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'Snake,' Leong celebrate 50 years of success, friendship

06 Feb 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Fifty years ago this weekend, Don Prudhomme drove Roland Leong's Hawaiian Top Fueler to victory at the 1965 Winternationals, his first of 49 career wins.

I had planned to publish today my column about the life and times of John Wiebe, but after a heads-up from Skip Allum in Don Prudhomme’s camp, I realized that the timing was just too good not to make a last-minute decision to postpone it a week.

You see, tomorrow, Feb. 7, Saturday of the 2015 Circle K NHRA Winternationals, will mark the 50th anniversary of “the Snake’s” breakthrough first career win at the 1965 Winternationals. It’s too good a coincidence to pass up.

Yes, race fans, it has been a half-century since Prudhomme vaulted into the national spotlight in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian; they went on to also win that year’s Nationals in Indianapolis, helping to launch two of the greatest careers in NHRA Drag Racing.

Make no mistake, Prudhomme, just two months shy of his 24th birthday, already was a well-known driver in drag racing circles, having driven the fabled Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster to unprecedented match race success in 1963 and 1964, and Leong, just 20 years old, had already made a bit of a name for himself as the owner of the dragster that Danny Ongais had driven to Top Gas honors at the 1964 Winternationals, but it took the 1965 Winternationals, televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, to make them national heroes.

I’ve recounted here previously the histrionics of the event [The One-Day Wonder], at which rain and heavy fog Friday and Saturday forced the entire event to be completed Sunday, and the story of how Prudhomme and Leong first joined forces [The Hawaiian's Winters Wonderland], so I won’t rehash those details but concentrate instead on the victory and what happened (and could have happened) after the big win.

Despite the inclement weather, Prudhomme and Don Garlits were among the few who got in any runs before Sunday, with ”Big Daddy” blasting his Wynn's Jammer to a speed of 206.88, the fastest in history, Friday with an e.t. of 7.81. Prudhomme, meanwhile, hustled the Hawaiian to a 7.80 at 204 mph. By the time that the field – the first 16-car field ever – was set at noon Sunday, Art Malone – who later that year would compete in the Indy 500 -- was No. 1 at 7.56 , Prudhomme no.2 and Garlits No. 3.

Tom McEwen, who had qualified No. 7, fouled out in round one to No. 9 Bill Alexander, and Prudhomme got a single when Willie Redford was unable to fire the Carroll Bros. & Oxman entry. It probably didn’t matter because Leong and Keith Black had put the screws to the Hawaiian, which ran 7.87 with Prudhomme lifting to a speed of just 173.74 mph. Garlits and Kalitta also advanced to round two.

Prudhomme followed with an even quicker 7.77 at just 175,78 to overcome a holeshot by James Warren, who was at the wheel of the Chrysler-powered Warren & Crowe car after his other ride, the Chevy-powered Warren & Coburn fueler, had missed the show.

Kalitta also moved another rung up the ladder in a great match with Malone while Alexander caught another huge break when Garlits red-lighted away a 7.86. Another favorite, No. 5 qualifier Ongais, at the wheel of the Broussard-Davis-Ongais Mangler, lost to future NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart, but it was determined there had been a starting-line malfunction, and probably because of the one-day nature of the race and the shortness of time, instead of ordering a rerun, officials advanced both to the semifinals to race one another again. Weird, right?

Anyway, Ongais then threw away a wild 7.78 on a red-light to Stewart in the unusual three-pair semifinals, and Kalitta red-lighted to Alexander, giving Alexander his third straight free pass. Prudhomme had the odd-lot bye and eased to a 9.63.

Alexander then had the bye in the newly created fourth round, and Prudhomme joined him in the final when he beat Stewart with another 7.75 at 204.08 mph.

Historic photos of the final round like the one above show Alexander jumping out to a big lead with his Jim Brissette-tuned entry (or, as the National Dragster photo caption read, “Alexander’s foot expressed itself first”), but Prudhomme flagged him down on the big end with another stout pass of 7.76 to collect the victory and the '65 Ford F-250 truck (equipped with a camper) awarded to the Top Fuel and Top Gas winners. Leong was not even old enough to legally buy himself a celebratory beer.

Even though he won the race, Prudhomme admittedly has been “aggravated” at himself for nearly 50 years for giving up that final-round holeshot, but, as you will see – in one of those great “stories behind the stories” that I love so much – he finally feels vindicated.

Do you see what I see? Keep in mind, this is cellphone footage of a TV, but it's good enough to catch an eye-opening occurrence. (Hit Play button to start)

As I mentioned earlier, the event was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but you can’t find a video of that anywhere online. Enter Jana DeHart, who as president of Up For It Inc. produces, directs, and writes for numerous outlets, including Fox Sports, Speed, and Velocity networks, the last two on Barrett-Jackson coverage. She became friends with “the Snake” through his Barrett-Jackson auctions of some of his great old cars, including the Hot Wheels haulers.

She also has been documenting Prudhomme’s resurrection of the Shelby Super Snake dragster and had purchased one of those mash-up video compilations sold online hoping for some footage from 1967. She didn’t find that, but she was thrilled to discover a good 10 minutes or so from the 1965 WWOS Winternationals show, including the final round. Realizing the upcoming 50th anniversary, she made a video of the final-round portion, shooting her TV screen with her iPhone, and texted it to Prudhomme. It only took one view for Prudhomme to suddenly feel better about that holeshot. See if you can spot what he did.

Yes, race fans, from the camera behind the car, you can clearly see Prudhomme’s side of the countdown Tree skip the final amber bulb (burned out, I surmise) before the green while Alexander’s side of Tree functions normally.

“I kicked myself in the ass for 50 years because I was late, then as I’m watching this video – which I’d never seen before – I see this, and it’s just amazing,” Prudhomme told me. “You can see now why it startled me.” (Prudhomme then shared the video with Leong, who still chided his former driver, telling him he was lucky he had a good car underneath him that weekend.)

So, 50 years later, what do Prudhomme and Leong remember about the event? As could be expected, details and e.t.s of the actual runs have long since faded (other than the final round), but the general sentiment about what it meant to both still resonates.

The Chinese Year of the Snake had started just five days earlier, and that rang true throughout the rest of 1965. They had hung around California after the Winternationals win and whipped the fields up and down the coast, so they decided to go on tour. Chassis builder Rod Peppmuller built them a frame for a new long-haul trailer, and a neighbor of Prudhomme’s helped them build the body for the enclosed trailer they would need for a cross-country trip through the elements and to protect their car and parts from thieves. Prudhomme and Leong headed east and experienced unprecedented success throughout the year, capped by that big Indy win, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Leong and Prudhomme, at the 1965 Winternationals. Buddies then, buddies now.
"The Snake" gives Leong a friendly "Hawaiian punch" in Pueblo, Colo., 1977.
Together at last year's U.S. Nationals. Buddies then, buddies now.

Still, I wonder how (of if) both of their lives might have been different had they a) not joined forces and/or b) not won the Winternationals. They’ve both told me that winning the Winternationals sent their booking requests through the roof, and because those were the lifeblood of teams back then, what might have happened had they “only” been Winternationals runner-ups?

“You couldn’t make a living running national events,” Prudhomme confirmed, “but the publicity you got by winning one helped you get those match race dates. It’s like cutting a hit song so you can go out and make money doing concerts. We ran match races to be able to run the national events.”

“If we hadn’t gone on tour, we could have just ended up being a couple of Southern California guys who happened to win the Winternationals,” said Leong.

And what if on that fateful Saturday evening at Lions in October 1964, Leong had proved to be a natural Top Fuel driver instead of crashing his new car on one of his first passes? Would Prudhomme, who was without a ride after Tommy Greer decided to stop funding the G-B-P entry in late 1964, have found a ride with someone else for 1965, and how successful would he have been? Would engine master Black have worked with his young protégé Prudhomme and his possible new ride or would he have stuck with the well-heeled and in-need-of-help Leong and whomever he chose as a driver instead?

“I’ve told Prudhomme he’s lucky I wasn’t worth a [damn] as a Top Fuel driver,” joked Leong, who actually had been successful as a driver of his gas dragsters in Hawaii, where he once set the state record. “He’s lucky I was all guts and no brains.”

Leong admits that he knew nothing about nitro or Hemi engines when he decided to go fuel racing but was smart enough to figure out that Black did and hired him to help, then pretty much had Kent Fuller duplicate the G-B-P chassis. And, as we all know, it was Black who told Leong he shouldn’t drive and nominated Prudhomme to drive the Hawaiian once Fuller had repaired it after Leong’s off-track excursion. But would Black have stayed with Leong if Prudhomme were not involved?

Leong thinks not, and if that's true, I’d venture that it’s extremely unlikely the Hawaiian would have won the Winternationals, and it would delayed (at minimum) Leong’s rise to glory. Leong will certainly tell you there’s no doubt of the influence that “Black Magic” had on him throughout his career; his operation was based out of Black’s shop until he died in 1991 – interestingly, but maybe not coincidentally, Leong’s last full year as a car owner.

(Leong remembers the notoriously competitive Prudhomme once telling the steady yet conservative Black, “I’d rather blow the [expletive] engine out of the chassis than lose a race,” and Black responding, “Well buddy, you’re driving for the wrong person.”)

I asked Prudhomme what he might have done had he not driven for Leong.

“Geez, I’d have probably gone back to painting cars,” he mused, and when I asked if he thought he could have gotten another ride to start 1965, he replied honestly, “I like to think so. At that time, there were so many Top Fuel cars out there, it’s quite possible. I think I had a pretty good rep as I driver because I also drove Ed Pink’s car when I wasn’t driving the Greer car. But hooking up with Roland and winning the Winternationals was amazing; it was everything because it launched both of our careers. I was fortunate to get a ride in a first-class piece of equipment, and both of us took advantage of it.”

I wondered if Leong ever regretted not being his own driver and if the Hawaiian would have done better with him in dual roles, as Prudhomme did, or with, as it happened, him as the owner/tuner and marketing guy. He admits we’ll never know but thinks he could have held his own, but he has no regrets about the way it all turned out and can even laugh about it.

“C.J. Hart was the manager at Riverside [Raceway] when I got my gas dragster license, and he was also the manager at Lions when I crashed and took my license away,” he remembered with a laugh. “After his wife died, he went on tour with the NHRA Safety Safari, and I ran into him one night at dinner and thanked him for taking away my license and saving my life because I probably would have crashed it again. I’m happy with the way it all turned out.”

Leong, who is in Arizona this Winternationals weekend tuning Tim Boychuk’s Nostalgia Funny Car, also was a little reflective. “When we left Keith Black’s shop that summer in 1965 to go on tour, I never imagined we’d end up doing this our whole lives. I had just turned 21, and here I am at 70 still tuning race cars.”

“It’s cool to have been part of it,” agreed Prudhomme. “Hopefully we influenced some people along the way."

And although they parted company at the end of 1965 – Leong went on to win the 1966 Winternationals with Mike Snively in the Hawaiian while Prudhomme went out on his own with the B&M Torkmaster – Leong says he totally understood Prudhomme's decision to leave to try to make a name on his own. There were never any real hard feelings between them in what has been nearly a lifelong friendship despite that Prudhomme fired Leong (“Three times!” Leong says) during stints as crew chief on Prudhomme’s Funny Cars in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Leong remembers how, when he fell on tough times in the summer of 1973, when his entire Funny Car operation was stolen from a hotel parking lot in Gary, Ind., his pal Prudhomme opened his shop doors and let Leong – who had purchased Ray Alley’s similarly chassised Engine Masters Charger as a replacement – take whatever engine pieces he needed to get back up and running. “He never charged me a dime,” says Leong.

(Not that it was always rosy; Leong remembers calling track operators trying to book his Hawaiian prior to the 1966 season only to find out, much to his chagrin, that Prudhomme had already called them all and gotten himself booked on the strength of their 1965 season. It only took Leong and Snively also winning the Winternationals to fix that.)

They remain the best of friends. Leong is almost always present whenever “Snake” throws a get-together, and they talk on the phone pretty much every day. Just a few weeks ago, I got a call from “Snake” while he and Leong were hanging out at the “rich guy” sports car races at Laguna Seca in Northern California. For a couple of guys who were raised an ocean and a culture apart but grew up together in the sport, they’re an interesting pair.

“I can’t explain why we stayed good friends this long,” said Leong. “We just clicked right from the start and stayed friends through it all and still have fun together doing a bunch of stuff. I’m overjoyed that it’s worked out like it has for us.”