Who in their right mind would plan a race weekend in the central U.S. for a 50-year-old single-seater racing class following Labor Day (which signals the end of summer and vacations), not only expecting 200 cars but planning for 300?
Meet Steve Beeler, a man clearly in his right mind even as he has worked tirelessly for two years on a crazy idea — the Formula Ford 50th Anniversary celebration at Road America, Sept. 11-15, which, like its 40th Anniversary predecessor, has attracted an overwhelming number of cars and drivers.
A transplanted Michigander, Beeler was born and raised in Indianapolis. In 1961, his dad and grandad took him to the Speedway for the first time on the fourth day of qualifications where he got to see Jim Hurtubise close in on the 150 mph barrier — which made a lasting impression.
It was perhaps the furthest thing from a front-engine Indy roadster, but, in 1978, Beeler bought a Caldwell D13, got his license and raced Formula Vee for four years in the SCCA Central Division. He took a break for a little while to do the adult thing — grad school; family; etc. — but always intended to resume.
His “adulting break”, though, lasted 17 years.
Finally in 1998, the well-established mechanical engineer for Ford found time enough to think about returning to his old hobby, and after some careful research, bought not another Vee, but a sweet Lola T-540 Formula Ford. His timing was unfortunate: In the 1990s, FF, once the SCCA’s most popular and populous racing class, had entered its death throes, and Beeler’s first SCCA Regional experiences upon his return did not live up to his wheel-to-wheel imaginings.
“That first season, the (FF) car counts were really low and I wound up in some crappy race groups. I just didn’t like being out there with Atlantic cars.”
Beeler, like most people in the CEDiv, soon came to know the late Jake Lamont, an Evansville, Ind., master mechanic who turned out some of the best FF crankshafts at the time. Lamont became better known in other parts of the country for successfully persuading the SCCA to allow aftermarket parts in FF and for launching “FF Underground” — a Chat Room at the beginning of the Internet boom, a chance for FF drivers all around the world to connect with one another.
“There were some hokey posts up there,” Beeler says with a chuckle, but, with a Formula Ford audience reaching beyond the Michigan border, it wasn’t long before he had an idea for bumping up the quantity and quality of the FF race groups: The idea of the “East/West Challenge” — picking two races on the east side of Lake Michigan; two races on the west side.
“The regions said with 15-20 cars, they would give the Formula Fords a separate race group. We actually got 25-30 cars, and (the EWC) was pretty successful 2003 – 2005, with good turn-out for races at Grattan, Gingerman, Mid-Ohio and other tracks.
“But then,” Beeler goes on, “the SCCA split the Central Division. And the sudden addition of National entries killed the East/West Challenge.”
Still, Beeler was deeply entrenched in the midwest FF community. While Lamont, sadly, passed away from cancer, FF Underground not only survived but blossomed into ApexSpeed, and Beeler was a regular contributor. Another was Mike Rand, a veteran Formula Ford and FC driver, race promoter, track manager and wearer of many hats in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
“In 2008, I got a phone call from Mike Rand,” Beeler remembers. “We knew each other via the Internet community — everyone knows each other — although we’d never met in person. Based on the success of several “reunions” at Lime Rock, Mike had the idea of making something big out of the 40th anniversary of Formula Ford which would be in 2009. He knew the event had to be at Road America — it was the only track big enough to host the event he had in mind. I had the contacts with the Milwaukee Region, I loved the idea … and, well one thing led to another.”
Indeed, the 40th Anniversary of Formula Ford was far and away the largest gathering of FFs ever in the U.S., with more than 240 cars, three races — National, Restricted Regional and Vintage — and it was extremely well run, a good time had by all.
“The National was so well-attended — stronger than the Runoffs that year. Neil Porter brought several cars. And for all that, Mike and I never met in person until we shook hands at the 40th event!” Beeler adds.
Wildly successful as that event was, Beeler left discouraged: The SCCA had used the FF40th to introduce “Formula F”, a new Honda-powered single-seater class but introduced to the world as an inexpensive way to update older Formula Ford chassis.
Beeler comments: “It was an underhanded deal. The SCCA did not tell Ford until two weeks before then 40th, and then they told us — the Milwaukee Region, which was hosting the 40th — that we had to make time for a demonstration. That upset me quite a bit.”
Beeler resigned from the SCCA afterwards, noting in his letter, “Kent Ford-powered cars will migrate to other places to race” which has proven to be quite prescient: While the SCCA has struggled to put 30 Honda-powered Formula F’s on a starting grid, there are routinely 40-60 Kent FFs in vintage races in Northern California, Colorado and the Mid-Atlantic. Ten years later, entries for the FF50th at Road America are approaching the 40th Anniversary total 240 despite big events at Willow Springs, Summit Point, Laguna Seca, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and two of the Colorado tracks that have diluted the field.
Truly, FF has entered a new stage of its life.
Unlike co-promoter Beeler, Rand was excited about the Honda’s possibilities and, in the years since the 40th, has launched his own all-inclusive series — the Right Coast Formula F Series (rcffs.org); Hondas, Fords, slick tires, treaded tires, run what you brung — which will close out its season at Road Atlanta, Nov. 1-3.
Beeler, though a Rand admirer still, clings firmly to the idea that “Formula Ford racing is Kent Ford-powered”, and has worked closely with the Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association (VSCDA, whose “Vintage Spirit” mantra sums up Beeler’s beliefs to a tee) to put together and promote the 50th Anniversary of Formula Ford celebration as part of its mid-September Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival, now in its 34th year.
“I wanted it to be Ford-only, so I couldn’t do it through SCCA. And the VSCDA — president Alex Rorke; ELVF promoters Mike and Deb Korneli; volunteers like Stacey Donato and Kathy Newton — have been great.
“We started planning the event two-and-a-half years out using the ‘Mike Rand Playbook’ which was very successful. I approached the VSCDA in early 2017, outlined the event, and pretty soon we were ahead of my timeline.
“We will have three races,” Beeler goes on. “Vintage and Club Ford on treaded tires; Modern on either slicks or treaded — the Canadians will want to run treaded.
“The treaded tires don’t last longer than the Hoosier R60 slicks; you could get a season out of them. But things have flipped. I love the treaded tires now, and you don’t need a separate set of rain tires.”
Beeler himself is well-qualified to manage such an event: “I was on the manufacturing side at Ford, with 20 years in vehicle operations — I have a good background in operations, in manufacturing efficiency, eliminating waste. Small-to-medium size manufacturers are 25-30 years behind the automakers; as a consultant now, I do a lot of traveling to help them close the gap: better, faster, cheaper.”
Leaving Ford after 20 years, Beeler moved to Holland, Mich. He is married with three daughters and two grandchildren, and his love for and pride in them all shows through in every conversation.
“(Wife) Karen does like racing – she likes it more since we bought a 25ft Ford V10-powered motorhome that easily pulls my trailer. It really cuts down travel time on race day, and she runs a little hospitality operation.”
Recently, Beeler discovered a new automotive passion: “Ice racing! I consulted on a plant rearrangement project in Minnesota a few winters ago and got hooked on it. The vehicle dynamics of front-wheel-drive cars with studded tires on ice are stupid fun …”
But, back to FF: “The Kent Formula Ford market has changed considerably since 40th,” Beeler observes. “One way is the way the SVRA does it — Tony Parella’s “extravaganzas”. I went to his second event at Indianapolis a few years ago, and it’s what really inspired me to do 50th. I didn’t want Tony to do the 50th; I wanted to, and I can do this.”
The SVRA did host a 50th Anniversary event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Aug. 8-10, and it was a huge success. But it did not attract 240 cars.
“Well, (the SVRA) crowd really enjoys all the stuff that Tony delivers — the parties and bands. I just want to show up and race. That’s the old way.”
That thought in mind, the FF50th at Road America will be a VSCDA ‘Vintage Spirit’ event with 240 cars and Beeler’s spin on that huge FF entry.
“I run projects,” Beeler says. “I’ve got a lot of energy for this one. And we are on path to deliver another memorable event …