Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tommy Fults

By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Tommy Fults was hired to drive RECORD-7, a 7-Litre Class hydroplane, in a straightaway mile trial on Lake Sammamish in the spring of 1970.

George Babcock was shooting for 200 miles per hour--an unheard of speed for a 7-Litre. He put Fults in the boat because Tommy had gone that fast in a car. The boat crashed and broke cleanly in two pieces. I was there when it was recovered the following day. When the two pieces were put together on the trailer, you couldn't tell that RECORD-7 was no longer intact.

Tommy was saved because he was wearing the newly-designed parachute back pack, which deposited him safely in the water feet first after the crash.

Tommy "Tucker" Fults was one of the gutsiest and most personable men ever to jockey an Unlimited. Unfortunately, he was only with us for a short time. He died of a broken neck in a freak accident during a test run with PAY `n PAK'S `LIL BUZZARD at San Diego in 1970.

"Tucker" was a good friend of mine. He always had time to shoot the breeze with his fans--and he had many. A very down-to-earth guy, Tommy was never arrogant or mean-spirited. And he loved to race. I still miss him.

His background was in drag cars and drag boats. In 1967, he was an iron worker in the San Francisco Bay area. A year later, he was the Unlimited Rookie Driver of the Year with Jim and Yvonne Ranger's MY GYPSY. Tommy's introduction to the Rangers was through his wife Susie, who was Yvonne's stepdaughter.

Fults was lacking in experience around a closed course. So, MY GYPSY crew chief Graham Heath arranged for "Wild Bill" Cantrell to give Tommy some driving lessons on the Detroit River.

According to Graham, "The first day, Bill (in the GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL) more or less led him around. It was the same the next day with Cantrell showing him the ropes. Then, on the third day, Tommy got the hang of it real fast and was outrunning Bill. He was doing some serious racing with Cantrell. Bill was a veteran and knew all the angles. And he taught those angles to Tommy."

Fults was a speedster and loved to go fast. But it sometimes took a stern taskmaster to keep Tommy in line. At the 1968 Madison Regatta, Heath gave Fults a monumental bawling-out after Tommy had fractured a rib during a misadventure with a motorcycle.

Graham told Fults, "These people have spent a lot of money to get you where you're at. If you ever get on another motorcycle, your driving days for the GYPSY are over."

Tommy got the message, loud and clear, and toed the mark from then on. He guided MY GYPSY to second-place in National High Points. The highlight of the year was his victory in the San Diego Cup on Mission Bay. In that race, Heath counseled Fults to "not go out and chase Billy Schumacher and the MISS BARDAHL in the Final Heat," this being in the days when races were scored by total points.

"Just stay where you can see him. Don't let him lap you, but don't run with him." Tommy followed Graham's advice to the letter and won the cup.

Following the retirement of the Ranger team, Fults transferred to Dave Heerensperger's PRIDE OF PAY 'N PAK organization for 1969. Tommy was a replacement for his friend Warner Gardner who was killed driving Heerensperger's MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC at the 1968 Detroit Gold Cup.

Heerensperger was an innovator. For much of 1969, the team experimented with a tri-maran hull that failed as a competitor.

Fults spent most of 1970 driving PAY 'N PAK'S `LIL BUZZARD with which Tommy won the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup. He also turned the fastest heat of the season at Seattle (108.433).

Always eager to lend a helping hand, Fults filled in as relief driver for the MISS BUDWEISER when Bill Sterett, Sr., was injured at Detroit in 1969. That same year, he took the wheel of MISS OWENSBORO at the Madison Regatta.

For a driver to come out of no where with virtually no closed course racing experience and do so well, that is a major accomplishment. He was a contender from Day One. The first time that I saw him race (at the 1968 Atomic Cup), my reaction was, "What a competitor!"

If not for his tragic death, it's my belief that Tommy Fults would have been one of the all-time greats.