Fuller relishes underdog role in NHRA circuit

Rod Fuller says life's lessons growing up in Arkansas make up his fabric.

The former high school All-America soccer player never will forget suffocating summer nights before his hard-working parents could afford air conditioning for their home.

He wears designer jeans today that cost more to have a thread-bare look. It was a similar style for him in elementary school, but they weren't called "designer" then. Just used.

Today he often stuffs his feet into fancy, pointy-toed cowboy boots that cost a few hundred bucks.

That's a long way from when his mom bought his shoes at a Salvation Army Thrift Store.

"I used to be embarrassed about how I grew up," he said. "Now I'm proud of everything my parents were able to do for me."

By the time Fuller entered junior high, his dad had a better job, and the family moved solidly into middle class. Bank statements never measured their riches.

Some believe the No. 1 Top Fuel dragster driver in the land was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Well, they can choke on that notion.

The Las Vegas resident has reached drag racing's pinnacle after surviving more than a decade on the sometimes-grueling trail of a semi-professional sportsman racer.

More than once he slept in the bed of a pickup at the racetrack.

"Some of those years I couldn't afford a hotel room," Fuller said. "I'd find a local gym where I could pay five or six bucks to work out, but mainly so I could get a shower there before going back to the track."

Life on the road has been easier since joining David Powers Motorsports two years ago.

It got even better Tuesday, when his team announced a major, lucrative sponsorship with Caterpillar Inc. for the next two years. It's good money for the 36-year-old Fuller and his team, but it won't change him.

In his first year with Powers, a Houston home builder, they won one title in 15 races. Last year, he won two more.

At the start of this season he didn't expect to be the Top Fuel points leader going into today's first two qualifying sessions of the 53rd annual NHRA U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis.

It's the most lofty position in the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series. It hasn't been a hand-me-down ranking, but his crew chief and crew are.

Noted crew chief Lee Beard and the rest of Fuller's crew were moved to a second team added by Powers this year with Whit Bazemore driving. Bazemore brought major sponsorship for his car, leaving Fuller's as the No. 2 team.

Fuller was left with an unsponsored car for most of this year, a tenuous future, a new crew chief in Rob Flynn and new crew members.

"People started to call us the misfits," Fuller said. "And the misfits had a chip on their shoulders."

Flynn tuned Fuller to a title in the second event this year, and the team began rewriting its underdog role. Fuller has won two titles this year along with three runner-up finishes and four poles. His 184-point lead would be almost insurmountable in past years.

But the lead has all but gone up in smoke like a giant pair of slicks losing traction.

NHRA's four pro categories are competing with the new Countdown for the Championship points system.

The first 17 events have determined the eight drivers in each of those categories who can contend for season titles. After the next four events, beginning with this weekend's, fields will be cut to four, and championships will be determined by performances in the last two events: at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Pomona, Calif.

When the Countdown's second round begins today in the year's biggest NHRA event, standings will have been reset and Fuller's lead cut to 10 points over three-time reigning series champ Tony Schumacher.

"I was for the new system before the season, but now I'm (upset) about it," Fuller said. "Yeah, I guess I'm a hypocrite."

He's been atop the standings after 14 of 17 events this year, including the last eight.

"In other years my lead would about guarantee a top-two or championship finish with six races to go," Fuller said. "At Indy, I can have a mechanical problem, not qualify or lose in the first round and fall to eighth place."

The Countdown has tossed him a knuckleball, but he's ready to swing and feels like an underdog again.

That fits him as comfortably as a used pair of shoes and weathered jeans.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.