NHRA's 50 greatest drivers: No. 20 -- Raymond Beadle

NHRA's 50 greatest drivers: No. 20 -- Raymond Beadle
Jul 12, 2001, 11:45 PM

Raymond Beadle assured his status as a racing immortal when he did the impossible in the 1970s: brought down the Army cars of Don Prudhomme. Almost immediately after jump-starting Harry Schmidt's Blue Max team, Beadle rivaled "Jungle Jim" ...

Raymond Beadle assured his status as a racing immortal when he did the impossible in the 1970s: brought down the Army cars of Don Prudhomme.

Almost immediately after jump-starting Harry Schmidt's Blue Max team, Beadle rivaled "Jungle Jim" Liberman in popularity and Prudhomme in on-track success. By the end of his first year with the Max, Beadle was the U.S. Nationals champion, and by the end of the decade, he was the reigning world champ and a bona-fide superstar.

The Blue Max name was as well known as any in drag racing by 1980, but 10 months before Beadle and Schmidt hit the big time at the 1975 U.S. Nationals, Schmidt was out of the sport and Beadle was about to be. In his last days on Don Schumacher's three-car team, just before Schumacher got out of racing for 20 years, Beadle called Schmidt, whom he hardly knew, and convinced him to fill in as his crew chief for the weekend.

By the start of 1975, the Blue Max was back and Beadle had a ride. Together, he and Schmidt would go higher together than they'd ever gone individually, straight to the top. Both were about 30. Beadle never claimed to be a tuner, and Schmidt wasn't interested in driving, promoting, or worrying about the day-to-day business of racing. Beadle was. He had the Blue Max name copyrighted, incorporated the medal from which the Blue Max movie got its name into the paint scheme, lined up sponsors and race dates, and immediately demanded four times what Schmidt had commanded in appearance fees and got it.

The Blue Max became a top draw, and hundreds of thousands of halter tops and T-shirts were sold as the team's reputation grew. By June, Beadle was in his first national event final, against Don Prudhomme at the Springnationals in Columbus, where he launched into a giant wheelstand and stayed in it until the body flew off the car.

At the end of the summer, Beadle and Schmidt were back in a final, at the U.S. Nationals at a time when a win there still meant infinitely more than one anywhere else. Again it was Prudhomme, who had won every national event that year except Englishtown, had won all five of his previous Indy finals, and was just entering the most prolific period of his career.

Beadle backed up an earlier 6.14 with a 6.16 to set the NHRA national record and beat "the Snake" by a tenth, and he and Schmidt soon were running as much as the Chi-Town Hustler and "Jungle Jim," about 80 dates a year. From April to June 1976, Beadle went 30-0 in match races around the country against Prudhomme, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch, Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, Liberman, and "T.V. Tommy" Ivo.

Beyond the finish line after a track record 6.40, 230-mph run against Ivo at Lakeland (Fla.) International Raceway in early 1977, Beadle flipped end over end a couple of times and rolled, eventually coming to rest upside down in a field but emerging unscathed.

By this time, Beadle had bought out Schmidt's interest in the team. In 1975, the car had been Harry Schmidt's Blue Max, and in 1976, it said Beadle & Schmidt. The '77 car, also a Mustang II, was Beadle's alone, sponsored by English Leather and Napa Regal Ride. Emery took over as crew chief, and the good times got better.

The team closed the 1978 season with a yellow and blue Arrow that won the Winston World Finals. By the time Beadle returned to Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway for the 1979 Finals, he had dethroned Prudhomme as Winston Funny Car champion. Running off a yearly operating budget already approaching a half-million dollars, Beadle, Dale "the Snail" Emery, "Waterbed Fred" Miller, and crewmen Rich Guasco and Dee Gannt dominated Funny Car racing in the years between the Prudhomme and Chi-Town eras.

The Dallas-based team ruled with an appealing win-at-all-costs mentality best exemplified at the 1981 Winternationals, where the car's roof ripped off in the lights on Beadle's semifinal run and Bernstein's roof was sawed off and grafted onto his car for the final.

Beadle won the championship in 1979 with two wins in five finals against Tom Hoover, Gary Burgin, Billy Meyer, a young John Force, and Jim Dunn. In 1980, he won in Columbus, Denver, and Seattle, was runner-up in Gainesville and Ontario, and defended the championship. In 1981, he won the title a third time, and again Prudhomme was second. The Blue Max, now a Plymouth Horizon, reached the final four times in 1981 and won the biggest, the U.S. Nationals.

Driving a Ford EXP in 1982, Beadle went after a fourth straight championship with a runner-up in Pomona and a memorable first-round crash in Gainesville, where he refused to lift against Al Segrini, who'd upset him in the Pomona final. Beadle rolled the car at half-track but kept driving after landing right side up and leaped out of the bodiless chassis at the finish line with his arms raised to a huge ovation.

Beadle got right back on top, winning the next two races, in Atlanta and Baton Rouge, but won no more in 1982 and slipped to fifth in the standings. That year, he formed the Old Milwaukee team that included his Funny Car, the late Tim Richmond in a NASCAR stock car, and Sammy Swindell in the World of Outlaws sprint-car series. Richmond would later win in Beadle's #27 Pontiac, and Rusty Wallace would drive Beadle's cars from 1986 to 1990 and win the only Winston Cup championship of his career in 1989.

In 1983, Beadle won just once, at the Springnationals, and in 1984, he scored back-to-back wins, in Englishtown and Denver, with another blue Mustang. Beadle put veteran "Lil' John" Lombardo in his red and blue Schlitz Blue Max in 1985, and Lombardo won the U.S. Nationals, defeating Dale Pulde's Miller High Life Buick Regal and giving Beadle his last great win.

Beadle got back in the seat in 1987 and reached the final round of two races late that year. Richard Tharp, one of the car's original drivers when Schmidt owned the car, drove in 1988, and later, Ronny Young took the wheel.

During his NHRA career, Beadle won 13 national events and appeared in 28 final rounds. He made the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association's prestigious All-American team in 1980 with Shirley Muldowney and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Dale Earnhardt, and Cale Yarborough. He and Blue Max teammates Emery and Miller were among the 11th class of inductees into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

NHRA's Top 50 Drivers are being unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.

As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.


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