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Ramping up the excitement level

13 Jul 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

News of Don Prudhomme's find of former partner Tom McEwen's Hot Wheels ramp truck, first reported here last week, has really ramped up the excitement, if you will, at the prospect of seeing it with Prudhomme's recently restored hauler in the near future. Here's a bit of a sneak preview of what it's going to look like. Our crack photo staff found this image among the 1970 Winternationals color slides. Save for the stupid telephone pole in the way, it's a cool photo, very clearly taken at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

I shared it with Skip Allum, from Prudhomme's camp, who pointed out that McEwen's truck was pretty devoid of decals, meaning that this might have been very early in "the Mongoose's" ownership of the truck, whereas Prudhomme's rig had quite a few more decals.

I received a lot of responses and some neat stuff, including this other great photo, sent by Drew Hierwarter, of Lou Baney, a major industry mover and shaker who was instrumental in the careers of both "the Mongoose" and "the Snake" -- both drove his Brand Ford Top Fueler. Bill Holland, who confirmed Baney's ID in this pic, noted, "Lou was quite an incredible character. I think one of the earliest Hot Rod magazines in the '40s showed him and a team of guys building a car at a show. I also think he was involved with the old Saugus dragstrip with Don Rackemann. Once we were racing at OCIR and blew a head gasket. We started thrashing on the car, and next thing I knew, there was Baney right in the mix, helping out. He was that kind of guy. He was also quite an entertaining guy at the mic. He'd have the room in stitches in no time. Probably only Bill Doner was better."

Glenn Menard said that seeing the two trucks together brought back memories of a race at Southland Dragway in Houma, La., where Menard was the manager, and of the drawing power of the duo. "I had booked the Hot Wheels pair for a Sunday match race and convinced the track owner to let me run TV spots (how revolutionary) in the Saturday morning cartoon shows in New Orleans and Baton Rouge," he wrote. "The hook was a free Hot Wheels car with every pit pass purchased. Did it work? How about it rained all day on Sunday, but we still sold 5,000 pit tickets. The fans paid for rain checks, got their Hot Wheels, made a U-turn in the pits, and went back home to return for the rain date later."

Steve Quercio especially is looking forward to seeing the McEwen truck back in its full glory. "I remember thousands of miles sitting in that thing!" he recalled. "I was just a kid, and our friend Jack Williams talked McEwen into letting me travel with them that summer to sell Drag News at the races. Jerry Irving was the mechanic. We would run a Wednesday at U.S. 30, then a Friday in Pennsylvania, Saturday in New York, and Sunday in Epping, N.H. We would really run a ton of dates, and people loved those two match racers."

Here's a pretty cool little item. Allum sent this photo of an interesting find that the Prudhomme restoration team already has uncovered as they began work on McEwen's truck. Inside the headliner, they discovered these original pieces, which obviously were put there by the Sox & Martin team when they owned the truck. They are the team's 1968 Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team stickers as well as a couple of photos of the team's 1968 Mopar. Noted Allum, "Given the year, it's very possible that either Sox, Martin, or someone from their team placed them there years ago!" Wow, what a find.

And speaking of restorations by Prudhomme, Allum also sent this photo of one of their other ongoing projects, the 1999 Copenhagen Funny Car that Ron Capps drove. If you remember, this gold "Snake" car was very short-lived; it only made three passes at that year's U.S. Nationals before being burned to a crisp in the first round of Sunday's Shootout bonus race.

Of my mention that Prudhomme had to negotiate mightily to get a fair price on the truck, Chuck Edwards, who remembers seeing the Sox & Martin truck at Motor City Dragway decades ago, noted cheekily, "If a guy shows up with a flatbed truck and wants to buy your hauler, and even if you don't recognize him as 'the Snake,' wouldn't you want top dollar, too?" Note to self: Always park flatbed around the corner.

Reader Jeff Mittendorf, one of the many ramp-truck-obsessed among you, passed along a link to an interesting page that's a spotter's guide to determining the correct year of those famous Dodge trucks. Check it out here. The site's history page also has some interesting factoids concerning changes to the trucks throughout the years.

With that in mind, he noted, "I've always wondered about something, and with your contacts, maybe you can answer it. Note that Prudhomme's hauler had the 1965-1967 Dodge grille. McEwen's had a 1968 grille but the 1965-1967 hood (I don't know if Sox & Martin did that or McEwen; all the pics I have of the Sox & Martin hauler show the earlier grille, but they may have upgraded at some point prior to sale). With all the publicity these two were generating, I always found it odd that Chrysler let them parade around the country with obsolete grilles and didn't upgrade them to the 1970 versions (a simple swap, I believe). During the 1971 season, Prudhomme had a grille that hadn't been on a new truck in four years. Any insight?"

I don't have any, but maybe the readers do.

Jeff also shared a link to a message board that discussed ramp trucks, where, after scrolling through several hundred messages, I stumbled on this photo of McEwen's old truck, in much better shape than when Prudhomme found it. According to the message poster, this photo was taken in Van Nuys, Calif., in 2000.

(Post-posting note: Affter a posted this entry, reader Vince Weeks wrote to say that he doesn't think this is the same truck that Prudhomme just purchased. "If you look at McEwen's truck it has four doors behind the rear tire and this one has two doors also the bed is on way more of a angle than McEwen's and appears to be shorter," he notes. "Also if you look at the roof of the ramp truck in Van Nuys it doesn't have a Kysor air conditioner on top. Actually the Van Nuys truck looks more updated with aluminum wheels in back and the big chrome bumper up front. If you look at the pictures of the truck the way Prudhomme found it and the picture that you have posted of it when it was used for a Winston west hauler the paint is the same just faded. I guess the big question is if the Van Nuys truck isn't McEwen's than whose truck was it?" Good question!!!)

Although not really related to the topic, Gary Crumine noted that the early-1970s era of the ramp truck was the beginning of a change in how teams identified their cars, from the cars' names to the drivers' names on their sides as the drivers began to have some equity.

"We used to go see the Blue Max, or the Hawaiian, or the Chi-Town Hustler, and it didn’t matter who the driver was at that time," he remembered. "I think Garlits was the first household name, along with the 'Snake' and 'Mongoose.' I also think that the Pro Stock guys actually started the shift to driver names: Sox & Martin, 'Grumpy' Jenkins, 'Dyno Don' Nicholson, Dick Landy, 'Fast Eddie' Schartman etc."

Speaking of the Hustler, I mentioned that the team probably had the longest-running ramp truck in drag racing history, though as Norman Hechtkoff noted, they modified it into a box truck that provided protection from the elements. Here's a photo of the truck from 1982, but the team ran well into 1983 and possibly beyond, even after receiving the Team Strange sponsorship. I wonder where this one is. Bet Austin Coil knows.

Back quickly to my Fourth of July Patriotic Power column, I received notes from Steve Henshaw and Mark Harmon alerting me that I'd left off the Damn Yankee flopper of Don Cook, which Pat Foster and Ron O'Donnell drove. "Absolutely the most beautiful red, white, and blue car ever," stated Henshaw. The car briefly held both ends of the NHRA national record at 6.41, 227.84, set at an NHRA WCS meet in Saginaw, Mich., in July 1972.

According to the 70sfunnycars website, O'Donnell left Cook's team to field a car named The Big Noise From Illinois but soon began running a Vega under the Damn Yankee name that was painted nearly identically to the car in this great Tom West photo. O'Donnell built a Damn Yankee Mustang II in 1977, but the car was lost after just a few passes due to a parachute failure.

Mike McCarthy dropped me a line to stump for the Freedom Machine AA/FD out of Hudson, Mass., which was owned by Tom Dawes and driven by O.J. McKenney. "While working for Artie Irwin and his Drag News column, I had the chance to photograph the car often," said McCarthy. "Unfortunately, over the years, all my files were lost, and I have been trying to collect more pics of the car. A couple of shots that I have found interesting are this black and white shot by Paul Wasilewski Jr. at New England Dragway, which has me taking pics from the other side of the fence, and this 1974 shot of the rear-engined Freedom Machine taken by Gary Edwards in California shortly before Tom's untimely passing. I've had some luck in finding pics but would love to find more of the rear-engined car in California."

Readers?