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Sep 6, 2005
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The car I call "stripy" blazing away at Shelton. A very nice car that set NHRA speed mark of 218.44 in 1966 and was a major feature in Hot Rod magazine. Rich Carlson Photo

By Phil R. Elliott

This article was originally printed in the Goodguys Goodtimes Gazette, September 2005 issue, for their Hot Rod Heroes series. I was approached to do this due to my northwest knowledge and was honored to cover my nearly lifelong friend. The trouble was that they requested 750 words and 5-6 photos. To cover Jerry Ruth's story with that kind of parameter was impossible -- I sent about 3,500 words and 31 pictures and felt I did not justify the true scope of this historic figure. When the Gazette appeared, the editor there did his best to use most of the article but didn't run very many photos. I have been given permission to post the full article and photos here. Phil

Photos courtesy Jerry Ruth and Flyin’ Phil Archives

I don’t claim many heroes.

Jerry Ruth was one. When we first met, I was probably 12 or 13 years old. He had a shiny AA/FD that won everything in sight. When I approached, instead of giving me a gruff, “Go away kid, you bother me,” he answered a couple of questions and gave me a job wiping down the tubing of his AA/FD, then cleaning off the tires after the car started and made the necessary turn back toward the starting line. Luckily, I didn’t use the same rag.

"Silver Dollar" at Arlington. Rich Carlson Photo

Jerry Ruth was easy for me to like. He had a cocky way about him that added to his cool. Others saw it as arrogance and didn’t like him at all, while I could feel his confidence about racing and life in general. The dislike by others usually worked in Ruth’s favor, especially on the many dragstrips in the northwest. Not only did other drivers have an extra desire to beat him but crowds began to love him or hate him and Ruth quickly became a promoter’s dream.

Two years his senior, brother John took Jerry along when they viewed dragracing for the first time. It was a venture to Arlington, far to the north of their Kent, Washington home. In those days, “dragging” was done from a rolling start and John and Jerry absorbed everything they saw.

At 18, the military beckoned and after a Marine stint, Jerry remained in southern California. He was a mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership and remembers all too well getting the short straw from the other mechanics and working on the first Corvairs. Soon, he was among the first accredited GM Corvair mechanics in the country.

Jerry Ruth's 1940 Studebaker sedan C/A during its northwest tour in 1960.

He also built a ’40 Studebaker sedan that was the scourge of C/A competition. It was powered by a stout small block Chevy – one of the first bodied cars with a Hilborn – backed by a Cadillac three-speed.

One night at Long Beach, Ruth received the wrath of one C.J. Hart. In tinkering with the fuel injector, the engine sounded more responsive with the stacks and bells left off, so Jerry headed for the starting line. He revved the thing up, stepped off the clutch pedal and found himself staring at the moon. This was some years before wheelstands were common and Hart told Ruth never to pull such a dangerous stunt again. In retrospect, had CJ reacted to the crowd and handed over a few bucks for a repeat performance, Jerry Ruth might have beaten Bill “Maverick” Golden into the exhibition wheelstand business. Instead, Ruth headed for home with his ego in his shoes.

Not long after this, the Stude was towed north for a three-race Washington state swing. It dominated there too, and Ruth decided to return to his home. In SoCal, the racecar was parted and sold, and Jerry headed back north.

The engine from the Stude went into a C/G ‘38 Chevy that soon advanced a class with the addition of a supercharger. But there was very little blown gas coupe and sedan competition in the northwest so he traded the blown engine to Jim Green for a turnkey TE440 with injected Chevy. With his face in the wind, Jerry Ruth found his true calling – dragster racing.

Next, he bought the Beir Bros. dragster from California, and ran it in A/D with a 339ci Chevy. It wasn’t long until the nozzles increased and into the tank went 50/60% nitromethane.
Jerry Ruth, just after setting the A/D record at Bremerton in 1962

It was in this configuration that Jerry Ruth booked and won his first matchrace, against the famous Mooneyham & Sharp 554 coupe.

But the switch to nitro was not without stumbles. Blown and unblown Chevys returned to cast iron dust under Ruth’s early assemblage and right foot. Once, after a pretty decent run, he dumped the water and began refilling the block. After a seemingly inordinate time, Jerry heard a strange creaking sound coming from the car. The engine had actually imploded and water was filling not only the water jacket areas, but the entire crankcase as well. The creaking came from the framerails protesting the excess weight!

He borrowed an engine out of one of the most famous AA/FAs in the northwest, the “Balls Out” Fiat of Price and Schagger. It smoldered the tires down the entire track and lived, so Jerry listened and learned.

One of his early telephone tutors was Gene Adams at Hilborn. Gene was on a real high, his dragster winning at will on SoCal strips. During one conversation, Ruth dropped the hint that he was tired of Chevys and looking for a turnkey Chrysler AA/FD. “What about mine?” came the response, exactly what Ruth wanted to hear.

This is the car that began to make Ruth famous, here at Puyallup. The "Silver Dollar" was nearly unbeatable. Rich Carlson Photo

The car was an early Woody Gilmore piece, light and simple, with a Gene Adams trademark 354 for power. After a short get acquainted period, Jerry began a march through northwest fuel racing that certainly will never be topped. In the days of 1320 feet of tire smoke, the lesser torque of the smaller Chrysler was perfect for the subpar tracks of the time. And Ruth quickly learned the perfect compromise of throttle position and
Long before crew uniforms, Jerry made due with cam supplier's T-shirt. Rich Carlson Photo
smoke patterns to totally annihilate any competition, whether local or imported.

One day at Shelton Dragstrip, he was asked to be part of a four-fuelers-wide side-by-side exhibition race. He won the first round and was approached moments later by promoter Clark Marshall.

“The race was one of the first ‘circus’ events I tried,” remembers Marshall. “We had a little bit of everything. The weather was really questionable but by mid-day, it began to clear and spectator cars poured in. Even though Shelton was real wide, that first four-car deal looked shaky. Romeo (Palamedes) was supposed to have brought two jets but the second one was missing a bunch of things – it wasn’t even ready to run at all. So, since Ruth had won the first leg among the fuelers, I asked him to race the jet.”

“He said one of the featured jet cars refused to start,” remembers Jerry, “and would I run the other one twice for $400?” After losing both runs (he later learned the trick to racing jets and rarely lost to one again), Clark thrust a paper bag into his hands. Upon dumping the contents on his motel room bed, Jerry said to himself, “I think I’ll take the rest of the year off.” He never worked for anyone else again.

"Silver Dollar" receiving maintenance at Arlington. That's Jerry in gingham shirt, kneeling. Two things of note: Red Studebaker tow truck and best concessions in the northwest. Rich Carlson Photo

Ruth nicknamed the car “Silver Dollar” because “…it made money,” and soon, with the promotion of Drag Sport Illustrated columnist L.C. Taylor, he was being touted as “the king of the northwest.” A matchrace against (Sid) Waterman & (Ronnie) Hampshire at Puyallup Dragway was set up to determine a westcoast king. Though the match was fogged out, Ruth first donned the majestic robes that night.

One of many kingly robe shots taken "the" night at Puyallup. Rich Carlson Photo

This is 64 with first Chrysler fueler, purchased from Gene Adams. Jerry is receiving a timeslip from an Arlington Timing Association official -- more than likely it was a winning run. Rich Carlson Photo

But it was not just his swagger, attitude and popularity that put and kept him in so many winners’ circles. Jerry Ruth was the first fulltime dragracer in the northwest. He lived dragracing to its fullest.

His focus zeroed in on very regimented preparedness. He was the first northwest racer to after each weekend strip his dragster down to the last nut and bolt, inspect everything as it laid on white sheets, then rebuild bit by bit, replacing anything that looked suspect. It was this extra measure of readiness that kept him ahead of his competition for many years.

Another lightweight Woody came next and it continued to help build his reputation – including his first of many Division VI championships (1965) – until one fateful night at Kent (Pacific Raceway). An engine explosion sent a chunk of block through a tire and Ruth on a ride he’d rather forget.

The replacement for Silver Dollar was light, quick, fast and short lived -- it rolled in a ball at Pacific Raceway in mid-65 after a rod broke. Rich Carlson Photo

In only a few weeks, he was at Puyallup with a brand new car. “Even though we were not an NHRA sanctioned track,” Marshall remembers, “there were officials there that night to watch Jerry make his required re-licensing runs. After the required half pass, he came back up and made a full run, right over against the right edge of the track, front wheels up and cocked over to one side. He smoked the tires well past the finish line and set a Puyallup speed record of over 208!”

Stripy car at Bakersfield. Unknown Photog

A few months later (1966), he set the NHRA speed mark (218.44) in his first full-bodied car, a Woody-Kruse creation that was nearly unbeatable in looks and performance.

Jerry Ruth's cars were always immaculate and in demand for races and shows. That's Tommy Ivo's car inside its glazed trailer in the background, Kalivoda & Hamlin's Desoto-powered fuler between. Rich Carlson Photo

A few more cars, records and wins befell the King. From 1964 to 69, he had amassed an enviable record, including the divisional title five of the six years. He’d won both the largest northwest races (the N.W. Fuel and Gas Championship, Puyallup, and the Travel-Ons Fuel and Gas Championship, Arlington) three years straight, as well as dozens of lesser open races and match races.

This is Ruth's fave car and the one he would restore if it could be located. He won PDA in this one. Photog unknown

But, his kingdom had no boundaries. Among Ruth’s list of wins during that time was the prestigious Professional Dragracers Association (PDA) Championship at Lions in 1968.

Jerry's last FED. (my fave of his dragsters, BTW). Bucky Austin just completed a full restoration on this car. Flyin' Phil Photo

He held the national ET record (6.68) during much of 1969. The car that did that was a full-bodied beauty, the handiwork of Don Long and Tom Hanna.

By late 1969, he decided to add a funny car to his stable. It was a used Camaro that, after having totally refurbished to fit a Chrysler and a pedal clutch, he almost
B&W handout from 1970 -- Jerry's first FC. Rich Carlson Photo
immediately turned over to Frank Hall. “I always liked dragsters better,” is Jerry’s response to why, but in those days, reality is that dragsters and funny cars ran different tracks and dates. It was best to hire Frank.

Jerry's first FC at Puyallup. It was built originally for Richard Shroeder, then sold to Art Whipple. After Ruth ran it during 1970, it became Harlan Thompson's first nitro ride. Rich Carlson Photo

Pay ‘N Pak, one of the first warehouse-type operations in the world, sponsored both the dragster and the funny car. Ruth and his team won their share, including a Divisional championship for Jerry, and a second place for Hall. Although Frank did a fine job all year, promoters and fans demanded Ruth.

Jerry Ruth Part TWO

Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil



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