Black Magic – Keith Black, Drag Racing’s Iconic Engine Builder
Anyone with even a passing interest in drag racing has heard the name Keith Black. He is arguably the most famous non-driver in quarter-mile racing history. Yet there’s irony in that descriptor, for he learned his early engine-building chops tuning powerful Ford Flatheads for speed boats. He made waves on water before he did so on land.
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.