Fuller fit for rise to top of NHRA

The routine goes something like this: Chest on Monday. Biceps and triceps on Tuesday. Legs and calves on Wednesday. Shoulders on Thursday. Back on Friday. Some cardio while tempting death trying to win a drag race by going more than 330 mph in under 4.5 seconds on the weekend.

Hand it to Rod Fuller. The guy is doing his absolute best not only to win an NHRA Top Fuel championship but also to be strong enough that your average rocket-level G-force feels more like a light breeze against his trusty firesuit.

He is 5 feet 5 inches and a rock of 180 pounds. Fuller isn’t your father’s drag racer, unless the old man likened those who direct the fastest-accelerating vehicles on earth as having guns Ron Burgundy would admire.

Drag racers are athletes in that their eyes should be sharper than any promoting the newest Lasik surgery and their reactions quicker than heads turning at the sight of Ashley Force. Knowing what to do when a light turns green also helps.

Fuller thinks in larger physical terms. He always has. In a sport in which even the greatest champions probably view exercise as lifting a cold one after a long day of racing, Fuller is all about his next bench press and squat. It comes from being a power-lifting champion in high school, from being a good enough athlete to earn a college soccer scholarship to Arkansas as a prep All-American who then naturally made the transition from pitch to dragstrip.

“I definitely think my (conditioning) is an advantage for me,” he said. “The biggest one being from a safety aspect. When we crash, we sustain all those G-forces. A thinner guy or a female might not be able to absorb the impact as well as someone who is built and stocky.

“There are also those summer months, when it’s 100 degrees and humid and you can get worn out and tired. My conditioning helps me feel stronger — mentally and physically.”

It amazingly has this year, his toughest and yet most successful in the profession.

Fuller enters the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway dragstrip this week second in the Countdown to One points championship, a concept essentially pilfered from NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship to conceivably draw more mainstream interest to a sport that once was more popular nationally than the one now known for its checkerboard of stock-car sponsors.

The elimination stages have left four drivers competing for a Top Fuel title here this week and then in Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 1-4. Fuller is 10 points out of the lead, notable when you consider he blew out a knee playing beach volleyball in February and his team didn’t secure a lucrative sponsorship with Caterpillar Inc. until August.

But his dreams reach beyond even winning a championship. The day will come (we think) when John Force decides he has stared down that Christmas tree of lights for the final time and the greatest drag racer in history is no longer the sport’s face.

No individual will possess the influence to completely replace Force, but there are those with enough talent, intelligence and savvy to fill the gap. Fuller, who moved to Las Vegas in 2002, is one.

He is 36 and earned an MBA in marketing. He is the one who at just his second NHRA event 16 years ago landed a multiyear contract with Valvoline because he was able to convince some friends at Wal-Mart back home in Arkansas to carry a certain brand of automotive chemicals. Friends that included a guy named Sam Walton.

Fuller’s mother raced. His father is still winning NHRA division titles. Both brothers race. All are amazed at the former soccer player who now has 96 career wins in all levels of drag racing, who desires so much more beyond winning any contrived points title, even though he admits such an accomplishment would render him speechless.

“I want to be the main guy in the sport, the highest guy on the food chain,” Fuller said. “I love this sport. I have devoted my life to it. A lot of the young guys we have now didn’t have to come up through the ranks and don’t appreciate the old-time dragsters like I do. It’s a lot different when you have to win races in order to eat.

“But the greatest champions have to endure a lot to get to the top. That’s my dream, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”

Even if it means adding shoulders and back on Monday and legs and calves on Friday.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at (702) 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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