Linda Beard spent most of her 30-year professional life teaching third- and fourth-grade students – eventually becoming an elementary school librarian and even an assistant principal in her Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, hometown.
Race fans, however, know her as a team owner in the premier NASCAR Cup Series – the small, family-owned Beard Motorsports team that most recently, and quite dramatically, made the field for the 2022 Daytona 500 with driver Noah Gragson.
It’s quite the career conglomeration, but Beard would tell you one skillset has helped the other – in ways she would never have anticipated.
“I will tell you this, [teaching] helped me to be able to speak publicly,” Beard said. “Going to the Daytona media center after Noah made the 500 to speak to the reporters – and they wanted me up in front – I’m thinking, ‘OK, I guess I can do this.’
“How many times have I been in front of 35 third-graders or having every class in in the school when I taught library? So I thought, ‘I can do this.’
“I just kind of get my stories going. I believe everybody has a story. And we have a story. We aren’t any more special than anybody else there, we just are there because we really want to be there. It’s a little different for us maybe compared to the charter teams. But we just really like what we’re doing and I think we do pretty darn good.”
That would be hard to argue against.
Beard’s team was unquestionably the Cinderella story of this year’s Daytona 500 – with the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender Gragson earning a spot on the grid for the sport’s biggest event by being the top qualifier among teams without a chartered starting position. The qualifying showing was so good, Gragson didn’t even have to “race his way in” into the Daytona 500 in the Blue Green Vacation 150 Duel, a scenario that ended the team’s 500 bid a year ago.
That afforded the team a big exhale – a chance to fully prepare for the race – since it does not have a series charter and automatic race entry. And it gave Gragson a high-profile opportunity to make his debut in the most celebrated event in his sport.
It was a big moment for the 23-year-old Gragson as he moves up the career ladder. And it was an emotional time for Beard and her family-owned team, making their first Daytona 500 start since the family patriarch, her husband Mark, passed away in January 2021. The team did not qualify for the Daytona 500 in 2021, the month after Beard’s passing, so this year’s big achievement was a watershed moment; a huge tribute to Beard and confirmation that this tight-knit family team could carry on with Linda’s leadership.
“We just kind of decided this was something that we didn’t have to do, but we wanted to do it,” Beard said. “It was something we just felt inside, and I did especially, that I wanted to continue.
“My husband had given us this love of going racing and doing what we did for so many years of our lives and it kind of sticks with you. So, you just kind of like it and then it becomes more. You love it. And it’s hard to give it up.
“I think the main part was just carrying on what my husband Mark had started, just to see what we could do with it,” Beard continued. “When he was in charge, I didn’t worry about it because I knew he could make the decisions. Then all of sudden now, I’m making some of those decisions. So that makes it a little bit harder, but it makes it more rewarding.
“This 500 was pretty special. To make the 500 again. And to do it with Noah. That meant a lot to us.”
The team’s 2021 attempt was a significant moment in the sport as well. Beard was the only woman team owner in NASCAR’s premier series at the time. In February 2022, Jessica McLeod was designated CEO and co-owner of BJ McLeod Motorsports.
Of course, it was never Beard’s vision to be in this position – racing was a partnership venture with her husband of 43 years. Her first exposure to the racing came on dates with him before they got married. But she soon fell in love with the sport as well.
“Would I have ever imagined I’d be doing this? No,” she said. “When Mark started doing this I looked at myself down on the grid with all those people and thought, ‘is this really happening?’ It didn’t bother him at all. He was confident about the whole thing. I’m just like, in awe and so thrilled to be there. And that’s what happens every time I go on the grid and I do this. I’m just very thankful to be there and have that experience.”
Gragson shared that sentiment. Hand-picked by the Beard Motorsports’ former driver and popular veteran Brendan Gaughan to take over the driver’s seat of the No. 62 Beard Oil Motorsports Chevrolet, the 23-year old Gragson couldn’t be more appreciative of the opportunity he got to drive. He ran among the top 15 after starting 39th this February but was involved in a late-race, multi-car accident.
“After what happened in 2021 with the passing of Mr. Beard and not making the race, it was really challenging for that family,” said Gragson, who currently leads the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship standings.
“They made a big financial commitment to run the Next Gen car with only one employee. So it was really, really special to be able to race up against teams that had 400 or 600 employees, teams like that.
“I think they were really excited. You could tell the emotion and excitement. My focus was to execute and do the best job possible for them with the opportunity they gave me. I hope I made them proud. And I hope for the opportunity again.”
That’s certainly the plan for Gragson, who follows an impressive on-track record set by Gaughan, a fellow Las Vegas native, who competed in four Daytona 500s for the team and has the best Beard Motorsports finish of seventh place there in 2020.
“I love the people that buck trends,” Gaughan said. “I come from Las Vegas and I did not come the traditional way to NASCAR. I think I spent most of my career trying to buck trends and the Beard Motorsports team is that way. And the fact you have an extremely strong-willed woman at the head of this thing, who became the head of it in a very unfortunate situation, the fact she was able to take that, run with it and continue to focus, continue to keep everybody working in the same direction and she is going to do it her way. I love her for that.
“I think it is amazing and I think NASCAR should be applauding how this team even competes.”
The only full-time employee at Beard Motorsports is crew chief Darren Shaw, who Beard is quick to praise: “He’s just such an important part of this team, he does so much for us.”
And his hard work at the team’s Charlotte shop means Gragson will have another chance to race the sentimental favorite team forward – April 24 at the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
There is no lack of optimism and confidence. This team is motivated by Mark Beard’s dreams and sustained by Linda Beard’s can-do spirit – a shining example of perseverance on many levels.
“I think it definitely can be [an example],” Beard acknowledged of her place in the sport.
“And if that motivates someone else, I’m really happy about that. If they want to look at me and say, ‘maybe I could do that too.’ That would be a great thing. But for me to put myself out there above anybody else, that’s just not me. I don’t do that.
“I’m just here because I love to be here. I want to be here. And we have this passion to do it.”