Michael Beard receives 2010 Mike Aiello Award


By Susan Wade

Since March, IHRA and NHRA sportsman racer Michael Beard has battled Bell’s palsy, a non-life-threatening, temporary facial paralysis that has no known cause or cure.

He shoehorned food into his uncooperative mouth. He functioned in and out of his race car with his right eye taped shut and covered by a patch. And to his helpless chagrin, the journalist racer interviewed IHRA Pro-Am winners for Drag Review Magazine admittedly “sounding like Elmer Fudd.”

All the while, he was beating the pants off many of his competitors.

For that, Competition Plus Magazine presented him the 2010 Mike Aiello Award during IHRA season-finale ceremonies Sunday at Virginia Motorsports Park at Dinwiddie, Va.

Larry Crum, the IHRA’s director of media and publicity, made the presentation to Beard, the first sportsman racer and first from the IHRA ranks to receive the award.

The Mike Aiello Award, referred to by the media as “The Spirit of Drag Racing Award,” honors determination and the spirit to persevere and remain positive in spite of obstacles.

It remembers Aiello, a longtime drag racing fan and former Pro Stock crew member for Jerry Yeoman who spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, he not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among drivers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior.

Aiello passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39 at Santa Monica, Calif.

Beard, who grew up in Milton, Pa., and lives in Seagrove, N.C., with wife Jill, has risen above difficulty since he was a child. But it helped direct him to a fulfilling career as a graphic designer and drag racer.

He said some of his school memories were of being “that kid who got picked last in gym class a lot.” However, he discovered bracket racing, what he called “a game of numbers and strategy.” He fell in love with it because it was an arena in which “people respected each other for their accomplishments.”

Today Beard is a true Renaissance Man — Rain Man blended with Newsman — a 36-year-old Gen-Xer with Gen-Y technosavvy, someone who has launched his love of drag racing from asphalt into cyberstrata. Yet he has used the same principle that guided America’s pioneers: If you want something, study the situation and figure out the smartest, most efficient way to achieve it — use your ingenuity and apply yourself.

He is among the elite sportsman drivers, a drag-racing teacher, and motorsports journalist — all by resourcefulness that was fueled by his passion. He learned by asking the right questions to the most qualified individuals, remained open to tackling new tasks, even taking educational psychology courses in college.

“Whatever you do, continue to learn!” Beard said.

When he built his first drag car, a ’74 Duster, he learned the DIY method. He wanted to festoon it with the Tazmanian Devil and call it the Dust Devil, but decals were too expensive Said Dad, “You will figure out how to do it yourself.” His art-teacher uncle taught him to make homemade decals out of Con-Tac paper. Said Beard, “I never had any artistic talent in high school, but I studied everything I could and taught myself.”

That gave him confidence to try other drag-racing-related tasks.

“I started a newsletter for Beaver Springs Dragway when I was in high school, designed their website, and even did some announcing at the track. I worked at a sign shop, which taught me the basics for what I do in my own business today,” the graphic designer said. “Then I worked for the IHRA for two and half years. I was the webmaster and eventually became involved in a little bit of everything: journalism, magazine layout, graphic design, event promotion and coverage, announcing, photography, you name it. It’s unreal how much I learned while I was there. Everything I’ve done has revolved around drag racing.”

“I guess I’m a jack of all trades, master of . . . well, one — sometimes!” Beard said.

None of it this year was easy.

His bout with Bell’s palsy, like with most cases, is disappearing completely as inexplicably as it appeared. Symptoms often include a droopy eyelid or corner of the mouth, difficulty with eating and drinking, dry eyes and mouth, and drooling because of no control over facial muscles.

Beard’s symptoms began to show up, ironically, in the wake of a Box class victory in his Duck Tape Volare at a $3,000 Top E.T. race the second week of March.

“When I got home, I ate dinner, and when I went to brush my teeth, it was like I had a leaky lip when I went to spit. Being a typical guy, I thought that was weird, but I sloughed it off,” Beard said. “The next day, when my wife got home from work, she was laughing at me because I kept winking at her. I didn’t know what she was talking about, and she thought I was just messing with her. I had been sick the week before and thought that my dry eyes were from allergies.

“As it turns out, I couldn’t blink my right eye and had lost the muscle control of the right side of my mouth. That night, when I started feeling a tingling in the right side of my body. I was scared to death that they were stroke symptoms, and I was finally panicked enough to tell my wife that I needed to go to the E.R.,” Beard said.

He took medicine for a couple of weeks “to calm the inflammation,” he said, “but basically it has to go away on its own.”

Beard said he struggled hardest the first two weeks.

“I had trouble focusing and had to keep my right eye taped shut and kept a patch over it. I couldn’t drink without a straw, and had to shoehorn food into my mouth. I felt horrible, doing race coverage interviews while sounding like Elmer Fudd. The biggest thing I was afraid of was not being able to race again,” he said.

A four-hour trip to Coastal Plains Raceway Park at Jacksonville, N.C., for a big-money race gave him confidence. He raced his pickup and won a round.

“That was a good enough for me,” Beard said. “It was rough, but I proved to myself that I could still drive.”

If Beard was shocked by his new condition, his doctor was surprised the second week by Beard’s attitude and knowledge of Bell’s palsy.

“He said a lot of people came in bawling their eyes out. I did my research online and even found a number of other racers who had Bell’s palsy before, or were going through it. I was a realist about it. You can’t do anything about it, so why stress?” Beard said.

“I kept eyedrops in my eye and wore a patch at night for several weeks, and bendy straws were my best friends. For a week, there was a sharp pain behind my right ear, a typical symptom, but it went away. I became very light sensitive, so I’d wear shades when outdoors and either race with them on or pull them off just before pulling into the burnout box,” he said. “I had to close my eyelid with one finger and rub it around to distribute the moisture before I’d do my burnout, and it’d stay clear for the run.”

The condition is fading — but Beard’s aggressive racing spirit isn’t.

“My speech came back to normal in a few weeks. By the end of April I could drink out of can, and today, the light sensitivity is rarely an issue. And my grin isn’t twisted and lopsided anymore,” he said. “My eye still gets a little tired after a long day, and drinking out of a wide-mouthed glass is still a little tricky, but I’d say I’m about 95 percent over it.”

For Beard, who’s far too busy with his graphics business and, of course, his race car, said he thinks his six-month ordeal “was more annoying than anything.” His collection of trophies this season certainly proves that he didn’t let Bell’s palsy or anything much stand in the way of his career goals.

Although Beard won the Tournament of Champions this April, it was for the 2009 Stock crown. Because he had won the Bracket Finals last fall (2009 Division 2 East Super E.T.), he became the first to win both the Bracket Finals and the Stock championship in the same year. With Nitro Jam victories at Palm Beach and Rockingham and a double Pro-Am whammy at Montgomery among his 2010 achievements, Beard has 155 career victories in 226 final rounds.

He said Seagrove, N.C., is known for pottery. Now it’s also distinguished for one drag racer resident who outlasted adversity.

“You’ve got to learn things outside your comfort zone,” Beard said.

The inaugural Mike Aiello Award recipient was John Medlen, father of Funny Car driver Eric Medlen, who was killed in a testing accident in March 2007. Despite his grief, John Medlen became a vehicle for safety changes in race-car construction. John Force Racing established The Eric Medlen Project, with John Medlen at the helm, dedicated to evaluate and enhance race car safety in all forms of racing. Medlen since has moved to Don Schumacher Racing, but Medlen said, “The Eric Medlen Project is not in a building. It’s in my heart.”

Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson was the 2008 recipient. The driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup entry (a Chevrolet Impala at the time but a Ford Mustang currently), epitomized Aiello’s spirit by showing a strong character while building a championship-caliber team. As an independent, Wilkerson challenged the multi-car teams and their seemingly endless resources to become a leader. In the process, he made countless friends and earned the respect of his colleagues. Behind the scenes, he has lobbied for additional safety measures, bigger purses, and for what he deemed to be beneficial to the sport.

Last year’s winner was NHRA Pro Stock champion Mike Edwards, who never has failed to thank God for his blessings, despite years of financing concerns, as well as frustration in the ultra-competitive class. Edwards drives his own rig to every race from his Coweta, Okla., home, evidence of his hard-working spirit. More importantly, Edwards and devoted wife Lisa have served as role models with their “Team on a Mission” / “Giving Kids Hope” program. The Edwardses host teenagers at NHRA national events, as Mike shares his love of racing and love for Jesus. In partnership with the Christian youth organization Young Life, he gives them a close look at his Pontiac GXP, explains all aspects of Pro Stock drag racing, and relates his Christian testimony to them. He and Lisa give each youngster a T-shirt and autographed card and offer each a Bible. Edwards also recruited fellow drivers Jeg Coughlin, V Gaines, Allen Johnson, Kenny Koretsky, and others to turn their round-wins into Young Life camp scholarships for children.

The Mike Aiello Award originally was a presentation of 1320 TV.

MTV2 discovers a new extreme

MTV — that chronicler of pop music culture, stylicious observer of daring fashions such as Lady Gaga’s meat dress and shoes, and Hollywood critic — has branched out to MTV2 with sizzling shows Lingerie Football League, Headbangers Ball, and jackass.

And . . . ta-DAH! Now onMTV2 will be seven-time IHRA Top Fuel champion Clay Millican, fresh from his renewed NHRA competition.

Millican will host “Burnout: The Ultimate Drag Race Challenge,” which will begins in April on MTV2. NHRA colleagues Antron Brown, one of Don Schumacher Racing’s three Top Fuel drivers, and Pro Stock champion Jason Line will serve as judges.

The program features students from the Universal Technical Institute at Phoenix constructing two drag racing cars for competition.

“We have two classes from UTI, and they have nine weeks to build two drag-racing cars,” producer Ray Iddings of High Five Entertainment said. “We’ll take the cars to Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix for a best-of-five showdown . . . and the losing car is going to get crushed.

“We’ve already started filming,” Iddings said. “The teams have met Clay, and they know the rules. They will be competing against the clock, facing different challenges along the way in order to get more time to work on their car – while they are still attending classes at UTI.

“Half the students have been to the school’s Hot Rod program, so they will know what they’re doing,” he said. “The others, obviously, haven’t, so we’ve divided them into two teams. Each team has someone who knows what’s happening.”

Millican said his duties include coaching the students and helping them speed up the process, “because they have just a short amount of time to get these cars built right. We will be challenging them so we can figure out who’s going to rise to the head of the class.

“I am excited to be a part of the show,” the charismatic Drummonds, Tenn., native said, “and I think this is going to be a huge show for drag racing. We are certainly visiting an audience on MTV2 that may not have had much exposure to it.

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