When Jack Beckman was racing toward his first NHRA championship in the Super Comp division, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. There were times he said he thought he was going to die.
In the seven years since being diagnosed, he has become a husband, father, cancer survivor and, by the end of the weekend at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, he could be an NHRA Funny Car champion for the first time.
Instead of taking his lymphoma diagnosis as a death sentence, he fought it head on. After nearly a year of chemotherapy, Beckman pursued his dream of racing in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. He enters the NHRA season finale one point out of first place.
His Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan has the lead, but Beckman compared his drag racing team to a baseball team preparing for the World Series.
"What would you do differently? The things that have gotten us to within one point of the lead are the things that are going to help us win the championship," Beckman said. "What can we change?"
Perhaps nothing. Maybe everything. The one element that is different from the Auto Club Finals in Pomona to other races is the number of entrants. There are 24 cars entered in the Pomona finals. Normally, about 18 cars enter. Only the top 16 make it to the elimination rounds. Beckman said the priority this weekend is to make sure to qualify for the elimination rounds on Sunday and give himself a chance to overtake Hagan.
"Coming in to this race this weekend, we're going to have a real dog fight," Hagan said. "It's just been a great battle all the way so far. We've had plenty of opportunities to run away with it and so has everybody else and it just hasn't happened yet. It's going to come down to who has a great day on Sunday."
Cruz Pedregon, a two-time NHRA champion, is 26 points out of first place and still in contention for the Funny Car title.
"It's been a roller-coaster Countdown because we've had plenty of opportunities to get tossed out of there," Pedregon said. "It seems that when we have a great race, we have a bad race. We have a great race and have two bad races. The fact that we're still in it, we're going to take advantage of it. I think a lot of the competitors in it can say the same thing. Lucky for us, there hasn't been one guy, there hasn't been one team that got its act together and went on a run."
For Beckman, who was born and raised in Granada Hills and lives in Norco, it has been an interesting journey to this point. He was a high school dropout after attending Kennedy High School, and enlisted in the Air Force. He was an elevator repairman and drag racing instructor before becoming a professional driver on the verge of his first NHRA Funny Car championship.
"I think I was a bunch of scribbled notes and the military helped me arrange them in order," Beckman said. "Put a table of contents to it and help it make sense."
Beckman joined the Air Force in 1984 after leaving high school early and spent four years in the military stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.
He learned how to repair and maintain electronic components on C-111 transport and cargo planes while stationed in New Mexico. He was discharged from the Air Force about a year before Operation Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq in 1990.
"The training that I got in the military and the resume it helped me build helped get me a great career," Beckman said. "I got an electronics background and it translated into financial independence when I got out. The technical training you get is very beneficial, but the psychological training, the ability to work well with other people, time management, goal-setting and achievement, I think all that stuff helped."
Beckman grew up watching drag races at Pomona from the stands with his family. After his stint in the Air Force, he returned to Auto Club Raceway as a drag racing instructor with the Frank Hawley Driving School. He worked as an elevator repairman to fund his NHRA Super Comp car that he raced at Pomona. It took nearly 15 years, but Beckman put together a championship package, winning the NHRA Sportsman Super Comp title in 2003.
It was also the same year he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He saw a number of doctors and specialists who ran test after test on him. It took several months before he was diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy treatments.
"I went to a neurologist. They thought I had kidney stones. This went on for months," Beckman said. "I finally told my doctor, 'I'm going to get a CT scan.' The minute they got my CT scan, I had cancer from my neck to my pelvis. It's lymphoma, but it spread so far. The way they told me, because you're young -- and I was in very good shape, aside from the cancer I was very healthy -- they said because of the level of cancer you have and your overall health, we don't have a choice. We have to give you a huge amount of chemotherapy. They said the cancer won't kill you. The chemo will kill you or cure you. There's just not much in between."
Cancer and chemotherapy
Beckman says with pride that he missed only two drag races and two days of teaching while going through his chemotherapy treatments. But the chemotherapy took its toll. He said the treatments would give him hot flashes during races. He had to wear a cool vest, a type of jacket that was put in an ice chest to stay cold, between runs during races. He lost more than 30 pounds during the chemotherapy. All the while, he continued to race.
"After the first chemo, I was 193 [pounds] at my best and in really good shape. I was down to 159 and I thought they waited too long," Beckman said. "I felt like I had a belt of termites around my midsection. I went from feeling no hope, like my days are over, to feeling like, all right, I'll go in for the next one. The chemo worked right away."
He talked to his doctor at UCLA because he was worried about the sensation around his midsection. The doctor told him that was the chemotherapy working. It was breaking up the cancer cells and his body was discharging about 12 pounds of cancer per treatment. He knew the chemotherapy was working, but it was drag racing that motivated him to continue the treatment.
"I missed two races. I missed two days of teaching at the Frank Hawley school. I didn't go in on maintenance days there, but I only missed two days of teaching and I only missed two races," Beckman said. "I think the fact that I had that stuff to look forward to, that I had a job that I truly loved -- teaching people how to drag race -- and that I had a passion racing my own car, I think that was a huge reason I was able to keep [my] mind focused on something on the future rather than dwell on the cancer. It was incredibly beneficial to me."
He was given the option to stop the chemotherapy after the sixth treatment. Doctors recommended he have eight treatments. That was a bit of a mental hurdle Beckman had to overcome. He ultimately decided to follow his doctors' recommendations. He had his last chemotherapy treatment on Oct. 25, 2004.
"I was done at six. I could have been technically cancer free after six treatments," Beckman said. "The hardest one I had was No. 7, because I thought I was done at six. I had to get my mind wrapped around that I had to go through this crap two more times. The easiest one I had was No. 8. By No. 8, my body was run down. I had to give myself injections to keep my white blood cells up. I had lesions on my tongue that made it tough to chew sometimes. I was bald. I was frail. I was pale. And I felt awesome. I knew it was last treatment."
Marriage and children
One of the side effects of the chemotherapy treatments is that it makes patients sterile. Beckman knew this was a possibility and had fertility tests done after his treatments. After his second test, his fertility count was zero.
"I was the safest man in North America," Beckman said. "I was 100 percent sterile." But his doctors told him with some people it comes back.
He married his wife, Jenna, in 2006, a couple of years after his last chemotherapy treatment. He said the two were friends for years, and she even took him to some of his chemotherapy treatments, but it wasn't until after his cancer treatments were over that they started dating.
"She must have liked bald guys," Beckman said.
A year after they were married, they had their first child, a son named Jason. In July, the Beckmans had their second child, a daughter named Layla.
His family will be on hand for the races this weekend. He tries to compare it to winning the Super Comp title in 2003 and says there are a number of similarities. But if he can win the NHRA Funny Car championship, it will be distinct in many ways.
"It will be extremely different, because in the super comp car, I did everything myself," Beckman said. "I strapped myself in the car, I put the tune-up on the car, I worked on the car in between races, I towed the car to the race. It's a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
"In the funny car, I can't even start the car without four other guys. I am such a piece of a much larger puzzle there. What it means is you have 25 people in harmony that did all this."
If anything, Beckman has learned it takes a team to be successful. He has one of the best drag racing teams in the NHRA Funny Car class. He has also produced one of the most supportive families in the NHRA garage. Beckman is looking forward to ending the NHRA season close to home.
"I get to sleep in my own bed. I don't know if that's an advantage or a disadvantage," Beckman said. "Tickets are an issue when you're at your home track. Such a familiarity with Pomona. Watching as a kid in the grandstands, teaching at the Frank Hawley school, racing super comp. All that stuff is going to help me be more at ease and help me perform at a higher level."
Tim Haddock is a contributor for ESPNLosAngeles.com.