This weekend, longtime Northwest drag racing hitter Jerry “The King” Ruth will be honored as one of the “Legends” as part of the NHRA’s 60th anniversary celebration during the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals at the Pacific Raceways in Seattle, the final stop of the NHRA’s Western Swing. And on this Flashback Friday, we take a look back at the career of the region’s most famed racer.
Ruth, like so many others of the era, began his racing career at a young age, racing various gas coupes and sedans along with his late brother, John, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in their native Washington state. In 1963, with the bug to go faster, Jerry purchased a Chevy gas dragster from the Bier brothers of southern California and campaigned it in the A/GD ranks before experimenting with nitro later that season. In early 1964, Ruth teamed up with Danny and David Higgins and purchased a Woody Gilmore-built Top Fueler that present day NHRA chief starter Rick Stewart had piloted to a number of race victories. The wins soon came, as did a series of Gilmore-built cars and later several constructed by Don Long.
The Higgins brothers went their own way after just a season, but Ruth continued to rack up the wins, and his legend was quickly growing in the Northwest. Soon, with several Division 6 titles to hit credit, Jerry was referring to himself as “The King,” and eventually the name stuck. During the 1960’s, Ruth would foray down to the nitro hotbed of southern California, and while he certainly made his mark there and elsewhere in the country, his legend was most appreciated in his home territory.
Ruth survived his share of violent incidents in his career, including a pair of incidents beginning at his hometown Pacific Raceways in which a shredded slick sent his machine barrel-rolling for more than a quarter of a mile, followed by another at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Like so many others, his efforts also included a fuel Funny Car for a period, with a Mustang sponsored by Pay ‘N Pak Hardware that ran in the 6.60’s and went five-for-five in NHRA Divisional competition in 1971. That season, it wasn’t uncommon to see Ruth in victory lane with both of his race cars. Considered his best flopper effort was a 1973 Mustang Mach 1 that met an unfortunate demise in Portand when his opponent rear-ended and destroyed the car. After a short hospital stay, Ruth returned and joined the Cragar Five-Second club, capping the season with the 1973 NHRA Top Fuel World Championship.
At the NHRA Summernationals in 1977, Ruth piloted the Don Garlits’ “Swamp Rat” in his absence due to other commitments and recorded the fastest speed in drag racing history at 255.63 MPH. Tales of Ruth copying “Big’s” tuneup book at that event only to find that none of the information worked on his own car swirled, but those of course are all unfounded rumors.
In September of 1979 at Indianapolis, Ruth was knocked unconscious by a rather new phenomenon known as tire shake, sending his dragster off the end of the racetrack and causing injury to his arm and hand requiring surgery. Like Garlits’ had years earlier with the rear engine design, Ruth returned with a completely new dragster design with a much larger roll cage to help driver safety in tire shake conditions. This car is the one that Ruth is most remembered for, as it forever changed the face of Top Fuel and dragster design.
Soon, the entire field was running the new Swindahl chassis based on Ruth’s design. Jerry raced that same car for five years and captured victories in all three major sanctions. He retired from driving in 1985 and sold the car to Richard Holcombe, who actually drove that very same chassis to the third four-second pass in history
In all, Ruth scored eight divisional Top Fuel titles – including seven in a row from ’68-’74 – and three divisional Funny Car titles (two as a driver, one as an owner), along with the Top Fuel world title.
To this day, Ruth considers Pacific Raceways his favorite all-time track – and decidedly so with his winning record there – and thus, it’s only fitting he be honored this weekend before the hometown crowd.