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Mondays with Murray: Don Prudhomme

30 Jun 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times, and I bet that I’m not alone, but growing up in the 1970s, Don Prudhomme was my drag racing hero. There was no one cooler on the face of the planet, and it wasn’t just because he had the baddest hot rod out there. His confident, ambling gait, the look on his face, his mannerisms … they all said “winner.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I kept a Prudhomme scrapbook – which I still have – that was filled with my own pictures of the man as well as articles clipped from local newspapers about “the Snake” and the racers he ran and won, ticket stubs, stickers, and more.

It also included the column reprinted below, written by the late legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray. Two weeks ago in this column, I announced that, through the generosity of Murray’s widow, Linda McCoy-Murray, and the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation that promotes his legacy and awards annual scholarships to aspiring journalists, I would be allowed to reprint some of his columns, especially those written about our drag racing heroes.

So, today, as I wind my way home from Norwalk, I proudly continue this semi-regular week-opening feature, Mondays with Murray, with the article below, published in the Times Jan. 29, 1976, as that year’s Winternationals was getting ready to fire up and on the heels of Prudhomme’s barrier-breaking five-second pass the previous October in Ontario. In keeping with the scrapbook theme, the photos that accompany it are my own from that race.

Fastest ‘Snake’ by Jim Murray

I always thought they called it “drag” racing because that’s what it was.

But, racing is hardly a drag when you make $300,000 a year out of it.

I always thought a “top fuel eliminator” was the 8-cylinder gas-guzzling bucket of bolts I drive around. I never thought of fuel eliminating as a sport.

But Donald Ray Prudhomme makes more money doing less in a car than any automotive genius who ever lived. Not A.J. Foyt, not Henry Ford, Gustav Daimler or the inventor of the self-starter or chairman of the board of General Motors gets as much money out of the internal combustion engine as he does - $6,000 a second.

By comparison, A.J. Foyt works the black gang in the hold of a ship for his money, Franco Harris is a steeplejack walking steel beams in 100 m.p.h. winds by comparison.

[ ]

Foyt drive 500 miles at a crack for his millions. Don Prudhomme drives 1,300 feet. Foyt’s drives laid end to end would probably stretch around the world several times. Prudhomme’s wouldn’t take you to the drugstore. Some people take longer to back out of the driveway than he does to win 30 grand.

And, talk about fuel eliminating! Some Indianapolis 500 cars get 2.8 miles to the gallon. Stocks get four. Dragsters get 188 feet to the gallon. They use up seven gallons every six seconds, every quarter-mile run. This is undoubtedly the most expensive 1,320 feet in the world. Because drag fuel costs $7 a gallon. Since the car starts with 11 gallons on the start line, and proceeds to use it all up at the rate of nearly two gallons per second, a run is really a drag for the party paying the fuel bills. I mean, how would you like to have to say “Fill it up” every six seconds?

They call Don Prudhomme “The Snake,” because of the speed with which he strikes at the start line. Also, because he is so cool, he seems to have no body temperature.

He is the best there is at his sport. He is the only man in history to break the 6-second standard in his specialty. His run of 5.98 seconds last year set the world record of 241.43 m.p.h.

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Drag racing is a sport in which a guy comes out with a machine that looks like a cross between a praying mantis with baby carriage wheels, and/or a giraffe who has just been beat over the head and sprawled forward, and they refer to these Martian vehicles simply as “dragsters: or “fuel eliminators.” They look more suitable for a moonwalk than a race.

Then, they come out with only slightly modified sedans which don’t look too dissimilar to street jalopies and these they call “funny cars.” The Snake” drives funny cars.

Drag racing is a sport which began on a strip along Sepulveda Blvd. at 2 o’clock in the morning back before the war where first prize was a night in jail and the clockers were cops. It has grown into a $3 million run for the money each year, and more than 5.3 million people paid to see it last year, an astonishing turnout for a sport in which the hero is a sparkplug and the action goes by so fast it makes the one-round knockout seem like a marathon.

The U.S. Army is The Snake’s principal sponsor and his car is a 240-m.p.h. recruiting poster, a far cry from the old “Uncle Same Wants You” cardboard cutouts in the post offices. But, the Army gets in a lot more winning circles with Prudhomme than it does with the State Department.

The Snake won six of eight “nationals,” or major tournaments last year, and the world championship points in his sport. You might say he’s the Jack Nicklaus of drag racing – except that Jack walks five miles a day for four days for his money. The distance Snake goes would probably be just a full drive or a spoon and an eight iron for Jack.

The Snake will defend his championship at the Pomona Winternationals this weekend. He has a full year ahead of him. Upgrading his appearances as defending champ, he may have to work as much as a full 80 seconds this year.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

Courtesy of:
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation
P.O. Box 995
La Quinta, CA 92247-0995
Ph/Fx: 760-771-8972
E: [email protected]
www.jimmurrayfoundation.org