Jane Miller: It's dealer's choice again for Fuller

Jane Miller

Since losing his team and sponsor so close to the beginning of the NHRA season, Top Fuel driver Rod Fuller has been diligently working to get back in the game.

His efforts have paid off in a one-race deal with Caterpillar dealer Patten Industries Inc., for the race at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., next month.

Fuller will use Bob Vandergriff Jr.'s equipment in his return to the NHRA.

The deal brings Fuller almost full circle. He started his Cat sponsorship deal with dealers two years ago.

"I've been real persistent on trying to restart this program, but doing it through dealers rather than corporate," Fuller said. "The last thing we need is for people to think Caterpillar is sponsoring a race car and throwing their money away."

Fuller's pitch to the dealers was to use the sponsorship as a way to help them in these difficult economic times.

"What we're going to try to do is sell equipment, we're going to sell machinery, we're going to sell parts and we're going to sell service and we're going to entertain your customers," he said. "The dealerships are all excited and their employees are excited."

Since the announcement of the race at Joliet, Fuller said other dealers have expressed interest in sponsoring him.

"Four dealers have called me and said, 'Run our race, Rod,'" he said.

The interested dealers reach all areas, from Indianapolis to the Northeast to the South and to the West.

"I think these dealers wanted to see if it was really going to happen and if corporate would allow it," he said. "And I guarantee you that if we're successful at it, other dealers are going to want to be involved. That's how (the full Cat) program got started and as long as we've got the dealers behind us, corporate will be behind us because that's what drives their business."

Fuller's partnership with Vandergriff also makes the package more attractive. The two are longtime friends and Vandergriff, who has more interest in ownership than driving, is highly respected.

"He's a great businessman and has a good reputation," said Fuller, who lost his last team - and Caterpillar's sponsorship - when the owner got in financial difficulty.

"All (Vandergriff's) equipment is paid for - all his bills are paid. He's a great asset and the two of us together are a formidable force," Fuller said.

The seven-time national event winner has tried to stay sharp while waiting for this chance by doing some bracket racing near his Las Vegas home. But most of his time has been spent looking for sponsors.

"I could have got a job but if I did that, I felt like I'd be doing myself an injustice," he said. "I owe it to myself to put everything I have into coming back racing."

Fuller said he has received many e-mails from fans who missed his dynamic personality and his running feud with Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher this season.

"They miss me because I'm very vocal," Fuller said. "And a lot of the personality is gone in Top Fuel."

Patten Industries has a plant on Laraway Road in Joliet, right next to the race track. Fuller hopes to have a large contingent of fans, not only from Patten, but from Caterpillar in general, at the race.

"I want to extend a welcome to every Caterpillar employee to come and see us," he said. "I want to see yellow in the stands like we had last year. Everyone is welcome to stop by and say hello."

It's been a difficult 2009 for Fuller but he now believes things are starting to turn for the better.

"I feel like the ball's rolling in the right direction for me," he said. "I had a lot of calls and opportunities to go with other sponsors and rides and they just weren't the right fit for me. And I didn't want to do a short-term deal.

"I feel like I have a perfect niche with Cat dealers and Caterpillar corporate. I feel like if I can ever get Caterpillar corporate back, I'll finish my career off with them," Fuller said.

Jane Miller is the Peoria Journal Star motorsports columnist. She can be reached at jmiller@pjstar.com.