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Sep 6, 2005
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JERRY "The King" Ruth, Part II

By Phil R. Elliott

Jerry's second FC at Kent. This Mustang went five-for-five in NHRA WCS competition in 1971. Flyin' Phil Photo

So, with Ford dealer Bowen-Scarf Motors added to his sponsor list, Ruth had a brand new Mustang whipped up for the ’71 season. Arguably, it was the finest, highest detailed funny car ever, a jewel from the shops of Long, Hanna, Cerny and Kelly. And, while his latest dragster was still 392 powered, the Mustang featured a stock-stroke 426, self-assembled from Ramcharger pieces.

The Pride of PayNPak was tough in northwest competition. It would eventually run 6.60s.

That season might have been Jerry Ruth’s finest hour. The dragster recorded a best of 6.43, at the time equaling the quickest TF run in history. Even more important, Ruth became the first driver to double up professional wins – at the opening Division VI race (Boise), he won both TF and FC. Then he did it three more times.

He would have doubled yet again except for a strange twist. The 392 in the dragster broke in the semis at Kent. “We pushed so hard we were using up a block every race,” said Jerry of his last season running the early Chrysler. The crew was forced to change the camshaft in a borrowed shortblock but it looked like they would make it in time. Promoter Bill Doner changed the running order of eliminators for the finals, placing TF ahead of FC, something that had never been done. The thrash was nearly complete when Herm Petersen was sent on a single for the TF win. Moments later, Jerry won the FC final, and stat books show that in 1971, Jerry “the King” Ruth won nine of a possible ten Professional final rounds in Division VI competition, a pretty sobering number.

This was a familiar sight in 1971 -- Jerry Ruth winning both TF and FC. Rich Carlson Photo

But it was that one lost carrot that he remembers more today than any of the wins. Of course, he was the Division Champion in two Pro classes, another first.

The following year came his first rear engine dragster, and both the TF and FC ran similar stroked 472ci KB engines. He won both divisional championships again, and won so many races it began to look easy.

Jerry's best FC was this 73 Mach I, shown here in its last run at Portland. Rich Carlson Photo

For 1973, a new mini-Mach I became the King’s throne and it showed signs of brilliance until an out-of-control opponent rearended it in a first round catastrophe at a Portland points race.
Aftermath. The remains were later rebodied as a Mustang II. Rich Carlson Photo

A short hospital stay didn’t slow him down and he went on to joining the Cragar Five-Second Club and winning the NHRA World Championship.
After Jerry Ruth (left) and Frank Hall (In Jim Green's Green Elephant) both won 1973 NHRA World Championships (TF and FC, respectively), Rich Carlson arranged this Butch and Sundance style shot. Frank drove Ruth's Mustang the following year and nearly won the championship again.

Good friend Frank Hall, driving for Jim Green that season, took the FC World title that year, and was Ruth’s choice to drive a new Mach I in 74. “As a bolt-in driver,” Jerry says of his lifelong friend, “there is none better than Frank.”

“That replacement car was never as good as the original Mach I,” says Ruth. Nonetheless, Hall, with crewchief Jerry Verheul, nearly became world champs again.
1975 handout for FC. Rich Carlson Photos

Looking at Ruth’s record to that point takes a full page but includes eight divisional TF titles (a record), including seven consecutive years, 1968-1974 (a record), and three divisional FC titles (two as driver, one as owner).

For ’75 the crashed Mach I, front-halfed and rebodied as a Mustang II by Al Swindahl, returned but it was soon leased to Colorado racer Lee Beard.

First RED of several, at Kent. Rich Carlson Photo

In ’77, Jerry won the NHRA Winternationals, a race where he once again turned back the best and could do no wrong.

In September of 1979, a negative for Ruth turned into a positive for the dragracing world. During Indy qualifying, Jerry Ruth became a victim to the rampant problem of tire shake. Others had been hurt and at least one driver killed as a result of the violence. Like so many, Ruth was knocked unconscious when his helmet whacked the roll cage. The car, at partial throttle, scrubbed down the right guardrail then off the end of the track, and through a chain-link fence. His injuries were to his left arm and hand and recovery included a couple surgeries.

In similar fashion to the way Don Garlits came up with the functional and successful rear engine dragster after a severe accident ten years earlier, Ruth felt he had to do something. “I had a choice – quit or change. I chose change. We were all so influenced by the other guys that any changes we made were minute. I knew I needed more.”

He dreamed up a dragster so different that few others would discuss it. The whole idea was based around a much larger rollcage, in fact the same size his FC had. “I never hit my head in the funny car when it shook,” he summarized following the incident.

This is the car for which Jerry will be best remembered, the RED that changed the face of TF. Rich Carlson Photo

Several phone calls and chats with northwest dragster and funny car builder Al Swindahl ensued, and by the Spring of 1980, the new design hit the strips. It was bigger, squarer and some thought rather dumpy looking in comparison to the svelte little dragsters that everyone was used to. One competitor, Gaines Markley, when asked what he thought of the design, said, “I hear its ugly and slow.”

But it was lighter and more flexible and the engine loved the new chassis. Ruth was actually able to back down power and clutch settings and run the same numbers as he had before. When it out-qualified Markley in an early outing, Markley replied to a Ruth taunt, “Well, it’s still ugly.”

The car seemed full of innovations but was actually simpler in design than anyone knew. For example, the trailer Jerry owned dictated the 255-inch wheelbase. The dimension between the driver and engine was due 100% to the starter Jerry insisted on using. The wider, squarer look was only because of the wider FC-style rollcage.

There were plenty of winner’s circle shots with this car. Flyin' Phil Photo

But no matter, the car proved itself instantly, winning locally, then was #1 qualifier and won the NHRA Mile-High Nationals. A month or two later, Canadian Terry Capp took a duplicate car to the U.S. Nationals title. By the end of the following season, virtually every “hitter” TF team in the country had “ugly” Swindahl chassis, based on Jerry Ruth’s ideas and dimensions.

Jerry LOVES this image, taken at Bakersfield. George Phillips/NHRA Photo

Jerry raced that car almost five years, taking major victories in all three sanctions – ten in AHRA alone. When he retired in mid-1985, the late Richard Holcomb recorded the sport’s third 4-second run in the same chassis. Should someone strip it and place it beside a current TF chassis, other than overall length and a few minor derivations, they are still identical more than 25-years later. It has certainly been Jerry Ruth’s biggest contribution to dragracing.

A great flowing robes and firesuit press shot. Photog unknown

Another of Ruth’s major contributions to his beloved sport is the string of well know crewmembers and crewchiefs that he trained. Included in the long list are Lee Beard, Mike Kloeber, Dana Kimmel, Terry Howland, Bill Hermes, Mike Chysx, Brad Broom, and Jerry Verheul that went through Jerry Ruth 1.01.

When I stopped by Jerry's shop in about '81, I found this little sign. Flyin' Phil Photo

Virtually every one of Ruth’s contemporaries throughout his three-decade and extremely storied career, have chapters to add to the King’s myths and legends. Beyond those, they will also tell you that Ruth was one of the toughest they ever faced, and one that they always watched on-track and off. He could always be counted on for top performances and the win, wherever he traveled.

During Jerry's AHRA tour, some of his competitors bitched that Ruth's car was unpainted and not as "showy" as it should be. So, his crew reversed the paint job to black suede with a silver lightning bolt. Here is the car at Gary. Flyin' Phil Photo

His brother John was likely his biggest and best influence, and his toughest competitor was a toss-up between Don Prudhomme and Don Garlits – they both place him at the top of their lists as well. On home turf, “Hank (Johnson) gave me more trouble than anyone,” remembers Ruth. “He always lived up to his ‘Gentleman’ nickname too.”

“My favorite track has always been Pacific Raceway,” crooned Jerry. “I won a lot there and it was also built right in my backyard, only a few miles from where I graduated (Kent-Meridian High School).” Nationally, he liked Pomona best, not only because he won big there but because it runs sharply downhill.

“My career bridges the old and the new, from the Stellings, and Hampshire brothers, to the Amatos.” There is no doubt that he can be compared to peers like Garlits, and no argument that he should be considered the King of northwest dragracing.

One thing that bothers him though is that as the years go by, his record seems to take a backseat to current professionals, those that chalk up 35, 80 or more national wins. He feels like even guys like Prudhomme that went on a few years after he retired, have a distinct advantage.

“We had so few races back then, it would take us a hundred years to make up 49 races,” he suggests of his friend Prudhomme’s numbers. “To dominate like I did back then took a lot.”

“What I lacked in talent, I made up for with persistence,” summarizes Jerry Ruth of his career. “I don’t pay much attention to the nostalgia dragster stuff – I already did that. I’m interested in going for a 4.40/300mph ride, not so much a 5.70/250. But don’t hold your breath, I’m NOT coming back.”

Jerry today. Maggie Fox Photo

Today, Jerry Ruth attends about a half-dozen NHRA national events per year, but mostly plays with his many street rod projects. He keeps fully up to speed on current nitro combinations and acts as a sounding board and advisor to some of his old students. One gets the idea that should the right deal come along, Jerry just might consider one of those current high-paying crewchief jobs.

Jerry Ruth Part ONE

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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