Raymond Beadle: Beyond the Blue Max
by Jon Asher
courtesy of CompetitionPlus.com
Shortly after the New Year I was asked by the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America if I'd write a short biography for the induction of Raymond Beadle. The ceremony was slated for August, so I had plenty of time, and while I was honored to have been asked, there was a problem. The copy had to be no more than 500 words due to space limitations. How do you compress an individual's stellar career in racing into so few words, particularly when that person's fingerprints are all over the history of not only drag racing, but stock car racing as well? And how can you possibly capture the essence of a personality as gregarious and outrageous as was Beadle's in just a few paragraphs?
Raymond's career demanded more than 500 words if for no other reason than the man himself was bigger than that. He had a major impact on drag racing, one that went far beyond mere statistics. Yes, he was an NHRA champion (three times consecutively!) and a two-time winner of the U.S. Nationals (among many other victories), but those are just numbers, and Beadle was more than that, too. That he would also prove successful in NASCAR racing surprised many, but he knew talent when he spotted it, and together with driver Rusty Wallace (another 2014 Hall of Fame inductee) they won the '89 Cup championship. Less than a handful of owner/drivers can claim such lofty accomplishments on their resumes.
There's a somewhat regional aspect to the history of drag racing, and while these might be generalities, there's nevertheless some truth to the theory that California and the West Coast was where Top Fuel grew up. At the same time the East Coast was the breeding ground for Funny Cars and hot doorslammers, while the Midwest was Gasser country. And then there was that whole separate universe of Texas drag racing. Some of the cars were as crude as the oil bubbling up out of the ground, but you knew a Texas racer the moment you saw him. From the top of his Stetson to the tips of his razor-pointed Justins, you knew what you were looking at. But here's the thing. Beadle rarely fit within that comfortable frame. Sure, he wore his share of hats and boots, but when the moment demanded it he could be as urbane as the slickest New York bond trader or Washington Beltway insider. And where's the evidence for that? Just look at the sponsor names his cars carried over the years.
Was Raymond smooth? Most certainly, and we're saying that in the most complimentary of ways because, quite honestly, the rest of us were envious of his ability to get so many others to do his bidding. As one multi-time championship-winning Funny Car driver once said, "I wish I could BS like Raymond. If I could maybe I'd have the kind of sponsors he does." Was the driver suggesting Beadle lied to his sponsors? No, what he was really saying was that Raymond's unmatched ability to make others like him had clearly been instrumental in at least some of his corporate successes.
Raymond's likability factor was off the charts. Women loved him, oh yes they did! In days gone by Beadle might have been likened to that almost mythical character, Casanova. Think Johnny Depp in Don Juan DeMarco, in which he appears to seduce women with a mere glance, or John Travolta in Michael, in which the titular character has the same impact on women. Trust us, we've seen it happen. A gorgeous woman walks by, Beadle gives her his mega-watt smile and the next thing you know, well... Trust us again when we say all of this took place decades ago.
Some years back we got some flak for things we wrote about our departed friend Pat Foster, but in the end those who said we included too much really personal stuff were the very ones who didn't know Patty at all. Ironically, those who did know the man acknowledged that we'd come at least close to describing the man he'd been. It's the same with Beadle. He wasn't perfect. None of us are. He was a unique individual with a singular personality that made him one of the most popular competitors of his day. No matter what, you couldn't hold a grudge against Raymond. That smile and a few words would melt the hardest of hearts. He was the epitome of the guy you couldn't stay mad at, no matter what. Even people who loaned Raymond money and were sometimes never paid back couldn't hold a grudge against him.
If women loved Beadle, youngsters loved him even more. No matter his chronological age he was one of them, and they knew it. When he signed autographs he made eye contact and spoke a few words to every single one of them. If the circumstances were right, and he had the time, he's talk about the diecast cars they were clutching, or even about the Cowboys hat they were wearing. When his nostalgia Blue Max was running at the Night Under Fire a few years ago his autograph line was as long as was the one in front of John Force's rig.
We'll leave the dry regurgitation of Raymond's racing career to others and we urge you to seek out that information because his record as driver, car owner and team owner is indeed impressive. Hell, it's the stuff of legends. We'll just tell a few stories that we hope might illuminate the man just a bit.
From the days he handled one of Don Schumacher's three Stardust entries on the match race circuit to his conquering of Indy, Beadle was a singular individual whose easy smile hid the killer instinct that ruled his actions. In match racing, where most drivers were content to make their two or three runs and collect the money, Beadle wanted to win – every time out. Unfortunately, though, when Beadle teamed up with Harry Schmidt on the Max he would later admit that he'd let that killer instinct subside too much. Recognizing where drag racing was going, at the time Raymond seemed more interested in merchandising the Max to the, er, max. Surrounded by a crew of similar madmen, we'd like the official tally of how many women allowed themselves to be talked into climbing into the trailer to try on a "free" halter top. Never mind, we can hear the Prude Patrol warming up right now...
At some point Beadle's killer instinct kicked back in with a vengeance. We can only assume he was tired of getting his ass kicked at the national events, but regardless of the reasoning, there came that fateful race when everything changed. After the car had been unloaded and the ever-growing entourage was milling around pointlessly, Beadle gave everyone the word – they were there to race, not schmooze. Go to the grandstands or anywhere else you like, he told them in so many words. Just get out of the pits and stop bothering the guys 'cause we've got work to do. As of that moment Beadle was "officially" a racer, and he never stepped back from that mode.
This is how serious he became, all the while maximizing the fun factor. After an IHRA race was rained out and postponed at Bristol, the new date fell right on top of the NHRA Mile-High Nationals in Denver. Beadle ran them both, splitting his crew between the two venues and using a spare car. He qualified in Denver on Friday, and flew overnight to Bristol where he raced Saturday evening, and then flew back to Denver for Sunday's eliminations. It's all a blur in my mind at this point, but it was one of the most fun weekends of drag racing I've ever experienced – because Beadle and his crazed buddies made it so.
You had to be there to see it yourself, but one Indy final round is illustrative of Beadle the racer. This was and remains the most pressure-packed event on the schedule because, after all, there's only one Indy. It was the final round and in the other lane lurked Don "The Snake" Prudhomme. Both cars did their burnouts, and as the Max backed up a thin line of oil could be seen on the ground. The starting line crew jumped to, the crew raised the body and then – nothing. Beadle kept pointing down, 'cause all he wanted was the body down. He then began hitting the throttle as fellow Texan Richard Tharp sprinted for the truck and a wrench as crew chief Harry Schmidt tried to see where the oil was coming from. In the seconds before Tharp returned mechanic "Waterbed Fred" Miller – adrenalin pumping --tightened the leaking oil fitting by hand. And – oh, yeah – Raymond won the race – one of my three favorite all-time Indy final rounds.
Raymond Beadle thrived in an era of racing when showmanship and competition were all-important and corporate support was almost secondary. The attitudes and actions of the Blue Max team (picture Raymond facing his crew, all standing in a line, while the NJ State Police are searching the rig in the background for contraband – with Raymond promising an early demise to everyone should the police find anything – they didn't.) probably wouldn't cut it in 2014. We're living at a time when clichés rule public speech, when no driver has the cajones to call out a rival – on anything – and the world spins around the next sponsorship signing. But even in this stilted world of drag racing Raymond would have been a superstar, for that killer smile and terrific gift for gab would have carried him through. Racers and fans of a certain age witnessed greatness when they saw Raymond Beadle race, and we're all the better for having done so.