Don Prudhomme, ranked number 3 of NHRA's Top 50 Drivers (John Force and Don Garlits are 1 and 2), called Kent Fuller, of Santa Rosa California, "a genius". Tommy Ivo asserts, "If it wasn't for me, Kent Fuller would never have gotten started and without Kent Fuller there would have never been a ‘TV Tommy' Ivo."
This story is about Kent Fuller, but also how Kent, Ivo, and Prudhomme's careers were so intertwined in the beginning that they became the keystones of drag racing in its formative years—plus the most successful Fuller chassis of them all, the Greer-Black-Prudhomme Fueler, currently owned by collector Bruce Meyer of Beverly Hills, California. Read how the pieces of the puzzle fell into place to make that happen.
Kent Fuller is as close to a Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance man as exists today. In fact he
Kent Fuller was born in Long Beach, California, in 1934. His folks moved, not far, to the San Fernando Valley. "We moved to Woodland Hills, then to Encino, and I went to Canoga Park High School. "I didn't graduate ... they threw me out. I majored in ditching and going to the beach," Kent laughs. "I had a '31 Model A in school that I wrecked in 1948. I wasn't supposed to be driving. (Kent didn't have a driver's license yet.) The headlights were real dim and I was going home about 8 at night when Walter Huston, the son of actor John Huston, turned left into me and tore my Model A into chunks. It was a coupe. I got a roadster body for $10, then I started gathering up fenders and stuff and started putting it back together. I fixed the fenders one at a time. I hauled them down, one at a time, on my bike to the Continental Body Shop where the owner would straighten out my fender and primer it for me for $6, which was a lot of money for me at the time. I put a Cragar head on it. There was a Japanese gardener who had a roadster pickup. He had a spare head. I was tearing down transmissions at Zimmer's Speed Shop on Ventura Boulevard in Encino for 25 cents apiece.
"When I got my license I sold the Model A and bought a '34 Ford five-window that didn't have a dent in it—it was absolutely perfect! So I had to channel it and threw the fenders in the trash. (Are you cringing yet?) I blew up the motor. I was taking my credit out at Zimmer's on parts and stuff. I got a V-8 together that had Edelbrock heads that I paid $20 for, and a Winfield cam that I bought for $6. I was almost done with the car when I got pissed off and ran away from home."
Before go-karts, young racers in the ’40s turned their talents to build and race cars in t
Home was more like a manor because Kent's parents were extremely successful: "My father was vice president of Sunkist and part owner and manager of a packing house in Canoga Park. He had 40 acres of oranges in Woodland Hills and 200 acres of walnuts."(The only oranges and walnuts in Woodland Hills these days are found at the local grocery store.)
Kent hitchhiked to Aberdeen, Washington, and worked for a friend's father who owned a mill that made the thick shake shingles for about a year. (Normally Kent would be truant from school but they kicked him out.) He found a Norton motorcycle that he rode before heading for home. He put the Norton on a train and thumbed his way back home. But the problems at home were such that his folks had split up.
Kent went back to school at Hollywood High for a couple of months: "I rode my bicycle in 1949 from San Fernando Valley to San Diego (it took 4 days and his mom brought him back by car). I stopped by Bell Auto Parts and bought the back issues of Hot Rod magazine and tucked them under my T-shirt and met Roy Richter, the owner.
This was the dragster that was sitting in Kent’s backyard that Don Johnson bought. It made
"They threw me out of school finally because I was a bum. (Kent found out much later in life that he was dyslexic, which caused most of his school problems.) I was 17 so I joined the Navy in 1952."
Kent never saw combat even though the Korean War was going on. He was sent to a Carrier Qualification Squadron Crash Crew. He put in for Aircraft Metalsmith School. Kent applied himself because depending on where a student stood in the class determined where they were sent: "Never being in the real world, I knew I had to do good to get what I wanted. Out of 260 students, I was number two in the class. Fortunately the guy who was ahead of me wanted to go to Norfolk, Virginia. I got what I wanted ... California. I got transferred to San Diego. I got to know a lot of people, including Joaquin Arnett. I used to go to Paradise Mesa Drag Strip to watch him drag race." (Arnett formed the Bean Bandits, a car club that took mostly inner city kids who were one step from a life of crime then got them interested in hot rods, many for life. If the Navy hadn't gotten Kent's act together, maybe Arnett would've.)
After Kent was discharged he went to work for C-T Automotive on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood that specialized in C-T Motor Mounts, thanks to Kent: "I was doing welding on stroker cranks and motor mounts. When that got slow I put a Chevy in a '32 Ford. The guy didn't want to modify the frame so I made bolt-on motor mounts. The owner, Don Clark, thought that was a pretty good idea, so I went and got a couple of Ford frames, motors, and transmissions from the junkyard. I had four guys working for me making 125 sets a day. Then I started making header flanges. I asked the boss for a raise after working there for a couple of years, with 12 guys working for me. He turned me down. My future wasn't there.
"I went to San Fernando Drag Strip with my brother-in-law, Howard Jensen, who had a highboy '34 Ford roadster with a gas Buick in it. He raced against a lightweight '29 Ford roadster with an injected Chrysler on Fuel and Jensen beat him. I thought that Buick had potential. Jensen had Max Balchowsky's first stroked Buick motor that Balchowsky built. (Balchowsky, besides being a gifted mechanic, built the famed Buick-powered "Old Yeller II".)
Dragsters weren’t meant to get bent outta shape, but many did. Kent observed that if a dra
"I started building a dragster for that Buick motor in 1956. I got it about two-thirds done when Jensen sold the Buick motor. The car just sat there in my garage till Don (‘the Beachcomber') Johnson came over to buy it."
He likened the way he constructed his chassis to a suspension bridge with a fourth less weight than his competitors: "When I started, most of the dragsters had parallel tubing ... big fat stuff. My framerails started out about 20 inches apart in the back and tapered down to nothing in the front. It had to do with the fact that a triangle is stronger than a square."
"You might say Don Johnson was my mentor," Tommy Ivo begins. "Don was sitting at Bob's Big Boy next to my roadster and leans out of his '57 Chevy and says, ‘How'd you like to take that Buick motor that's in your roadster and put it in a dragster?'"
Now if you read the Tommy Ivo story in the Sept. '12 issue of R&C you know that was no ordinary roadster. Ivo's roadster hauled the mail and set track records at every dragstrip it ran. Ivo only lived a few blocks from Bob's drive-in, close enough to sneak the full-race Hilborn-injected T roadster over to the hangout. While Ivo didn't know diddly-squat about dragsters, he was a drag racer big-time. The timing was right because it was at the end of the life of the roadster when Johnson posed the question.
Kent built Ivo’s twin-Buick chassis that powered the 88-inch wheelbase chassis (a VW Bug i
That’s Kent holding the chute and Tommy Ivo getting out of the car. “I was a tire wiper an
Kent’s single-engine chassis that he built for Ivo was known as a wheel stander. Weight di
Ivo was about to dive into a dragster, tooth and Nailhead: "No doubt, I would've ended up with a dragster sooner or later, but the timing was perfect. I went and looked at the dragster at Kent's place that Johnson had purchased but I was accustomed to cars with frames like my Model A that looked a lot stronger than the 0.049 tubing that Kent used. I said, ‘I'll put my motor in your dragster but I don't want to drive that thing.' Don was going to drive it."
"I had a little cottage on the beach at Malibu—that's how I got my handle," Johnson, of Channel Islands, California, says. "I was still in high school when Ivo and I went to Kent's house so Ivo could look at Kent's dragster that I bought. The car was in Kent's backyard."
“That photo was taken just a few months before we went to Bakersfield and won the thing,”
"Johnson drove it at Colton Drag Strip, but we had the linkage in backward," Ivo resumed. "Johnson was starting out in high gear and shifting it into low gear. I said to let me in it. (That was the beginning folks.) I took off in high gear, it bogged down but the thing took off. I won that race. We went to San Fernando Drag Strip the following day, Sunday, and won again. I was sitting on Kent's doorstep on Monday morning to build me one.
"Kent had no intention of ever being a self-employed fabricator when I had him build my dragster," Ivo explains. "Kent worked at C-T Automotive, he had kids, and was just barely making ends meet, so it was a big step because he never thought about anything like that. Kent was building a T roadster and he said ‘If you chrome my roadster for me, I'll build a dragster for you.' So we traded."
"Tony Nancy was building a place, so I rented a shop from Tony," Kent continues. "I was going to do engine installations and stuff like that, but people just kept coming wanting dragster chassis built. Up to that point I had built four dragster chassis at home."
Prudhomme went on tour with Ivo as an errand runner and tire wiper from home to the East Coast and every state in between—he likened it to Drag Racing College, learning the ropes from a driven and committed drag racer. When Prudhomme returned home he knew drag racing would be his career.
"Prudhomme wanted to go drag racing with his own car," Ivo remarks. "My single-engine dragster was sitting in my garage. I said, ‘Take it. See if you like it. And if you do, pay me for it.'" Because Prudhomme painted cars, they horse-traded.
Don Prudhomme, who tripped the win light 230 times with just seven losses, had this to say
Tom McCurry, a Road King member and close friend of Prudhomme, aka “33rd Street” (“33rd St
(Left to right) Dave Broussard, driver Mike Snively, Keith Black, Roland Leong, Kent Fulle
Pete Millar was a cartoonist who at times lampooned some of the biggest names in drag raci
Prudhomme ran it with a Buick motor with fair results, so Ivo had a suggestion: "Dave Zeuschel worked at C-T Automotive and went into Tony Nancy's shop when I was there," Ivo says. "Zeuschel had built a blown Chrysler while he was working at C-T but had no car to put it in. I told Zeuschel I had a Chrysler in my single-engine car for a couple of weeks, but it kept breaking, so I went back to my Buick. ‘Why don't you put your Chrysler motor in Prudhomme's car?' I said ... ‘Just bolt it in.' That was the start of the Fuller, Zeuschel, and Prudhomme team."
In the meantime, Kent built an entirely different dragster and chose Prudhomme as his driver. Why Prudhomme? "When I was deciding who was going to drive my car, I had a little test," Kent says. "When a driver would walk into my shop, whatever tool I had in my hand, without warning I'd throw at him. If it hit him, he didn't qualify. Prudhomme grabbed it right out of the air."
In fact they were winning everywhere they took the car, right out of the box. At Half Moon Bay in Northern California, they won Outstanding Performer award by posting a 186.80 with low e.t. of 8.33. The young team won the 1962 March Meet. That was Prudhomme's first race driving a fuel car for Zeuschel and Kent. Drag racing was only 12 years old; a young sport in 1962, and so were the drag racers. Kent was 28, Prudhomme and Zeuschel were both 20.
Kent’s chromoly front axles weighed only 8 pounds. Kent made the front wheels using Triump
"To go to Bakersfield and win the Fuel and Gas Championship (later called the March Meet) was a big deal ... it was a HUGE deal! I don't remember what we won, but I still have the trophy. That really launched our careers," Prudhomme exclaims, "and we got on the cover of Drag News. When that car came on the scene, Zeuschel had this power-blast engine and Fuller had this chassis that was way ahead of a lot of other cars."
Teams were forming at such a quickened rate after the Fuel ban was overturned in January 1962 that chassis and engine builders were never home: "When I started having a winning Fuel car, I suddenly sold five dragster chassis in one day," Kent recalls.
Drag race cars all look alike today, but when Kent was part of the scene the “Magwinder” d
According to Kent, here's how the Greer-Black-Prudhomme team came about: "Rod Stuckey came out from Kansas City with a dragster he built for Bob Sullivan called ‘Pandemonium'. Sullivan owned it with a 331-inch Chrysler. (It was the first Midwestern car to break 150 in the quarter in 1956.) We got to be friends when Stuckey decided he wanted another dragster. We went down to Washington Hardware to buy some surplus chromoly tubing, and he bought enough tubing for two cars. (Kent built Stuckey a chassis as well, and then later Stuckey sustained severe burns at Half Moon Bay dragstrip when his Kent Fuller–chassis'd Fueler exploded and caught fire.) "He sold the car to a guy named Ivan who owned Cash Auto Parts. Ivan lost the car to Louie Senter (Ansen Automotive Engineering) because of a bad debt.
"After we won Bakersfield," resumed Kent, "Prudhomme and I quit running the car and Prudhomme was without a ride. I knew Tom Greer and Black didn't have a driver so I made them an offer. I'll do all the chassis work on the car for free for the advertising and you hire Prudhomme. In the meantime, I was going in with Chet Herbert (roller cam innovator) to put two side-by-side Chevys of Chet's in my car."
The classic three-legged stool relationship between Tom Greer (who funded the team), Keith Black (the engine building phenomenon), and wheelman Don Prudhomme was about to be set.
To most of us, Tom Greer, of Westminster, California, a machine shop owner, is the least known of the three who made up that legendary team.
Greer was born in Los Angeles in 1927: "I went to Bell High School," Greer begins. "I took most of the shop classes in school. I had a '32 Ford roadster, later a '36 Ford three-window ... I wish I had it now. I went to Bell Auto Parts and got to know all the guys who worked there, like Jot Horne (Jot Horne Story Feb. '10 issue R&C). I was racing boats at the time. Keith Black was in the auto parts business and worked out of his house. In his garage he started building Flathead Ford engines. Then he got out of the auto parts business and started building engines at home.
"Since I was racing boats with Keith, I figured it would be a good thing to go drag racing with him. I bought a dragster from Chuck Guarth. Chuck built the dragster and after we purchased it, Chuck drove the car with Keith's Chrysler in it. It had a real short wheelbase and it was pretty hard to handle.
"Louie Senter heard how bad our dragster was going and called myself and Keith to tell us his was for sale. I went over to Louie's and bought the car. At that time we didn't have a driver."
Nobody Wanted To Fight
Who but Kent would build a tube chassis for a ’29 Model A? And in 1960 it was almost unhea
"Lo and behold," Prudhomme recalls, "Keith Black called me to see if I was interested in driving the Greer-Black car ... I got the call in Kent's shop. Kent said, ‘Keith Black wants to talk to you'. I wasn't aware at that particular time that Kent recommended me to Black.
"There were so many dragstrips in Southern California that guys would call me up to see where we were running—if we were running Long Beach, they'd go to Irwindale; if we were running Irwindale, they'd go to Long Beach ... they wanted to make some money! When we fired the Chrysler, nobody wanted to fight." (The team never lost a Keith Black motor, according to crew member Dick Burley.)
"My deal didn't happen with Chet Herbert because Prudhomme started winning races with Greer and Black," Kent says. "I didn't count on him winning races so quickly. I would never have been able to get him back as a driver for the twin Chevy car. I couldn't afford to do it on my own so I sold the car to Louie Senter, took the money and moved to Belmont in Northern California."
After Louie purchased the Fuller/Zeuschel dragster from Kent, Senter teamed up with Ed Pink, another master engine builder, and the car continued to rack up wins. The Ansen/Pink team won the AHRA Winter Championship at Fontana Drag City with Rod Stuckey driving. (I made the oversight in the Ed Pink Story, Aug. '12 issue of R&C, that the Ansen/Pink dragster became the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car, not realizing that Senter had purchased two dragsters at different times that Kent built.)
There were so many dragstrips in the L.A. area that if you loved the sound of a Fueler all you had to do was stick your head out the kitchen window. Drag racers didn't have a lot of money but there was money to be made. Not a lot at first, though. Top Eliminator money went from $500-$1,000 by 1963.
That’s Kent with his wife Evelyn, in front of his Volks Rod. Here’s how that happened: “I
One of Kent's best sales reps was driver Jim McLennan who also owned NorCal's Half Moon Bay Dragstrip and Champion Speed Shop in South San Francisco: "I would bet anyone driving one of my dragsters double or nothing if they would put their hands on their helmet and go as far down the strip as they could before they grabbed the steering wheel to see if the car oversteered itself. Jim went 180 mph before he grabbed the wheel. When someone called up to ask about how my cars handled, I'd say, talk to Jim McLennan." (McLennan was quoted as saying driving a Kent car was like driving a Cadillac.)
Life Goes On
Drag racing had become an enterprise, rather than a sport, with corporations sponsoring the teams. Kent called his insurance company inquiring how much his liability insurance would cost. He was told $10,000 per chassis. "I was getting $1,100 per chassis and said that ain't gonna work."
Kent built 260 chassis while in the business. "I quit drag racing altogether in 1990 and moved to Santa Rosa. I've been retired ever since. I have a shop to sit around in and work on my stuff and keep my junk. I'm not in business and I don't want customers. My wife Evelyn (married since 1955) is in real estate, who you might say is my sponsor. Looking back, I'd like to make my grandchildren proud of me."
Kent Fuller's legacy is the infinite times his chassis carried drivers at ever-increasing speeds safely, as well as the large number of Fuller-chassis'd dragsters that have been painfully and proudly restored to capture those bygone days.
One of them is Roland Leong's Top Fuel dragster the "Hawaiian". After winning Top Fuel Eliminator at the Winternationals in Pomona, California, and the U.S. Nationals at Indy in 1965 with Prudhomme driving, Leong pulled it off again at Pomona and Indy with driver Mike Snively in 1966. The "Hawaiian" is currently on display among the Formula 1 Alfas, Bugattis, and Ferraris at the National Automotive Museum in Turin, Italy.
Kent was inducted into the Oakland Roadster Show Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1996. Your grandchildren have a lot to be proud of.