The biggest Top Fuel Indy field in a decade has assembled at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park for the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, and two of the 25 cars belong to Scott Palmer, who wouldn’t even be still racing Top Fuel if not for the inspiration that Pro Stock team owner Ken Black gave him 17 years ago.
Today he has matching cars for him and Alex Laughlin, two big tractor-trailers, and all of the crew guys and help he needs, but in 2005, Palmer was still a struggling, neophyte Top Fuel racer. He had 17 DNQs in his first 26 races spanning 2002-04, and 2005 started out poorly, with a blown rear tire at the Winternationals that damaged the chassis.
“We were struggling big time, we did not have any business having a Top Fueler,” he admitted, “but the only way to learn is to get one. Kalitta had helped us some and Rob Flynn had helped us, just some advice to keep us from getting hurt. We were just struggling; we didn't have any parts and we didn't have any money. We weren't good at it. I know people were laughing at us because we were not good.
“I had a small feal with O’Reilly, which wasn’t any money, just a thing where they gave me access to their vendors, but I needed to go to Memphis [the O’Reilly Mid-South Nationals] to get the money. Jim Wiens, who is still my clutch guy and also builds chassis, patched the car up. We show up there, and I believe it was me and Spencer Massey on the Rebeca we were so bad that nobody wanted to work for us,
“Anyway, so we show up in Memphis and we missed qualifying, ad we’re in the puts Saturday night and Ken Black walks over to me. I did not know Ken Black — I'd actually never met him; I might have waved at him in the staging lanes once — but never had a conversation with him.”
At the time, Black, best known as the car owner for the Summit-backed Pro Stock team of Greg Anderson and Jason Line, was putting together a Top Fuel team for Hillary Will for the 2006 season,
“We were loading the trailer, and he said, 'Hey, I want to talk to you for a minute about this team I’m putting together.’ He asked me a few questions and for my opinions about Top Fuel and I told him the truth, some of which probably wasn't politically correct. I told him that it's tough out here, that sometimes the guys who work hardest — the little guys — usually don't get the deals. It wasn't the answer that normal people would say, but he said he appreciated my honesty. We probably talked for 30 to 45 minutes.
“He asked if I was sticking around for Sunday and I told him I was only five or six hours from home and might leave that night. He said, 'Stay here till tomorrow; I want to talk to you. Are you going to Indy?’ And I said, 'Absolutely not. We didn't qualify here with 17 cars. If I go to Indy, there's going to be 30.
“I didn't think anything about it — I just thought he wants to say bye or something — it was just so odd for Ken Black to come up and talk to me because he’s a Pro Stock guy. I love Pro Stock because I'm a big Bob Glidden fan.
“Anyway, later that night, probably 11:30 or midnight, we’re ready to leave. The truck’s running, the lights are on, we're airing up, we're going to try to back out and go home and Ken comes back. He says, ‘You need to go to Indy.’ I said, ‘I'm not going to Indy. I have no chance whatsoever of going to Indy and doing anything except looking bad.’
“He told me that he and George Marnell had been to Indy something like seven times before they even qualified, and he said, ‘Real racers go to Indy. Let me ask you something: If you knew you were going to qualify at Indy and get that money, would you go?’
“I said ‘Yeah. Yeah, I would,’ and he whips out a personal check for double the Indy qualifying money, puts it in my pocket, and says, ‘I want you to take this. Half of that, consider yourself "qualified." The other half. buy some parts. You're a real racer. You're going to Indy.’ But he told me, ‘I don't want people knowing I did this. I'm doing this for you. I don't want anyone to know; don’t tell anybody.
“We took that money and fixed the car and bought a few parts and went to Indy. We didn’t qualify but that wasn't the point. I’m not exaggerating. If that had not happened in Memphis, I would have been out of business. We literally were done.
“Originally, I wasn’t going to run Indy this year. We had Alex entered and I heard somebody saying that there were 24 cars entered at Indy, almost every car in the country. I don’t run national even that much anymore — I do all my match races, but I don't want to be a full-time guy. It was fine. I got in the top 10 I proved that he could do it. Now I just want to run the races I want — but I remembered what Ken said all those years ago, and I'm a real racer, so I called NHRA and entered.
“All of this because of what happened in Memphis, where I went to fulfill a deal little deal that wasn’t worth doing and met Ken Black. He told me then that he didn’t want anyone to know what he’d done so I haven’t until now, but I think it’s time he got the credit for helping me get to where I am today.”