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Arnie Beswick: Drag Racing’s Consummate Underdog

The Farmer's Scrapbook

By Steve Magnante, Photography by Arnie Beswick

Though fullsize Chevys had four-on-the-floor in 1959, Pontiac waited an extra year. I bought this 1960 Ventura hardtop with the 389ci Trophy 425-A Tri-Power engine and new-for-1960 eight-lug wheels from Morrison Pontiac in Clinton, Iowa, where I worked as a part-time mechanic during slow months. I made sure they kept the window sticker on the side glass to avoid hassles with the NHRA inspectors over the four-on-the-floor. Still, at the NASCAR/NHRA Winternationals in Daytona, they made me sit out one night over protests from other racers who thought the four-speed wasn’t legit. I had to get a telegram from Pontiac sent to clear up the problem. This picture shows the final run of six nightly points races of the week; I’m in the near side. I won the Stock Eliminator title and actually drove the car to the race from Illinois, and back again pulling a U-Haul cargo trailer.

My 1961 Ventura hardtop was named the Passionate Poncho and is seen with permanent painted lettering I had applied after I got it home from the 1961 Daytona races, where the paper sponsor banners I stuck to the car blew off in the wind. At the time, my dad was dead set against painted lettering on my cars. I ran a semi-stock 425-A until late May when the 363hp Super Duty parts became available. That over-the-counter Super Duty kit included a four-bolt block, forged steel crank, 8-quart oil pan, forged 11.2:1 pistons, big valve heads, a clutch fan, deep groove pulley, dual-point distributor, iron headers, an aluminum Tri-Power intake manifold, and the McKellar No. 7 solid cam. This stuff represented Pontiac’s most serious effort to that time.

Here’s the same 1961 Ventura facing Dyno Don’s 409 with updated sponsor art at the 1961 U.S. Indy Nationals. I’d already won S/S, and Dyno Don had taken the Optional Super/Stock title—or so we thought. But this run was for the overall Mr. Stock Eliminator title. Don’s 409 had new heads and carburetors since its Winternationals victory and beat me in this race, then the Ramchargers Dodge for the win. But after it all, he was declared illegal due to questionable valvesprings and the bigger AFB carbs. As for me, my 389 was declared 1.5 thousandths oversize on one cylinder and booted out. I raised Cain and hired one of Roger Ward’s Indy-car mechanics to measure the bore again. It came up one-thousandth less than the allowed 0.060 overcut. Mickey Thompson’s seven-car fleet of Pontiacs had the same machine work—but nobody protested them. The tech people were in bed with Mickey’s team, for sure. Note I only ran the eight-lug wheels up front. I switched to conventional five-lug rear wheels to make it easier to juggle tires around to suit changing track conditions.For having the nerve to dispute the NHRA's ruling, I was banned from competing in any NHRA national competition for the 1962 race season, but i was no big deal to me. I had plenty of lucrative match races to fill in the void.

The factory Super Duty program was hitting its stride when I got this 1962 Ventura hardtop. It came right off the assembly line with aluminum fenders, a 421 SD, dual quads, aluminum exhaust manifolds, 4.30:1 gears, and a wide-ratio aluminum-case four-speed. This picture was taken at a small track in Georgia, and I found out the guy I loaned my gas can to ended up using the whole three or four gallons I had in it. I was short of time to make the next round and couldn’t find anybody at the track that had any of the octane I used. So I jumped into the race car and drove it to this nearby gas station. The station owner was very surprised and snapped this picture. On September 23, 1962, this car set a low A/SS elapsed-time record, running 12.11 and 12.12 back-to-back. I ran plenty of Southern and East Coast strips with it since they paid healthy purses compared to Midwestern tracks. The competition didn’t appreciate me taking their money so much and put me through plenty of teardowns. They didn’t have today’s P&G cylinder volume heckers back then, so it was a constant hassle pulling the heads off the engine.

The year 1963 was the high-water mark for my direct involvement with Pontiac. Though I never got my cars for free, I had access to the latest packages. This was my Swiss Cheese Catalina in B/Factory Experimental trim note the missing low-beam headlamp duct for extra carburetor cold air access. This was also the first year I had a car hauler. Prior to this, I either used a tow bar or if the track was close enough, I’d actually drive the race car over the road. The truck is a big GMC gas job I bought from NASCAR great Cotton Owens. Remember, while big Chevy trucks of this era ran Chevy power, GMC units had Pontiac 347s for a few years. That made it a natural fit for me and Owens, who was also associated with Pontiac at the time. A couple years later, fellow Pontiac drag racer Jess Tyree had an old Dodge cab-over car hauler he used to transport his 1963 Tempest Funny Car. He stuffed a 421 in that truck and really covered the miles fast between match race engagements.

Taken at the 1963 U.S. Nationals, the wagon’s exceptional traction made for strong launches and frequent FX and Modified Production victories. Here, I’m about to eliminate the Frederick Motors aluminum-nose Max Wedge Dodge, though Dave Strickler’s Z-11 Impala kept me from taking the trophy that day. The 13 Super Duty Tempests were equipped with an exotic Powershift transaxle essentially two Corvair Powerglide two-speed automatic transaxles mounted inline to yield four forward speeds that worked kind of like a four-speed automatic with a clutch pedal. The limitation was that 3.90:1 was the lowest gear possible and that limited me to 5,200 rpm in the lights. The 421 wanted to go 6,500 at the finish line and that cost me some races. Also, I had to replace the ring gear in the Powershift unit every 12 to 13 runs. And that meant an all-day job—not something I could do between heats.

I have four daughters. These are the two oldest, Arnette and Paula, sitting on the aluminum fender of my new 1963 Swiss Cheese Catalina. Yes, they left some imprints in the flexible metal surface. My two younger daughters are both in the Air Force. One just retired after 23 years. The youngest has been in for 17 years, so she’ll be hanging in there for a little while yet. The Catalina was a big car, but the weight reduction measures cut total mass to about 3,300 pounds, and it’d run 11.69 at 123.5. The 26-gauge aluminum fenders were even thinner than the ones used in 1962. This car usually rode on a trailer towed behind the ramp truck. I could run it in B/FX and clean up after sweeping A/FX with the smaller Tempests, or add ballast to hit 3,650 pounds and run in B/Super Stock.

These are the same daughters, this time sitting on the thin aluminum hood of my 421 Super Duty Tempest wagon, which I named Mrs. B’s Grocery Getter after their mother, Evelyn, and for the cash winnings, which paid for plenty of food in our household. I put up such a fuss after they indented the Catalina’s hood that Mom pulled the same trick, setting them on the wagon. The wagon is one of six, along with seven coupes, built before GM shut everything down in March of 1963.

The wagon’s finest hour was at the 1963 Drag News Invitational, where I ran it and the big Catalina and downed all challengers. That really helped put me on the map and led to a steady demand from dragstrip promoters and operators who paid me appearance money to run. This picture was taken indoors at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, where they raced inside during the winter months. The strip was only about 500 feet long, and at the finish line each car had to thread through a narrow doorway—at speed. Plenty of guys crashed, so they shut it down after a few winters. My wagon’s rear overhang was hard to beat on that slippery surface.

The GTO was very competitive, but we had some trouble with transmissions. At first, I ran a 1955 vintage four-speed B&M Hydramatic, but it’d slip sometimes and over-rev the engine. Then I got in with some guys at Detroit Transmission and Pontiac engineer Tom Nell and sourced the new 1965 Turbo 400, and things improved. That said, if I hooked up on a first pass, I knew the Turbo 400 wouldn’t make a second run without a sprag or clutch-pack failure. So I learned to have a spare—or two. It only took 30 minutes to swap the Turbo 400, where the heavier four-speed Hydramatic took much longer. The hassle was weight and the number of perimeter bolts holding the torque converter together. I had a long-running feud with Mr. Norm and had many run-ins with Gary Dyer driving the Mr. Norm’s blown Hemi Coronet, not to mention holding my own against Dyno Don’s factory-backed SOHC Comet Cyclone door-slammer. Track promoters loved my GTO because it was a GM product, and since GM was out of racing, I was the underdog and one of the few competitive GM cars on the match race circuit.

The GTO was the big thing for 1964, so I built the Mystery Tornado with a GMC supercharged 421 Super Duty for the new Supercharged/Factory Experimental class. I was 34 at the time, and Hot Rod magazine gave the car a nice four-page story in the May 1965 issue. I’m seen here with my wife, who worked at the GE plant but managed to take some vacation time to attend the 1965 NASCAR Winternationals in Daytona. Here, we’re posed at a local Sears store alongside the Patterson Motors F/Stock Automatic 273 Barracuda Formula S during a pre-race car show. The GTO was purchased from Bill Knafel Pontiac in Akron, Ohio, and started out as a 348hp Tri-Power, four-speed pillar-coupe. There were only 16 miles showing on the odometer when we pulled it apart.

By Steve Magnante
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