NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Battling back: How 'the Snake" reconquered Top Fuel

29 May 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Our scheduled trip to Don Prudhomme's shop Thursday to see his collection of restored Funny Cars was cancelled at the last minute and rescheduled for the middle of next month, kayoing the column I had planned for today. Instead of schmoozing with "the Snake" yesterday, I spent the day – the entire day – researching and writing captions for the next NHRA Photo Greats book. (Not as glamorous as it sounds; it primarily involves a series of trips to the DRAGSTER library to hunt down the issue in which each photo was featured to get information about the car and driver, when and what happened, etc.)

Those of you who have been around this newsstand long enough to know me realize that when it comes to National DRAGSTER I sometimes have ND ADD; I'm easily sidetracked. Leafing through every history-packed issue, my eyes are constantly diverted to stories other than for which I am looking. Sometimes I wonder how I get anything done. Anyway (to bring an end to a long intro), in my meandering I stumbled across the story of "Snake's" Top Fuel win at the 1991 Springnationals, which was his first in the class since switching back from Funny Car in 1990 and, given that this column was supposed to be a tribute to Prudhomme's Funny Cars years, I thought it would make an interesting memory jogger.

Although even the most casual drag racing fan knows Prudhomme's name, most associate him with Funny Cars. That's fair enough, considering it was the Mattel Hot Wheels deal that brought him into living rooms everywhere and it was in the fuel coupes that he scored his four world championships, but we all know that "the Snake" both began and ended his 30-plus-year driving career in fuel dragsters.

Although Prudhomme's first Top Fuel career was an immense success – the almost invincible Greer-Black-Prudhomme car, five national event wins, including three U.S. Nationals crowns, etc. –his second go-round in fuel dragsters didn't start off so swell.

To backtrack slightly, the mid-'80s were not kind to Prudhomme. After dominating the 1970s (23 wins!), he won just six times in the 1980 and 1981 seasons and then went winless for nearly five years, from the 1982 Summernationals until the 1987 Gatornationals, and even had to sit out the 1986 season due to lack of sponsorship. The 1988 season was better and 1989 was incredible, topped by his Indy sweep of the Big Bud Shootout and his seventh U.S. Nationals crown.

(Above) Seeing Don Gay Jr. injured in a Funny Car fire at the 1989 Denver event and literally helping pull him from the fire really affected Don Prudhomme, who later that year announced his 1990 return to Top Fuel. (Below) "Snake" left the floppers on a high note with a sweep of the Bud Shootout and U.S. Nationals.
Prudhomme had good company in his return to Top Fuel after a 20-year absence as fellow former Top Fuel driver and Funny Car champ Kenny Bernstein also returned to his dragster roots in 1990.

But Prudhomme had been badly spooked by Don Gay Jr.'s incident earlier that year in Denver, where the second-generation Texas racer had been knocked out after hitting the wall in qualifying alongside Prudhomme, who watched Gay's car catch fire and idle slowly through the shutdown area, where the fuel tank eventually exploded. Prudhomme was right there with the Safety Safari helping extract Gay. I was there, too, watching through the camera lens, and I remember vividly Prudhomme hovering worriedly over the medical team as they worked on Gay.

Rumors began to swirl that "the Vipe" was done with Funny Cars, a notion that became fact when Prudhomme was asked about it on Monday evening after his Indy win.

"Yes, it looks right now that unless something drastic happens, we will be going to Top Fuel in 1990," he remarked. "In fact, it's almost a done deal. There are a couple of big reasons we're doing that. First of all, I want the motor in back of me. When Don Gay had that bad fire in Denver, it really got to me, seeing that young kid in that kind of shape. Here I am, 48 years old and I've been doing this for nearly 20 years; I just think that maybe now is the time to move on.

"We had thought of doing this in 1987, but I didn't want to leave Funny Car running terrible. I wanted to go out a winner. Now that we are running great, I can go out a winner. Top Fuel is the number-one class and I want to be a part of it."

At the time, Top Fuel was chock full of talent -- Joe Amato, Darrell Gwynn, Dick LaHaie, Shirley Muldowney, Gary Ormsby, Eddie Hill, Gene Snow, Frank Bradley – most of whom Prudhomme had never raced against, and now that he had again asserted himself in Funny Car, he felt he could move back to Top Fuel without looking like he was running back to Top Fuel with his tail between his legs.

Prudhomme had good company in 1990, as longtime pals Kenny Bernstein and Tom McEwen, also both former Top Fuel drivers, also chose the start of the new decade as the starting point for their return to the class.

Prudhomme's return was star-crossed from the beginning, During preliminary testing in Bakersfield Dec. 17, 1989, Prudhomme's new Skoal Bandit dragster broke a front wing support at three-quarter mark and the car went overbackwards in a huge blowover.

"Everything was fine," Prudhomme recalled, "but when that flap drops, it's like you're in an airplane -- you're already going fast enough to take off. It's like throwing a paper cup out of a car going 100 mph. I tried to grab the parachute, but it happened too fast. There was no warning; it just went up and over."

Dave Uyehara repaired the car in time for its debut at the Winternationals, but Prudhomme, who hadn't had a truly scary moment on the track since his nasty fire at the '81 World Finals at Orange County Int'l Raceway, commented at the time, "I'll be thinking about this one for the rest of my life."

(Above) The 1990 season was a rough one for Prudhomme. who suffered two wheelstand blowovers, including this car-destroying one in Montreal. (Below) Prudhomme turned over the tuning reins to John Medlen in 1991 and returned to his winning ways in impressive fashion.

The year was pretty much a disaster for Prudhomme; a lesser writer might be tempted to say he was snakebitten. He failed to qualify at six of the 19 events, suffered a second blowover at the Le Grandnational in Montreal, and finished a dismal 13th in points.

"To be honest, I was thinking about quitting after going over in Montreal (Le Grandnational)," Prudhomme told National DRAGSTER. "For a while I was gun-shy to drive the car. It was a horrible year, one of my roughest. A lot of people would have quit over it, but fortunately I didn't, and at the end of the season I realized I wasn't doing the job so far as tuning the engine anymore and I needed to put the chore on someone else. I realized I didn't know what the hell I was doing."

That startling admission by one of drag racing's most revered driver/tuners was followed by the hiring of John Medlen, who most fans know today as one of the star crew chiefs for John Force Racing but back then his skills were just appearing on the radar screens of racing teams. Prudhomme hired him away from, of all people, Bernstein.

With Medlen tuning and "the Snake" back to concentrating on "ripping their throats out." Prudhomme was runner-up at the Winternationals and was actually in the thick of the points chase until midseason, scoring additional runner-ups at the Gatornationals and Mid-South Nationals before breaking through with his first Top Fuel win since the 1970 U.S. Nationals at the 1991 Springnationals, where he beat Amato, then the three-time and reigning Top Fuel champ, in the final, which was particularly pleasing to "the Snake."

"It was really a thrill to go up against Amato in the final," recounted Prudhomme, whose win was the 41st of his career and gave him the points lead. "He's a hot dog in Top Fuel, and I was a hot dog in Funny Car. I have a lot of respect for Amato, Dick LaHaie, and some of those fast guys. I always said that if I got a chance to drive one of these cars I'd like to race these guys. Well, I got my shot. You know, (Amato) has smoked me off so many times I can't even count 'em. But to smoke him off in the final -- it was cool, I'll take it.

Prudhomme's 1994 "Final Strike" tour was a celebration of his racing legacy and he went out in a fashion befitting his amazing career, scoring three wins and finishing a Top Fuel career-high second in points.

"I've done a pretty good job behind the wheel, and that feels absolutely fantastic. I was beginning to wonder if this day was ever going to come. When you have that long (winless) spell, you start to doubt yourself -- can you do it again? By God, we can do it again."

Prudhomme added wins in Reading and Dallas later that year and finished third in points – Bernstein was second – and then won three times in 1992. Prudhomme finished off his Top Fuel career in 1994 with a great season – the cooly-named Final Strike tour -- winning three times and finishing a career-high second in the Top Fuel standings.

To me, the measure of a champion is not just winning the title, but how you carry yourself after you've won it and how you deal with the hard times that inevitably will come after. For all of his fabulous successes of the 1970s, Prudhomme had to battle hard in the 1980s to keep his mythic career going, then overcame the tough transition back to Top Fuel and pretty much went out on the top of his game in 1994. Since then, of course, he's done nothing but excel as a team owner, mentoring guys like two-time world champ Larry Dixon, perennial title contender Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., and now Spencer Massey, ensuring that his legacy will live on for years to come.