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Artist Kenny Youngblood, the Michelangelo of Motorsports

Kenny Youngblood is a complicated guy. He’s most recognizable as the premiere motorsports artist. You’ve seen his work even if you’re not into art, because he’s done race-car graphics for more than 50 years, including a lot of early Funny Cars needing an artist’s touch to mimic headlights and grilles on flopper bodies. His art, posters, and prints have been around for decades, and you probably have some framed in your house. He also drove A/Fuel dragsters in the 1960s. He has managed numerous racing teams, including a couple of Top Fuel efforts. He started a Christian counseling ministry called Always An Answer. He says, “I love the Lord, but you’d have to knock me out and drag me to get me into a church.” See what we mean? He’s represented major companies with his hand-drawn, personalized, giveaway drawings at many races and events. He most recently put his online Fuel Coupe Magazine on hiatus, a project he churned out monthly for two years. And he’s an author. He’s finishing up his first book on relationships and has more on his list. He’s got lots of stories from the golden age of drag racing, too, so we’ve included a few along with how he ended up being the Michelangelo of Motorsports.

HRM] Let’s start by asking about your first dragster in the mid-1960s, an A/Gas dragster…

KY] A/Fuel! A/Fuel, please! When I started building my first dragster, I thought it would take a while, so I thought I’d start with A/Gas. It took a year or so to finish, so in my mind I’m going faster and faster, so by the time I finished it had to be with nitro.

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HRM] Were you any good?

KY] I believe I was great at driving, but not so good as a mechanic. Deep down I knew it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. I felt like the kid with his hand in the cookie jar, but there was nobody else to drive the thing and it was like being in the Army—I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again.

HRM] But you love drag racing—isn’t driving the ultimate?

KY] Yeah, but that’s not what the good Lord wanted me to do. I got out of it in 1969. But I had another opportunity; with my partner from the 1960s, we built a beautiful nostalgia dragster in 2002. I was fitted for the car and it was tempting, but all along I knew I shouldn’t do this and Tom Poindexter drove instead. There’s nothing like stepping on that tire, putting my legs down into a slingshot, and sliding down into that seat with my legs over the rear end—it’s a real sensual experience.

HRM] That sounds like you feel you should have stuck with it?

KY] To me, there’s three kinds of drivers: there’s guys like me having fun and doing a good job. I really didn’t care who won or lost, and if they beat me it didn’t bother me; then there’s guys that want to win but don’t have the talent or the money; and then there’s what I call killer-instinct drivers, the Parnelli Jones, Shirley Muldowney, Don Garlits of this world that have to win. Second Place means nothing. They have a need for speed and an intense desire to beat the other guy, and that certainly wasn’t me.

HRM] What was your first dragster like—maybe a little crude?

KY] I found a used, sturdy Pete Ogden chassis with an Eddie Potter aluminum-tailpiece body, 150-inch. It didn’t have a motor plate, it just had a piece of body aluminum, which I thought was unusual at the time, but I left it that way. I’d go to Blair’s Speed Shop and buy parts and pieces. My technical knowledge came from advertising and articles I read in HOT ROD. If a product had a name I recognized, I’d buy it, but my enthusiasm far exceeded my knowledge. Unbeknownst to me, I was buying either the wrong parts or junk parts for the engine I was putting together.

HRM] Were you and the car any good?

KY] With the help of my partner, Fred Smith, we got the car running pretty good. One day we go to Irwindale and Fred had her tuned even better, and I knew we were going to go 180 mph. But not only did I not have a motor plate and had junk parts in my motor, back then fire boots weren’t mandatory—you had to have aluminized fire suits like a cooking bag, but I had on street shoes. I got to half-track pulling hard and I’m thinking about 180 mph and—wham!—the rods come out of the block, cut the pan in half, and I’m engulfed in flames. When it blew up, it was like, “What do I do now?” I waited until I got to the finish line and hit the parachute and it burned off. Then I hit the brakes and they’re hot Olds’ drum brakes and they didn’t work. Fortunately, I wasn’t going that fast. When you’re in a fire, it burns and stings like hell at first and then goes away because it burns the nerves. So with no motor plate, the fire is coming right at me like a chimney blowing up my pants leg. I get the thing stopped and skin is hanging from my sleeves and hands. The safety guy runs up and tries to unzip my fire suit and the zipper is hot and burns his fingers. Anyway, my ankles are cooked with third-degree burns. Steve Gibbs was the track manager at Irwindale and he came over to see me in the hospital and visited a couple of other times the week I was there. Back then, unlike today, your pit pass was your insurance policy, and it paid for any medical bills you incurred. About six months later, I’m healed up, but God works in miraculous ways because I got drafted to go to Vietnam in 1967. I had scars on various parts of my body, but the bad ones were right around both ankles, and they told me I couldn’t wear boots, so they wouldn’t take me. I believe the good Lord made that happen to keep me from going to Vietnam. If I had a motor plate, boots, or good parts, nothing would have happened—all three of those things had to be in place. But we weren’t done.

HRM] You didn’t stop after that?

KY] No. I think I hold the record for the longest start-to-finish run without crashing with no steering. While I was in the hospital, I designed another car. I couldn’t afford a Woody Gilmore car because that was top of the line, but a friend had a Woody chassis. I measured every tube and angle and did a blueprint drawing. I had Fred Crowe’s fabricator build the car from my drawings. It handled like a dream and we started racing again, although this time I got the best fire suit and boots, and if anything went wrong on a run, I’d shut it off faster than anybody because I didn’t want to have problems again. My inexperience almost got me again, but I dodged another bullet. This time I bought all the nice stuff, but I’m a bit of a fabricator myself. I needed a steering arm to go on top of the spindle to connect the draglink, so I made one out of 1/4-inch T6 aluminum to save some weight. But because the axle is laid back so far, if you turn hard left or right it slowly twisted the little steering arm I made. I didn’t know until I made the turn around to stage at Irwindale—the arm cracked and fell off. The draglink was laying on the tie rod. I dumped the clutch and, man, it took off, but started wandering around. I’m correcting and correcting and it’s not responding. I get to half-track and it starts taking a move to the guardrail. I’m correcting to the right and nothing is happening, so it was either get out of it or hit the fence. I lifted and it corrected back to the right, because we had the torsion bar tweaked to the right to compensate for the engine torque. Letting go of the steering wheel would slowly make it turn to the right by itself. I think I’m correcting it, so I hit the hammer again and go through the lights at more than 180 mph. I’m wandering through the lights going side to side wondering what is wrong. I hit the parachute, kill the motor, yank the steering to the right, and it just spins in my gloves. I got out of the car and my partner comes down and yells at me, “Why did you lift, you’re always lifting.” I pointed at the tie rod sitting on the ground and said, “Because of that!” He looks at it and says, “Well, Prudhomme wouldn’t have lifted.”

HRM] That was finally it for your racing career?

KY] Well, those incidents and a few others led to me thinking Fred wasn’t a good tuner and he thinking I wasn’t a good driver, so we split up. In the meantime, my buddy, Greg Messenger, had a B/Fuel Desoto dragster that belonged to Bob Brooks and he asked me to do the lettering after Dick Olson painted it. I painted a little hippie on the cowl because it was the late-1960s and dope smoking was cool. When he took it back to Dick for the clearcoat, Dick told me he was tired of waiting in line at Tom Kelly’s for lettering; at the time, Kelly was the man—still is, in my opinion. He asked me to do lettering there. That started everything for me. They did fiberglass repair and regular repairs, but did race cars, too. They built the “Beach City Corvette” and other cars right there.

HRM] Had you done lettering on the side before?

KY] I hadn’t taken any sign-painting classes, so I’m learning the hard way, watching guys like Jack Burr at Blair’s and Steve Fineberg, but things went well. One day there’s a call and the guy says, “Hey, it’s ‘Jungle.’” So it’s Jungle Jim and he wants me to letter his car, but I had to do it at his shop. In those days, lots of racers match-raced and then came out to the West Coast for the winter and worked on their cars over by Disneyland. They were building Liberman’s car at Jack “Bear” Green’s shop, and those two were both shaky characters. At Bear’s shop is Jungle’s old, beat-up Nova body and next to it the new one. He tells me he wants it done exactly like the old one with the big Jungle Jim in gold leaf. Tim Beebe and Tom McEwen show up—their shop was right across the street, they called it the “cave.” That day a bunch of drag racers were playing cards at the cave. They’d got paid in cash for match racing and they had wads of cash. So Jungle started playing cards and every 20 minutes or so he’d check in to see how I was doing. I got done and it came out beautiful—Jungle walks in and says, “You’re going to have to take that off.” I ask, “How come?” He says, “I told you I wanted it to be just like the other car.” I said, “It is.” He says, “No, it’s a quarter-inch too low.” On the side of the body, there was a break line in the door and the bottom of the “J” on the “Jim” on the old car was right to that break. Sure enough, on mine it was a quarter-inch below that line. Technically, he was right, so I say, “OK, you’re right, I’ll take it off.” I get out the paint thinner and start taking it off and he whips out this giant wad of cash and says, “Here’s for your gold leaf that you’ll need” and hands me more than I was going to charge for the whole job. I tell him I’ll get more gold leaf and come back Monday and redo it. So Monday I go back to the shop and walk into the office. He’s leaning back in a chair with his hands against his head and sees me and just about falls backward. I say, “Hey, Jungle,” and he says, “I didn’t think you’d come back.” I don’t know whether he was testing me or what, but if he was I must have passed because he became my new best friend. He’d call me all of the time and in the middle of the night.

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HRM] You did a lot of lettering and airbrush work at different shops, then what?

KY] About 1970 Don Kirby, another painter I did work for, wanted me to meet Bob Casner. Bob was a marketing genius and had a great idea. He wanted to put a creative group together under one roof to service motorsports. A racer could get a proposal, photography, press kit, rendering, all of that. He rented a place in Long Beach and I was his artist. It was called Racing Graphis—Bob was German and graphics in German is “graphis.” Everybody always corrected us telling us graphics was spelled wrong. Bob knew everybody, Mickey Thompson, Parnelli, all of the big racers. He was my mentor and taught me how to collect on bad checks and important things like that. I had two jobs for a long time; I’d get up early and go to Racing Graphis, then go to Kirby’s race shop and letter cars in the evenings. In the morning, I’d do the same thing. I knew at some point I’d have to make a choice, and as much as I liked painting cars—and I still love the smell of a paint shop in the morning—my artistic talents would be better spent on the drawing board, so I told Don and soon he brought Nat Quick in to take over for me. I moved into my own studio in Santa Ana and there have never been enough hours in the day to do what I like doing. I guess I was the first fulltime artist doing art and graphics for motorsports.

HRM] When did you start doing the limited prints and posters?

KY] In 1978 I started doing the paintings. I had done some paintings in the 1960s and never had a problem selling them. I thought there was this popularity of motorsports and drag racing that if someone had a choice of what they could hang on their wall it would be a race car instead of a flowerpot or landscape. I started making prints of some of the paintings of cars I lettered. I had done the art-gallery thing and thought it sucked, so I started a mail-order deal selling direct to the customer. It was great and the more time I gave to it the better it did. Finally, when it started to trend off a bit and the economy changed, I sold the print inventory I had in the late-1980s and moved to Vegas.

HRM] That’s when you started the personalized art for corporations?

KY] I came up with the idea to get corporate sponsors to use my art as giveaways. John Ewald was working for Firestone at the time, and they were doing 18 to 20 shows a year. I showed him my idea for doing four or five prints with Firestone on the tires, and then go to shows with markers, personalize it for each person, and give it to them. I started doing that and people lined up out the door waiting to get my drawings. Everyone liked that I was giving somebody something personal. I call it the “ultimate marketing tool” because people take them home and frame them with the client’s logo on them. It appeals to all ages, and even though people don’t know me, they watch me do it for them and it’s personal. So far I’ve worked for three of the top companies in America: Toyota, Firestone/Bridgestone, and PPG Paint. I still do paintings for affluent clients, what I call “Monuments on Canvas” (MonumentsOnCanvas.com). They’re expensive, and it’s tough finding customers for expensive stuff—you’ve got to find the guy that can afford it, but also likes art, and they’re becoming few and far between.

HRM] And you have a counseling ministry?

KY] Yes, I’m a drag-racing Jesus freak. It’s called Always An Answer (AlwaysAnAnswer.org). I’ve been counseling for 40 years. That’s the one thing on my bucket list, to get the good information out there. In this computer age, you can reach the world, so I want to take advantage of that.

HRM] You’ve been involved in drag racing for decades, so what would you do to make drag racing better?

HRM] It’s a simple answer and it amazes me that this is the last thing they’ll do, but the first rule of business is the law of supply and demand. When you give people what they want, the business thrives. It’s the same thing for racing: Give people what they want. Unfortunately, it seems like the last person racing organizations think about is the person who paid the money to sit his butt in the stands, so that’s the general problem. This is why we’re seeing the tremendous resurgence of nostalgia drag racing, because it’s what people liked in the beginning that is lost—Cacklefest, push starts, cars that look like real cars, Fuel Altereds, Gassers. It’s giving people more of what they want. When you look at drag racing now, they have taken away so much of the things that made it so great. A few months ago, we did an interview with Don Prudhomme in Fuel Coupe magazine, and I asked him what he thought about modern-day nostalgia Funny Cars. He said, “Yeah, it’s good, but they need to be putting on more of a show like we used to do, like doing dry hops.” Back in the day, there were no rules about how many burnouts you could do, so Funny Cars came up and did a long, smoky burnout and they backed up and did a dry hop. You had two cars doing a dance, and that was part of the entertainment. Then it went away. Did it go away because NHRA got letters from fans complaining? No, they did it because they wanted to get home sooner. Same with Fuel Altereds. Were fans sick of them? No, they took them away because they said they were unsafe. Well, everything out there is unsafe.

HRM] Can it go back?

KY] Sure! Will it? Doubtful.

HRM] Why did you stop doing your online magazine, Fuel Coupe?

KY] Fuel Coupe was a labor of love. I did it for two years and loved it. It was paying for itself and making some money, but the reason I stopped was because it took a week out of my month to put together, and also because I hate deadlines. I put myself under a deadline every month, and that pressure for me is just no fun, so I did it for two years and that’s that.

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HRM] Is there a certain team or driver you like today?

KY] I’m a huge Don Schumacher fan, and I know he’s hard to love. I tell people I’m his only fan, but I love and respect the guy because he’s a great white shark, he’s a total business man. He wants to win and dominate. When I was crew chief for Gillman, I realized there was a higher goal than winning. If you go to a race, everybody out there wants to win. But there’s a higher goal, and that’s total domination. That means not only winning today but winning every race forever—you win everything. That’s total domination. You can say, “Well, that’s not going to happen,” which is true, but I believe if your goal is total domination you’re going to win more than the guy whose goal is just to win. The first person I heard use that total domination phrase was Austin Coil. I believe when the dust settles, if he lives long enough, Don Schumacher will be the last man standing. Nobody wants it more than John Force, but Force is too emotional, whereas Schumacher is strictly a business machine. Force is an amazing guy and I have great respect for him and nobody wants it more than he does, but my money is on Schumacher.

HRM] Finally, what words of encouragement do you have for young artists interested in drawing or painting cars?

KY] First thing I tell budding artists is there will always be a place for hand-done, traditional artwork, and if that’s what you want to do, keep doing that. Today almost 100 percent of everything is digital, so you’ve got to know Photoshop and other digital software because that’s how things are done today. For a guy that has a good eye, even if he’s not great at art, the computer becomes your tool. Just because you can’t draw doesn’t mean you don’t have an eye for it—a lot of people that can’t draw a straight line know good art. That’s why I always listen if somebody has a critique about something I’ve done because they might see something I missed. I also tell them the creative process is fixing what’s wrong. When you start a painting, it’s completely blank, so you start drawing things onto it. I believe the good Lord tells us to darken this or highlight that, so we start fixing what’s wrong, and when we can’t see anything else wrong, we say it’s done. So the bottom line is the artist must always look at his work critically because if they don’t they won’t see what’s wrong and can’t get better. I look at my work critically and know the parts I don’t like. Practice makes perfect and every time you do a drawing it’s an aggregate of everything you’ve learned. People tell me they want to get into doing art and I’ll ask to see something they’ve done, and they’ll say, “Oh, I don’t want to show you, it’s not very good.” I’ll look at it and sometimes it is good, and they have talent and they’ve been looking at their work critically, which they should. You need to keep things in perspective—you’re always going to find people that can do things better than you, but there’s more that can’t do it as well as you, so you need to remember that.

The post Artist Kenny Youngblood, the Michelangelo of Motorsports appeared first on Hot Rod Network.