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Thursday, 13 May 2021

JESSICA BEAN: USAC’S WINNINGEST FEMALE ON HER ROAD TO SUCCESS

USAC's winningest female driver, 21-time winner Jessica Bean (Farmland, Ind.) USAC's winningest female driver, 21-time winner Jessica Bean (Farmland, Ind.) David Sink Photo

JESSICA BEAN: USAC’S WINNINGEST FEMALE ON HER ROAD TO SUCCESS

By: Richie Murray – USAC Media

Speedway, Indiana (May 13, 2021)………March 19, 2021 was a special date in USAC’s 66-year history.  Jessica Bean is the reason why.

Amid Women’s History Month in March, Bean notched her 20th career USAC sanctioned feature win, a mark previously never reached in the history of the club, accomplishing the feat during a USAC Radical Focus/Eastern Midget event at Havasu 95 Speedway in Lake Havasu, Ariz.

To drive the point home, the very next night, it was the same series, same track and the same result for Bean as she followed through with a weekend sweep, and her record-extending 21st career USAC win.

That’s what the Farmland, Ind. native does frequently – win – and no female driver has done that more often than Bean, who has captured the USAC Eastern SpeeD2 Midget title in four consecutive seasons between 2017-2020.

Bean originally tied Toni Breidinger’s USAC win record of 19 in the final event of the 2020 Radical Focus season in Lake Havasu.  Not one to do extensive record-book watching, Bean admitted she wasn’t aware she was on the brink of history.

“When I tied the record, I didn’t even know I was that close,” Bean said.  “I thought there were a lot more wins to go to catch Toni.  That has always been the goal, to get those wins and try to be the winningest female.  I’m lucky enough to have championships, but it’s cool to have that title.”

Taking the record in March was just the icing on the cake after the four-straight titles.  It’s a far cry from her pre-teen days and her initial involvement in racing, which funny enough, didn’t involve much racing at first, or for herself for that matter.

“It was kind of random how our family got started in racing,” Bean admitted.  “My dad (Tom) did a little racing in the 1970s, but I never really heard about his racing at all until we were watching a race at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway, and he turned to my brother and asked if he wanted to start racing.  The next thing you know, there’s a quarter midget in our garage.”

After a year of spectating and watching her brother, Kyle, get his chance behind the wheel, the itch to get in the driver’s seat herself proved too strong for young Jessica, and soon, she was a spectator no more.

“My younger brother started racing before me and I did not enjoy standing on the sidelines watching,” Bean said.  “He started racing quarter midgets before I did, and I just got bored sitting on the sidelines and thought I would give it a try.  Of the two of us, I’m the only one who kept on racing.”

It didn’t take long for the then 12-year-old Jessica to find success – success that would eventually land her enshrinement into the Central Indiana Quarter Midget Hall of Fame in 2010.

“I actually won my first race out in quarter midgets,” Bean revealed.  “We did a lot of club racing where I won six championships between the Kokomo Quarter Midget Club and Mini-Indy.  I ran for six years and won 60-some races in that time.”

After racking up win after win, championships and track records, Bean came to a crossroads many drivers face when they “age out” of quarter midget racing.  New interests, the increase in cost of moving up the ladder in racing, and attending Trine University to study mathematics and business were all part of the equation.  However, Jessica’s desire to stay involved in racing, somehow, someway, never wavered.

“I’ve definitely always wanted to do something in racing,” Bean said.  “That’s something I felt even after quarter midgets.  I kind of took a year off to help a friend of ours, Grant Galloway, and I ended up helping them at the racetrack.  My dad and I went to the track with them and helped them with their Kenyon Midgets at the time, so I ended up helping here and there.  Eventually, it led to me finding my own midget ride.”

The progression to midget racing was inevitable for Jessica.  After all, her racing heroes were the likes of Sarah Fisher, Dave Darland and Jerry Coons Jr.  Darland and Coons are both career USAC Triple Crown champions in their own right and multi-time USAC National Midget champions.

Fisher quickly made her mark midget racing, setting a one-lap track record with USAC at Winchester and winning in NAMARS competition on the high banks and at other paved tracks throughout the Midwest en route to a lengthy career in IndyCar as a driver and team owner.

“I’ve always been a USAC person, and I’ve always liked the open wheel stuff,” Bean stated.

Her first foray into midgets came toward the end of the 2009 USAC Midwest Ford Focus season, gaining five races worth of experience before making a full season run in 2010 on the dirt and pavement, finishing 4th in the dirt points, and 5th overall.  Amid the 2010 campaign, she received an opportunity that changed the course of her career, from a pair of legendary siblings.

The Kenyon brothers, Mel (as driver), and Don (as crew chief), practically own the record books in terms of USAC Midget success.  Mel’s 111 wins as a driver with the National series remains, most likely, the most unbreakable record in USAC history.  To further illustrate the duo’s dominance, Mel and Don’s combined 87 series wins as a driver/team combo are 53 more than their next closest competition.

The Kenyons, as they have been to so many in the sport, have been hugely instrumental to Jessica’s career.  Jessica quickly came to realize the mountainous standing the two USAC Hall of Fame inductees have in the sport.   The Kenyon name is giant among those who have followed them on the track throughout their career, but to Jessica, they were giants to her in life and in her racing development.

The year 2011 was a years of firsts for Jessica: first Kenyon Midget win (at Anderson, Ind. Speedway), first Rookie of the Year award and a first series championship with USSA.

“After finally getting a midget ride, it was the next year that Don and Mel called with me with an opportunity to drive one of their cars,” Bean recalled.  “That helped shoot off my racing career in the midgets.  During my rookie year, I was able to win the Kenyon Midget championship with them.  After that, I ended up racing with them for three or four years.  It was a big deal to be able to work with them and I’m very blessed and thankful to have been able to work with them and be able to call them friends, and family.”

In September 2012, Jessica’s career took an unplanned excursion.  A nasty flip at Gas City during a USAC Midwest Ford Focus Midget feature resulted in a stay at the hospital, a bit of short-term memory loss, and, ultimately, a new direction in her career.

She made the decision to stick strictly with the pavement, and similar to her meeting with the Kenyons a few years earlier, it was another chance occasion that led her on a new racing venture in the Carolinas eight hours and a world away from her eastern Indiana roots.

“When I was racing midgets in the Midwest for my dad, and also helping with USAC’s Quarter Midget division, I met Butch Lamb with Radical Race Gear and was able to start a relationship with him,” Bean explained.  “Because of that relationship, I ended up moving to North Carolina and working with Radical and, eventually, got to be in one of his cars.”

The Radical cars are stout with the USAC Eastern Midgets, having won 71 points-paying feature events with the series since 2011 while winning the past six championships, and seven of the last eight, with Bean and Chris Lamb as the pilots.

Jessica’s rise up the Eastern Midget standings and win list has been meteoric.  An 8th place finish in the 2014 standings was just the beginning before she broke out with her first career series win at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Wake County Speedway in June of 2015.  That season resulted in three feature wins and a solid second place finish in the standings behind Chris Lamb.

Since that point, over the past half-decade, Bean has maintained a consistent presence in victory lane and a constant presence near the top of the standings.  Two more scores in 2016 resulted in a third-place finish in the year-end points.

Bean truly blossomed with the Eastern Midgets in 2017, winning thrice in the early part of the season before taking the point lead in mid-May and never relinquishing it the remainder of the way.  Two more wins resulted in back-to-back titles in 2018, and three more triumphs in 2019 catapulted her to the top of the standings at the season’s conclusion once again.

The 2020 season proved to be her best yet as Jessica posted a career-best four single season victories en route to her fourth consecutive series title, joining just a select few to win at least four successive USAC driving championships: Damion Gardner (CRA Sprint 2013-19), Ronnie Gardner (Western States Midget 2013-17), Mike Spencer (CRA Sprint 2008-12), Michael Lang (Speedrome Midget 1994-97), Darren Hagen (National Pavement Midget 2010-13), Butch Hartman (Stock Car 1971-74) and R.J. Johnson (Southwest Sprint 2013-17).

Bean, the recipient of the USAC’s Kara Hendrick Spirit Award, in conjunction with Lyn St. James' Women in the Winner's Circle Foundation, is fully cognizant of the fact that she’s the only woman on that prestigious list.

The role of being not only the leading driver in the series, but also one in which young, aspiring female drivers look up to as well, is a role she’s embraced despite being a self-described introvert.  Another way she’s reached out to give back to the next generation of racers is through her close work with USAC’s .25 Midget division.

“I always want to encourage female racers, and be a mentor to the younger kids, and help them when they come into the series as much as I can,” Bean said.  “What’s funny is a lot of them don’t even realize I race.  When parents see the articles USAC posts, they don’t put two and two together that that’s me.  I actually met a parent the other day in our race shop talking to me and said, ‘Oh, we see that car all the time.  How do you know Jessica?’  I’m like, ‘umm…I’m Jessica.’”

“Working with the quarter midget kids is awesome,” Bean continued.  “It’s cool to see that some of my success is something they look up to, and that they want to go the route of midget racing.

Never stopping, never resting on her laurels, Jessica desires a chance to get back into a dirt midget as well as an opportunity to jump into a Silver Crown car for the first time.

On weekdays, Jessica works for Radical Race Gear and does all the design work for the business’ race suits, crew shirts, tents and any other miscellaneous items.  On weekends, Jessica continues to make history on the track and serves as a mentor to the next crop of young racers to come along. 

Seeing racing from several aspects – as a champion driver and as an ambassador for racing’s youth – Jessica has melded a perspective that she hopes kids coming up through the racing ranks can take to heart.

“For me, the wins and championships solidify all the hard work that I put into learning about these cars, working on these cars, and learning from these other races,” Bean said.  “A lot of people don’t see the hard work that we put in at the shop and I want the younger generation to know that their hard work will pay off.”