I knew this would come up one day – I just didn’t know it would be two years later – but now seems to be about the perfect time considering the recent subject matter concerning Don Prudhomme and Barracudas. It may give you an excellent idea of what we drag racing historians do in our spare time and how the community can pull together to solve mysteries. Or deepen them.
It has been well-documented here and in other places that the yellow Barracuda in Prudhomme’s collection is the twin car built by Ronnie Scrima of Exhibition Engineering at the same time he built the Hot Wheels 'Cuda that “the Snake” ran in 1970. The twin was built for display in Chrysler’s Rapid Transit display, and, to be honest, I’m not sure if it ever raced. So, what became of the original race-driver 'Cuda? Good question.
Being the email pack rat that I am, I rooted through my old messages to dig up an email thread I had with fellow drag racing history nut Bret Kepner on this very subject. Several others ended up embroiled in the discussion/debate, and reviewing all of the emails, it looks as if we came to a clear conclusion. Oh sure, I could just cut to the chase and tell you what became of it, but what fun would that be? I'll unroll it as it happened, so you can see that our first assumptions and assertions aren't always correct.
So set the Wayback Machine to – oddly enough -- two years ago to this day, July 15, 2009. I got a phone call from former Funny Car driver Tom Hall, who took issue with Prudhomme’s version of the 'Cuda’s demise. ND Photo Editor Teresa Long and I had visited “the Snake” a few weeks earlier to shoot his collection of cars and take a ride in the then-freshly restored yellow ramp truck, and in my recap of that memorable day, Prudhomme told us that he had sold the original 'Cuda to Sammy Miller, who had wrecked it.
Hall insisted that Miller and Ken Poffenberger had bought it and that Poffenberger did run the car off the end of the track at Utica-Rome Sept. 11, 1971 (Hall knew the date because it was the weekend of his wedding, which is why Poffenberger was driving). "The car was rebuilt by Logghe, and the body was salvaged, and I drove it for two years up and down the East Coast until I blew it apart at Atco,” claimed Hall. “I blew the motor out of her and had a horrible fire. I pretty much destroyed the body. The car was called Mr. Natural.”
Kepner, ever the lover of underdogs, has an exceptional memory about obscure car/driver combinations, so he was my first stop on the confirmation tour.
“While Poffenberger did, indeed, run the car off the end of Utica-Rome, based on photos I've seen, I believe the damage was contained to the front axle and the front end of the body,” he stated. “I was always under the impression that the chassis remained in circulation long after its life as a fuel car. I vaguely remember hearing the chassis was still under one of the [East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit] cars in the mid-'70s. Tommy Hall did drive for Poffenberger; he previously made a few laps in Gary Richards' '70 Mustang AA/FC (the black car that was runner-up at the '70 Summernationals at York with Vic Brown driving), but I was under the assumption the Mr. Natural 'Cuda was a brand-new '72 version and not the remnants of Prudhomme's '70 car."
I mentioned to Kepner that Hall had told me the chassis had been repaired by the Logghe brothers and that the car and body carried on.
“Trust me,” he replied emphatically. “The Mr. Natural body is not Prudhomme's '70 'Cuda. The '70 'Cuda body was a heavyweight featuring molded grille, headlights, taillights, and even door openings. The Mr. Natural body was a classic '72 lightweight with flat nose (airbrushed grille, etc.). There’s no question though the yellow [Super Puffer] 'Cuda is Prudhomme's '70 model.”
One telltale feature of the original 'Cuda body is the molded rear spoiler. According to Willie Wolter, who researched and restored the Prudhomme 'Cuda, originally (as you can see in early photos of the car), there was a spoiler on the roof, just ahead of the rear window, put there by a Chrysler engineer, but the car tended to wheelstand at half-track, so they were moved to the back deck, which is how the restored 'Cuda looks. You can see these on the photos of the Super Puffer.
A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Jeff Mittendorf, whose fabulous Hot Wheels collection has been featured here, also asking for details of the 'Cuda’s demise. He pointed me to a DragRacingOnline story about Miller. That story reported that Miller drove Poffenberger’s Poff's Puffer Corvair Funny Car in 1970 and continued, “Towards the end of the year, Miller decided he wanted his own Funny Car. Enlisting the aid of his father Sam, who owned a construction company, he bought Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels 1970 Barracuda and set up a rigorous schedule for 1971. … He ran the Prudhomme Barracuda only a few times before he wanted something more state of the art.” It doesn’t mention any involvement by Poffenberger with the 'Cuda, but maybe that’s supposed to be understood?
Mittendorf also pointed me to a page on the 70sfunnycars.com site, whose info generally comes very reliably from 1970s Funny Cars expert Danny White. “Ken Poffenberger bought this famed 'Cuda as a used car from Don Prudhomme. The 'Cuda ended Poffenberger’s string of Chevrolet-powered Funny Cars that began with a match-bash Chevelle. Woody Gilmore ["built"? word missing on page] the 'Cuda for Don Prudhomme as his first Funny Car. By 1971, the face of Funny Car was changing quickly, and Prudhomme built a new, lighter Funny Car. Poffenberger bought the year-old Funny Car and took it back East to match race with the best the Northeast had to offer. Sammy Miller, Tom Hall, and Poffenberger all drove the Hemi-powered Funny Car. The car ran low sevens at 200 mph plus. Poffenberger parked the car when the costs got too high.”
More confusion to the issue. First, I’m not sure where Danny got the Woody Gilmore part because the car definitely was built by Scrima. When Wolter found the second car, he had the SFI chassis tags checked out both by Scrima and Carl Olson at SEMA, where records still exist on decades-old cars. Danny says Poffenberger bought it, DRO says Miller. The rest of the info seems correct as we know it.
Two weeks later, enter into the discussion Dennis Doubleday, who also has a pretty good background in early Funny Cars and included the images at right of the car after Poffenberger’s crash. “It happened at Utica-Rome, N.Y., in June of 1971, and Poffenberger suffered hand and ankle injuries. Sam Miller was well on his way to running his own new Duster at this point. Tom Hall did crash a Poffenberger Barracuda, but that happened in 1973. He had a fire at Atco, had minor burns, but burned the body off. Poffenberger had a Logghe car in 1972, so I suspect the Hall-fire car was the Logghe car.” (Doubleday has a copy of the July 16, 1971, Drag Times that reports the date of Poffenberger’s Utica-Rome crash as June 26, 1971, not Sept. 11 as Hall stated.)
All of that begins to make more sense. I had wondered why Poffenberger and Hall would have Logghe repair a Scrima chassis; so perhaps Hall may simply have confused the two? I copied Kepner on Doubleday’s info, which only raised more questions. I was quickly getting a headache.
“Weird!” Kepner mused. “The photo from Dennis throws an entirely new paint scheme into the discussion! We already know the yellow car AND the Mr. Natural car were damaged. Does this constitute a third crash?”
Don Prudhomme with the roof spoiler in 1970
At which point, with the skill and patience of a trial lawyer handling his summation to the jury, Doubleday presented, with photos, a timeline of the 'Cuda, which is presented in the photo gallery at right (apologies and thanks to all whose photos are included herein). It begins, as you can see, with the original “Snake” 'Cuda (with roof spoiler) and versions of the car (and McEwen’s Duster) without the roof spoilers.
He then transitions us (photo 5) to the car after it left Prudhomme’s hands. We see what appears to be the car sponsored by Miller’s family construction business (as outlined in the DRO article) from a National DRAGSTER clipping. The angle of that photo makes it hard to see if the stars are on the roof, hood, and back deck as they were on Prudhomme’s car and as they are shown about a month later in Pomona. You’ll see the car in a couple of different paint schemes, including the one that Poffenberger crashed (the car was not yellow anymore, as Kepner had assumed), then the Mr. Natural car that seems to have a different body but perhaps the same chassis.
After studying all of the photos that Doubleday provided, Kepner backpedaled a bit on his initial claims about the body.
“I honestly believe (based on the rear window and the interior bulkheads) the body was the original yellow '70 'Cuda even into the Mr. Natural phase,” he said. “When Hall mentioned ‘the body was salvaged,’ that clinched it for me. Let's face it, Poff managed to keep those damned Prudhomme-initiated
Keystone Cragar SS wheels on the front for four years. Prudhomme's high-dollar magnesium rear Halibrands can be seen obviously damaged in the Utica-Rome shots. That would account for the only variation in the entire package (other than paint and front/rear clips), which was the addition of new chromed rear wheels, which appeared after the Utica-Rome incident.
“The molded front end was obviously replaced with the flat, airbrushed version after Utica-Rome, and the rear clip (identifiable by the molded taillights and '70-model vertical bumpers) was probably replaced several times. Note where the break in the body occurs on the front after the NYNS crash; it's right at the leading edge of each front wheelwell where the heavy molded front end would have been affixed to the main body. In the Mr. Natural NYNS aftermath shots, the rear fascia would never have come out in one piece unless the body was a multi-piece molding, common in '68-'70.
“Moreover, the car retains trunk indentation lines. That's also something the true '71-'74 'Cudas almost always lacked, but Prudhomme's '70 had indentations, all the way to drip moldings, throughout. Although it's difficult to tell, it also seems the later versions retained the yellow car's trademark injector opening in which the Plexiglas windshield orifice was substantially smaller than the interior aluminum work opening."
Doubleday also pointed out that the 1974 'Cuda had a full-width rear spoiler as opposed to the split spoiler that Prudhomme had run and that was on the Poffenberger car through 1972. This could have been explained by a back-half job after either the Utica-Rome incident or the Atco fire. You can see that the yellow body has the split spoiler molded right onto the truck, and the red body has a full-width spoiler molded to the rear deck and a pair of extension flaps.
In conclusion, we would seem to agree that the original Prudhomme/Scrima chassis was used until the team got a new Logghe chassis for the 1974 season, and perhaps it had taken the Scrima chassis to Logghe for repairs after Poffenberger’s crash, which led to the later usage of a Logghe car. Seems plausible, as the MythBusters would say. The body, extensively repaired front and back, may well have been run until the Atco fire, where it appears heavily damaged and perhaps not salvageable, backing up Hall’s assertion.
The original chassis may indeed still be out there in circulation, but at 40 years and thousands of passes, probably not likely. The body may well have been disposed of or cut up by fans who probably don’t know they’re holding on to a little of drag racing history beneath the multiple paint schemes.
The floor is open for discussion.
(Above) Don Prudhomme shook down the Snake III 'Cuda at OCIR prior to its debut at the 1973 Supernationals. (Below) The fully decaled/painted car as it appeared at the Supernationals and Lions' Last Drag Race. (Steve Reyes photos)
Snake III as part of Hot Wheels' 2009-edition Drag Strip Demons collection.
Last week’s discussion about the notorious black-primer Snake III Barracuda of Don Prudhomme -- a car that was unveiled at season’s end in 1972 and competed at the NHRA Supernationals and The Last Drag Race, where “Snake” was runner-up to Tom McEwen, and at Beeline Dragway in Arizona -- opened up a whole new can of snakes, as it were.
As we have established, this John Buttera-built car went on to be painted yellow for the 1973 season, emblazoned with new sponsor Carefree Gum, and would win the U.S. Nationals. It was parked for the start of the 1974 season in favor of a laydown-style Vega (also from Buttera) but returned to the starting lineup in time to win the Gatornationals wearing the colors of “the Snake’s” new sponsor, the U.S. Army. It now resides in Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Florida.
The car is somewhat of a cult favorite among “Snake” devotees because a) a lot of folks outside of SoCal never saw it run; and b) it just looked bad-ass. It was so cool that Mattel even included it in its 30-car 2009 Drag Strip Demons collection (along with the Army-painted version and several other Prudhomme and McEwen cars).
So all was well and good in the “black Snake” universe until frequent Insider contributor “Chicago Jon” Hoffman brought to my attention the fact that there was a second black “Snake” 'Cuda that ran for a short time in 1973.
“In the spring of 1973, there was an excellent piece in Hot Rod, I believe called ‘The Glorious Life of the Snake & the 'Goo$e,’ where they were followed through a weekend up in the Northwest, running a big-deal Funny Car race at Seattle (sponsored by something called Skippers Fish & Chips) and, in the spirit of the era, barnstorming over to Pewallup [sic]. During the course of the piece, they made mention of the fact that ‘Snake’ had recently ‘tore up’ the car at Green Valley and made hasty repairs. From the 8/73 issue of Super Stock, at a 64-car extrava-gonzo at good 'ol Irwindale, the ‘Snake’s’ car appears again in primer, but completely different from The Last Drag Race. Now, like ‘comic-book-guy’ on The Simpsons, I could check down the list of differences, but I'll skip over that and get to one thing that REALLY jumps out. During '73, I noticed that right about the time this car started to really thunder with consistency was when the front end picked up an extra (it almost looks fabricated out of duct tape) spoiler. In its subsequent repainting of the Carefree colors, you also noticed that 'Snake' was on the front spoiler in much bigger letters than on the original. I'm no scientist, but I point to the repairs made on this Buttera machine at this point to be the pivotal moment as to when this car became that ‘rip their hearts out machine’ with which my man, Don ‘the Snake,’ began sawing his way through the competition."
|The second black Snake III 'Cuda with front spoiler addition (view bigger)
Hoffman referenced a Steve Reyes photo as his evidence, and “Super Steve” was obliging enough to send me the print in question (as well as the original black Snake III photos above), which indeed shows the car in black primer again. You can tell it’s kind of a hasty job because there’s no Carefree logo on the side (just a marooned Wynn’s logo as an island in a sea of black and the Cola-Cola logo). As you can see above, when the car ran at the end of 1972, it was adorned with all proper lettering and logos.
I can definitely see what “Chicago Jon” is talking about in this photo from Irwindale, but I’m not convinced this is any kind of permanent addition to the car nor responsible for him beginning to kick ass and take names. As the jury will see in subsequent photos of the car, this significant addition to the front spoiler disappears before he won Indy. (The original Snake III body clearly did not have this extra lip, and I had assumed that the same body from late 1972 would be used in '73.)
Here’s the early-1973 chronology I found about the Carefree 'Cuda. Prudhomme didn’t run the Funny Car at the 1973 Winternationals, choosing instead to concentrate on Top Fuel, in which he was the No. 1 qualifier before being upset in round one by Denver Schutz. The Carefree 'Cuda instead debuted at Irwindale Feb. 24 for a match race, and I can see a semblance of an extra spoiler in the small photo included in ND’s coverage but nothing definitive. Prudhomme ran the dragster only again at the March Meet and the Gatornationals.
I wasn’t sure of the timing of this second black 'Cuda, so I took the only clue that Hoffman offered, that the photo appeared in the August 1973 issue of Super Stock, and knowing that print mags run on about a three-month lead time, I concentrated my search in March to May and found the race in question, which was Irwindale’s big 64 Funny Cars event April 21. The story reports that Prudhomme had “worked day and night to make this race after crashing his potent ‘Cuda 10 days before the event.” At the time, Green Valley Race City was not an NHRA member track, so its reports were not included in National DRAGSTER.
"The Snake" about to get toasty at Green Valley
Fortunately for us, Reyes was there and reports, “I was at Green Valley when he torched his yellow 'Cuda running against Don Schumacher. Prudhomme's 'Cuda lit up in the lights and burned into the shutoff area. The fire was put out, and tape and prayers repaired the wounded 'Cuda. ‘Snake’ had his first layer of his firesuit burned off. He came back in the final and won the event.”
Reyes also sent the photo at right of the fateful last run of the original unblemished Carefree scheme, and it’s rear-three-quarter view hints at the extended front spoiler.
The next time the car surfaces (in the pages of ND anyway) is a week later (April 28-29) at the Skippers Northwest Open event that Hoffman mentioned. Unfortunately, even though he set top speed (as usual) at 229 mph, he broke on his first-round burnout, and there’s no photo of the car in the coverage.
I can’t find anything on his activities after that (Puyallup not being an NHRA strip either) until the Springnationals, June 8-10, where the car made its NHRA season debut – now in yellow Carefree colors – and the enlarged spoiler is clearly visible. It’s covered in duct tape (black at this point) but clearly there. Prudhomme qualified No. 1 at 6.52, 228.42 (low e.t. and top speed) before bowing out in the semifinals against eventual runner-up Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega. Prudhomme was low qualifier (6.40) again at the Summernationals but lost in round one.
|The Carefree 'Cuda in Indy, apparently minus the spoiler extension (view bigger)
Then -- and here’s where it gets tricky, kids – by the time Prudhomme gets to Indy, where he again ripped their throats out, the 'Cuda has returned to a conventional front spoiler. I even flopped the black car image in Photoshop so it was “going” the same direction as the 1973 Indy winner and compared it side by side with the other two and can’t see any traces. I’m guessing that it’s possible that the second spoiler might have been molded into the original spoiler by this point, but it sure doesn’t look like it. Before Indy, Prudhomme had run Byron Dragway’s Manufacturers Meet (Aug. 5?) and the Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 Dragway Aug. 10-12, both of which he dominated. The Byron coverage in ND has a photo of the car that’s inconclusive as to spoiler size, and the PHR coverage has only a tightly cropped winner’s circle photo, by the Indy photo is pretty clear-cut.
I’m not really sure why I spent yesterday afternoon engaged in tracking down the minutiae of what appears to be a relatively unimportant bit of Prudhomme trivia, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the opportunity to drool over 38-year-old issues of National DRAGSTER under the guise of doing my job. Some guys have all the luck.
After somewhat reluctantly (yet honor bound to do so) publishing mixed reviews of the replica Hot Wheels Duster Funny Car in last Friday’s column, I was glad to see an outpouring of support for the project from fans. Though the red “Mongoose” Funny Car is not – nor was it intended to be – a historically accurate reproduction, it nonetheless has some obvious flaws when compared to photos of the original, but those imperfections are being easily overlooked by the fan faithful.
“Hats off to the ‘Snake’ crew,” lauded Bill Whisenant. “The advantage of the photos is that anyone can now see the difference between the original platform and what appears to be a nostalgia-legal flopper. Having briefly owned the Garcia Outta Site Funny Car and having opportunities to work on more contemporary BB and AA cars, the differences are readily apparent to me, but the chance to see them side by side electronically is unique and great opportunity for a student of the sport. We are attempting to restore the Top Fuel Bike we won the AMA title with in 1982 and are having a heck of a time finding a supercharger for it, even though we have nearly all the rest of the parts. I can empathize with the 'Snake' crew and commend them for their efforts to preserve a truly American type of racing!”
Added Ken G., “The car looks great and was never posted as the original car. It is a great expense to do these projects, and I think they are awesome for spending the time and money to do it."
And Gary Crumrine: “Lighten up guys. … The car/truck combo is meant to rekindle a warm spot in the memories of all of us that saw these amazing machines when we were growing up, and believe me, I don’t care. Kudos to ‘Snake’ for taking the time to put these together. There are so many kids out there growing up today who have never seen where the sport has come from, and these two barnstormer-era outfits are right there in the middle. If it were not for these two setups, the history and memories would die with our generation. THAT would be a sad commentary. The bottom line is they are COOL.
“I think the restored rig is nicer than the original … of course, nobody is living in it and burning down the road to the next gig for months on end, either.”
The blue Tom McEwen lettering would soon become black
As to how the red Funny Car was prepared, I got the following report from Michael Rabenau, who was there when it was being lettered and confirms the thoughts I shared here last week. “The red Mattel circle under the Hot Wheels logo was repainted black and the light blue,” he wrote. “The Tom McEwen lettering that was on the blue car was being repainted black to match the red car. They masked off the white section of the blue car and repainted the body red. Since the blue car wasn't original anyway, it was no great loss."
You can check out Rabenau’s photos in the gallery at right, which also includes a photo of the car that Rabenau thinks should have been used for this project, the Samualson & Elliott Hustlers '70 Plymouth Duster out of Prior Lake, Minn. Although the chassis is more period correct than the car used, DragList says that the chassis is a Ken Cox product as opposed to the Buttera original. This car runs as a BB/FC on the nostalgia circuit.
I’m not sure why I zoned out and reported that I didn’t know the whereabouts of the black Snake III 'Cuda, but Jeff Mittendorf, Dave Ferrin, Bobby Aspinall, Gary Newgord, and others quickly reminded me that though the sinister black car did become “Snake’s” Carefree Gum 'Cuda in 1973 (painted yellow), it also was pressed back into service in early 1974 after Prudhomme’s short experiment with the tricks-laden laydown Vega, which was the first U.S. Army flopper.
(Tom Nagy photo)
Prudhomme shelved the Vega after just two races -- the AHRA and NHRA Winternationals -- and went back to the trusty plain Jane 'Cuda and won the Gatornationals and Indy again and was runner-up at the Springnationals to Gene Snow and, ultimately, in the world-championship race to Shirl Greer. The 'Cuda gave way to the famed Monza beginning in the 1975 season. The Army 'Cuda is now in Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Florida; ergo, that’s the current resting place of the black 'Cuda.
Veteran drag photog Bob McClurg wrote a piece about this car – titled "The ’Cuda That Wouldn’t Quit" -- for the National Street Machine Club website that can be found here. Wrote McClurg, "Some race cars are mysteriously 'born' to be champions. Such was the case with Don 'the Snake' Prudhomme’s Lil' John Buttera-built ’72 Barracuda Funny Car, also known as Snake III. Straight out of the gate, it became apparent to everyone involved this was one machine born to be a winner."
On a side note, Peter Howell was at famed SoCal race car paint emporium Paint-N-Place when the Snake II 'Cuda – which was the second yellow 'Cuda built by Buttera and which also famously flew through the lights in Seattle – was brought in by Prudhomme for restoration and shared the difficulty of restoring an original, warts and all.
Snake II, ready for touch-ups a few years ago
“The [paint] when delivered from Don, was all faded, where the red flames looked orange. When I showed up there, Kenny [Youngblood] was already masking the front to airbrush the front grille/headlights. When Kenny completed the front (it looked great), the before photos arrived at the shop – oops -- apparently, this flopper had an issue with a fire after a run. Since it was near the end of the season, the front was repaired with the next-year grille design. Kenny had me remove his fresh airbrush job, then repaint it with the other (next-year) grille, so the rear of the flopper has an earlier taillight style from the front. The white paint, the red flames, and Hot Wheels background was laid on at the Paint-N-Place. All other stuff was hand-done by Kenny … no decals.”
Aspinall had a question about McEwen's second Duster. “I always assumed that McEwen got a lot more mileage out of his blue Duster. Didn't it become his Carefree Gum car, then his second U.S. Navy car campaigned by Russell Long (or John Collins?)?”
Although I’m sure I remember Long driving for McEwen somewhere in 1973-74, the two-car team was officially formed in mid-1974, with Collins at the wheel. After the Carefree Gum deal went away at the end of 1973, McEwen replaced Carefree with English Leather and the Navy, and he and crew chief Bob Kerns had a newer Duster built and put the Carefree car on the block. McEwen crashed the new car at the Winternationals when a nasty fire engulfed the chutes and sent him careening off the end of Parker Avenue. The car was heavily damaged, so they quickly took the Carefree car off the market, repainted it, and carried on.
(Above) Tom McEwen in the Carefree Gum Duster in Columbus in 1973 and (below) in Columbus the following year with the new Duster.
I used to have this magazine laying around but couldn't find it. I've searched everywhere online and through four thick McEwen folders in our archives for the actual photo shoot of the car and the jet together but came up empty. I know one of you has it, so scan it up and send it over, huh?
The old car still was running pretty good when McEwen’s newest new car arrived later that year, and, hoping to recoup some of the money he’d lost in Pomona, he hired Collins to help him fulfill match race dates. Collins was an accomplished shoe, having proven himself in John Bateman’s Atlas Oil Tool Special, and could tune and wrench, so McEwen got a bonus. (In photos, you can easily tell the difference between the two identically painted Dusters. In addition to the permanent number -- 713 for McEwen, 742 for Collins; Long was 751 -- McEwen’s Duster had louvers at the rear of the side windows and on the back window.)
That second car paid off handsomely for McEwen in 1975 when his planned Navy stunt to “race” against a steam-catapult-launched F-14 Tomcat at Patuxent River Naval Air Station on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland for a Hot Rod magazine cover story almost was derailed when his car was struck in the shutdown area by another team’s crew vehicle at U.S. 30 Dragway four days before the big show, mangling the front of his chassis. McEwen was able to reach Collins’ team, which was in Cleveland after a match race at Dragway 42, and have it bring the second car for the photo shoot.
It wasn’t really a race, per se, as the jet was timed at Pax River over a 258-foot course (the point where the jet’s front wheel left the ground), and the Duster, with Collins at the wheel, covered the same course at nearby Capitol Raceway. Collins’ best pass was a 1.97 at 118.20 while the jet, which weighed more than 25 times as much as the flopper, zoomed to a 1.76 at 175.86 mph, thanks to its catapult assist. I remember a line from that Hot Rod story where the authorsized up the competition beforehand by saying something like, “It was clear that McEwen is racing the catapult and not the jet.”
Collins drove McEwen’s second Duster for three seasons and through a couple of different paint schemes, and Collins later bought the Dusters from McEwen, a fact confirmed by Chris Horn, who was a nitro crewmember during that time and remembers well what became of one of the red Dusters.
“I believe the cars were sold to Collins and one painted in Pioneer Stereo colors, the other as a spare,” he said. “Collins raced out of Keith Black’s shop that had a row of garages in the back with Gary Beck, Jim Dunn, Dennis Taylor (Braskett & Taylor), and others. Jeb Allen took Collins’ and Beck's garage spaces after winning the championship in late 1981. I went to work for Jeb and Lance Larsen preparing a borrowed car from Connie Kalitta to send to Australia for a winter tour Down Under.
“Space was needed, and the red Carefree Gum body, along with parts of Collins’ crashed Trans Am, were loaded onto a flatbed. Lance and I dropped it all off at a garbage transfer station in Torrance [Calif.]. I did take the chute levers off the Duster; they have been in my toolbox for decades as a reminder of the day when Lance and I took the Hot Wheels car on its last ride.”
And that’s a wrap for this column and this week. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, memories, and photos. See ya next week.
Reaction to my unveiling here of photos of the restored red Hot Wheels ramp truck was a real mixed bag, with enthusiastic thumbs-up for the primo job that Don Prudhomme’s Willie Wolter-led troops did to resurrect the iconic hauler and bedazzlement, bemusement, bewilderment, and begrudgement for the matching Funny Car, which clearly is not an original.
To the credit of the Prudhomme team, it has never once claimed that the McEwen Duster is original in any way and has acknowledged that it was put together solely as a prop for display during the 35th anniversary Hot Wheels celebration. The car, which has been on display several times with blue paint, does not run, and, by comparing the chassis in the then-and-now Hot Rod magazine cover pose, it’s clearly not period-correct.
Unlike the painstakingly visually and technologically accurate 'Cuda that rides on the yellow Prudhomme hauler, for all intents and purposes, the red car is window dressing for the red truck, a prop that rounds out the display. I'm not going to hold anyone's feet to the fire over that.
Skip Allum was emphatic in that point, noting that “the truck is the original piece, and that was the focus of the restoration effort. Then, rather than put a blue-bodied FC on the back of a red truck, we simply painted the blue body red. As it is not an original car and only a prop/show car originally put together by Mattel for photo ops for the 35th anniversary, we did not see any value in the expense of making it perfect."
SoCal veteran racewatcher Cliff Morgan was among those who spied the differences. “Couldn't help but notice what a difference there is between the ‘new’ car and the car shown on the Hot Rod cover,” he wrote. “The chassis, engine, headers, no scoop on the injectors on the original car, and the original body looks like it has a chrome bumper on it. The ‘new’ car looks like a modern chassis, and I'd think it would be legal to run today. Really interesting to me to see how much of a difference there is between the old and restored.”
For the record, the original chassis on the red car, like “Snake’s” yellow 'Cuda, was done by Ronnie Scrima at Exhibition Engineering, and the chassis for McEwen’s subsequent blue Duster was a John Buttera creation.
Roger Beard thinks that the whole project is still a home run, noting that even the newer Duster looks better than today’s “wedge-shaped things with the upside-down fishbowl for a roof and that big ugly box on the rear deck."
Added Don Thomas, “It's great, but at the same time, it's a little disappointing for me. The car is newer, and being the diehard ‘Snake’ and ‘Mongoose’ fan that I am, you can definitely tell. It looks killer, but the body and chassis is of the newer-breed style, and to me, it kinda takes away from the concept a bit. How cool if they could have somehow found and restored the '70 Duster as they did the 'Cuda. Oh well; it's there in spirit at least. Hats off to the ‘Snake’ team. They did a fine job considering what they had to work with. OK, 'Snake,' now replicate the black Hot Wheels 'Cuda!”
Bruce Dyda of Dyda Race Engineering, whose work includes the restoration of the Jim and Alison Lee Great Expectations II; Poachers; Blood, Sweat & Nitro; and other dragsters and the Tommy Ivo Showboat repop, lauded the team’s effort on the truck but called the Funny Car “the worst representation of a famous F/C I have ever seen.” It’s understandable that, in his line of work, the bar is set a little higher than the average fan’s expectations.
Sharp-eyed Michael Ostrofsky spotted something worth mentioning: “On the repainted 'Mongoose' Funny Car, the lettering on the side says Mongoose II, which was the blue version of the car, not the red. If you think of it, can you ask why the paint was done that way? Pretty amazing restoration project. Those rigs and cars belong in the Smithsonian.”
Unfortunately, the Prudhomme guys are out of the shop until after the Fourth, so I don’t have an answer, but Michael is absolutely right. The red Dusters (of which there were two; hence the Duster II denotation above the front wheelwell), as you can see in the photos running down the side of this column, supplied by the prolific Bob Snyder, did not say Mongoose II. My guess would be one of two things – and forgive me “Snake” team if I’m wrong – that either, to save time perhaps, the white area was masked off while the rest of the car was painted from blue to red, or, if new decals were made (assuming that this is vinyl and not paint), they used what was on the blue car as a model.
(You can see the differences in other areas. On the original, the inverted Federal-Mogul triangle and Cragar logos are under the white "Mongoose" billboard, but on the new car, they're between the billboard and the front fender, as they were on Mongoose II, and also the relative position of the Mongoose character, forward in the original, reaward in the new car)
Prudhomme’s 'Cuda also had two versions – the Exhibition Engineering car that is in his collection and then a Buttera chassis in late 1970 – and followed the same path as McEwen’s car in that it was again painted like its predecessor (yellow). That car became Snake II when it was repainted white with red flames (with current-year grille and taillights) for the start of the 1971 season. Snake III is the black car that Thomas references, run in gel coat at the end of the 1972 season (including The Last Drag Race at Lions; it later became the Careferee Gum car that won Indy in 1973).
I’m doubtful that the original McEwen Dusters (any version) still survive, and I’ve never heard what became of the wicked black 'Cuda.
All niggling aside, I still think that new addition to the "Snake” collection looks fabulous, and I’m sure that when presented together, the stark beauty and nostalgia value of seeing the rigs side by side far outweigh any historical imperfections.
Have a safe and sane Fourth of July. I'll see you next week, but given the holiday, probably not until late in the week.