Rod Fuller turned around misfortune and found opportunity in Abu Dhabi. Georgia Lewis meets a man born to race.
It is not uncommon for a champion sportsman to say he was born to play football, run fast, shoot clay pigeons or whatever else he did to achieve a bulging trophy cabinet. But in the case of "Hot" Rod Fuller, who will be heading up drag race driver training at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit, he was destined to race cars from the time he was in the maternity ward in 1971.
"When I was born, my mother looked at me and said; 'He is going to be a race car driver'," says Fuller. "She wanted to actually call me 'Hot Rod' but they settled on Rodney - but my birth blanket from the hospital has 'Hot Rod Fuller' written on it." From his mother's early prediction, Fuller rose to the top of his game in drag racing and now has high hopes for the first drag event in the capital this weekend.
For his mother, drag racing was just something she did once in a while for fun, but Fuller's maternal grandfather and father were both keen drag race competitors. "I grew up around it, it is in the blood," he says. "But my father was also keen to make sure I got an education before I could go full-time as a professional drag racer." To that end, Fuller went to the University of Arkansas, got his MBA and a marketing degree and raced dragsters in his summer holidays. "I also did a communications course and public speaking courses because I knew it'd be important on the pro drag racing circuit. You end up speaking in public quite a lot."
Fuller has been a full-time racer on the National Hot Rod Association circuit since 1994 and, in that time, his career has included 20 NHRA national victories as well as 30 NHRA divisional victories. Six of the national victories were in the Top Fuel class, where the cars have 8,000hp, are powered by a mixture of nitromethane and methanol and can hit 160kph in 0.7 seconds. "In the last five years, I have been in the top five [drag car] drivers in the world, I'm pretty proud of that," says Fuller.
He cut his teeth as a drag racer in northern Arkansas and, for that, he is grateful. "It's a pretty good scene, there are bigger races but the grassroots racing is a great way to start - it built a solid foundation for my professional career," he says. "I learnt that some guys got their opportunity because they were financially better off, but at the grassroots level, it is more about being a good driver than how much money you have."
Fuller's professional career has had plenty of memorable moments, and when he is asked to name a career highlight, he makes an intriguing choice. "A major highlight, which was also a lowlight, was when I lost the Top Fuel world championship in 2007 - they changed the way they scored it so I would have been world champion under the old system. Deep down, I knew I was the best that year." Another highlight for Fuller came in 1997 when he won an All-Stars Super Gas championship, an event that featured the world's top eight racers at the time.
"That was my most prestigious win," he reflects. "And it was in Las Vegas, which is my home town." For all his pride in his drag racing achievements, the diminutive driver is quick to laugh at himself. "I think I have ADD," he says when asked why he enjoys the rapid contests on the drag racing quarter-mile strips. "I think I'd get bored in a four-hour race." But he also believes that a driver who has achieved highly in one form of motorsport can make the transition to another. "If you take the best driver in any discipline, you'll find that racecar drivers are wired the same way, we are all dedicated to what we do, there is the talent, the concentration, they can probably be competitive in any discipline with some training."
"I've raced go-karts and dirt track racing and tested for Nascar trucks, but I kept going back to drag racing," says Fuller. "It's the adrenaline, it happens fast. When I'm in a drag car, I feel like Elton John behind a piano - he can probably play other instruments well, too, but he is obviously at home at a piano, that is where he is meant to be." Fuller is excited about the new phase in his life, with his role in Abu Dhabi involving teaching as well as some competing, and he plans to maintain his trademark closeness with his fans, especially via his blog and Facebook page, where he has close to 4,000 friends and says he always answers emails from fans personally.
"I am totally accessible to my fans and talk about everything on my blog, even if I do something stupid," he laughs. "I even talk about my dating life, which is generally disastrous. My mother is always trying to marry me off." His blog has of late been very open about the rough year he had in 2009 and the lead-up to accepting the job in Abu Dhabi, including a rediscovery of his Christian faith and the stress involved with losing his major sponsor not long after buying a new house. Caterpillar, the manufacturer of construction equipment, was Fuller's major financial backer, but it pulled out after the decline of the US building industry during the global economic crisis.
"I had no race team," says Fuller. "It was three weeks before the season started and my team was disbanded." But Fuller came to terms with suddenly being without a team and started to see a positive side to the situation: "Last year taught me a lot; I became very appreciative of what I have and my priorities changed. "I don't think I would have had this opportunity otherwise, and before that, I was very resistant to change. I am like a little cautious cat and everything I do is very calculated.
"I've always wanted to teach and develop talent," he explains. "I love the sport and I always want to be around it. "The hard part for me was that it was my first time out of America, it was a big step for me to go somewhere that I'm not familiar with, and America can have some very misconceived ideas about this region." "I was a little nervous but I got on my computer and did my research and I found out what they have [at Yas Marina circuit], what type of buildings, and I talked to my father and my mother, who are like the backbone for my life, and they said it would be a great opportunity," says Fuller.
A big part of Fuller's new opportunity in Abu Dhabi will be helping develop the skills of Emirati drag racers such as Juma al Kaabi, Rashid Bin Tamin and Khalid al Zaidi of the SPG team. They are competing this weekend at Yas Island and look forward to driving in front of a home crowd. "I started racing in the streets and then at the raceway at Umm Al Quwain," says al Kaabi, who runs his own car workshop. "I'd like to break a world record."
At this stage, the three Emirati drivers self-fund their team and are only interested in sponsorship from UAE companies. "The car alone costs Dh400,000," says Al Zaidi. "But we are proud to represent our country and we only want UAE sponsors." While the GP2 and Australian V8 races were not well attended at Yas Marina Circuit, Fuller is confident the drag racing facility will be a success. "They've hired the best track manager [George Case], the best drivers - and I include myself in that. They have hired people at the top of their game."
The confidence Fuller has is echoed by the Emirati drivers who are also convinced that the drag racing will be a crowd puller for the Abu Dhabi track. Bin Tamin sums it up: "It is a dead sport here that has come alive." firstname.lastname@example.org