In his five-decade racing career, not many people got one over on Don Prudhomme. Save for Tommy Ivo's notorious practical jokes on the young "Snake's" first road trip with him in the early 1960s, you couldn’t pull a fast one on Prudhomme, whether in the pits, on the track, or even in the boardroom.
Yet somehow, wife Lynn, daughter Donna, and coconspirator Lynn Rose pulled off an amazing coup by keeping secret a months-in-the-planning surprise 70th birthday party for "the Snake" at the NHRA Motorsports Museum last Saturday. When Prudhomme strolled in the door on Lynn's arm, he was expecting to speak at a tribute to longtime pal Roland Leong but instead was met by 200 of his closest friends, family, and racing acquaintances yelling "Surprise!" and blinding him with enough camera flashes to light up Las Vegas.
Prudhomme, who surely in the more than two weeks since his April 6 birthday and an intimate dinner with family and friends must have thought that he had dodged the public-party bullet, was truly stunned and taken aback at the turnout, which not only included a veritable racing Who's Who, but also his sisters -- Jeanette Graves, Joyce Burris, and Judy Maxwell (pictured at right) – who flew in from as far away as the East Coast to celebrate with their famous brother.
I sidled up to him as he received handshakes and hugs, and with his free left hand, he reached out and squeezed my right hand and said simply, "Wow …"
How else do you explain seeing an all-star cast that included old rivals Raymond Beadle and Richard Tharp, who had flown in from Dallas for the occasion, or old friends such as Herb Fishel of General Motors? It felt as if it were my birthday, too, being surrounded by legends of the sport such as Leong; Tom McEwen (of course "the Mongoose" was there!); Ivo; Kenny Safford; Dale Armstrong; Ed Pink (whose 80th birthday recently was feted); Bob Muravez; Tom Prock; Mike Kuhl; Larry Bowers; Danny Broussard; Harry Hibler; Frankie Pisano; and Jim Adolph and familiar famous faces such as all-star nitro crewmembers Bob Brandt, Prudhomme's longtime right-hand man; "Waterbed Fred" Miller; Donnie Couch; and Pat Galvin; Hall of Fame drag racing carny barker Bill Doner; Fred Wagenhals of Action Performance diecast fame; longtime "Snake"/"Mongoose" pal Billy Bones; superstar artist Kenny Youngblood; the families of the late Keith Black and Dick Landy; and so many others. NHRA was well-represented with Tom Compton, Graham Light, Gary Darcy, Glen Cromwell, John Siragusa, Jim Trace, Steve Gibbs, yours truly, and ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, who shot most of the great photos here.
More amazing to all of us – and noted several times throughout the evening by legendary emcee Dave McClelland and the featured speakers (Beadle, Miller, Couch, Leong, McEwen, and Doner) – was how one and all had kept the party secret. Drag racing is well-known for its grapevine – the most hush-hush sponsorship deals somehow are always revealed ahead of time – yet somehow, these 200 guests kept their lips zipped, which in many cases wasn't easy. Beadle, who still chats with "the Snake" often on the phone, admitted to dodging Prudhomme's phone calls in the days leading up to the event, and Leong, the supposed guest of honor, was asked by Prudhomme just days before the event if he needed a ticket to get into the "Leong tribute."
A fake flyer promoting the Leong event had even been created and sent to all of us just in case we were asked what was going on, and a sign and photo at the door to the museum kept the ruse alive.
We had all been instructed to arrive before 6 p.m., and "the Snake" was to arrive 15 to 30 minutes after the hour, but by the time I walked in at 5:30, the place was packed. I got my name tag from Lynn Rose – well-remembered by us journalist types as the gatekeeper to treasured media passes at Orange County Int’l Raceway – and cruised. Prudhomme didn't arrive until 6:30ish, so it was an hour in heaven for me walking around and chatting up the legends. Finger food and adult beverages were in abundance to keep everyone happy waiting on the guest of honor.
Teresa and I were seated with the Black family, which was a real joy. Ken Black, the legendary engine builder's son, was there with his wife, Cheri, daughter Sarah, and, of course, his mother, Jane Black. Jane and Ken have known "the Snake" since he was a teenager, sweeping out the Black shop and maybe dreaming of what was to come, and Jane shared great stories about her husband, including of the day that they met and how he literally swept her off her teenage feet ("He was so handsome," she gushed, almost 70 years later) and how she left the dance with him instead of her date. She and Ken also regaled us with the story of KB dropping off his newborn son and recovering wife at the house after leaving the hospital so that he could head to the Salton Sea to try to set a world record on water (he did). It will be 20 years May 13 since we lost that old "Black Magic," but he's still fondly remembered by all, especially his family.
After a great dinner and an introduction from "Big Mac," the fun began with Beadle, who actually took it pretty easy on his old rival ("Most of the stories I could tell … I've been sworn to secrecy," he said, which turned out to be a common theme; the '70s were wild!) but thanked everyone for coming from parts of the nation. Beadle's longtime crew chief, Miller, who followed his former boss to the podium, definitely tipped the 10-gallon metaphorical hat to their fiercest rival.
"If you didn't race against the Army car, you had no idea what we went through," he said. "I'm standing here, and I see him, and I see 'Weasel' [Brandt] staring at me, and I have nightmares just thinking about these two. That was as bad as it gets. If you beat those guys, believe me, you earned it. It wasn't easy, and it sure as hell wasn't cheap, was it Beadle? We nailed him a couple of years in a row, but I promise you, whether you raced him in Top Fuel or Funny Car, you might have beaten him once in a while, but you can bet he has the scoreboard on you. Nobody beat him forever. It just didn’t happen. They were the best of the best."
In one of the many funny moments of the evening, Miller recounted how on a recent visit to Florida to see him, Prudhomme – notoriously focused and a bit unfriendly during his heyday -- asked, "Was I as big a prick as everyone says I was?"
"He looked over at me, and I said, 'Duh! You were an even bigger prick than they say.' When people race against a guy like John Force, if he beats you, he still wants to be your pal. With [Prudhomme], if he beat ya, he still didn’t like ya. And if he lost and your mother was sitting in your pit, he'd kick her in the stomach!"
McEwen – according to him, voted by Lynn Prudhomme as most likely to spill the beans on the surprise party -- was up next, and after recounting the now-familiar Linda-Lovelace-as-Seattle-trophy-queen/winner's-prize story ("We're just going to go around the outskirts of that one," he said, then added the sworn-to-secrecy disclaimer. "No one that I know won that race; I don't even think Prudhomme qualified."), softened as he went.
"All of us guys were like a big family, traveling together and running around the country, and everyone helped one another; it's not like that today," he said and told of pulling Tharp from the burning Blue Max in Gary, Ind. "We go back a long way, and it's been a good ride for everybody with the Hot Wheels and all of that. I think I probably got beat more than anyone by all of the people in this room, but I was always off talking to the press and trying to make them believe I was something I wasn't. It's great to see all of our good friends tonight because we don’t always get a chance to see each other very much."
Leong, still one of Prudhomme's closest friends more than 45 years after they won together for the first time in Top Fuel, came next and drew chuckles by saying, "I know he's glad I couldn’t drive," referring to how Prudhomme had taken over the controls of his dragster after Leong crashed it on its maiden voyage at Lions. After thanking everyone for coming out and marveling at how well the secret was kept, Leong closed with, "To be here, celebrating his birthday with one of the coolest guys out there, I think is great. We love you, 'Snake.' Happy birthday."
Couch, who has crewed for just about every name racer in the sport, especially in Southern California, then left a lasting mark. At times, it seemed as if he were channeling a bit of Charlie Sheen as he raced through a series of off-color one-liners, stories, and funny impressions of Prudhomme, Connie Kalitta, and Kenny Bernstein, most of which can’t be repeated here without changing the website's rating.
"I've been around the guy since I was a little kid, and I'm still scared of him," he admitted. "He makes coffee nervous. But seriously, I grew up with 'the Snake' and 'the Mongoose ' – best years of my life. 'Snake,' it's an honor to be up here." He then presented Prudhomme with a "Snake"-logo sculpture that he and Galvin had commissioned.
Doner, as only the sport's greatest living promoter could, closed the speaker portion of the show. Cocktail in hand, he shared the tale of how after leaving the newspaper business ("under a little cloudy situation, I might add," he offered mysteriously), he was employed by Carroll Shelby in 1967 when Prudhomme and Lou Baney walked in looking for a sponsorship for their Top Fueler.
Recalled Doner, "Right in the middle of the negotiations, Shelby looked at his watch, got up, and left. Baney looked at me and said, 'What does that mean?' and I told him, 'Well, it’s not the best news I ever saw.' They walked out shaking their heads, and I was shaking my head ... what the hell was that about?" Two days later, Shelby surprisingly green-lighted the $10,000 deal that would lead to the Shelby Super Snake dragster. Prudhomme and Baney had just four days to paint the car and have it ready for the Winternationals.
A few years later, it was Prudhomme whom Doner called on to save the Seattle track he had just taken over against massive debt; he booked "the Snake" into his Northwest National Open (for $1,000!) before the bank called in the note on the place. Of course, it being March, it rained the day before, but – miraculously – race day dawned to blue skies and a miles-long line of traffic waiting to get into the place. "All day long, I was grabbing money and stuffing it in bags," said Doner, who admits to getting emotional about the day that salvaged his fledgling racetrack-ownership career (seven at one time).
A few years later, when his fold included OCIR, he spent the summer advertising Lil' John Lombardo while the touring racers were back East trying to find a way to pay the extremely high monthly rent ($12,500) he was being charged by the Irvine Co. "I started pumping him and building him up – 'the black car from Sherman Oaks!' – and I'm doing ads left and right, and Lombardo is running faster and faster, and every week, he slices this guy and that guy, and I'm getting bigger crowds, and everything's going great. Then in September, I've got a huge race, and Lombardo wants more money because he's the star, and guess who’s coming home? And I've got the crowd whipped up – and believe me, ladies and gentlemen, I could whip those [expletive] up – and I had them out of their seats and screaming, and we get down to the final, and it’s Lil' John Lombardo, undefeated all summer, and the winningest Funny Car in the history of the sport, Don 'the Snake' Prudhomme. The crowd is going berserk, I'm going berserk, everyone is going berserk, and all I could think of was, 'Welcome home, 'Snake.' "
At Doner's urging – and at the expense of McClelland's itinerary – Prudhomme came to the podium to a standing ovation.
"I'm just so blown away that everyone's here," he said and admitted again that he was clueless about the surprise (he did joke that he thought as he was walking up to the doors that the whole affair was a little overdone for Leong). He lauded his wife, Lynn ("Everyone knows that she's got the brains, and I've got the balls, so we made a good couple," he said. "She had all of the great ideas and handled the finances, and I went out and did what I knew how to do.") and daughter, Donna, for pulling off the surprise (Earlier, Donna had expressed disbelief to me that they'd gotten away with it. "I've never gotten away with anything with my dad. First time I ditched school, he happened to drive by. First beer. He knew.").
"The Snake" and friends, from left, Raymond Beadle, Bill Doner, Billy Bones, Prudhomme, Donnie Couch, Pat Galvin, and Bob Brandt
(Gary Nastase photo)
"I'm just lucky that I got to do something I like doing," he reflected. "People like Ed Pink and Keith Black were responsible for it [the Blacks were positively beaming as he remembered Keith], and thanks to all of you for coming. It's such a great group here. Raymond Beadle, he talked about me and Brandt, but when the Blue Max came to the starting line, that thing was thundering. They were bad-ass. It sounded good and was one of the most impressive cars we ever went up against. Thanks Doner, Fred, and Roland, and Bob Brandt, for being a part of all this. I don’t think I've ever had a better time, and that's what it is about this sport, it's something you never forget. Kenny and Carolyn Safford, thanks for being here. Ed Pink, the Procks … I can’t even think. Look at all of you guys. You did it. I love everyone. Thank you very much."
NHRA President Compton spoke, thanking Prudhomme for all he has done for the sport and his continued advice and support about the sport's future. McClelland read a birthday card from Dan Gurney and cued up a couple of birthday-wish videos from two of Prudhomme's other circle-track buddies – Mario Andretti and Rusty Wallace – and even as the scheduled part of the evening ended, it was just beginning.
Happy birthday, "Snake." Like Roland said, we love you.
"The Snake's" Saturday birthday party was my second straight day at the museum; I had spent the evening before within its hallowed walls as well, along with about 400 family, friends, and racing pals of the late Lou Gasparrelli for a celebration of life to salute the SoCal Top Alcohol Funny Car pioneer and a family that one speaker lauded as "one of the great families in racing." Wife Vickie, brother Michael, and son Steve and their families soaked up the love and support of the community.
Officiated by the Rev. Jim Jack of Racers For Christ, who wrote original poetry for the service, it was a time of togetherness and remembrances of a gentle but strong man. Lou's granddaughter Jillian (Steve's daughter) read touching letters that they each had written to Lou, and her thoughts graced the inside cover of the handsome memorial brochure.
A dozen or so of Lou's old racing jackets were hung by the stage, some saluting his national event wins, others his division championships, and one commemorating his time as a member of the San Gabriel Valley Four Barrels car club, and photos of his many race cars also were on display. Outside, the John Lombardo family had hung a poster for friends to autograph.
Many of the same poeple were there whom I would see the next night – NHRA's Light, Gibbs, Couch, Galvin, Don Irvin, and others – as well as a lot of Gasparrelli's contemporaries. Of course, the Andersons – Brad, Carol, Randy, and Shelly – were there, along with Jay Payne, the Littlefields – Lee, Brad, and Kasey -- Don and Bret Williamson, Doug and Mike Gordon, Mike Andreotti, Mark Woznichak, Chris Demke, Duane Shields, Clint Thompson, Sean Bellemeur, Steve Chrisman, Bob and Larry Miner, Bob DeVour, and so many others from Division 7, including a former alcohol racer by the name of Gary Scelzi, who, like Couch the next night, brought down the house, sharing his sometimes irreverent stories of life on the Division 7 alcohol trail and touching tales of Gasparrelli's generous nature and friendly demeanor.
A great slide show highlighted many of those winning cars, and I was particularly struck by one of Gasparrelli racing Littlefield, who now assuredly are doing dry hops in heaven together. It had been all too recently (September) that many of this same group had gathered for Mert's memorial service, and Gasparrelli had been among them. We all knew at the time that Lou was seriously (and perhaps terminally) ill, and I can’t help thinking now if he was wondering if a similar function might be held for him in the future. I sat with Lou for a while that night, just to soak in the feeling of being with him. After the service, I asked Brad about the photo, and, of course, he knew everything about it: Las Vegas, 1994; Division 7 race; Mert won on a holeshot..
As I drove to the museum that night and past Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, I took the same route that Gasparrelli no doubt had taken from his Monrovia, Calif., base to get to the track and wondered how many trips he had made down Arrow Highway before pulling into those famous pit gates for the Winternationals or the Finals.
I had been there for his first win, on a Monday morning at the 1986 Winternationals, and remember the Gasparrelli family beaming in the winner's circle and their dog – the wonderfully named Weak Dog – perched on the car's injector.
As many said that night, Lou Gasparrelli was a king among men, a perpetually happy yet serious racer who would loan you anything out of his trailer but put it to you on the racetrack. I'm going to miss him and it was great to be surrounded by so many others who felt the same way.