know that unless they attended that event.

You can't expect John Force to be friends and chum up to a team that's basically been assembled and designed to beat you. There's no way that John Force has any reason to like me, or Bazemore, or Mike Neff, or Gary Scelzi, because we exist in order to beat him. Yeah, it's proper etiquette on television or in public to say, Oh, I really like Bazemore or I respect him or whatever. But, down deep, it's like, Do you really like your enemy?

Q: Which was your best season with Schumacher Racing?

LB: Well, obviously last year was a very good season. We had our noses in there for the championship right up until the second to last race in Las Vegas and the fact that we did finish ahead of John Force's car (Bazemore finished second, Force third) I think said a tremendous amount about the team, and the driver and the crew. Yeah, we didn't win the championship, but we did finish ahead in points of what has been the dominant car for the last however many years.

Q: The first season at Schumacher was also impressive.

LB: Well, the first season really didn't start out that well. We were all brand new, we had brand-new equipment. I hadn't raced Funny Cars in quite some time. The first half was just kind of a building stage, a learning process. The second half was very very strong, and we ended up finishing second in the points then also, to John (Force). We've had some awfully good runs. We had a great second half in 2001, and we had a great first half this year. Hopefully next year we can put a really strong front and back half together.

Q: What does it take to beat John Force? Time? Money?

LB: It takes experience and that's something that Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John have that our team doesn't have. We're gaining experience on a yearly basis, but they have the experience. I don't think it's about money. Don Schumacher gives us all the tools and equipment that are necessary. We don't lack for anything. It's just a matter of knowing how to adjust the race car for certain situations and they certainly have the experience on us in that department.

This has been a tremendous learning year for us, now realizing that little rule changes like going from 90 to 85 percent and adapting to new tires can take what looked to be a championship season and basically throwing it away for you. We have to be prepared and be a lot smarter if similar situations confront us in the future.

Q: As a crew chief, you have worked with other major teams. What was your shining accomplishment?

LB: I went to work for Gary Ormsby in 1983 and basically nobody knew who he was other than the people who lived and raced in Northern California. So, we developed a team with basically a no-name driver and a team that didn't exist to build a program up to the point to where we would win the championship in 1989. Then we came back the following year in 1990 and took the championship right down to the final round of the final race against Joe Amato. Amato won and Ormsby was runner-up in the championship. They were two fantastic seasons and certainly in my mind were great accomplishments.

Q: How do you unwind?

LB: Fly-fishing is basically my way of de-stressing. It's been a passion of mine since I was a child growing up in Colorado fly-fishing with my grandfather at a very young age. It's a fantastic escape from the high pressures of being an NHRA crew chief.

I probably fly-fish half a dozen times a year. I try to do it when there's at least a two-weekend-in-a-row off period. Our main priorities are to get the car serviced and ready for the next race. Then, if there are a few spare days during that second week, then that would be the time period that I would go.

Q: Do you have other hobbies?

LB: My oldest boy Zach (14) is involved in go-kart racing and I'm finding a lot of pleasure in that and seeing him compete. he has a desire to be a race-car driver and he has done extremely well in a short period of time in racing go-karts.

Q: What is your relationship with Whit Bazemore?

LB: I think we have a great relationship. It's very professional. Whit and I aren't friends on a basis where you will see us out to dinner every night, or you'll see me out bicycling with him, or you'll see him fly-fishing with me, because we kind of have different interests away from the race track. But we have a fantastic relationship as far as what our goals are, what we're trying to accomplish and how we as a team - driver and crew chief - can become champions. And that's the real foundation of the race team.

Q: What is your goal for the future?

LB: The goal is to win the Funny Car championship and we're going to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.

Q: Do you ever want to just give it all up?

LB: No. I'm very motivated. This has been a frustrating season but I'm the type of person who won't let it beat me up to the point to where it would take away any of my drive or motivation to be a champion. I'll actually turn it around to where it makes me work harder, think harder, test more, assemble a better team, try to gain more technology that would give our team an advantage. In other words, I'll take something that most people would view as a negative and I will turn it into a positive, a positive being something that's going to make us a better team.

Q: What would you change with this team?

LB: I think that we need to be able to think differently. Sometimes our thought process is probably a little bit too conservative and we don't really think outside the box enough. I look over at the U.S. Army dragster and I see the things that Alan Johnson is doing over there and he certainly goes down a path with components and the way that the car is set up that is different than what the majority of the other teams do. Because of that, it gives that car an advantage over the other cars. So, I believe that's the direction that we need to go. We need to start thinking outside of the box, so to speak, and developing and perfecting technology that is unique to our team.

Q: You were a drag racer. What ever made you decide to become a crew chief?

LB: The challenge of tuning the fuel car is probably the biggest challenge in all of motorsports. It's certainly the most difficult engine to make run perfectly without damage and it's extremely difficult to apply all of that power to the race track under varying conditions. So I'm the type of person who likes the challenge and to me that's the biggest challenge in motorsports.

Q: What does it take to be the best crew chief out there? How is someone like Austin Coil different from the others?

LB: I believe it's his thought process. He's a unique individual, extremely knowledgeable, a bit of a scientist, extremely aware of the physics that are involved in the sport, the aerodynamics. In other words, he has a very dynamic education and his thought process is based on scientific facts, so it makes him a unique individual and it makes him the best.

Q: Where are the new crew chiefs coming from?

LB: They are the people who work for the top-of-the-line crew chiefs that are out there now. You look at Mike Neff, who is running the Oakley Dodge, and he has certainly been an understudy of some very good people, having worked with people like Wes Cerny, Bernie Fedderly, myself. That's where they come from. They're driven and motivated to be a crew chief and they align themselves with a top-notch crew chief and study his skills and methods and soon begin to be able to apply them themselves and go off on their own.

Q: Do you think your sons will follow in your footsteps, as a crew chief, or even a driver?

LB: I'm not really pushing them to be anything. I'm letting them make their decisions on their own. Our youngest boy Nick (12) is very active in sports. He loves to play football, he loves basketball, baseball, that type of stuff. At this point in time he's not real interested in motorsports and I'm not pushing it on him. The oldest boy Zach is very interested in becoming a driver. and that's why he's involved with go-kart racing now. It's going to be a stepping stone to a driving position; whether it's in NHRA or some other form of motorsports we don't know at this point in time.

-dsr-

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Bruce Sarver , Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Don Schumacher , Austin Coil , Mike Neff
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing