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Gregory man recalls life in fast lane with champ cars

Ron Beavers, middle, speaks to students Friday at Dakota Wesleyan University as Professor Sean Flynn, right, looks on. (Anna Jauhola/Republic)

Ron Beavers insists there is more skill involved in IndyCar racing than NASCAR, although he admits he may get himself in trouble for saying that.

Beavers spoke to a group of students Friday in the History of American Sports class at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

Beavers, 78, is a California native who moved to Gregory in 1993.

His son, Aaron, was the head football coach for the Gregory high school football team. While visiting him in the early 1990s, the father and son went to a house auction.

"I raised my hand, and the next thing I knew I was the proud owner of a home in Gregory," Beavers said.

He took a job teaching at-risk students in Gregory's high school for 10 years.

His prior professional life was spent developing the sport of champ car racing, which is now known as IndyCar racing. He worked on cars and even raced some vehicles during his years in the sport.

He helped design the first car that topped 200 mph in the 1970s, driven by Bobby Unser.

Beavers worked for Dan Gurney, "a legend as far as IndyCar," he said. Gurney's team built the car Unser drove to break the 200 mph mark.

"They are athletes, not just one of the good old boys that drinks whiskey and goes to Hooters," Beavers said of drivers, to laughter from the class.

Beavers got his start like any other boy, he said. He always wanted to win, whether it was a footrace, bike race or car race. Speeding tickets were not an uncommon occurrence for him.

In the early 1950s, he started with a Ford Model T. Soon, he graduated to a Model A. He moved on to several vehicles from the '30s, '40s and '50s.

After a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force in Korea, Beavers came back and started working on champ cars.

"The guy driving the thing was a brave little soul," he said of the early drivers.

They didn't have proper attire. In fact, most wore polyester, which they found eventually to be highly flammable. Also, they sat in the middle of a 75-gallon gas tank, which was aluminum and a part of the chassis. If there was any friction or the car hit a wall, fire was inevitable, Beavers said. They eventually switched to 40-gallon waterproof canvas bladder tanks, which survive impact and do not explode.

In the early 1960s, Beavers participated in the Baja 1000, a race along California's Baja Peninsula.

He and a team raced Jeeps, Volkswagens and motorcycles. Many of the designs Beavers worked with used aerodynamics inspired by modern aircraft.

Beavers started working with Gurney in 1968 after Gurney raced in California. Gurney wanted to build champ cars.

They worked on Eagles, which were Formula One racing cars, Beavers said.

"They were really something else," he added.

The Eagle incorporated aerodynamic attributes like a hood that resembled an upside down airplane wing, and functioned as such. The design worked to keep the lightweight vehicles on the ground.

Gurney's team was different in more ways than one. Not only did one of his drivers break the 200 mph mark, Gurney sold cars to his competitors.

Cars his team raced won the Indy 500 three times. However, cars his team built and sold to competitors won the race 59 times -- an unheard of number, Beavers said.

Racing continues to change today. Several years ago, IndyCar racing's popularity began to falter.

The entrance of Danica Patrick changed all that a few years ago. Her driving skill and good looks garnered media attention and fans for IndyCar racing.

The sport's popularity may begin to falter again following Patrick's recently announced move to NASCAR.

"She's proven herself," Beaver said. "But IndyCar takes more talent. We're on our way back."

Although Patrick's popularity may leave IndyCar racing in a lurch, Beavers thinks it's resurfaced as a precision sport that requires endurance and focus. The slightest bump into another car or the wall causes a major airborne wreck, Beavers said.

"In NASCAR, they lean against each other all the time," he said.

Now that he's retired, Beavers plans to spend the majority of his time traveling with his wife, Nola. They expect to live out their lives in Gregory.

Beavers said he still isn't immune to the occasional speeding ticket.

"My insurance won't go down again until October," he said, laughing.