NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Yeah, 'the Snake' is definitely cool

11 Feb 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Quintessential Don Prudhomme cool. Toothpick in mouth, cool shades.
"Yeah, I just won the Winternationals for the fourth straight year; it's no big deal."
"Sure, I'll pose with your license plate; just make it quick, huh?"
"My fans love me, but my hat will still fit when I put it back on."
Inside the car or out, "Snake" remained a cool customer.
"Yeah, I can drive with one hand. Who can't? No big deal."

Cool cars. Cool threads. Cool tunes. Cool cats. We've all heard and used the "cool" buzzword, but what is cool? Is it a state of mind or a state of being? Is it attitude or aura? What defines it? Who defines it?

In school, all of us wanted to be cool, but few were, and even if we weren't, we wanted to hang with the cool kids. The star quarterback may have been cool, or he may have been an arrogant ass. As someone noted, "cool" is like "good" in that it's an intangible and exists only in comparison to things considered less cool or less good. It's a property that exists but can only be sought after. An article titled "The Coolhunt" that ran in the famed New Yorker magazine opined that "Cool cannot be manufactured, only observed."

According to Wikipedia, "Something regarded as cool is an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, … Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control ... and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval."

I may have had to turn to others for definition, but I know cool when I see it. It's like that old saying, "I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like." I know cool, and his name is Don Prudhomme. I know I'm not alone among the Insider Nation in thinking this, which is why I was doing mental cartwheels Wednesday when Los Angeles Times sports reporter Chris Dufresne tabbed "the Snake" as one of the top 10 coolest athletes in Southern California history.

He was ranked ninth – I'd have had him first instead of Dufresne's pick of L.A. Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax – and it's a huge honor not just for him but for our sport to be recognized in the list. Everyone knows that cars are cool, and hot rods are the coolest of cars, and fast hot rods are cooler still. "Snake's" hot rods traditionally were winners, but that's not what makes him cool.

If you ever studied him, he just oozes cool. It's in the way he stands. The way he walks. The way he talks. The way he looks. The way he moves. Former ND staffer Todd Veney used to do a pretty good imitation of "the Snake," of him back when he smoked, replicating the way that Prudhomme would hold a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and take a drag, then put it back down by his hip. Even his nickname is cool, probably the coolest ever. It's also cool that people usually only call him "Snake" and that he even calls himself that. That's cool.

How many people have their retirement dinner at the Playboy Mansion? Hell, just take a look at the collection of photos I assembled here. Every one of them screams "cool," even if you've never met the man.

I caught up with "Snake" yesterday as he was getting set to head off to Ed Pink's 80th birthday celebration, and, in typical cool-guy fashion, he was honored to have been named to the list but a bit taken aback by his inclusion. I asked him if he thought he was cool.

"Man, I don’t know anything about that; I was worried about getting asked that question," he admitted. "Geez, I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about it. It's like waking up in the morning and finding out you've been nominated for an award. I don’t know him [Dufresne], didn’t even know that he knew I was alive or anything about me. It was an honor.

"It's a great bunch of guys. Sandy Koufax – Jesus – that guy was the greatest, and I really dug him. To be among a group of people like that is, well, cool."

I asked "Snake" what cool meant to him and who he thought was cool, both in and out of our sport.

"I thought they buried the name 'cool' with Steve McQueen because he was the ultimate cool guy, but I certainly never looked like him," he said. "I knew him a little bit and had quite a few occasions to be around him, but everyone could tell you he was cool. 'The Greek' [Chris Karamesines], for sure. He's real cool, especially in the early days when I first met him. Black hair and a big black moustache and a bad-ass car. That's what I call cool. Maybe people think we were cool because we grew up in the early days and marched to our own drummer and we didn't have to worry about not mentioning our sponsor's name, but it's really up to what other people think. I never set out to act cool; people who try to act cool are not cool."

I can’t disagree with "Snake" designating Karamesines as cool. I tried to think about other people I think are cool, and there are some to varying degrees I think are cool. I think Larry Dixon is cool, but he's also way too modest about his great accomplishments. "Snake" was never a braggart, either, but he knew he was good, and although I imagine Dixon knows that he's talented, I wish I'd see from him, just every now and then, a little bit of swagger. But I know that's not Larry. I think Antron Brown is cool, in a hep-cat kind of way, but he's also more goofy and fun-loving than "Snake."

Going back further, I think a lot of people probably think that "Jungle Jim" Liberman was cool, but to me, he was more "farrrrrrrrr out" than cool (which is cool in its own way). I don't know James Warren very well, but he always struck me as being cool. I think Roland Leong is pretty cool, too. Fictionally speaking, James Garner's Jim Rockford was definitely cool. So was Paul LeMat's John Milner in American Graffiti. Jeffrey Donovan's Michael Westen in the TV show Burn Notice is cool. So are Charlie Hunnam's "Jax" Teller in Sons of Anarchy and Timothy Olyphant's Raylan Givens in Justified.

But back to drag racing … who do you think is cool or was cool? I'd love to get a list of who's on your list and especially why. So be cool and click on my name at the top of this column and share your thoughts. Is that cool? You bet it is.