Donnie Beechler poses with the Zarounian Motorsports Silver Crown car at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in 1997. (John Mahoney photo)

Donnie Beechler: A Remarkable Tale

The roar of the crowd confirmed that Jim Nabors’ signature rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana” had ended with a flourish. In the remaining moments that were left to steel his nerves, 37-year-old rookie Donnie Beechler tugged one more time at his belts and adjusted his gloves. It was a different time.

Two cars to his left sat rugged Jack Hewitt, while old midget sparring partner Billy Boat would lead the field of 33 in A. J. Foyt’s car. It was a surreal moment and almost too unfathomable to believe.

More than a quarter-century later, it remains a pinch-me moment.

Donnie Beechler was born in Springfield, Ill., on May 18, 1961, and graduated from nearby Riverton High School. His father, Lenny, was a contractor who among many things specialized in building swimming pools.

Beechler labored with his father for a year after his graduation and then spent six years as a jet mechanic with the Active Guard Reserve, 183rd Tactical Fighter Group.

Like many of his friends and family, Beechler often spent Sunday night at Springfield Speedway, but his first taste of speed came in a decidedly unconventional manner.

“Our house was on an acre of land and we had another acre next to it,” he said. “We built a little track to fool around with an old junk car that had been owned by a buddy of my dad. He had wrecked this car into a tree, so the radiator was blown out of it. We just ran it around until it got too hot and then we would have to wait to let it cool off.”

Wanting to race sprint cars like he’d seen at the Little Springfield quarter-mile oval, Beechler took matters into his own hands. He convinced a local bank to give him a $5,000 loan and by 1981 he had his own car.

“It was just stab and learn,” he said with a laugh, “I wasn’t very successful at first. I didn’t have any idea what a torsion bar was, and my first car didn’t have power steering. Wings were coming in then and I didn’t have one for the first half of the year, so I was always at the back trying not to run over anybody.”

The wing is another story entirely.

“My dad was a carpenter by trade and he said he could build one of those,” Beechler recalled. “So we put a bunch of two-by-fours together and a friend of ours worked at the airport and he skinned it with some aluminum. That thing probably weighed 100 pounds. When we set it on the car, we had to readjust the suspension.”

At this point, the Sunday night show at Springfield Speedway was not for the meek.

“That was a great time to be in sprint car racing because there was the Midwest Racing Ass’n and there were probably 20 sprint cars in the Springfield area alone,” Beechler recalled. “Everybody had a sprint car. That was your lifestyle in the summer. You went to the race track on Sunday night.”

While he didn’t set his hometown track on fire, he did find victory lane. Before long he was racing at Jacksonville (Ill.) Speedway on Friday, St. Francois County Raceway in Missouri on Saturday and at Springfield on Sunday. After Little Springfield closed in 1987, he often ventured to Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway on Sunday.

With more experience the wins came in bunches and Beechler became one of the top racers in his region. Here is where things get interesting. Some reports suggest that track titles came at Jacksonville in 1988, ’90 and ’93. No one can seem to confirm this, even Beechler. Proclaiming jokingly that age and concussions cloud his memory, he does acknowledge he “has two championship jackets somewhere.”

Eventually, Beechler began racing midgets, competing with the Midwest Auto Racing Ass’n, Badger and USAC. His first USAC midget victory came while driving for Jerry Hatton at Macon (Ill.) Speedway in 1991.

Donnie Beechler celebrates winning the 1997 Hut Hundred midget race. (John Mahoney photo)

“That was one of the most fun races I have ever had,” he said. “I had a great battle with Tony Elliott. I had been leading on the bottom most of the race, but he got in front of me. So I jumped to the top and got around him. It was just an exciting race to be involved in as a driver.”

While a first major win is always noteworthy, it was a trip with Keith Kunz that really kick-started his career. In 1994, the pair headed south for a multi-race trip. Their performance got the attention of a notable car owner.

“I think it was a two- or three-day race in Arkansas, or maybe it was in Oklahoma,” Beechler said with a laugh. “We did very well. We might have won a couple of nights. Anyway, George Zarounian came over to the trailer and said, ‘I want to talk to you guys. I want you to move to California and run my car.’ We thought about it for about two seconds and said we were in.”

Beechler picked up a USAC Western States win quickly upon his arrival out west and soon thereafter an odd pattern developed.

“I would get up and shower to get ready to go to the shop to help Keith and my phone would ring,” he said. “It was John Lawson. I mean, this was every day. He would ask what I was doing, and I would tell him I was headed to the shop. Then, he would say come run for me.”

While Beechler would race with and win for Lawson in the future, he told the persistent owner he was sticking with George and Gary Zarounian.

Then, the whole dynamic of this western sojourn changed.

“One day I come in and Keith says, ‘Hey, I’m going to work for John Lawson,’” Beechler remembered. “He goes in and throws the keys on George’s desk and said I am going to Fresno.”

With Kunz moving on, Beechler was left to prepare Chili Bowl cars for himself and Frankie Kerr.

At first things could not have gone worse at the Chili Bowl. On his preliminary night, a tangle with Brian Gerster put him on his side and he knew he was already in a deep hole. On Saturday, he qualified through the B main, but a looming curfew led to a quick turnaround.

“That whole night we were rushed all the time,” Beechler said. “They didn’t even work on the track. I got pushed into the pits and I don’t think I even got out of the car. They changed the tires and put some fuel in and I think I was the last one to roll down the ramp.”

Beechler started 16th, but early on it was obvious that his team had hit on the right combination. By the time he got to third behind Billy Boat, in Lawson’s car, and Ron Shuman, there was plenty of time left in the race.

“I followed Billy and Ron,” he said, “and once we got into third, I thought, ‘OK, this is where we are going to end up.’ I kept getting close to Billy on a good run and then I couldn’t see the cushion and I would bobble and make a mistake. I realized this isn’t going to work, I have to do something else.”

What he did was drop down to the middle of the track.

“I had to go where nobody was. There were guys on the top and guys on the bottom,” Beechler explained. “Usually, the guys on the bottom are kicking up debris so you have nothing to grab ahold of. Well, because they didn’t work the track there wasn’t that much debris.” 

First, Boat fell into his grasp and then he overtook Shuman. He was the first driver to win the Chili Bowl after transferring from the B main.

The Zarounian operation eventually moved to Illinois, Dennis and Dave McQuinn were hired as mechanics and Beechler began a new chapter in his career. He won USAC National Midget and USAC Silver Crown races and was a consistent frontrunner.

Beechler was successful in all forms of open-wheel racing and his personality made him a crowd favorite. To this point he had enjoyed a good career and was already pondering slowing down given his life responsibilities. Donnie and wife Paula were building a home and starting a family. Then, in February 1998, he received an unexpected call from former racer and sprint car owner Larry Cahill.

“When he first called, I thought, ‘Oh crap, he wants me to race his car at Knoxville, which is six hours away,” Beechler said. “But instead he said, ‘I just bought an Indy car and I would like you to be my driver.’”

After the initial shock, Beechler reminded Cahill he had never driven a rear-engine car. In turn, Cahill reminded him he had never owned one before either and that “they would do this together.”

Donnie Beechler’s rookie ride at Indy in 1998. (David Nearpass photo).

Beechler signed a three-year contract and soon learned that his first race would be the Indianapolis 500.

“I was really naïve about this whole process,” he said. “But my buddy Mike Guglielmucci worked for Bell Helmets and he was taking care of me. He kept telling me he had done the math and we were going to make the race. It really was two races back then. The first was just to get in and then the race itself. Once you made it in it was like a huge weight was lifted from your shoulders.” 

Beechler still shakes his head at all that transpired.

“Look at where we started. Larry Cahill had never owned an Indy car, I was a rookie and the only person on our crew who had any kind of Indy car experience was Randy Skinner,” Beechler explained. “Randy never got angry or flustered. He was as cool as a cucumber. Here I am just trying to figure out what these cars are doing before I can ever tell him how to make them faster.”

Beechler made the race, but the car’s engine let go after 34 laps.

Then, there was a memorable race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1999 that ended in a most curious way. His weekend started poorly when the team could not find speed. Beechler was two mph off the pace utilizing an engine built by Ron Shaver. Cahill asked his opinion and Beechler said it is the engine.

“I thought Ron was going to pull out a gun and shoot me,” he said. “He is an amazing builder, but he hadn’t kept up with fuel mapping. I’m flat to the floor. This isn’t a sprint car. I can’t jump up and run the cushion. I’m running the right line.”

The team leased a second engine from team owner Tom Kelly in an effort to diagnose the problem.

“So we put it in,” Beechler said, “and I am third quick in practice.”

After starting in the rear, Beechler tore through the field and was running third when Tyce Carlson crashed late in the race. Under caution, it happened.

“Here comes Johnny Rutherford in the pace car and he runs over my left front tire,” Beechler said. “I’m on the ground and it looked like he was 20 feet in the air. I look up and I see this yellow car with a camera hanging out. It took me a while to realize it was the pace car.”

Cahill honored his three-year commitment. In his final year with the team, Beechler finished sixth in points with a best finish of third at Phoenix Raceway. Cahill had largely funded this team out of his pocket, and it made sense to go with driver Robbie McGehee in 2001.

Beechler traveled to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the 2001 season opener and wandered through the garage area. A. J. Foyt expressed surprise to see him in civilian clothes and vowed to keep in touch. Beechler didn’t give it another thought.

At Guglielmucci’s urging, Beechler made the trip to Indianapolis for the month of May. Within a day of arriving, he was informed that Foyt wanted to talk to him. Foyt had a third car and wanted Beechler to take his physical and be prepared to qualify once Foyt’s other cars were safely in the field.

On bump day, Beechler got the job done with a four-lap average speed of 224.449 mph that was fifth fastest in the 33-car field. On race day he had a dream car. With 50 laps to go, he was running laps faster than leader Helio Castroneves.

“I told them this car was amazing, Beechler recalled. “I could run flat all day and the car was perfect. I came in on my last pit stop and we took off. Then, Guglielmucci who was my spotter said, ‘Hey pal, you’re smoking.’”

It was unwelcome news. The culprit was a faulty oil fitting.

Back in Springfield, Beechler was replacing shingles on a rental property when Foyt called and told him to bring his gear to Texas. Once at the track, Foyt had something to show him. It was the faulty oil fitting that had clearly been cobbled together. Foyt said, “That’s a million dollars,” and he offered Beechler a ride for the rest of the year. He responded with a third-place run at Kansas Speedway and a pair of fifth-place efforts.

Beechler signed a contract to run the full 2002 season in Foyt’s famed No. 14 machine.

However, Beechler slammed the turn-three wall during practice for the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

At minimum he had a concussion, but while under the care of famed Dr. Henry Bock in the infield care center, he suffered a seizure. Soon he was in a helicopter on the way to Miami-Dade Hospital.

Donnie Beechler (67) battles Jack Hewitt at the Terre Haute Action Track in 1995. (David Nearpass photo)

While there he had an epiphany.

“I am sitting in the hospital and I think, ‘This is crazy. I am going to bust my ass and I have two kids (daughter Shae was born in 1998, son Coltin in 2000),’” Beechler said. “We have made good money and I have had a good career.”

Airton Dare took Beechler’s seat while he was on the mend and before long a letter arrived at his home terminating his contract. There were no hard feelings and Foyt tried to get Beechler back in the Indianapolis 500 field in 2002, but rain thwarted those plans.

Beechler continued to get in a midget, Silver Crown and winged sprint car for another decade and probably under the radar of many, in 2022 he raced a 305 sprint car at Jacksonville Speedway with a second and fourth place finish to his credit. He may even give it a whirl again this year.

Beechler is rightfully proud of his racing accomplishments.

“I didn’t bring any money,” he said of his Indy car career. “Larry and A. J. put me in their cars for the simple fact that they thought I had the talent to get the job done. That made me happy because that separated me from a lot of the guys.”

Beechler’s name doesn’t appear on the list of IndyCar winners, but he will be long remembered as a classy competitor who got the most out of his equipment.

Today, he looks back to when he was just having fun running a junker around a makeshift dirt oval. He had no idea where it would lead. Now he says, “This is just one more reason it is amazing I got to the Indianapolis 500. I’m still scratching my head on that one.”


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