“The World’s Fastest Man” Ernie Tuff takes his 1932 Duesenberg replica to the Goodview parade.  SUBMITTED PHOTO
“The World’s Fastest Man” Ernie Tuff takes his 1932 Duesenberg replica to the Goodview parade. SUBMITTED PHOTO
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Rushford native Ernie Tuff has been dubbed the “World’s Fastest Man.” He’s not a runner, he’s not even a racer, he modifies cars and engines to make some of the fastest cars in the world, and he has done this for over 50 years.

Tuff is modest about his title as this acclaim, to him, is “not too bad.” This month marks the 50th anniversary of Tuff breaking the track record with a speed of 172 miles per hour.

After years of working on car engines, Tuff first tasted the thrill of competition at Daytona in 1963.

“I went down there in ’63 with an Edsel engine . . . and (the driver) rolled it over seven times in the time trials,” he said. “So, the next year, I got the best driver in the world.”

Tuff managed to get hall of fame racer Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Jr., to race in his ’64 Ford.

According to Roberts, the car “goes like a sailor on shore leave.”

When Roberts competed in the ’64 qualifying race, a new track record was set at 170.47 mph. Roberts wowed audiences as he left his competitors far behind.

“Their cars got up to 165 and mine was 170,” said Tuff with a smile.

Representatives from Ford approached Tuff and asked if they could provide their own pit crew. “Ford wanted me to win so bad,” recalled Tuff. “They said, ‘We want to beat those Chevys. We’ll pit for you.’”

But, Tuff was underwhelmed with the pit crew’s performance. Tuff’s car ran out of gas, as the crew didn’t accurately time out laps as Tuff did. Tuff also noted how the crew seemed unprepared for the little things, such as having chalk for the chalkboard in the pit. NASCAR eventually disqualified Tuff’s vehicle for the race, due to the pit crew’s negligence concerning refueling.

This didn’t stop Tuff from continuing to improve his vehicles. Tuff recalled a conversation with racing legend Lee Petty, father of racing superstar Richard Petty, where Tuff was detailing the adjustments made to a hemi engine. Tuff was able to put in a half stroke more in a hemi engine, without damaging the engine. Petty laughed at him and jokingly bet that Tuff would be unable to produce.

Tuff turned around and created the first car in the world to average over 180 mph. Lee Roy Yarbrough showed audiences the capabilities of this engine.

“(The other cars) were left in the dust,” said Tuff. “They said, ‘Now, we know for sure; there’s no way to keep up with that guy in Minnesota.’”

Rule changes prevented Tuff from submitting modified vehicles after that. A stipulation about modified engines evened the playing field so that only modified vehicles that were three years old or older could be entered.

Tuff continued to be successful as he worked on developing a car that could run based off of an alcohol fuel in 1982. He entered a contest based in Lincoln, Neb., to develop the “Most Efficient Alcohol Burning Car.” The car got 29.4 miles to the gallon, and Tuff received $1,000 for his ingenuity.

The car didn’t get used again after showcasing the vehicle and what it could do. The experts hosting the contest, according to Tuff, just wanted to see what a vehicle could do, using only alcohol for fuel.

Then, at the age of 71, Tuff heard about a crew that needed a vehicle to race in the Bonneville Salt Flats. Friends advised Tuff, “They will never listen to you,” but Tuff replied, “If I’m the only one in the state that can do it, I’m going to do it.”

The concerns of friends were warranted, as the team initially rejected Tuff’s assistance. “You gotta listen to somebody,” Tuff told the team. “You struck out!”

Realizing that they couldn’t compete on their own, the team hired Tuff, who proceeded to hand them a vehicle that set four separate records over the course of five years.

The car now rests at the Historical Society in Winona, on permanent display.

All of these accomplishments are even more impressive, considering Tuff’s beginnings. In school, Tuff struggled and left school before completing the seventh grade. However, Tuff looked to brilliant men who accomplished great things with limited schooling, like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. 

“I’d sooner be like Henry and Thomas, and do something,” said Tuff.

Looking back at an impressive life, Tuff indeed did something noteworthy.