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Drag Racing's Innovators

Kent Fuller

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Fuller’s Famous Greer-Black-Prudhomme Story
By Kent Fuller

First met Stuckey when he came to town with Bob Sullivan's car. I was pretty impressed with that act. I think now that he claimed more responsibility for that car than he actually had. He claimed to be a very good body man and if he had a good chassis, he could make a neat looking car. I wanted to build my car at the time but didn't have any money for pipe, so we made a deal that he would buy tubing for two cars in exchange for my doing a frame and front end. I didn't mount the engine or rear end and he went home. I started building my car, ZPF, and got Wayne Ewing to build the body. That was right after he helped me with the Magwinder. Stuckey got back to town a few months later with a completed car and ran Half Moon Bay. Impressed everyone up North and started me in the fuel dragster business. 

I'd only built gas dragsters and roadsters to this point. Got calls from Gotelli and Masters and Richter right away, I'm now in the fuel dragster business. Owning to the fact that Stuckey had a sign on the car that said "Chassis by Fuller" and talked me up pretty good. He was a hell of a salesman. Car was sold to Cash Auto Parts to help pay hospital bills. Bay area guys had a benefit race for him. He went home to recoup for awhile. By the time he came out again, Louie Senter had the car. Stuckey planned on running the car with Louie and I didn't hear any of that story except Stuckey said, those guys down there didn't know what they were doing. By this time, ZPF has won Bakersfield and I had quite a few fuel cars running.

Stuckey was still going being my best salesman and I was planning on building him another car to be my representative. Prudhomme and I were having trouble with Zeuchel's ego and had broken up the ZPF partnership. I was going to put 2 un-blown fuel Chevy's side by side in the car and had figured out a really slick driveline where I wouldn't have to alter the looks of the car. Chet Herbert said he would sponsor the engines so I bought two sets of heads and started on the driveline. Sent the heads over to Dick Harryman to get ported. He got them all done very quickly and sold them to someone when he ran short of money. Hardly pissed me off at all. By this time, Louie had sold the car to Greer and Stuckey was going to run it for them.
Back under the heading of "loose lips sink ships," Stuckey was still out at the shop telling me all his plans. Keith and (I think) Dan Broussard came and took me to lunch, said they were leery of Stuckey and what could I tell them about him. What I said was "I thought he was my factory rep" Keith said if he was, he wasn't a good one and told me a few disparaging things Stuckey had said. Keith didn't want to do any chassis work and still thought chassis were some mysterious thing. I was looking for a place to park Prudhomme so I could get him back after I got my car done. He was back hanging around with Ivo and that was not to my advantage at the time. 

Stuckey had told me he was going to let Keith build the engine but was going to slip in his own cam, time it and not let Keith know what it was. He thought he was the only one in the country that could make the chassis work by changing the timing, in this case it was 8 degrees retarded. When I mentioned this to Keith, he got as pissed off as I had ever seen him so we made a deal to do the chassis work for nothing if he would give Prudhomme a ride. 
I was sharing a shop with Wayne Ewing when they brought the car out. I started on the chassis work and they made a deal with Wayne for the body. What was different about my car was the mid section and motor mounts. Keith wanted a standard Donovan rear end so he could use the billet axles. I cut the top rail out from the front motor mount to the rear end upright. The original way was the Donovan engine plate with the ears out the side so to pull the engine, you had to take off the clutch can, clutch flywheel, engine plate, then you could remove the motor. My way was to make an aluminum engine plate that was a body former-firewall and rear engine mount. It hung over the top frame rails and was easy to take out with four small bolts. I put a new top rail engine plate upright, rear end mounts, and motor mounts. The chassis went next door to Wayne. 
By this time, Ansen and Pink decided to buy the ZPF car and I decided to move North because of a lot of promises from Jim McClennan. Just eat a piece of pie in the sky and things will be wonderful. This is the time for the story of Stuckey tracing my flame cut patterns and going into business with Ivo happened that I've told too many times and I'm not going to do it here. I had moved North by the time Wayne got the body done. 

I drove down to help put the car together and we took it out to Pomona for the first time. The only two parts left on the car that Stuckey had anything to do with were the streamline tubing draglink and steering wheel. The draglink broke first time out because Stuckey had made it out of two short pieces of tubing welded in the middle and you will notice in the picture of the first time out the black tape on the draglink where it broke. Made him a new round tubing draglink but I could never get him to take the ugly steering wheel off as that was Prudhomme's favorite thing in drag racing. Probably still is. 
Stuckey's last comment to Black as he is driving out of town was "you have really screwed up and nobody will ever hear of this car again." And that is more than enough of this story. Make a copy and pass it on so I don't have to tell it again.

I learned gas welding in Navy Aircraft Metalsmith school, Norman, Okla.,
in 1953. We got the basics of metal forming, aircraft instructors and two
solid weeks of gas welding. Very good course. When I got out of the Navy
I went to work at Lockeed, didn't get to weld much so I bought my own
set of torches. Did quite a few odd jobs with them. Lockheed Air Service
moved to Ontario. So I did a little gardening, then stumbled in C&T one
day, asked if they needed a welder. They had been having trouble
getting people to weld crankshafts for Strokers. They used to stick arc
them with Marquette 130 rod. Very difficult rod to work with. I hadn't
done much arc welding but by the time Donald showed me the technique of
welding the cranks, he had unknowingly taught me how to arc weld.  It
was mostly a matter of coordination. As you rolled the crank toward you,
the journel first went up, then down, also came toward you about 8
inches. So it was mostly a matter of using both hands at the same time.
Like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. I learned heli arc when I
bought the machine to weld the Magwinder, but didn't use it for steel
until the FAA changed the rules for welding  airframe structures.  I
have taught a couple guys how to weld over the phone, so it must not be
too hard. One guy has his own welding shop and is a certified aircraft
welder now. FULLER

Some rodders work on the cutting edge of the car-building art. Kent Fuller designed the edge, built it, and moved on.

        The late '50s-early '60s was drag racing's golden age in the West. Affordable cars and racing programs let everyone play, often in loosely drawn short-term partnerships. And they could play just about everywhere--San Fernando, Pomona, old San Gabriel, new San Gabriel, Irwindale, Lions, Riverside, Colton, Half Moon Bay, Fremont, Bakersfield, Kingdon, Sacremento, Ridgecrest. Even the NHRA's ban on nitro had a positive effect on the sport, giving rise to energizing "outlaw" organizations like the United Drag Racers Association and spawning the classic Smokers March Meet in 1959 which elevated fuel racing to a Spring rite and put a whole new face on the sport.
        Best of all, there was still so much to learn at the time. Horsepower production was losing some of its mystery, and while the engine-builders' art outpaced the search for traction, strides were nevertheless being made as times dropped and speeds climbed. The major advancements were found in chassis design, particularly with dragsters where previously just about anything anyone wanted to try was okay. Before the appearance of the dogsled-like skidbar frame, rollover protection might be anything from muffler tubing to steel pipe welded to a Model T frame, looking for all the world like a bedstead--and providing about as much protection. Pro-built chassis like those from Scotty Fenn and The Dragmasters improved the overall safety quotient of the dragster classes while offering some performance predictability for the racer.
        One of the most innovative and influential race car builders of the golden age was Kent Fuller, credited by many as the creator of the then-modern top-fuel dragster in 1959. American Rodder had the opportunity recently to talk with Kent about his life and times as a designer and builder. Retired now and living in Santa Rosa, California, with his wife Evelyn, Kent shared thoughts and memories with us on several occasions over a three-week period.
        .       .     .

        Kent Fuller built his first dragster in 1956 in a classic pairing with his brother-in-law who had an engine. Brother-in-law also had a change of plans and bailed out of the project before the chassis was finished, although he neglected to tell Kent who finished the chassis. The car was subsequently "sold" to Don Johnson. Kent smiles as he recalls that he was never paid for the car.
        Several of Kent's other early cars are far better known today--cars for Tommy Ivo and Tony Nancy.  Kent built Ivo's first car in 1957--a single-engine Buick in a "skidbar" chassis. "Ivo wanted a Chassis Research style car but he wanted to get around paying Chassis Research for one," says Kent. Commenting on the skidbar design, he had observed that dragsters didn't simply roll over and skid--they tended to turn around and slam into things rearend first, where the skidbar frame offered little or no protection for the driver. This led Kent to create the rear profile center loop and tire-high horizontal loop style that would become the standard of dragster chassis design throughout the history of the front-motor cars.
        Kent's association with Tony Nancy began in 1958 when he made the headers for the original 22 Jr. roadster at the point Tony switched the car from flathead to Hemi power. Kent was working at C&T Automotive at the time, building motor mounts, stroked cranks, and headers. The following year, when Tony replaced the original Sparks & Bonney chassis, Kent was selected to produce the new bones--a large-tube wedge frame that was as effective as it was simple. By this time Kent was occupying a shop behind Tony's Sherman Oaks upholstery business, and it was here, too, in 1961, that he built Tony's A/Modified Roadster. This handsome drag car, with the extreme body setback, stands as a hot-rodding classic.
        At the end of 1961, Kent moved "down the boulevard" to Studio City to share space with Wayne Ewing. Ewing, a builder of Indy-car bodies, built a number of bodies for Kent's cars, but always a little reluctantly. Ewing was justifiably proud of his exquisite Indy bodies and ranked that work well above the dragster bodies in importance, displaying his disdain for these lesser cars with a final pass with a 50-grit disc on a finished body.
        Kent built his last Ivo car, the four-engine exhibition tire-burner, in 1960, before moving to Ewing's shop. Kent speaks of the car in positive terms with important qualifiers. Contrary to what the fans thought they were seeing, "It smoked only the front tires. It did what it was supposed to," says Kent. Don Prudhomme was the first person to drive the car, he adds. "Ivo was wary of it," says Kent. "He said that it was because the producers of "Margie" wouldn't allow him to drive it." "Margie" was a short-lived TV series in which Ivo was cast at the time. When it was evident that the four-motor car was okay, Tommy did indeed drive it and drove it quite well and with great success. As Kent observes, "It made the most money of about any hot rod built."
        The four-motor car pushed the Fuller-Ivo association to the breaking point. Kent, a habitual early riser, would have logged almost a full day's work by the time Ivo would show up at his shop mid afternoon, ready to work on into the evening. Other than this chronic disregard for Kent's time, there were broken agreements that drove Kent to call a halt to any further collaboration. When Kent refused entreaties to give the situation another try, Ivo threatened to "get" him, he says. Subsequently, Kent was hounded by the State Franchise Tax Board to whom it had been reported that he wasn't charging tax on parts he sold. The charges were groundless, Kent says, but it took a great deal of time and money to prove it.
        In 1962 Kent moved to northern California, then the spiritual center of top-fuel racing, first to Belmont, and then to Scotts Valley. Kent's output in the north, was prodigious, with 10 funny cars sandwiched in among fuel cars for Champion Speed Shop, Gotelli Racing, McKewen & Adams, Kenz Muffler, Masters & Richter, Chris Karamesines, Sid Waterman, Dick Balfetti, Angel & Grimm, Jet Car Bob's Clear-Spark car, Roland Leong's Hawaiian, and Ken Bumgarner's Vagabond--Gary Ormsby's first ride. There were also a half-dozen pro-stock cars built with Dick Landy, a straight up guy in Kent's book. "Dick always paid a fair price for my work," says Kent, "And he rented me a house when I moved back to southern California for just the cost of the payment."
        It was at Belmont that Kent created the Volksrod, one of his personal favorites in a life filled with automotive achievements. The idea for the car--a VW-based T-bucket hot rod--grew out of conversations with Tex Smith. The prototype remained a partially finished primered shop truck for several years until Tom Medley expressed interest in it. Tom was steward of Rod & Custom magazine at the time, and the opportunity for some valuable ink prompted Kent to finish the car in short order. The VRod was a critical success, but in spite of its great looks, fantastic ride and handling, and pavement-scorching performance (Kent's was powered with a '58 Porsche Carrera motor), it was a financial dud. Kent sold only about ____ kits before shelving the idea. He eventually sold the rights and tooling to Bill Smith at Speedway Motors where the kit attracts less than a half-dozen buyers each year. "It's a fun car," says Kent. "Everybody liked it, nobody bought my kit cars."
        The end of race-car building came when a judgment was awarded to a top-fuel racer against a frame maker involving a racing accident in which the frame played no part. Kent, who had built four rear-engine cars at this point, along with other chassis builders including Woody Gilmore, simply closed his chassis business rather than risk the liability for things over which he had no control.
        Kent returned to southern California in 1969 to honcho development and production for B&M's Sports Coach division--a noble experiment in the burgeoning RV market of the time but a dismal failure, the victim of poor timing. The vehicle was handsome and innovative, due in large part to Kent's solutions to manufacturing it; bear in mind that this is the man who's fuel cars were as good looking as they were quick. Based on a 10,000-lb GVW GM truck chassis and powered with a Chevy 350, the RV was a good performer, returning fuel mileage of 14-16 mpg! "It did everything we wanted it to do except sell," he says, with just a hint of amusement now. It was a tough time for this sort of project, plagued as it was by Federal wage and price freezes and further hampered by a truck strike that shut off delivery of new chassis. It was a rough patch for Kent as well, accustomed as he was to working alone or with no more than a few others for whom he was responsible. Now, here he was sheparding this monster of a project down a problem-strewn path with a 110-person workforce in tow whose successful output was his to answer for. When the project folded in 1971, Kent turned back to his own one-man shop in Canoga Park where he would remain until his retirement in 1991, once again picking only those jobs he wanted to do, like the roadster he built for Larry Ready. The two-year project resulted in a stunning Deuce highboy that married traditional styling with modern road performance and comfort. In terms of innovative details, the car--which won the Altered Roadster award at Oakland in 1984--reflects Kent Fuller at his best.
        .       .                                      
        A conversation such as ours with Kent Fuller would be incomplete without some thoughts about his more famous--or infamous--individual fuel cars. Of the "...280-300 cars, I'd guess" that Kent has built, perhaps none was quite as interesting--or controversial--as the Magicar. Built in 1965, the car incorporated a floating rear end with ladder-bar style control arms inside the frame. Instead of squatting like conventional fixed-axle dragsters of that era, the Magicar frame would remain level or even rise as the rearend and tires were pushed down. Three Magicars were built, one for Winkle & Trapp, one for Chris Karamesines, and the Northwind car, for Art Whipple, Jim Albrich, and Ed McCulloch.
        The Magicar has an enduring reputation as a "crowd pleaser," which is a polite way of saying that it was a real-handful of a ride that used all of its side of the track. Kent smiles about the lingering criticism and then recounts the car's performance in the capable hands of Jeep Hampshire at Fremont. The car was the Winkle & Trapp car, running with Larry Stellings' motor for the day. "I told Jeep to line it up about four inches(?) from the right line and just keep it there," says Kent. "He did, all the way down the track. He didn't have any trouble with it." Hampshire did set quick time, top speed, and won top fuel that day.
        High on the list of favorite cars is the Zeuschel-Fuller-Prudhomme fueler. The combination was very successful, but the partnership ended in 1963 when Prudhomme moved to a new alliance involving what is certainly the best-known dragster of Kent’s building career--the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car. Since the car's restoration a couple of years ago it's garnered acres of print with some of it not quite correct, says Kent, and particularly its evolution and ownership roster. Kent kept track of the car over the years, particularly when it was still a viable race car and would return to his shop for repairs and modifications. He built the car for Missourian Rod Stucky in 1959 and it remained in the Midwest for the better part of the first year. Stucky brought it out to Half Moon Bay where a "crank fire" burned it down. The car was then sold to and raced by Cash Auto Parts, and then passed to Lou Senter at Ansen Automotive. It was at this point, in 1961, that Tom Greer, Keith Black, and Don Prudhomme acquired the car for what became one of the most successful partnerships in drag racing. The G-B-P team brought the chassis back to Kent for a major reconditioning and a new Wayne Ewing body. The car's incredible record--228 wins and 4 losses--over its four years as the G-B-P fueler is legendary stuff. Near the end of the association, Kent stretched the 112-inch car to 136 inches and it was run in that form several times before it was sold to Reno Auto Wrecking who campaigned it in its final racecar days. Builder/restorer Steve Davis acquired the car in _____ and was involved in a painstaking restoration of it in G-B-P livery when collector Bruce Meyer stepped in, bought it, and contracted with Davis to finish it.
        The Stucky car caught the attention of another drag-racing Show-Me-Stater, Lou Cangelose--"The Missouri Missile"--and Kent cites this as the beginning of his fuel-car career. Other successful Fuller cars soon followed, cars for Jim McClennan (Champion Speed Shop), Ted Gotelli, Masters & Richter, Candies & Wales, and Zeuschel, Fuller & Prudhomme. There's broad agreement that Kent authored the modern front-motor top-fuel car, and few can argue that his cars were dominant in the early and mid '60s.
        .       .     .
        While Kent Fuller has had his share of rancorous drag-racing pairings and set-tos through the years, he's also managed to garner tremendous peer respect and craft some enduring friendships. In 1992 he was honored with induction into the Oakland Roadster Show hall of fame, and earlier this year was accorded the equivalent honor by the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. But it's in the legacy of his birth and the love of a good woman that much of the inevitability of his success lies. Evelyn, his wife of 40(?) years speaks of her husband with unselfconscious pride. One senses that this is a long and comfortable position and not some happy face put on for the journalist's benefit. She's been there for him all along.
        Kent is also beholden to good genes. His father, Lloyd Prescott Fuller, was a major mover and shaker in southern California in the '30s, '40, and '50s, a man with enough clout to have the name of a town changed but not so much ego that it would be to his name. Among other things, the senior Fuller, a major grower and processor of oranges and walnuts in the San Fernando Valley when agriculture was the chief business of the area, was also president of Canoga Sunkist Semi-Tropic Fruit Exchange. The handsome, modern citrus packing house he built in the west end of the Valley in the '30s stands today surrounded by structures of several subsequent decades of development that look shabby by comparison.
        Kent's mother, Jean Wood Fuller, was an achiever in her own right--and then some, from local to national politics. In the '50s, Mrs. Fuller was the National Women's Director of Civil Defense during the Eisenhower administration.
        That Kent was destined to do special things was almost assured, given his parentage. But there was a time when his direction was in question; he was a poor student, he says, and years would pass before it was learned that he suffered from dyslexia--a relatively common and easily treatable learning disorder that, as we know today, was little understood and hardly ever diagnosed when Kent was a youngster. The what-if question is inevitable: Had dyslexia been better understood, what would drag racing have been like in the '60s? It would probably have evolved much as it did but it may have taken longer. One thing's almost certain and that is that the cars may have looked considerably different, may have been devoid of the elegance of Kent Fuller's cars. One has only to look at the current style of NHRA top-fuel and alcohol dragsters to see that style and grace are not as essential to going quick and fast as is chemical horsepower. Kent's own take on his situation is the more interesting one. "If they'd known what was wrong (with me) I probably would have had a very different life."
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