Arnie Beswick - All But His Life

By Jim Luikens

On August 3 of last year Arnie Beswick experienced a catastrophic fire during a match race in Wentzville, Missouri. In an exclusive interview with this reporter for dragracecentral.com Arnie related for the first time, the events of that day and the days that followed. This is the story of Arnie Beswick’s fire, recovery and plans for the future.

Arnie had experienced a nitrous solenoid failure on the run immediately prior to the fateful run. Since none of his normal pit crew was able to travel with him to that event he was attempting to replace the failed solenoid himself. The only help he had at the track was the person who sells his souvenir t-shirts and photos.

While Arnie was during his between-rounds maintenance and repairs quite a crowd of people had formed and were waiting patiently for autographs. His helper reported to Arnie that he really needed to sign a few autographs and get the line caught up. In the crowd Arnie recognized a fellow that he had talked with at previous events.

Overhearing the conversation, this gentleman offered to finish the solenoid replacement so that Arnie could spend some time with his fans. Arnie accepted the offer of help and shortly after that the track promoter approached. He asked if Arnie could move up his next run since the other headliners at the event weren’t ready to run their next round yet.

In his haste to comply Arnie never thought to double-check the volunteer’s work. To make a long story short, a nitrous supply hose was left loose and raw nitrous was sprayed outside the intake manifold during the run. When Arnie lifted off the gas at the end of the run there was an engine backfire. A loud explosion accompanied the backfire and then fire appeared for a few seconds before appearing to go out.

Since Arnie had experienced backfires, and even flash fires, before he was not overly concerned. After a few seconds of calm he heard a tremendous roar and heat and fire quickly entered the car after melting the firewall. This was when he realized for the first time that this was a major event. In spite of that realization, his first thought was to try and get off the track and onto the return road rather than just stopping on the track.

In retrospect he would have been much better off to try and get out of the car immediately instead of coasting further from his rescuers. In the shut-off area he was now fighting to get out of the car but was unable to release his seat belt. Meanwhile his dashboard and windshield had melted from the intense heat.

Just as help arrived a new explosion was set off when the nitrous pressure relief valve failed and fresh nitrous vented under the car and onto the hot exhaust headers. Not knowing if any more explosions were imminent, his rescuers were apprehensive about approaching the vehicle. Eventually however, one got the door open and Arnie was able to burst through his burned seat belts and propel himself out of the vehicle.

Burned very badly, he was taken by helicopter to St. John’s Medical Center in St. Louis. He had been burned on both hands, his face and both legs. The worst injuries were to his right arm where he was burned from the hand to the elbow. He was also burned on both legs from his toes to his knees. Initially the doctors kept him in a coma for five weeks to allow time for healing as well as skin grafts.

When Arnie awakened from his coma the pain was indescribable and he remained bed-ridden for three more weeks. When he tried to walk for the first time, eight weeks after the original incident, he experienced tremendous pain. However, today he is pleased to say that he can walk as well as anybody.

Despite being more than six hours from home Arnie’s family members kept a bedside vigil during his convalescence in St. Louis. As he recovered one of his first thoughts was to be transferred to a hospital closer to his home to make it easier on his loved ones. Eventually space was located for him at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, which is much closer to his Morrison, Illinois home. To date he has received many skin grafts and more are scheduled for April as his recovery permits.

A bright spot in this terrible situation was the outpouring of support and concern that Arnie received from his friends and fans. While he was in St. John’s he received anywhere from 150 to 175 e-mails each day as well as an overwhelming quantity of get well cards. In fact, St. John’s says that they had never before received the volume of correspondence that Arnie received for any patient.

While concern could have been expected from fellow Pro Stock and Pro Mod teams and drivers, a surprising amount of response came from the NASCAR community. Arnie heard from team members on most every NASCAR team that had raced Pontiacs in the past, including Bill Davis, Joe Gibbs and Penske South. He also received personal cards from Jack Roush and Richard Petty among others.

One of Arnie’s greatest concerns currently is how to thank his fans and friends for their support. He realizes that it would be impossible to personally respond to everything that he has received and yet he would like to because of the lift that they provided him during his time of greatest need. Every card or message was personally read to him during his hospital days, and while he admits he might not remember the exact words, he does remember the boost that he received from the sheer volume of good wishes.

If you sent Arnie a get-well message please accept his sincere gratitude for your thoughtfulness. Arnie is not currently able to receive e-mail but he can receive postal mail. If you would like to send him a card or note here is his mailing address:

Arnie Beswick
10643 Court Road
Morrison, Illinois 61270-9386

Arnie has more healing and recovery time ahead but he has set this year’s Tri-Power Sunday event at Norwalk Raceway Park in early August for his “unofficial“ return to the cockpit.

Stirling Moss is considered the greatest Formula 1 driver never to win the world driving championship. The former Mercedes-Benz factory driver entitled his biography, All But My Life. The implication was that he gave everything, but his life itself, to racing. In America the same can be said of Arnie Beswick.