NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The Hawaiian's Winters wonderland

23 Jan 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

It didn't take long for the new partnership of 23-year-old driver Don Prudhomme and 20-year-old car owner Roland Leong to bear fruit as they won the 1965 Winternationals in their national event debut together. Leong's mother, Teddy, third from left, was among those celebrating.

Forty-four years ago this Winternationals, a 20-year-old car owner brought his beautiful new Top Fuel dragster and his new driver to the fabled Pomona racetrack and with a stunning victory launched them both into the limelight of the NHRA landscape, where they have remained for five decades.

"Consistency, power and performance were the key words for the Top Fuel eliminator contestants at the fifth annual Winternationals Championship Drag Races," read the opening lines of National DRAGSTER's coverage of the 1965 Winternationals, "and the entry that was on 200 plus percent in all three brackets was Don Prudhomme and the crew of the ultra-beautiful Hawaiian, owned by Roland Leong, from Honolulu."

The Pomona win began an incredible two-year spree for Leong as after he and Prudhomme won the season opener, they also won the other big national event on the NHRA calendar – a little race we call the U.S. Nationals – and then, unbelievably, Leong accomplished the same two-race bonanza the following year with a different driver, Mike Snively. Winning both Pomona and Indy back-to-back helped make Leong's Hawaiian a household name to drag race fans from coast to coast and certainly didn't hurt the careers of Prudhomme and Snively.

In 1965, Prudhomme certainly was no stranger to West Coast fans. He had carved a gunslinger's reputation with a surprising win at the 1962 March Meet with chassis builder Kent Fuller and engine maestro Dave Zeuschel, and in 1963-64 at the wheel of the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster with money man Tommy Greer and engine wizard Keith Black, he had run up an impressive streak of match race wins, but he hadn't won a national event to establish a nationwide rep.

Prudhomme and Leong met when the Greer-Black-Prudhomme team traveled to Hawaii for an exhibition event in 1964; when the G-B-P team disbanded later that year, Leong hired Prudhomme.

In Pomona, the Hawaiian made a dazzling series of runs between 7.75 and 7.87 to earn Prudhomme his first of 49 wins.

Seven months later at the Nationals, NHRA President Wally Parks was congratulating Prudhomme and Leong in the Indy winner's circle as Teddy beamed on approvingly.

Leong can't remember the name of the actor's son posing with him and Prudhomme in Bakersfield, in 1965, but he did point out how dirty his pants were. "You can tell who did all the work on this car," he smirked. (Update: The Insider reader experts come through again: It's Timothy Rooney, son of Mickey; thanks Paul Cuff and Cliff Morgan!)

Leong also was not truly fresh off the boat -- he had owned and driven a gas dragster both on the islands and at some SoCal tracks, and he was the owner of the winning Top Gas car driven by fellow Hawaiian Danny Ongais at the 1964 Winternationals – but it was his first foray into the nitro ranks. Leong had met Black and Prudhomme in Hawaii – where his parents ran a successful insurance business and a speed shop – when the G-B-P made exhibition runs for a track opening, though Leong (contrary to previous reports) says he already had commissioned Fuller to build him a car similar to the G-B-P entry before its arrival.

Leong's initial lap in his beautiful new blue fueler, tuned by Black himself, did not go well – much in the kind of way that the Titanic's voyage was fine other than the part about running into that iceberg. Leong, who had cut his teeth driving Dragmaster-chassised gas dragsters, got loose twice but still ran 191 mph; however, unfamiliar with the cockpit layout of a Fuller car, he couldn't find the parachute release, accidentally bumped the steering wheel with his elbow, hit a sign, and ended up off the end of the Lions track.

All these years later, Prudhomme, who buckled in Leong for his maiden voyage, still finds the incident humorous, as he told me last week. "Roland didn't have a clue as to where he was going. It was the funniest damn thing ever, and we still laugh about it; he ended up down there on the railroad tracks, and asked me, ' "Vipe," what happened?' He didn’t even know."

That incident – and a stern admonishment from Black – was all it took for Leong to acknowledge that he didn’t belong in the saddle of a car that fast.

Recalled Leong, "On Monday morning, I went to Black's, and he called me into his office. 'I can’t go to the races with you anymore,' he told me. 'You scared the [crap] outta me. If you got hurt or killed, what would I tell your parents?' But he told me he was going to give up running the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car and that I should get Prudhomme to drive my car for me and he would still tune it."

The G-B-P team was in its death throes anyway as Greer's industrial machine business had taken a downturn, and he sold the car to Black for what he owed him in winnings and wages. But Black's own engine-building business had begun to take off, and he had no time to be a team owner and a tuner, so all of the pieces fit conveniently for Leong.

"The Greer-Black-Prudhomme car was a great car, but NHRA was really starting to take off then, and the Winternationals was definitely a race that everyone wanted to win," recalled Prudhomme. "I never dreamed that things would turn out like they did, but winning those two races was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me and to Roland and even to Keith Black."

The team first formed in late 1964 and was ready for the Winternationals, where Prudhomme had the quick time of the opening day, 7.80 at a slowing 204.54 mph, just ahead of Don Garlits' marginally slower yet much faster 7.81, 206.88. Fog and rain conspired to force a one-day, all-day finish Sunday (which I will recount in an upcoming column).

Before a packed house and the Wide World of Sports cameras, the Hawaiian dished up a series of seven-second blasts to collect the green, getting past Willie Redford and the broken Carroll Bros. & Oxman machine with a 7.87, then burying James Warren with a 7.77 in round two. (Interestingly, Warren was driving the Chrysler-powered Warren & Crowe entry that he had qualified after the Chevy-motivated Warren & Coburn entry had been bumped from the field.)

Black continued to work his magic for the Hawaiian in the semifinals, where a quicker-still 7.75 at 204.08 dispatched current NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart. The Hawaiian remained rock steady in the final round against "Wild Bill" Alexander with a 7.76, 201.34 to Alexander's 7.92, 198.22.

Leong convinced Prudhomme, who still was painting cars at the time, that they could take advantage of this newfound fame on the match race trail, and after agreeing to drive for a percentage of the winnings, they the road, hard and often.

"We just wanted to race; we'd race on a dirt road if you told us how to get there," recalled Leong. "I remember one night, we got rained out at Long Beach, and I was living in an apartment in the [San Fernando] Valley because that was where Prudhomme lived. When we woke up Sunday, it was sunny, so we decided to run San Fernando [Raceway] because they didn't open until noon. It was the only time I ever raced there, and I think we even won the race. Like I said, if there was dragstrip, we'd race it.

"The only thing was that if we had a race Saturday, Black would tune for us, but he couldn’t ever go on Sundays, so Prudhomme and I would be on our own, but we didn’t care. Prudhomme wasn't really an engine man, and all of my experience was with gas engines, and we were both really young. I can remember me and Prudhomme pulling out of Black's shop one time and him saying, 'There goes the blind leading the blind.' He just shook his head and said, 'I'm only a phone call away.'

"We went back East and won a lot of match races, and, of course, we won Indy, too [beating former Prudhomme mentor Tommy Ivo on the final run], but Black flew back there to help us. We won the race on Monday, and there was a race in Detroit the next night, but Black had to fly home. So Prudhomme and I ran down there – we didn’t even have time to check the bearings – and ran quicker and faster than we did at Indy and won that race, too!"

The successful partnership ended at year's end after B&M and Milodon, which were partners in the new Torkmaster transmission, built a car, had Zeuschel build the engines, and gave it to Prudhomme to run.

"It was hard to leave and quite a setback from not driving the Hawaiian because it was such a great car, but the B&M Torkmaster car ended up running pretty good," said Prudhomme, "and I was able from there to go into business and own my own team. Of course, Roland went on and did good, too. He's made a helluva lot better owner and tuner than he did a driver."

"I was a bit surprised, but life goes on," admitted Leong of Prudhomme's departure, "but it wasn't that a big a deal; we were young and wanted to race, and obviously back then, there were no driver contracts. [No one would know that better than Leong, who has had more drivers than any other team owner -- 22, by most counts.]

"I had just turned 21, and all we wanted to do was race, and to be able to go around the country and be paid to run, that was unheard of to us, so we didn’t really focus on all that other stuff. "

After Prudhomme left the team at the end of the successful 1965 season, Leong tapped Mike Snively to drive the beautiful blue car.

Snively repeated Prudhomme's 1965 performance by winning the 1966 Winternationals, then went on to also win the U.S. Nationals.

Leong won the Winternationals two more times as a car owner, including back to back in Funny Car in 1970 and 1971 with Larry Reyes and Butch Maas (pictured) at the wheel of his Dodge Charger.

Leong hired Snively, whom he knew through his contact at Dragmaster (and who six years later would run the sport's first five-second pass in Jim Annin's dragster in Ontario, Calif.), and the two partnered for the 1966 campaign. Before they headed to Pomona, Leong was on the phone to tracks back East, sure that they were eager to book the famed Hawaiian, but got a rude surprise.

"I told them that I owned the Hawaiian, and they told me, 'Oh, we've already got Prudhomme booked,' " recalled Leong. "Prudhomme had booked the car the year before because he and [Tom] McEwen were always kidding me about my accent and my pidgin English and that they should do the talking. But once we won Pomona again, the track operators started calling me again, and off we went."

Like Prudhomme the year before, Snively put the Hawaiian at the head of the pack in qualifying at Pomona with a strong run, a 7.66 at 205 mph, then had to defeat 31 other cars after Mother Nature stepped in. Heavy fog Saturday had forced the cancellation of AA/FD class racing, so NHRA decided that instead of the usual format – in which Saturday's winner would race the winner of Sunday's 16-car field – that it would simply expand the field to 32 cars and run the first round Saturday and the remaining four Sunday.

Snively got past Saturday's challenge with a 7.57 at 208.80 against Roy Thode, then opened Sunday with a better-yet 7.55 to defeat Paul "the Kid" Sutherland. A semifinal 7.63 defeated "Sneaky Pete" Robinson's SOHC-powered fueler to push Snively into the semi's against Warren, who a round earlier had set low e.t. with a 7.51. Showcasing his skills, Snively slapped a gatejob on the "Bakersfield Flash" and the Ridge Route Terrors and emerged with a 7.59 to 7.58 holeshot ticket to the final round.

Leong, Snively, and Black saved the best for last, powering to a 7.54 at 209.78 mph to defeat "Big Jim" Dunn's gallant 7.59, 207.84 to again claim the Winternationals trophy. They, too, hit the match race trail, and again come Labor Day weekend, the young Hawaiian kid was standing in the winner's circle in Indy with his feared blue dragster. To add to the duality of the accomplishment, as Prudhomme had defeated Ivo, who gave him his start in racing in 1960, Snively and Leong beat Leong's old island pal, Ongais, for the 1966 Indy win.

Those must have been some pretty heady times for a 21-year-old, but when pressed to brag about himself, Leong, now 64 and still spry and active, will only admit, "When we'd pull into the track, guys back East were pretty much saying, 'Man, we might as well just go home,' because everyone expected us to win, and, well, we always did well."

Leong and Snively didn't win any national events in 1967, but they did win in Bakersfield and at the Hot Rod Championships in Riverside, Calif., and a lot of other big match races.

"After Bakersfield, I got a new Don Long car; Snively and I spent three days and two nights working and sleeping at Don Long's shop to get it done before the Riverside race, then went out there and won the race and set low e.t. and top speed," recalled Leong.

Beyond the then-unprecedented Top Fuel back-to-back wins, the Winternationals has been kind to Leong. His Pomona successes continued into his Funny Car career, which, like his Top Fuel career, got off to a rough start when Larry Reyes kited the Hawaiian Charger in the lights at the 1969 race. Reyes came back to win the race the next year for Leong, who also was in the Pomona winner's circle the following year with new driver Butch Maas.

At the 1985 Winternationals, Leong and driver Rick Johnson set the Funny Car world on its ear in the second round with a barrier-breaking 5.58 – breaking Prudhomme's longstanding 5.63 mark – at 262.62 mph, also the fastest pass in history, supplanting Mark Oswald's 261.62 from the previous year's World Finals. Credit went largely to a Hawaiian Punch Daytona body that had spent eight hours in the Lockheed wind tunnel in Georgia and the addition of a 14-71 blower in place of the 12-71 that Leong traditionally had run.

Leong returned to the Pomona winner's circle in 1998 as a crew chief with car owner Prudhomme and driver Ron Capps; Prudhomme, too, has not done too shabby since that 1965 win, banking four straight victories behind the wheel at the season opener (1975-'78). Capps' 1998 win was accompanied by a victory by Prudhomme Top Fuel pilot Larry Dixon, making it a doubly sweet moment. Dixon also won the race in 2002 and 2003 for Prudhomme en route to their world championships.

Both will be in action again this year in Pomona, with Prudhomme unveiling new driver Spencer Massey and Leong tuning on Mike McCain's Bomb Squad Plymouth Duster nostalgia Funny Car, which will make exhibition runs with driver Mendy Fry. If their past history on Parker Avenue is any indication, it should be another memorable weekend for both the fabled "Hawaiian" and the legendary "Snake."