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Of Snakes, Mongooses, and horses

06 Aug 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Today's column is a bit of a mash up of comments from recent columns, including the ongoing ramp-truck discussions, Tommy Ivo's glass-sided trailers, "the Snake" and "the Mongoose," and Hot Wheels. I'm having to create so many subfolders in my email's Inbox to keep everything in order that it’s beginning to look like a many-headed snake … so to speak.

OK, first things first. I finally got a chance to speak to Tom McEwen about his recently recovered ramp truck that Don Prudhomme is restoring, and I've received a few more photos of the machine, in two paint schemes, from Mark Dias, who holds the rather cool title of road speed control products manager at Sturdy Corporation, a North Carolina-based company that works on "mechanical, electrical, electronic, and software solutions with a focus on applications designed for harsh environments." Like drag racing? 

Anyway, here's a shot of "the 'Goose" standing next to his truck at Tri-State Dragway in 1971, when the truck was wearing its second paint scheme (blue; originally red, as shown in the second photo from 1970, parked outside a motel somewhere on the road).

McEwen expressed a bit of surprise at all of the love still being shown to his career and especially the truck, considering his love-hate relationship with it.

"Every time I think of that truck, I have nightmares," he told me. "I had nothing but trouble with it at the end. They were so heavy, and there's a key in the rear drive axle that kept breaking, I had to have that sucker towed in so many times I lost count. I’d have to get towed in the last couple of hundred miles to make the date. Oh, man, I'm telling you. They were nice trucks but sometimes a real pain.

"I know Prudhomme has been talking about wanting to find my truck ever since he found his, and I'd had guys call me over the years and telling me it was here or there and if I was interested in buying it. I was told years ago that it was in a field somewhere in Arizona all broke down, so I wasn't interested in any part of that."

McEwen also got the chance to talk about his other favorite brand of horsepower, which runs on four legs. McEwen has long bred and raced horses, and his newest star is Mongoosecharminghawk, a 3-year-old filly that earned him yet another win last Saturday at Southern California's Los Alimitos Race Course, where she won the California Breeders Matron Stakes, which is what they call a Cal-bred race because it's limited to fillies and mares, 3 years and old, that were bred in California.

Mongoosecharminghawk, trained by Dennis Givens (who has trained McEwen's horses since 1978) and ridden by Jay Conklin, edged Irish Idol by a nose to win the $13,750 first-place prize. She covered the 350-yard distance (1,050 feet for you non-mathematical drag fans) in 17.33 seconds.

All of McEwen's horses historically have had the word "mongoose" in them, and this horse's name, in racehorse tradition, is a combination of its relatives. Her mother is Charming Effort (who also produced Mongoose Hawkette). 

Hall of fame photog Steve Reyes has chipped in a few new items on the "Snake" and "Mongoose" front, beginning with this amazingly cool photo from Fremont Raceway that shows a gang of Funny Car stars perched on high to watch Top Fuel qualifying. I don’t know everyone in this photo, but that's obviously Prudhomme seated on the tire at left, and he's chatting with Kelly Brown (blond hair). McEwen is down a few more in the dark glasses, standing next to "Jungle Jim" Liberman and "Jungle Pam" Hardy, who are standing next to Gene Snow and Jake Johnston, who was driving for Snow back then. What a cool "class picture."

Reyes also killed two birds with one photo (well, two photos), dovetailing the Prudhomme-McEwen talk with the Hot Wheels commercials shown here last week. Reyes was on hand at Orange County Int’l Raceway for the filming of one of the Mattel commercials (to promote the Wild Wheelies set, I'd guess) with their slab-sided, front-engine machines.

Now, the first thing that any hard-core drag fan — especially any of us who had the honor of actually going to OCIR — will pick out is that the cars are headed the wrong way on the track, and that's they're also doing burnouts back to the starting line from not all that far up the track. What's up with that?

"Lighting problems," explained Reyes, "so, heck, let's run them the wrong way. They placed the cars going the wrong way out past the Tree and had Prudhomme and McEwen smoke the tires. I thought they were going to crash through the back fence behind the starting line. What a Chinese fire drill."

Reyes also tossed me a couple of more ramp truck photos for the collection. The most interesting to me was this one, showing just how versatile they were. Here, the Custom Body Enterprises team uses theirs to haul the remnants of their mini-Challenger body after losing it in the lights at Indy 1972. How convenient!

Moving on to glass-sided trailers …

As I mentioned previously, I've received lots of little notes about the many others who had see-through rigs but got this nicely detailed note from Betty Green, who with husband Jim fielded the Green Elephant floppers (world champs in 1973 with Frank Hall in the saddle!) and some photos of their 1977 rig.

"We had a lot of fun traveling with the car visible," she remembers. "The only problem was when someone would be glued to the side of our trailer looking at the car when we wanted to change lanes. Jim would have to give a little wiggle to wake them up.

"Jim built the short motorhome with the platform back to tow the goose-neck trailer, which he also built. There were a lot of great features to our rig, including a fold-out door just in front of the window that stored a rack of parts needed for every day work on the race car as well as slide-in trays of tools for each job; fuel and oil barrels that had hoses on the boom of the fold-out door so fluids could be added to the car from above; tools, generator, starter, and air compressor in side boxes of the hauler, which was also our tow vehicle at the race track; and a wheelchair lift inside of the hauler for our son, Jamie. We sold the trailer to someone in Hawaii. We don't know where it is now. We still have the motorhome, which extended to full length about 1980, and used it often throughout the 1980s and 1990s when we were truck and tractor pulling. We have an Alpine now but loved our old motorhome; it was like putting on a comfy old shoe."

David Ray tossed me a few photos of glass-sided trailers, including this one of "Diamond Jim" Annin's beautiful stars-and-stripes-themed Top Fueler, sitting pretty as you please in the Indy pits.

Reader Bill Klinger was thinking about the various tow vehicles he's seen over the years, and two unusual ones came to mind. "The first is the box truck of Shirl Greer," he writes. "I remember awing over what must have been a 1950s or early 1960s delivery truck. I saw the truck many times back in the early '80s and then again at a nostalgia event in Valdosta, Ga., a few years ago. The other vehicle was the converted school bus used by the Cassidy Bros. team in the '70s and '80s. Seeing a nicely painted BB/FC though the standard windows of a school bus was a strangely interesting experience." I've received a few comments about the Cassidy bus but don't have anything in our files. Anyone?

And speaking of odd haulers, former National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland recalls, "Back in the days when we had the National DRAGSTER Open in Columbus, Ohio, I can still see Paul Longenecker (Arcanum, Ohio) showing up at National Trail Raceway with a gorgeous new rear-engine Top Fuel car built by Mark Williams ... on a flatbed hay trailer. Paul had previously raced a '55 Chevy in Stock Eliminator (which, as I recall, would never be a contender for Best Appearing Car honors), and to show up with a beautiful new Top Fuel car on a hay trailer was a bit incongruous. To his credit, Longenecker's debut resulted in an event win." More strange but true stories from the strip!

Jeff Mittendorf's extensive "Snake"-"Mongoose" collection drew a lot of oohs and aahs (even though, based on the emails that keep appearing in my Inbox from him, only scratched the surface), and a few had tales to share as well.

Kevin Aardahl also has a set of those first "Snake" and "Mongoose" Hot Wheels that he bought back in 1969/1970. He brought them both to the 35th anniversary Hot Wheels celebration at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum back in 2005 and had both Prudhomme and McEwen sign them. " 'Snake' was very careful signing both the car and button and used an extra-fine permanent marker," he reported. "Tom used a silver pen so it would stand out. That made my day. I still have my first Hot Wheel, the Custom Cougar, bought in December 1968. I had various track sets, but my folks gave it all away when I went to college. Thankfully, they kept my cars."

Longtime pal Dan "the Sign Man" DeLaney responded to Mittendorf's query about the mail-in coupon for a Hot Wheels Funny Car. "I got my first 'Snake' Funny Car through that coupon offer from Coke," he reported. "I couldn't wait until it showed up in the mail. I drove our mailman 'Whitey' nuts chasing him down around the neighborhood seeing if he had it in his mail bag. Then it finally came … Oh boy!  I'm surprised the wheels are still on this thing because I ran it down the orange track so much. I honestly can't remember how it was packaged, but it didn't matter: I had the 'Snake's' Hot Wheels car! Today, it sits in my display case at the shop along with hundreds of Hot Wheels, including the chrome King Cuda, Boss Hoss, and Heavy Chevy, for all to see, and I still tell this story of how I got it. Love the ramp truck stories, too! I was always fascinated by them. I guess all of us around our age have our memories of that era, and I'm so glad I lived in that great irreplaceable time as a kid and as a kid going to the drags. Looking around my shop, I guess I'm still that kid."

Among the many other items that Mittendorf shared with me was this original Mongoose II crew jacket, "the prize possession" of his entire toy/memorabilia collection. It's one that hits pretty close to home for me, too, and it involves my dear friend, the late great National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Leslie Lovett.

"This jacket was gifted after the 1971 season to Leslie Lovett and had Leslie's name embroidered on it," he writes. "There are three more floating around out there that were gifted to other photographers who were friendly with Tom. After Leslie died, it made its way to the hands of a noted drag memorabilia dealer, who sold it to me."

Mittendorf went to great lengths to authenticate the jacket. He spoke to a mutual acquaintance to get McEwen to bring him a similar jacket, one that meant as much to McEwen because it was the one worn by his late son, Jamie, so that Mittendorf could compare them and be sure he had the real deal.

Stewart See never got tired of playing with his Hot Wheels dragstrip sets, and still does. He has created a scale drag racing event for kids ages 4 to 16 that includes three tracks: two gravity-fed for the two younger age groups and a raised track for the older group.

"All tracks use original and vintage Hot Wheels equipment from 1969 and 1970, and the older-age bracket uses the Hot Wheels Big Belter/Matchmaker (mechanical Christmas Tree and launcher)," he said. "Every track is exactly a 1:64th-scale quarter-mile, meaning the launch edge to the finish gates is precisely 20.625 feet.

"When I had this idea back in 2005, I sought sponsors, and Lowe’s was kind enough to donate the materials to build the upper-age track, wood carpet, brackets, and bolts. We had local trophy sponsorship as well as for the banners, staff shirts, and prizes. The whole idea is for any kid to bring an original, out-of-the-box car and win either prizes, trophies, or both. No cost to anyone. I did add an Open Dragster bracket for the last event for any car (modified included) and any age, and sure enough, the girl who won the upper-age bracket also beat two adults for the Open Dragster trophy.

"I think all of the racers' parents thought this was the coolest thing they had ever seen! Probably brought back some memories of those Mattel-sponsored Test Days, but this event is much more than that. This is a true drag race experience in every sense of the word, only on scale and for the younger racers. We even have tech inspection during the registration process. Heck, I even registered and copyrighted the name DieCast Nationals. My inaugural event was in October 2005 in Hemet, Calif., and my last event was in October 2009 in Deer Park, Wash. I am trying to organize another event for Sept. 18 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It will all depend on sponsorship."

What a great idea! Am I too old to take part?

OK, friends, that's all for the week. I'll be back next week, but it may not be until Tuesday, depending on if I'm able to keep a very special lunch date Monday that will consume a large part of that day. If I do make it, boy will I have a story to share with you! Until then, thanks, as always, for reading.