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Arnie Beswick: Drag Racing’s Consummate Underdog

The Farmer's Scrapbook

By Steve Magnante, Photography by Arnie Beswick

Born into a farming family in 1930, Arnie and his parents ran a 160-acre spread with 1,000 chickens, 300 hogs, hundreds of feeder cattle, and many acres of corn. But when not planting (April through May) or harvesting (October and November), Beswick traded tractors for traction as one of drag racing's most popular personalities, bagging his first big win at the 1955 NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kansas, where his B/Stock 1954 Oldsmobile took class honors.

Although it's rare, good things sometimes do emerge from the dustbowl of calamity. In the case of Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick's half-century-long drag-racing career—most of it aboard Pontiac products—there's little doubt that General Motors' March 1963 decision to pull out of all forms of auto racing was a very good thing. It may not have been immediately apparent—Beswick's supply of vitally needed 421 Pontiac Super Duty cylinder heads, crankshafts, and engine blocks dried up overnight—but the move put the Morrison, Illinois, farmer forever on the map as an underdog. And spectators love nothing more than an underdog.

Before the suits on the 14 floor of the GM building decided to pull the plug on automotive exhibitionism (as a means of reducing corporate profile that was under scrutiny from trust-busting lawmakers), Chevrolet and Pontiac had poured vast resources into their racing programs in an effort to reach the unprecedented number of young new car buyers from the post-WWII baby boom. With 76 million American kids born between 1946 and 1964 (38 million of them were hatched before 1954 alone), smart marketing teams knew it would take exciting, youth-oriented models, as well as racing, to attract them to the showrooms.

Though it was Ford that launched the Total Performance advertising campaign in 1962, the term is perfectly descriptive of the three-pronged approach taken by those carmakers with pockets deep enough to develop the wide variation of machinery needed for NASCAR-, SCCA-, and NHRA-sanctioned events. That's what it took to reach every type of buyer in the red-hot youth market, and it was a true "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" scenario with billions of dollars at stake.

And it worked. Chevrolet performance engineers crafted the 348 and 409 Super Stock engine and vehicle packages for use in NASCAR and NHRA events. Victory came quickly with Junior Johnson taking the 1960 Daytona 500, while the top tiers of 1961–62 NHRA Stocker action were dominated by W-motored cars driven by Don Nicholson, Frank Sanders, Dave Strickler, and Hayden Proffitt. On the twisty SCCA road courses, Rochester fuel-injected solid-axle Corvettes thwarted Europe's finest on a regular basis. All of the positive race publicity undoubtedly helped Chevrolet remain the premier U.S. automaker, selling an average of 1.7 million new cars every year in 1960–62.

At Pontiac, the Super Duty racing engine and vehicle program was launched in 1959 and grew from strength to strength with each model year. Without a sports car in the lineup, SCCA road-race action was nil, but consecutive Daytona 500 wins in 1961–62 only hinted at what future NASCAR racing efforts might hold. Despite their size, on the dragstrip, Pontiacs diced with Chevys, while the Ford and Chrysler contingents generally struggled for Third Place as their respective Super Stock programs were not yet fully mobilized.

And Arnie Beswick was there, winning the 1960 NASCAR/NHRA Winternationals (Top Stock) and 1961 NHRA Indy Nationals (Super Stock). Additional headline-making NHRA and AHRA national event victories by Pontiac Stock and Super Stock racers Jim Wangers, Hayden Proffitt, Mickey Thompson, and Lloyd Cox undoubtedly played a certain role in boosting sales from 396,179 in 1960 to 521,477 in 1962.

And then it all came crashing down. With GM's sudden and voluntary termination of all factory-backed racing and development on that mid-winter day in 1963, Chevrolet fans lost the lightweight Corvette Grand Sport, the canted-valve 427 Daytona Mystery engine, the Z-11 lightweight Impala, and the Rochester fuel-injected Chevy II FIA road racer. At Pontiac, the ban squashed the 421 Super Duty engine program, the Swiss Cheese Catalina lightweight and the 421 Tempest LeMans swing-axle A/FX package. Fortunately, a handful of each example had been released before the axe fell.

Let's speculate for a moment: If GM had not withdrawn from racing, there's no doubt that a succession of wilder off-road, drag-, road-, and stock-car racing packages would have been developed by Pontiac and Chevrolet. It is also probable that the Ford 427 SOHC and Chrysler 426 Race Hemi would have been met head on with equally exotic machines—and would not have seemed so invincible. Alas, we'll never know what we would have missed.

As for Arnie Beswick, his skill as a driver in such a free-for-all would have seen him continue as a Pontiac racer, with full access to the latest go-faster factory parts. But again, there is a strong likelihood Arnie would not have been alone. And with other Pontiac racers at each meet, the chance of winning would shrink. It is certainly possible that Arnie's star might not have shined as bright had he not been one of the stalwarts who stuck with Pontiac after the GM plug was pulled. But, stay he did. And by enduring a constant uphill struggle against Ford and Chrysler Funny Car teams—as well as grief from Chevy racers, who benefitted from an open back door to the engineering department—Beswick has carved out his place in drag-racing history as one of the sport's true underdogs.

Still racing at 84, Beswick and his 1964 GTO "Tameless Tiger" Pro Modified match racer can be seen at several annual events running deep 7s at nearly 200 mph. Thanks to Arnie for giving Elapsed Times access to his personal scrapbook and sharing some wonderful memories.

I had a 1954 Oldsmobile that won Top Stock at the 1955 and 1956 Nationals in Kansas, but this was my very first Mopar, a 1956 Dodge Coronet D-500-1. This was a 316ci Hemi with two four-barrel carburetors, backed by a three-on-the-tree manual transmission. A friend of mine ran a D500 on the circle track, and it was equipped with the same motor, only it was just a single four-barrel carb motor, hence the D500 designation. This was the year Chevy introduced its 265 two four-barrel Power Pack and thought it had the baddest of the bad—until it looked at the taillights of my Dodge too many times. Ford didn’t have much better luck.

After giving the Chevys and Fords a butt-kicking in my D500-1, I knew I had to have the new 1957 Dodge D501 model. They were putting that animal together with a big Chrysler 354 Fire Power Hemi, but it was just too nose-heavy. In those days, we had to run a 7-inch tire in Stock class, and the car was a big disappointment because there was no way to get it off the line. Dodge only made 56 of these cars built to legalize the package for racing, plus maybe 10 more used by the Ohio state police. This car broke me of my Mopar habit; the final straw was its pin-type synchronized transmission that’d break if power-shifted. This car was on display at Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Florida for more than a decade.

When the Mopars let me down in 1957, I didn’t want a Chevy since they were like belly buttons, even then. So I looked at Pontiac and liked the 1957 Tri-Power 347. When it grew to 370 cubes for 1958, I bought one. My Chieftain ran in A/Stock in 1958 and left the starting line OK, but again, I got tired of rebuilding the steering-column-mounted shifter. So for 1959, I swapped in a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed with a floor-mounted shift—and ran in C/Gas where the switch was legal. The four-speed was a quick fix to the busted steering column problem. It even helped the e.t. a bit. I also ran a new 1959 389 Tri-Power Catalina in legal A/Stock. Yes, it also had three-on-the-tree but ran strong.

By Steve Magnante
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