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Reprinted from Fuel Curve
Keith Black was born in 1927 in Huntington Park, California, and was a self-taught mechanic. His motivation to understand the inner workings of the automobile got off to a rocky start when he disassembled his parents’ car while they were at church. Upon their return, they found their precocious 14-year-old sitting in the driveway amidst an explosion of parts, the car deconstructed down to its tiniest elements. Keith casually informed his dumbfounded parents that he was simply trying to understand why the engine needed a rebuild.
Later, KB learned engine mechanics in a more conventional manner, working for local shops, including ones owned by famed hot-rod gurus Vic Edelbrock, Sr., Art Sparks, and Clay Smith. “Working with Clay taught him a lot about camshafts and timing,” Black’s son Ken explained to Hemming’s Motor News. “It made him realize that a block just held all the parts –the camshaft and the timing made everything happen.”
Keith first made things happen in boat racing, as a driver and engine builder. He was quite successful at both, but he treated it as a hobby not a profession. A serious accident and the responsibility of a young family forced him to forsake driving for engine building – a choice that would change the face of boat and drag racing for decades.
His original focus was on the venerable Ford Flathead V8, which he learned how to tweak for power in ways that dominated Southern California boat racing. He set several world records at the Salton Sea.
His success atop water begat customers who raced on land – drag racers, lakes runners, the usual SoCal speed-addicted crowd. By 1959, he had enough business to open up his own shop. Drag racers were particularly interested in Black’s unique alchemy of straight-line power, and through a series of serendipitous events, created the famous Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster.
Owner Tommy Greer, driver Don Prudhomme, and Black the engine builder together formed an unbeatable triumvirate. Their success came on the heels of the NHRA nitromethane-fuel prohibition, which was lifted in 1963.
“We started out like a bunch of kids,” Black explained to Hot Rod magazine’s Dave Wallace in 1979. “We didn’t know anything about the cars, so we just started plugging along, learning as we went.”
Greer, a Black boat-racing client, sourced a used Kent Fuller chassis; Black donated a blown fuel Chrysler Hemi; fabricator Wayne Ewing knocked out the bodywork; and the orange (and later yellow) hue was applied by Prudhomme. The synergy created by this team proved nearly unbeatable, winning all but 10 of 250 career races – and four of those losses were to jet cars.
The effort’s triumph also launched long-term success for Prudhomme, who went on to become the most successful fuel-car racer in NHRA history; and Keith Black Racing Engines, which became a dominant race-engine maker for the next several decades, particularly as a supplier to Chrysler racing, track and marine. The KB-Chrysler collaboration included 473c.i. blown alky stroker marine engines, 318c.i. small-blocks for Andy Granatelli’s USAC stable, SCCA Trans-Am powerplants, and the legendary NASCAR Plymouth Superbird.
In the ’70s, original cast-iron Chrysler Hemi blocks were becoming rare. To fill the demand for fuel motors, Ed Donovan and Milodon Engineering introduced new aluminum copies of the Chrysler 354-392c.i. “Firepower” iron blocks – but their versions were quickly eclipsed by Keith Black’s 426c.i. “Elephant” alloy block. Nearly every successful Top Fuel and Funny Car builder used a KB Elephant.
Among them was one of Black’s fiercest engine-building rivals, Ed Pink. (Pink, by the way, is an enthusiastic Goodguys hot rodder; his ’29 highboy took home the Stroker McGurk award at the West Coast Nationals in 2016.) “Keith was a smart guy and good competitor,” Pink recalled in a recent chat with Goodguys. “When you raced against him you knew you were going up against someone special. During our heyday, race promoters often played off the Black vs. Pink angle, and we would each bring four cars for a shootout. It was great!”
Renowned drag racing journalist Jon Asher, former editor of Car Craft, observed the Keith Black era firsthand. “Keith Black’s influence on drag racing is probably immeasurable,” Asher said. “From his early engine work to, ultimately, his development of the all-aluminum Hemi replica block, his contributions to performance were nothing short of stunning. Black’s development of the aluminum Hemi elevated drag racing into what might be termed the “modern era.’”
This era was also the apex of the Car Craft Magazine All-Star Drag Racing Team program. Black dominated in this venue as well, piling up votes like a pol in a gerrymandered congressional district. Between 1967 and 1981, he won Best Dragster Engine Builder 10 times; Best Funny Car Engine Builder three times, Best Fuel Racing Manufacturer twice, and in 1978 the prestigious Ollie Award, for overall contribution to the sport.
Black, according to Wallace, was driven by a fierce competitiveness, a drive that fueled his business as well as the race cars he fielded for himself. His KB engine blocks won Top Fuel and Funny Car championships in England, Sweden, Canada, Australia and the U.S. “That to me is like winning a race,” he told Wallace. “The fact that they all buy our stuff – and they all pay the same price, because we don’t sponsor anybody – means it’s accepted as the best.”
There’s little doubt that Keith Black is accepted as the best, as well. His record is unassailable. Sadly, Black passed away in 1991, but his mark, or should we say his “nitro cackle,” will live on forever in the history books of drag racing.
Reprinted from Motorsports Hall Of Fame of America
Born in Huntington Park, California, 1927, Keith Black lived and worked h1 the Golden State all his life. From an early age, he was a hands-on kid: “I always liked to get involved with mechanical things. When I was about 14,1 talked my mother into letting me take the old family car apart. I put rings and bearings in it, and when my dad came home, he about croaked when he saw his car al apart in the driveway, and his kid working on it.” His apprenticeship in the world of high performance included stints with Clay Smith, Art Sparks and Cliff Collins.
Black made his name first in the world of boat racing in the mid- 1940s. He was a fast learner, setting a world record the second time out on the Salton Sea. “I raced boats for a bit of myself, then someone said, ‘Come build an engine for me,’ and I built an engine (a flathead) for him. And then somebody else would say, ‘Well, gee, that ran good, so build me one,’ and someone else would want one, and so on. I got started in my backyard in the engine business. ”
In 1959, he opened Keith Black Racing Engines. By 1961, his boat racing exploits included nearly 50 national and international records. As his reputation grew, drag racers began to solicit his expertise. Tommy Greer, a longtime friend, then approached Keith with the idea of running a car together. It took more than a little convincing, but the final result was the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme Top Fueler. During the 1962 and 1963 seasons, it won over 250 eliminator rounds and lost fewer than 25! Prudhomme was succinct in his assessment of Black’s abilities: “It was unbelievable how smart this Keith Black was.”
Part of what made Keith Black so smart was his ability to take advice from the right people. “I accept what people say, if they are the authorities on what they are taking about; if what they say makes logical sense, then why not buy?” This information exchange was very much a two-way street. Many racers can remember long phone conversations with Black, picking his brain for insights, which he readily shared. “We provide an ongoing service center for information,” he said of his organization. “There is no limit. We’ve always tried to take the attitude that, if the customer does well, then we do well; so anything we can do that will enhance his capabilities to do better; ultimately we gain from.”
After stints with Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Top Fuel dragsters in the late 1960s and the Plymouth Barracuda Funny Car campaigned by “Big John” Mazmanian in the early 1970s, Black abandoned hands-on drag racing. He limited, if you can call it that, his activities to that of an engine manufacturer.
Keith Black’s development skills were not only known among racers, they were highly regarded by the Big Three as well. In 1965 Chrysler contracted with Black to develop their marine racing program. Keith loved this type of R&D work because of the challenge it presented, and the fact that it made good business sense.
In 1971, Ed Donovan introduced the first aftermarket aluminum engine. Before long a half-dozen engine building businesses were battling for the lion’s share of the aluminum aftermarket block/engine combo market. In less than a decade, Keith Black Racing Engines would come to dominate the market.
Virtually every top-name racer who has competed in Top Fuel or Funny Car has at one time used Keith Black equipment. His customers included legends “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney, Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato, John Force and “T.V.” Tommy Ivo. In addition to his famous engine work, Black was a pioneer in the development of clutches in the late 1960s when it was discovered that huge clouds of tire smoke wasn’t the fastest way down the strip.
Affectionately known as “Uncle Keith” to many friends in the drag racing community, his passing in 1991 to cancer was a sad day for all high-performance enthusiasts. Black was survived by his wife Jane and two children. Today, his son Ken continues with the family business.