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The 'other' black 'Cuda

11 Jul 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
(Above) Don Prudhomme shook down the Snake III 'Cuda at OCIR prior to its debut at the 1973 Supernationals. (Below) The fully decaled/painted car as it appeared at the Supernationals and Lions' Last Drag Race. (Steve Reyes photos)
Snake III as part of Hot Wheels' 2009-edition Drag Strip Demons collection.

Last week’s discussion about the notorious black-primer Snake III Barracuda of Don Prudhomme -- a car that was unveiled at season’s end in 1972 and competed at the NHRA Supernationals and The Last Drag Race, where “Snake” was runner-up to Tom McEwen, and at Beeline Dragway in Arizona -- opened up a whole new can of snakes, as it were.

As we have established, this John Buttera-built car went on to be painted yellow for the 1973 season, emblazoned with new sponsor Carefree Gum, and would win the U.S. Nationals. It was parked for the start of the 1974 season in favor of a laydown-style Vega (also from Buttera) but returned to the starting lineup in time to win the Gatornationals wearing the colors of “the Snake’s” new sponsor, the U.S. Army. It now resides in Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Florida.

The car is somewhat of a cult favorite among “Snake” devotees because a) a lot of folks outside of SoCal never saw it run; and b) it just looked bad-ass. It was so cool that Mattel even included it in its 30-car 2009 Drag Strip Demons collection (along with the Army-painted version and several other Prudhomme and McEwen cars).

So all was well and good in the “black Snake” universe until frequent Insider contributor “Chicago Jon” Hoffman brought to my attention the fact that there was a second black “Snake” 'Cuda that ran for a short time in 1973.

“In the spring of 1973, there was an excellent piece in Hot Rod, I believe called ‘The Glorious Life of the Snake & the 'Goo$e,’ where they were followed through a weekend up in the Northwest, running a big-deal Funny Car race at Seattle (sponsored by something called Skippers Fish & Chips) and, in the spirit of the era, barnstorming over to Pewallup [sic]. During the course of the piece, they made mention of the fact that ‘Snake’ had recently ‘tore up’ the car at Green Valley and made hasty repairs. From the 8/73 issue of Super Stock, at a 64-car extrava-gonzo at good 'ol Irwindale, the ‘Snake’s’ car appears again in primer, but completely different from The Last Drag Race. Now, like ‘comic-book-guy’ on The Simpsons, I could check down the list of differences, but I'll skip over that and get to one thing that REALLY jumps out. During '73, I noticed that right about the time this car started to really thunder with consistency was when the front end picked up an extra (it almost looks fabricated out of duct tape) spoiler. In its subsequent repainting of the Carefree colors, you also noticed that 'Snake' was on the front spoiler in much bigger letters than on the original. I'm no scientist, but I point to the repairs made on this Buttera machine at this point to be the pivotal moment as to when this car became that ‘rip their hearts out machine’ with which my man, Don ‘the Snake,’ began sawing his way through the competition."

The second black Snake III 'Cuda with front spoiler addition (view bigger)

Hoffman referenced a Steve Reyes photo as his evidence, and “Super Steve” was obliging enough to send me the print in question (as well as the original black Snake III photos above), which indeed shows the car in black primer again. You can tell it’s kind of a hasty job because there’s no Carefree logo on the side (just a marooned Wynn’s logo as an island in a sea of black and the Cola-Cola logo). As you can see above, when the car ran at the end of 1972, it was adorned with all proper lettering and logos.

I can definitely see what “Chicago Jon” is talking about in this photo from Irwindale, but I’m not convinced this is any kind of permanent addition to the car nor responsible for him beginning to kick ass and take names. As the jury will see in subsequent photos of the car, this significant addition to the front spoiler disappears before he won Indy. (The original Snake III body clearly did not have this extra lip, and I had assumed that the same body from late 1972 would be used in '73.)

Here’s the early-1973 chronology I found about the Carefree 'Cuda. Prudhomme didn’t run the Funny Car at the 1973 Winternationals, choosing instead to concentrate on Top Fuel, in which he was the No. 1 qualifier before being upset in round one by Denver Schutz. The Carefree 'Cuda instead debuted at Irwindale Feb. 24 for a match race, and I can see a semblance of an extra spoiler in the small photo included in ND’s coverage but nothing definitive. Prudhomme ran the dragster only again at the March Meet and the Gatornationals.

I wasn’t sure of the timing of this second black 'Cuda, so I took the only clue that Hoffman offered, that the photo appeared in the August 1973 issue of Super Stock, and knowing that print mags run on about a three-month lead time, I concentrated my search in March to May and found the race in question, which was Irwindale’s big 64 Funny Cars event April 21. The story reports that Prudhomme had “worked day and night to make this race after crashing his potent ‘Cuda 10 days before the event.” At the time, Green Valley Race City was not an NHRA member track, so its reports were not included in National DRAGSTER.

"The Snake" about to get toasty at Green Valley

Fortunately for us, Reyes was there and reports, “I was at Green Valley when he torched his yellow 'Cuda running against Don Schumacher. Prudhomme's 'Cuda lit up in the lights and burned into the shutoff area. The fire was put out, and tape and prayers repaired the wounded 'Cuda. ‘Snake’ had his first layer of his firesuit burned off. He came back in the final and won the event.”

Reyes also sent the photo at right of the fateful last run of the original unblemished Carefree scheme, and it’s rear-three-quarter view hints at the extended front spoiler.

The next time the car surfaces (in the pages of ND anyway) is a week later (April 28-29) at the Skippers Northwest Open event that Hoffman mentioned. Unfortunately, even though he set top speed (as usual) at 229 mph, he broke on his first-round burnout, and there’s no photo of the car in the coverage.

I can’t find anything on his activities after that (Puyallup not being an NHRA strip either) until the Springnationals, June 8-10, where the car made its NHRA season debut – now in yellow Carefree colors – and the enlarged spoiler is clearly visible. It’s covered in duct tape (black at this point) but clearly there. Prudhomme qualified No. 1 at 6.52, 228.42 (low e.t. and top speed) before bowing out in the semifinals against eventual runner-up Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega. Prudhomme was low qualifier (6.40) again at the Summernationals but lost in round one.

The Carefree 'Cuda in Indy, apparently minus the spoiler extension (view bigger)

Then -- and here’s where it gets tricky, kids – by the time Prudhomme gets to Indy, where he again ripped their throats out, the 'Cuda has returned to a conventional front spoiler. I even flopped the black car image in Photoshop so it was “going” the same direction as the 1973 Indy winner and compared it side by side with the other two and can’t see any traces. I’m guessing that it’s possible that the second spoiler might have been molded into the original spoiler by this point, but it sure doesn’t look like it. Before Indy, Prudhomme had run Byron Dragway’s Manufacturers Meet (Aug. 5?) and the Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 Dragway Aug. 10-12, both of which he dominated. The Byron coverage in ND has a photo of the car that’s inconclusive as to spoiler size, and the PHR coverage has only a tightly cropped winner’s circle photo, by the Indy photo is pretty clear-cut.

I’m not really sure why I spent yesterday afternoon engaged in tracking down the minutiae of what appears to be a relatively unimportant bit of Prudhomme trivia, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the opportunity to drool over 38-year-old issues of National DRAGSTER under the guise of doing my job. Some guys have all the luck.