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It's ramped up and almost ready

07 Jun 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Any trip to Englishtown is steeped in history — the names of heroes such as “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney are always invoked. The vast majority of the nitro racers who compete annually always tip their hats to the event’s rich tradition and talk about how a win at the event is considered a true feather in the cap. That goes all the way from veterans and students of the sport such as Larry Dixon and Jack Beckman to newcomers on the nitro scene such as Spencer Massey and even native New Jerseyite Paul Lee, the driver of Jim Dunn’s Funny Car, who attended his first E-town in the 7th grade, in 1974, just in time to see “Jungle’s” full-track wheelie. “That hooked me for life,” Lee told me Sunday morning. He won his hometown race in Top Alcohol Funny Car in 2004.

With 42 years of history, the event has been won by some of the sport’s biggest names, including Liberman, Garlits, Muldowney, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Bill Jenkins, Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Darrell Gwynn, Gary Beck, Dick LaHaie, Gary Ormsby, Raymond Beadle, John Force, Richard Tharp, Dale Armstrong, Bob Glidden, Lee Shepherd, Warren Johnson, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Greg Anderson, Frank Iaconio, Wayne Gapp, Jeb Allen, Don Schumacher, Pete Robinson, Gene Snow, Leroy Goldstein, Dick Landy, Don Nicholson, and many, many more.

The moment that many had been waiting for ... the ramp bed goes on
The nearly completed package ... looks amazing!

McEwen won the only Top Fuel trophy of his NHRA career at this event in 1991 — he had been runner-up to Allen in 1972 and to Prudhomme in Funny Car in 1976 — and I single him out because of the photos here that Skip Allum sent during the weekend showing the progress of the red McEwen Hot Wheels ramp truck hauler that Prudhomme — a six-time E-town winner in Funny Car (plus wins as an owner with Dixon and Tommy Johnson Jr.) — Willie Wolter, and the team are restoring as a matching bookend to the yellow hauler that Prudhomme restored a couple of years ago.

After an end-to-end restoration, repair, and resurrection, the truck is quickly nearing completion. The ramp bed was finally mounted on the Dodge chassis, and it’s really beginning to look like something.

“It’s not totally done yet,” he cautioned. “We still have to put on all the hinges and handles for the storage bays, run the wiring, install the exterior running lights and turn signals, and some other small details.”

Where the yellow truck carries Prudhomme’s famed ’Cuda, the “new” truck will carry the McEwen Duster that Prudhomme already owns — a car that was re-created a few years ago to salute the 35th Hot Wheels anniversary celebration — which will lose its current blue paint in favor of red and will ride piggyback on the red truck.

Although an official debut has not been nailed down, Allum said that there’s an outside chance that it could be completed in time for the L.A. Roadster Show, where Prudhomme will be the grand marshal again this year.

(Above) With the Army Arrow behind him, "Snake" obliges his fans. (Below) Prudhomme and longtime pal Leong soak in the Mopar love.
 (Darren Jacobs photos)

I spoke this morning to Prudhomme, who had just gotten back from the Midwest Mopars in the Park national car show in Farmington, Minn., where he and the Army Plymouth Arrow made an appearance. “Snake’s” lifelong good pal and fellow Mopar icon Roland Leong joined him on the trip.

“It was a fun show,” he said. “Since I’ve been retired, there’s all kinds of stuff going on that I never had a chance to do. I find it interesting the amount of people who were Hot Wheels collectors back in the day who remember how I started with Mopar way back then.”

The restoration of the Dodge ramp trucks, obviously, has done nothing but further warm their hearts, and he’s confident that the McEwen truck will be as warmly received as his own.

“It’s been a real fun project that’s about completed, and it’s over the top,” he said enthusiastically. “It was a lot harder than my truck because it was in worse shape, so we had to do a frame-off kind of job and all of the wiring because it really needed it.

“Now that’s it’s almost done and I see the two trucks together, it’s like, ‘What the hell have I done?’ Before, the trucks were just tools to get us back and forth to the races. Now it’s something else; it’s almost too nice to drive.”

So, what’s next on “the Snake’s” list?

“Boy, nothing to this extent,” he said, laughing. “In fact, I don’t really want to grow the collection; I actually want to start weeding it out a little bit.”

And, to that end, later this year, the Skoal Top Fuel dragster that Massey piloted in his rookie of the year campaign will go on the auction block at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Las Vegas Sept. 22-24. Prior to the sale, the dragster will be displayed at the Barrett-Jackson Orange County (Calif.) auction June 24-26.

Being as it’s also the last race car owned or campaigned by Prudhomme during his Hall of Fame career, it certainly could catch the eye of a collector. On the other hand, it’s also a turnkey, ready-to-run race-winning dragster.

“I hope it goes to some collector; I’d hate to see someone race it again,” he said. “You just have to know that whatever collection someone has, this will be the first car everyone will walk up to. It’s so different from everything else, a great big brute of a car with lines and fuel pumps and gauges and flow controls and computers. You don’t realize how unique it is until you walk up to it and see what goes in to making 7,000 horsepower.

“It’s the real deal. I know the guys at Barrett real well, and we thought that because Las Vegas was the last place Spencer won with the car, it’s the perfect place to auction it, exactly the way it came off the track.”

Of course, the car he’d love to get back is the great Army Monza, but that’s definitely not going to happen. It’s still at the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection) in Reno, Nev., with the original KB block in it, and they ain’t giving it back.

“Believe me, I’ve tried several times,” he said, “but they’re not going to let it go.”

Prudhomme, of course, famously traded the car to Harrah’s for a Ferrari 308 GTB that’s long gone. “At the time, I thought I got the best end of the deal. Boy, was I wrong.”

And don’t look for him to have any interest in a repop. “I’m not big on re-creations; I want the real deal,” he said firmly. “That’s what gets me going.”

Us, too. Can’t wait to see the red hauler in person.

Because of my E-town trip and management meetings Thursday and Friday, this will be this week’s lone column. I have some cool stuff in the works, including my long-promised story about the Mickey Thompson Grand Am — I finally was able to get in touch with its last driver, Bob Pickett, who also has an interesting career story that I will share in the future — as well as an in-depth look back at Capt. Jack McClure of rocket go-kart fame, more OCIR home movies, and a lot more, so stay tuned.