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All 'the Snake's' horses

23 Jun 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

From the cramped confines of the back bench seat, if I squint just right, I can pretend this is my dream come true, that I'm on the road with Don Prudhomme in the 1970s, crisscrossing the country with "the Snake" from match race date to match race date.

As he was nearly 40 years ago, "Snake" is in the driver's seat of his Dodge D700 ramp truck, behind the trash-can-lid-sized steering wheel, deftly rowing through the cogs of the 5-speed split-axle tranny as the bright yellow transporter chugs up a hill, the matching Hot Wheels Barracuda strapped to its back. It's the ultimate surreal time-warp fantasy for this lifelong Don Prudhomme fan.

As a kid, I dreamed about being a crewmember on Prudhomme's Funny Cars, and this may be the next-best thing. I've just spent the last two hours pushing (and furtively stroking the flanks) of some of his famous floppers of the last several decades around the parking area of his SoCal shop for a photo shoot for National DRAGSTER, and now we're off to lunch – me, "Snake," ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, and Prudhomme's right-hand resto man, Willie Wolter.

"The Snake" is proud of this piece of rolling nostalgia – perhaps more so than of any of the half-dozen retro floppers he owns; more perhaps than the sum of all of them -- and rightly so. He and Wolter spent the last 16 months lovingly restoring it to its glory, and we made quite a sight lumbering down the freeway, a screaming yellow zonker with a pristine '70s Funny Car riding on top. It's not your typical freeway commuter, and I can’t help but notice the appreciative stares and wide-eyed gawks of people passing us as we head out to lunch.

Step into the time machine, sir ...
"Snake," daughter Donna, and six of the seven members of their tribe

T.L. and I made the trek from Glendora for this once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot, cruising down Interstate 5, the Pacific Ocean glittering invitingly to our right once the sun majestically burned off the early-morning haze. Prudhomme's California shop, in Vista, just about a half-hour north of the Mexican border, serves as the administrative arm of Don Prudhomme Racing, the West Coast brother to its Brownsburg, Ind., race shop. When the team's on the road, it's home to Prudhomme, Wolter, team manager Skip Allum, Prudhomme's wife, Lynn, and daughter, Donna, and seven affectionate dogs – Jake, Albert, Rusty, Ginny, Maxine, Joey, and Jack -- "the tribe," Prudhomme calls them.

Behind the lobby and a trophy case filled with scores of Wallys and other trophies, the cavernous shop area is a treasure trove of Prudhomme history. There are boxes filled with old Prudhomme firesuits, uniforms, and jackets; the walls are adorned with commemorative signs and photos. Three Top Fuelers – the 1995 Miller Genuine Draft dragster in which Larry Dixon debuted and two of his Miller dragsters, including the 2002 championship car -- are mounted high atop racks to give floor space to the floppers, most of which have been painstakingly restored by Wolter.

I've known Willie a long time, back to his days with the Larry Minor team in the early 1980s, and we shot the breeze until "Snake" showed up a few minutes later, upon which he immediately became the center of attention, as much from us as from his canine friends, who jostle to receive affection from "El Jefe."

"Snake" fired up the Dodge's big engine to build the necessary air pressure for the brakes, then backed it and its precious yellow cargo out of the shop and into the glorious California sunshine, followed by a procession of fabulous fiberglass. I lovingly lay my hands upon "Snake's" white Hot Wheels Barracuda, caressing its curves like a lovesick teenager, and begin to push. I've owned the much smaller version of this car in my extensive Hot Wheels collection since it first came out, and it's quite another feeling to be laying hands upon the real thing.

It's been a long trip back into Prudhomme's hands for this one. It actually ended up in the hands of an employee from Wynn's, one of Prudhomme's old longtime sponsors, and when he was transferred to Wynn's international, he took the car with him … to Finland. He sold it to someone there who obviously didn't appreciate it as we do, and the car sat outside, in sometimes harsh winter climes, for 12 years. The bad weather destroyed the tin and body -- Wolter found the original backup body in a garage in Salt Lake City, where it had sat for years with the original paint still intact – but otherwise, the car was complete, right down to the engine block.

Next came the only non-"Snake" car – and ironically, the only non-original car -- in the pack, the Hot Wheels Duster of former partner Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, another of the cars I rolled to glory on orange plastic tracks in my teens. This car was cobbled together in a hurry from various parts and pieces for the 35th Hot Wheels anniversary a few years ago, and there's not much original on this car. Still, Prudhomme hated to see it go to rot somewhere and bought it, with eventual plans for a future restoration. It'll make a nice bookend to the white Hot Wheels 'Cuda.

Then came the two Skoal Trans Ams, the 1987 car that Prudhomme drove to victory at the Gatornationals after sitting out the 1986 season to sponsor-hunt this deal (which continues to this day with Spencer Massey at the wheel) and the 1989 killer car that swept the U.S. Nationals that year, winning the Shootout and his seventh and final Big Go Wally. Then came the 1982 Pepsi Challenger Pontiac – the first Funny Car to top 250 mph, at the Cajun Nationals that year -- and then the 1978 Army Arrow, which Prudhomme and former crew chief Bob Brandt cackled at the Wally Parks tribute at the Finals two years ago. Of this group, the 1987 Skoal car is the only one that doesn't run, but it's 99 percent there and will eventually find fire again.

Finally came the newest pet project, the short-lived Army Vega of 1974. Built by John Buttera as the answer to Don Schumacher's aero-trick Wonder Wagon, the laydown-style Vega -- the first to bear the U.S. Army livery -- almost looks like a toy. It's low and lean – so low that there's a Lexan slit cut in the roof hatch to allow Prudhomme to stage at tracks, like OCIR, that had suspended Christmas Trees – but ultimately was too heavy, and Prudhomme shelved it and returned to his plain Jane 'Cuda (and promptly won the Gatornationals).

Prudhomme drove the Vega at just two events – the Winter Classic at Beeline Dragway and the Winternationals – then sold it to Tom Hoover, who campaigned it with the same basic design with different colors before selling it to Tom Hovland. It's reported to be the last Funny Car that Buttera built.

It still looks pretty good already, with the original rear-window louvers (to let air out from beneath the body), but Wolter had to remake the flow-through front-fender bubbles. A new, still-unpeeled piece of Lexan is in the windshield frame, just behind the period-correct injector. Unlike the rest of the collection here, I never saw this car run, so it's cool to be able to reach out and touch it.

Catalogs, magazines, and Post-it notes ... clearly a busy but resourceful man.

Restoring these cars is no easy task, and after decades of being a super-reliable crewmember on the road for numerous high-profile teams, it's now Wolter's full-time job.

With an eye on making the cars as authentically close to the original as possible, you can imagine it's quite a chore to hunt down obscure parts, especially the rare and less glorious.

"The yellow Barracuda had a B&M automatic transmission in it with a specially made short tailshaft and housing, but we were lucky to still have that or I don't know what we would have done," he admitted. "Trying to find the original brakes of the era was tough enough; this car had four brakes to hold it with the automatic transmission; it's hard enough to find two let alone four and the brackets."

"Snake" bought the yellow car back from its new owner but not until Wolter determined that it was the real deal. The original car that Prudhomme had campaigned had been sold to "Slammin' Sammy" Miller, who destroyed it in a crash and fire, but Chrysler had commissioned Ronnie Scrima to build an identical second car for its Rapid Transit display. Wolter tracked down Scrima in Texas and read him the chassis number, then double-checked the SFI chassis tag with Carl Olson at SEMA, where the records still existed to confirm this was the car.

While the car still has the original tires and wheels, some stuff was not easily replaceable, such as the headers, which Wolter fabricated from photos. A lot of the interior details were left to Prudhomme's memories as Wolter mainly had only photos of the car on the track to work from as well as a good mind for the job.

"I spend a lot of time on the phone and the Internet looking for parts and drag out the old books and magazines," he said. "I look at other cars to see what was typical of the era and what I remember, but there are a lot of dead ends. We get help from our friends, too, guys like Mike Kuhl who know a guy who knows a guy who may have this or that, but lately we're finding out with the nostalgia craze no one will turn loose of their stuff anymore.

"When we were working on the white car, I was able to buy five cast-iron cylinder heads, and one of them even had 'Ed Pink Racing Engines 712 Snake' stamped on it; it's one of his original heads. That's cool."

From photos of the cars, they're lovingly repainted by Jerry Sievers at his Southern California Paint N Place emporium and relettered by the original artist, Kenny Youngblood. You'd have a hard time knowing these weren’t the original schemes.

Wolter's dedication to his craft is obvious in his attitude and in the final result. "You kiss and love every nut and bolt," he admitted.

Together, "Snake," Willie, Skip, and I pushed the cars out of the shop, and, under Teresa's direction and a fluid revision of our initial plans, the cars were jockeyed into position. Like most Funny Cars, they didn’t turn tightly, so Willie tossed a floor jack under the rear end of each to help swing them into position.

After much jockeying and repositioning – during which "Snake," Willie, and Skip obligingly and patiently repositioned the cars a few times (I can’t believe the sway T.L. holds over Prudhomme!) – we're set.

Teresa climbed onto a pallet placed on a forklift operated by Prudhomme himself, who carefully boosts her high into the air for the group shot. We posed "Snake" in various places -- he's a natural model, striking poses for the camera.

"I'm beginning to feel like Ivo," he cracked, making good-natured sport of his former mentor, Tommy Ivo, who not only never turned down a good publicity opp but cagily sought them out.

Upon returning to terra firma, Teresa shot some close-ups of the cars, and "Snake" – clearly thrilled to have his collection on display – clambered up on the pallet and had Willie boost him skyward so he could see the big picture. He even did the Cecil B. DeMille thing with his hands, framing the scene with his fingers to get an idea. He was very pleased. I couldn’t help but smile that this crazy idea of mine to shoot all the cars together not only got done, but that "Snake" was enjoying it as much as we were. It's going to make a great feature for an upcoming issue of National DRAGSTER.

Once the last photos were taken, it was time to roll the toys away, and I worked up the nerve to ask for a favor. I wanted to sit in the white Barracuda. It's something that I don't usually do; I generally am able to separate the huge fan in me from the professional journalist – the only autographs I've ever asked for was during the top 10 for our Top 50 Drivers program in 2001 – but I couldn’t resist. Thinking of sitting inside the car I spent hours and hours playing with on the floor of my living room is too good a chance to pass up.

OK, it took me a while to get in, but honestly, who looks more at home in here, me or that guy below? No contest, right?

"Snake," Willie, and Skip seem skeptical -- or maybe it's just my imagination – but they're game to watch me try to squeeze my fat ass into the tiny cockpit.

"It was built for a 19-year-old butt," joked "Snake," who actually was 30 when he first sat in it.

Although I lack a 19-year-old's butt and (mostly) the gymnastic finesse of a 19-year-old, I somehow managed to maneuver through the maze of tubing -- ducking beneath the raised body, stepping one foot gingerly on the steering linkage that crosses the bellhousing, then performing a half-pirouette while deftly spinning the butterfly steering wheel a quarter-turn to vertical to squeeze between my thighs – and plop my 49-year-old butt satisfyingly in the business seat.

They lowered the body around me – without the side windows, it's not near as claustrophobic a feeling as in some of the other modern Funny Cars I've sat in – and I quickly affected a Funny Car pose – hands on the wheel, feet on the pedals -- though it wasn't a comfortable one. I'm not taller than "Snake," but my helmetless head was already bumping the underside of the cage as T.L. gave me some lifetime keepsake images. I clambered out, accidentally pushing off on one of the huge fire-bottle-release buttons mounted on the cage, and was thankful that they're not part of the working repertoire. Now that would be embarrassing.

Inspired, "Snake" climbed in, sliding in with the practiced ease of a guy who has probably done it tens of thousands of times. I found it interesting that his head was nowhere near the top of the cage; it's clear that he's more legs than torso and that I am taller from the waist up. He still looked damn good sitting in there.
 

truck1.jpgSo it's off to lunch. Skip has to hold down the fort, so it was just the four of us. Sure, we could have gone in "Snake's" GMC pickup – the one still bearing a window decal remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr. – but what fun would that be?

"Snake" insists we take the ramp truck, so we climb aboard, and it's as gorgeous inside as it is outside. It has the original AM and CB radios, but the AM box only pulls in Mexican music from across the border and religious programming, so, in one of "Snake's" few concessions to the present, he has hidden a modern stereo in the glovebox and can change tracks with a remote control (sneaky "Snake," eh?). The other concession is a retro-looking ceiling-mounted air-conditioner unit that replaces the swamp-cooler-like device that used to reside there, and after a few hours of pushing cars in the hot sun, it was a welcome addition.

Despite a fresh engine and frame-off restoration, the truck still wants to overheat a bit, and "Snake" and Willie have other various minor quibbles about the truck's performance. Clucked Willie, "You can put lipstick on Grandma, but it's still Grandma, and this is still a 40-year-old truck."

"Snake" rolls some Eagles on the CD and tells "Jungle Pam" stories en route to one of his favorite seafood restaurants, King's Fish House, just a few miles south on I-5 in Carlsbad. As we pull into a packed parking lot, I begin to wonder where he's going to park this colorful behemoth. It ain't exactly a Toyota.

Where do you park a bright-yellow Funny Car transporter? Anywhere you like, sir.

We find a nice open spot in a driveway near an adjacent construction zone – what, you think someone is going to try to tow this treasure? – and disembark, taking care not to twist an ankle in the 18-inch drop to the tarmac. We're stopped by a passerby in a car, a returning war veteran from Iraq who recognizes "the Snake" and the hauler from reading about it in this column right here.

Over a surprisingly small order of fish tacos and calamari, "Snake" regales us with stories of the road and answers my obscure questions about his racing past. (In honor of his heritage, I order the Cajun-seasoned salmon; "That looks good," he says, eyeballing my plate past his minuscule rations.) We talk about his collection of cars and what he'll do with them eventually, what he wants to find and restore next, something he wishes he thought ahead to back when he first parted with them.

"Back in those days, no matter how quick a car was, you just sold it so you'd have enough money to buy the next one," he admits.

Don Garlits has a couple of Prudhomme's cars in his Florida museum, including the Hot Wheels wedge, high-back front-engined Hot Wheels Top Fueler, and Army Barracuda Funny Car, and the Shelby Super Snake cammer and final Skoal Top Fueler reside at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California -- all clearly great and memorable cars, but the one that got away is the fabled '75 Monza that won 13 of 16 races in 1975-76 and now resides in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev. That's clearly one he'd like to have back.

"It's even got the first Keith Black aluminum block in it, which makes it special in itself," he notes. "Wally Parks had asked me to give it to them because they were looking for a car that had done well and set records, so I traded them for a 308GTB.

"I thought it was a good trade at the time, but now I don’t have the Ferrari anymore, and the car is worth way more than the Ferrari."

Even if you don't go by the dollar value, "Snake."

Thanks for a great day.