VOLUME XIX,  NUMBER 3 - March  2017

Jerry Ruth: The King Speaks...

Interview conducted by Brian Losness

Photos by Brian Losness and Tim Marshall

Many of the younger drag racing fans probably have no idea who Jerry “The King” Ruth is. The self-proclaimed “king of the Northwest” was one of the Northwest United States’ best ever Top Fuel and Fuel Coupe racers. He was an eight-time (1965-1966 and 1968-1973) NHRA Division 6 Top Fuel champion and a two-time NHRA Division 6 Funny Car champ. In 1972, Ruth took part in five Division 6 races and won both Top Fuel and Funny Car at the first four. He runner-upped at the 1972 Indy event after running the then lowest Top Fuel ET ever at 6.06. He won the 1973 NHRA Top Fuel World Championship and the 1968 PDA Meet at Lions. He also was a member of the Cragar 5-Second Club running a 5.95 at the 1974 AHRA Winternationals. He is one of those rare fuel drivers to win Top Fuel national events in NHRA, IHRA, and AHRA competition.


He has always been outspoken and remains a controversial figure in the sport. Drag Racing Online Nostalgia Editor Brian Losness met up with Ruth when he was the Grand Marshal for an event at Renegade Raceway in Yakima, Washington, and conducted this interview.


You have stated that the design of the current Top Fuel car was yours and you took it to Swindell. This design still is relevant to this day in modern top fuel cars. Take us back to your motivation for that design.


Jerry Ruth: Well, I got hurt at Indianapolis back in 1979 ’cause the tire shake knocked me out and I ended up with a broken arm from that crash. It just got to the point where it (NHRA Top Fuel cars) needed to be fixed; we needed a design that made the car easier to drive, more comfortable and safer. In the U.S. Nationals crash I broke my right arm -- so bad it was just hanging by the skin, and it ripped my right index finger off, but they (doctors) were able to reattach it, but they got it on sideways. I knew the car needed a redesign so while waiting for my arm to heal so that I could start driving, I came up with the design that I sketched on a cardboard box. I took the box over to Swindell and told him to build me a car that looked like the drawing on the box.


Who were some current and former crew chiefs that started their careers with you?


JR: Well, Lee Beard was the most notable. I brought along Mike Kloeber, Herm Peterson, Jerry Verheul, and I had five or six guys who would still be in it if they hadn’t died.


  It is hard to imagine you and your intensity and Lee Beard in the same trailer. Tell us more about that.


JR: I have passion for what I do, and I love racing. It is my first real love, in some ways it’s my only love. Someone asked Beard one time, what did Jerry teach you that was so valuable and so successful. And Lee said, Ruth taught me attention to detail, and I didn’t realize how important that was.


What is your take on the state of drag racing today? What are your thoughts?


JR: My thoughts are that Wally (Parks) as great as he was, and he was great, he made the sport what it is, and made it a viable sport. However, it needs to turn from an amateur sport to a professional sport. Wally built it for average guys doing it. When I started you could take three or four guys, build a top fuel car and run it. That is not possible anymore. It’s all corporate money. It is just way too expensive for any one individual to do. NHRA Drag Racing needs to turn into a professional level sport, which is done mostly by marketing. It’s a good program, it doesn’t need a lot of changes, cause the cars are real fast and relatively safe, they don’t kill a whole bunch of drivers. It’s dangerous, but for the most part not life ending for everybody for sure.


How do you feel about the way current NHRA president Peter Clifford and his team are running the NHRA?


JR: NHRA has changed presidents lately and Peter Clifford got the job, and he has worked on marketing. Take what he did for the Pro Stockers as an example. Clifford mandated the change in the wheelie bar length. I guess that was to make them wheel stand. I don’t agree. If they (Pro Stock cars) are slower that is not good. He took the scoops off the hood, he made teams turn the cars around in their pits so the fans could see them working on the engines. That’s marketing, that worked.


This sport has a broad range of drivers. Diversity is the buzz word being throw about. NASCAR hangs their hat on Danica Patrick. So then going back to your marketing premise, do we need to do more with Courtney and Brittany, Leah, Antron, Cruz, the Arana’s?


JR: I’m not into that at all. Hell, when I raced Shirley all the time, she is a friend of mine. She is a good driver, in any respect man, woman or child, she is a good driver. And that is all that matters. We need to get away from drawing any lines. Because she is a lady that is somewhat exceptional. I think NHRA got carried away “The World of the Woman”. Come on! Shirley was a good driver, but without a crew of guys around her she is nothing.


Do you think NHRA is missing the boat by not cultivating younger racers that race nostalgia nitro cars? Team owners apparently are looking for someone who can write a check instead of looking for those kids who can really drive and have the desire.


JR: Oh yeah, starting with Jr. Dragsters and moving up. I think they have done that with people like Erica and Shawn (Langdon) there are a whole shit load of guys who did that.


What classes do you think now are driving the NHRA?


JR: The program that draws the fans are the professional cars. When the fuelers leave, the people leave the stands. I’ve seen that a lot. And the fans don’t stay until the fuel cars come back again. Nitro cars draw the fans.


Nostalgia racing in both the Pro and Sportsman classes seems to be gaining popularity with racers and fans. What’s your take on Nostalgia and would you consider going nostalgia nitro racing?


JR: Stop right there, nostalgia by the very word means it is over. Nostalgia means old and it is over. It will go for a while, because they had 38 cars at Bakersfield for a sixteen-car show. So right now it is tremendously popular. But remember those are cars that resembled cars that ran in the sixties and seventies, and a lot of those guys are dead or dying, or just damn old, one or the other. I’m one of those guys. I had one of those cars; I don’t want one again. I was asked and I said NO! Been there done that. I’m only interested in doing better. I like the big show guys, those guys haul ass. How can you not like the big show stuff? Lots of people say they are too fast to watch. Well, if you are looking for excitement let’s make them run right at each other. NOW THAT WOULD BE EXCITING!


So you feel nostalgia racing is just a passing fad?


JR: I think it is a brief flurry, yeah, for sure. For me nostalgia dragster, front motored dragsters are the most popular ones. But their numbers are dwindling ’cause it is getting too expensive to do it, and they (NHRA) don’t pay them anything. The NHRA likes it ’cause they get this terrific show for nothing. The NHRA don’t pay them shit. It won’t last at all.


Speaking of nostalgia, what is your opinion, 1,000-foot or 1320-foot track length


JR: One thing that people don’t understand is that the speed is set inside the quarter mile, or thousand foot, which ever. Remember they turn on the speed clock at sixty feet before the finish line, and shut it off at the finish line. Same at the eighth mile. We have already had a car 299 at the eighth. So the speed is determined by the average time it takes to go through that sixty feet. So they are still accelerating past the speed zone. They have already had a funny car at 335 in a thousand foot. The 1320 is over, all the drag strips are too short except for a handful.


Are we now into bullshitting the people about what is going on here? Just tell them what is going on here. They will understand, just let them know what is happening. The tires will not stand that much pressure and that kind of speed, and the continued use of it. On a run, another 320 feet of track is a football field and the end zones. How would you like to be in your fuel dragster bouncing in the shutdown area at 250 miles per hour with the brakes on trying to stop it and then someone removes a football field of track from in front of you? You would shit. Can’t do that. It will always be a thousand feet from now on. It could be eight hundred feet or eighth mile, but probably not.

Do you have the desire to go NHRA nitro racing again?


JR: Nope, been there done that. I’m 78 years old. I just want to enjoy myself. I enjoy the people at the races, I like the controversies. When they got the cars to slow down in 2014 they got Beard to work on it. Beard came right to me and he said you are my go-to guy. He knows I know what I am doing. I named the Project 1320 in ‘15. By the time we got there it couldn’t be done. The cars are too fast. You start slowing them down, it isn’t going to work very well. Now the cars are knocking on 325-330. They can do that and still be fairly safe.


Let’s just market the sport better and make the personalities involved more popular. Wally’s plan was not to make one driver the focal point of the sport. It’s common for quarter-mile racers to retire and no one knows it. Even Shirley didn’t get a lot of fanfare when she retired, or Prudhomme either. They were never hailed like, say, Richard Petty, and Prudhomme’s career was on parallel with Petty’s, as was Garlits. But they kinda slipped off ’cause to the NHRA if they leave they make a big dent in your pocketbook, and the bigger the fanfare of them leaving the bigger the dent will be in NHRA’ s pocketbook. And they don’t want that. But that could be handled differently too. The NHRA might be learning.


You seem to feel like you have your finger on the pulse of the sport, you know what is going on. I presume you speak with Beard along with a host of others. Who do you see as the future of the sport?


JR: Of fuel car racing? Oh Jesus, I hope Schumacher continues. Because he loves it and he can afford to do it. So can Kalitta. But it all comes down to marketing it better. I think Peter Clifford is doing that. I saw Leah Pruett (Pritchett) the other day was doing a bunch of stuff, with displays and stuff on some main street. The kind of stuff NASCAR would do. Bigger banquets and stuff. They need to make all the drivers more like heroes. Tony Schumacher is a natural. He says the right stuff, and even looks like a sergeant; he has had a tremendous career. He had the right kind of publicity. And the girls… Leah is damn good at that. Wilkerson is a real down home kind of guy who would be a great spokesperson.


But the damn NHRA won’t spend much on marketing. When the show comes to town the only place you see anything about it is on Velocity or something like that. I know it is expensive, but there has to be ways of doing it better. Take some money from the salaries of the higher ups and buy some advertising with it. So the damn sport will still be there. Man, I saw where Tom Compton made 960,000 dollars a year or something like that. Is that really necessary? He hardly went to the damn races. He maybe went to one out of three, if that, glad-handing a few people. I do not think he loved the sport, he was just making a living at it. A damn good one, but I feel that is way out of line.


Back in the day drivers had nicknames that emulated their personalities. Jerry “The King” Ruth, Ed “The Ace” McCullough, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, etc. Getting back to your marketing point, and I am not asking to go to WWE or Monster Truck racing, but is the NHRA missing the boat by not working with drivers’ personalities and using nicknames that the fans could connect with?


JR: Oh hell yes! Absolutely they are. They have always tried to in some extent squelch the personalities, but seem to be getting better. Let these guys be. I saw Prudhomme at this high-dollar car show and he was up there speaking and he was great. I feel the NHRA has a great product. You see when they interview a new person who has never seen the sport before live, how impressed they are with the sport. The competition seems to be fairly even. Is it inexpensive? No, it isn’t.


I like how they do the live stuff, especially for just a few rounds, but I do not think they can do a whole race, ’cause by nature we blow stuff up, and when we do that, we go back and fix it. That’s how we got where we are. So you want to eliminate that, but I don’t think you can. Plus the guys won’t let you, they will keep working at it.


Back when you were still racing Division races were big deals, now most Division races get almost no spectators and the only nitro cars are the A Fuel Dragsters. What is your opinion of Division racing today?


JR: There are six of those races a year in each of the seven divisions of NHRA. That’s OK because that was Wally’s original direction. Right now the Divisional events are the kiss of death; there is nobody there except for relatives and they leave when their son or grandson loses. If NHRA would have let the injected fuelers run, let’s just think about this for a second. They ran right about six-oh when they first came out. Fuel injectors with hemispherical engine, no superchargers, you know, with a 2.90 gear. Ran about 270 miles per hour. The blown alcohol guys couldn’t run with them, ’cause the alcohol guys were in the 6.20 at 228, and it was a drubbing. So NHRA started to load weight on the cars (injected nitro) in an attempt to get them slowed down. And when that didn’t work they started taking fuel away from them. Now they have it to where there is parity in the class. It’s pretty evenly balanced right now. I think the injected cars have won the most championships in the past five or six years.


But the deal is they had nitro cars at the races! They would have nitro cars and they wouldn’t break at all ’cause they all run blown fuel car parts in them, and they make a couple thousand horses and a fueler makes ten. So the parts are there to run those cars and be reliable. Did they miss that opening? Yeah, I think so. Why did they do that? [long pause] I don’t know. The NHRA seems to want to make the racer pay for everything.


From personal experience, I have seen two Divisional event locations that seem to do well with spectators and that is Bandimere and Firebird in Idaho.


JR: Yes, that is right. You know why? The New boys [the New family at Firebird] do a hell of a job. You know Scott and those guys. That was their dad’s place and they took it over, and they WORK at it, so they do a lot of marketing. That place supports three or four families while most tracks lose money for one family. Those boys work hard. Bandimere is the same way. That family works hard. They have water running underneath the track to keep it cooler! You think they care about the racers, damn right they do. They are on it.


Then there is Bruton Smith, and that four wide, it is junk. Nobody likes it, racers don’t like it, I DON’T LIKE IT. But Bruton likes it, so let him watch it by himself. It looks like a traffic jam. Trying to watch four cars and two guys are racing and then one of the other ones is blowing the body off of something. The drivers hate it, trust me. If you ask the drivers, would you like to keep doing this or wouldn’t ya? They’re all so chicken shit that they are afraid to say no. They are all going “Well, if Bruton likes it then I like it.”  When they first went there all the drivers were dead against it, remember that? Then Bruton says “I’ll take my tracks and go home.” Well shit, the next day the drivers were like, “It isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”


It’s all bullshit. I’m an educated spectator now, and it is shitty, it’s junk. Guys who lose actually win and it is confusing as hell. A while back they had dragsters racing funny cars, hell it was like bracket racing fuel cars. So if you run too fast and you’re out? That bracket racing is bad enough without doing that shit.


A lot of drag racing folks say bracket racing is the backbone of the sport. Where a lot of people get their start in the sport.


JR: I know it is, that is very true. I see these kids in Junior Dragsters and see where they are now. Lots of second and third generation racers are making their way into the sport like Shawn Langdon and Leah Pritchett. So I can’t argue with that. I hate to watch those bracket cars leave the starting line, with their stutter starts and shit like that, but if it keeps people drag racing then I will deal with it. I feel that NHRA is trying to keep from driving everybody out of the sport. From being too expensive to being too competitive. Not much into dial-in racing, I like heads up racing ’cause, hell, I’m old fashioned.


You have mentioned Leah Pritchett quite a few times. Why?


JR: She is very marketable.


Leah also knows which end of a wrench to hold. She can do the clutch, she can work on the motor, she isn’t afraid to get dirty.


JR: You’re right, she reminds me of Kim LaHaie (Richards). Kim was kinda a tomboy. I think she carried a knife on her, but she was smart and was very good doing the clutch on cars. But I don’t think gender is all that important. I think that NHRA over-did the woman deal “THE YEAR OF THE WOMAN”. Are those ladies good? Yeah, they’re good. Do they deserve the attention they are getting? Yeah, sure. But let’s not forget there are a lot of guys out there as well. Are women drivers better than men? NO. They are about the same.


Is there another driver you like?


JR: Antron Brown is the best pure driver on the tour right now. Leah is right behind Antron. But Antron is the complete package, as far as driving and marketing, and overall. He is just a wonderful person.


The NHRA used to have nitro pro classes as part of their Divisional meets. Now Divisional events are for only the sportsman cars. Do you think they should bring the pro classes back to the Division races?


JR: I keep hearing about Funny Cars being faster than the Top Fuelers. Why don’t the dragsters go as fast as Funny Cars? Cause the dragsters have a damned rev limiter on them. So the rev limiter starts knocking cylinders out 7900 RPM. The funny cars don’t do it till around 8100 RPM. If they made the rev limiter rule the same for both cars, the dragster will run off and leave them. And the announcers say the funny cars are faster due to aerodynamics. I haven’t heard one announcer even use the term rev limiter, maybe one guy. Am I missing anything?


Nope, that about covers it. Thanks for your time.


official DRO sponsors

 © 1999-2017 - Drag Racing Online and Racing Net Source LLC - 607 Seib Drive, O'Fallon, MO 63366 Phone: 636.272.6301 - Privacy Policy


fficial ponsors