As photos and videos of his thunderous, smoke-spewing dragster flashed across a screen in a darkened room, Jerry Ruth picked up the mic and tried to put his past into perspective.
As if he were staged in the right lane, anticipating the amber-to-green light, “The King” quickly responded in rapid-fire passion.
He captured the audience. Blew them away.
“It was an eventful, interesting ride,” said the drag racing legend, still sharp, witty and engaging at 74. “I wouldn’t trade my career for anything. … I lived it.”
It was a swift ride, a straight, blistering fast lap for one of the sport’s more colorful personalities. It was a decorated career that brought fame and fortune, disappointment and injury.
Friends and family recently gathered at Kent Commons to hear Ruth’s story, a program presented by the Greater Kent Historical Society.
Ruth, who grew up Kent, dominated Northwest drag strips and ultimately tamed national ones to become a world champion. He beat the best to become one of the best in his day – a time when Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars were just beginning to evolve and accelerate down the quarter-mile track at top-end speeds of 220 mph or better.
“I was a great part of it,” Ruth said of his contributions as a fabricator and pilot during the hot rod golden age of the 1960s and ’70s. “I was only a part of it.”
Ruth gained fame before the sport turned the corporate corner.
A fierce competitor and meticulous mechanic who designed, built and tuned his own race cars, Ruth was a brash challenger. Seldom boring, he was a swaggering showman, a promoter’s dream, a driver who hated to lose.
Either you accepted him for what he was – an intense, gifted and smart driver, adaptable to any track – or you didn’t. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, back up his boast and beat all challengers.
These days Ruth has mellowed, his life drawn to introspection. He willingly shares the many memories and joys of a sport he lived to the fullest. He is a walking racing museum.
“He was fearless,” said Mike Barnett, who grew up with Ruth and joined his buddy when they enlisted in the Marines. “We used to race each up the (East) Hill, see who would get to the (high school) parking lot first.”
Ruth has never forgotten his roots.
“I have friends all over the country but my dearest friends are here,” he told the audience last week.
The Ruth family became well known as they successfully campaigned their cars wherever they went – Kent’s Pacific Raceways, Puyallup and Arlington, even the tracks sprinkled throughout the western provinces of Canada.
Ruth began his racing career at a young age, racing various gas coupes and sedans along with his late brother, John, in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Ruth built a number of cars, amassing wins and track records while capturing the NHRA Division 6 title in five of the six years from 1964-69. “The King” went on to win eight divisional Top Fuel titles, including seven straight from 1968-74, and two divisional Funny Car titles.
‘The King’ emerges
As wins and track records mounted, Ruth looked to market his efforts. Needing sponsors, he needed a name. “The King” naturally came to him.
“I had a name … and I had to sell it,” he said.
In 1971, Ruth doubled up. He made room for a state-of-the-art Don Long Mustang Funny Car in his garage. It recorded a best lap of 6.43, equaling the quickest TF run in history at that time.
Ruth also became the first driver to win Top Fuel and Funny Car finals at the same pro event, a feat he would turn three more times.
By 1972, Ruth had sold the car and made the switch to a Keith Black aluminum 426 hemi, rear-engine dragster.
Ruth gained prominence when he defeated two-time U.S. Nationals champion Gary Beck in the 1973 NHRA World Finals at Amarillo (Texas) Dragway. Ruth and his Top Fuel dragster burned up the strip with a 6.11-second run at 232.55 mph in high altitude for his first-ever national event win.
One of his Ruth’s finest races came in 1977, when he took down “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in the Winternationals Top Fuel final at storied Pomona (Calif.) Raceway on ABC-TV.
Ruth survived his share of violent accidents. He broke an arm. He severed a fingertip.
By the time Ruth retired in the mid-’80s, he had reached speeds of 260 mph.
Having accomplished what he had set out to do as a driver, Ruth turned his attention to helping others from afar. He continues to restore and build street rods, even mentor racers. He owns 18 cars, often tinkering with them in his spacious SeaTac garage.
Ruth stays close to the sport, appearing at reunions and nostalgic drag events. He has climbed inside the cockpit – notably the famed Long dragster restored in mint conduction by Bucky Austin – to ignite and rev up the engine. But that is as far as he wants to go to relive his moments with an earth-shaking beastly machine.
‘I’ve done that’
While he misses the competition, he refuses to take a dizzying drive down the strip in a modern race car.
“I want to live. I want to be able to drive home,” he said with a grin. “I’ve done that.”
Ruth remains a fan. He keeps up with drag racing’s advances, but is concerned about a sport that struggles with high performance as it relates to safety. Pros are running four-second passes at speeds well above 300 mph. A number of engine explosions at or near 300 mph have resulted in driver injuries and death.
Too fast? Perhaps, but the NHRA’s nitro-powered pros no longer race a full quarter-mile. Nitro division duels stretch only 1,000 feet.
“I’m a purest,” Ruth said. “I would rather race a quarter-mile.”
When it came to covering the drag strip, few did it better than “The King.” He was tough to beat. He left his mark in the dangerous but euphoric game.
“Seattle put out a lot of good racers out there,” he said. “I was just one of them.”