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When drag racers turn corners

24 Apr 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Don Prudhomme, left, with Antron Brown, center, and actor Mekhi Phifer (ER, 8 Mile) at this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race.

Former NHRA Top Fuel world champ Antron Brown’s participation in last weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race continued a long tradition of drag racers competing in the annual Southern California event that dates back to 1978, when NHRA legend Don “the Snake” Prudhomme took part in the festivities. Prudhomme, a longtime friend of IndyCar owner Chip Ganassi, was there to witness Brown’s efforts this year, which brought memories flooding back to the four-time NHRA Funny Car world champ.

The event has pitted non-racing celebrities, including astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin; former NFL stars Fred Dryer, Lynn Swann, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, and John Elway; Olympic medalists Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Jenner, and Carl Lewis; and all manner of entertainment stars, against an array of motorsports heroes from all walks, including motocross, hydroplanes, and, yes, drag racing. A fair number of Indy-, stock-, and sports-car racers also have taken part and naturally have an inherent advantage against the straight-liners and two-wheelers, but drag racers have held their own.

Former NHRA Top Fuel world champ Joe Amato actually took the checkered flag there in 1992, when he participated (for reasons unknown) in the celebrity portion. Until that year, drag racers hadn’t taken part in the event since 1980, when Prudhomme finished a disappointing 11th overall (with good reason, as you’ll see) and Tom McEwen even further back in 15th, so maybe they felt sorry for us. But after Amato won, the rules were changed again, and in 1993, John Force had to compete with the pros.

In the years since, NHRA Pros Cruz Pedregon (1994), Shelly Anderson (1995), Cristen Powell (1998), Gary Scelzi and Angelle Sampey (1999), Tony Pedregon and Whit Bazemore (2008), and Melanie Troxel (2013) also have tried their hands at turning corners on the tricky street course. Toyota-backed NHRA Sport Compact racers Matt Scranton (2005), Scott Kelley (2007), and Chris Rado (2011) also participated. Only Amato has won, but Tony Pedregon finished second in the pro ranks in 2008 behind only Craftsman Truck Series driver Mike Skinner (and fifth overall), with Bazemore hot on his bumper; Olympic cyclist and drag racer Marty Nothstein finished eighth. 

(Above) "The Snake" competed in his first Pro/Celebrity race in 1978 and was chased down by one of his idols, Dan Gurney (below).
 
 
Prudhomme, left, with celebrities Kent McCord and Bruce Jenner at the 1979 event.

Prudhomme, hot off of three straight championships, was the first drag racer invited to take part in the event, in 1978, the second year it was held. At the time, Prudhomme owned a Ferrari Dino and had spent some time on the road course at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Sears Point Raceway in 1977, so he felt well equipped for the challenge, even though as a “pro” he would be dueling with road-course veterans such as Gordon Johncock and Dan Gurney and safety equipment icon (and Prudhomme friend) Bill Simpson, who also had open-wheel experience.

Prudhomme acquitted himself well in his debut, finishing third behind overall winner Johncock and Gurney.

"I started at the back of the pack and managed to get to second place, and I was chasing Johncock,” Prudhomme told the Milwaukee Sentinel in an interview prior to that year’s Olympics of Drag Racing at Great Lakes Dragaway. “When I looked in my rearview mirror, I saw that Dan Gurney was right on my tail. That was really something. There I was, leading Dan Gurney, a guy I had followed as a racing driver when I was growing up.”

Gurney got past Prudhomme but had kind words for his rival.

“When we parked the car, I got out, and there was Gurney. He turned to me and said, 'Not a bad little race, kid.' "

The field also included actor James Brolin, who won the celebrity portion ahead of songwriter Paul Williams, TV star Kent McCord (Adam-12), LA Rams defensive end Dryer, and William Shatner, Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil was the fifth pro.

After that, Prudhomme’s name was even bandied about for inclusion in the highly competitive International Race of Champions (IROC) circuit, but he wisely bowed out.

“You start [messing] around with those guys, that’s serious," he said, his voice full of respect. "You think you can drive a race car, but you get out there with those guys, it’s just way, way different. I knew enough to stick to drag racing.”

Prudhomme was invited back for the 1979 Pro/Celebrity race, and his longtime cohort "the Mongoose" was added to the heavyweight pro field that included IndyCar greats Al Unser, Rick Mears, and Tom Sneva as well as Aldo Andretti (Mario’s twin brother), Simpson, and O’Neil. The celebrity field consisted of Brolin, Dryer, McCord, eventual overall winner Jenner, actor Clint Eastwood, sports announcer Jayne Kennedy, and Rams running back John Cappelletti. Prudhomme finished a reasonable if disappointing 10th overall; McEwen – who had zero road-racing experience --- was 14th.

The former Hot Wheels drivers were both invited back for the 1980 race but again were in deep against their more experienced pro rivals: eventual overall winner Parnelli Jones, Mears, Sneva, and Gurney as well as NASCAR racers Kyle Petty and Neil Bonnett, road-racing champ David Hobbs, and Formula One ace Alan Jones. The celebrity field again included Brolin, who scored his second win, as well as Dryer (who had quickly become friends with McEwen and Prudhomme and still comes to the drags), Williams, announcer Ken Squier, TV star Larry Wilcox (CHiPs), outdoorsman Bill Jordan, and all-pro NFL wide receiver Swann.

Prudhomme was running fifth when Petty, accustomed to trading paint at speed, tried to squeeze past Prudhomme on a hairpin corner, leading to this little episode:

"We were crashing into each other a lot; it was like a demolition derby out there,” Prudhomme recalled. “You’d come up and hit a guy, and he’d be, ‘You [expletive]!’ and run into you and knock your door off."

Prudhomme’s battered Toyota eventually finished seventh and McEwen 11th.

Brown didn't fare a whole lot better in this year's race.

Even though Brown’s effort in this year’s Pro/Celebrity race was hampered by a collision that left his Toyota in less than winning shape, Prudhomme was impressed with Brown, who had some experience in go-karts. “He’s very talented,” said Prudhomme. “I’ve always been a road-racing fan, which is why I like Indy cars so much, but it’s very, very hard to do, which is why I was so impressed with Antron. He’s totally cut out for it. You could tell that he understood the car.”

Although he didn’t fare well on the closed road course in Long Beach, Prudhomme did score an impressive victory in the Toyota Pro Challenge on the two-mile-oval Michigan Int'l Speedway in July 1980, winning with a daring last-lap maneuver. Prudhomme was part of a six-driver field that also included Gary Gabelich, Mears, NASCAR’s David Pearson, sprint-car racer Gary Fedewa, and hydroplane-boat-racing legend Bill Muncey.

“I was on the outside of Muncey, locked up with him and Gabelich,” he recalled. “We were going around three abreast through the turns. I had my foot on the floor the whole way, but we were just stuck together. Something told me I needed to do something different, so on the last lap, I went way up the bank in Turn 3 while they went low, and as I came down the hill, my tach went up like 500 rpm, and I passed them and won the race. Sneva came up to me later and said, ‘Where in the hell did you learn that?’ I said, ‘I dunno, man; it just came to me.’ It was the coolest thing to have a guy like that say something about it.

"I just wanted to win.”

 
Yeah, he's got a few trophies ...
 
"Now I know why he was so pissed at me all the time."

“I just wanted to win” was pretty much “the Snake’s” lifetime credo when it came to anything with wheels, and he did it a lot in his early years, beginning with the Zeuschel-Fuller dragster, the Greer-Black-Prudhomme monster, Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, and on and on. And no one could forget his 1976 season, when he won seven of eight national events on the NHRA tour, an amazing accomplishment that I researched and wrote about in the recent Readers Choice issue of National Dragster. He complimented me on the article, which obviously brought back great memories and launched us off onto a whole new topic.

“I’m not like [Don] Garlits who probably remembers everyone he ever ran and every race he ever won,” said Prudhomme. “So sometimes when I walk out by the office out front here [into the reception area at his shop in Vista, Calif.] where I have all of my trophies, and I think, ‘My God, that’s a lot of trophies,’ and then I read that article; it was like, ‘Oh yeah.’ "

At the wheel of his Army Monza, Prudhomme won the first five races of the 1976 season and reached the final round of the sixth, the U.S. Nationals, where he was upset in the final by Gary Burgin, ending a run of 30 straight round-wins dating back to the end of the 1975 season. Prudhomme recovered from that tough loss to again win the final two events of the season to finish with a stunning 30-1 national event win-loss record and his second of four straight championships.

He set low e.t. at all eight national events, qualified No. 1 seven of eight times – ironically, Burgin is the one who stopped him from perfection there as well -- had top speed of the meet six times, and reset the national record twice. Prudhomme also won three divisional events -- at Fremont Raceway, Seattle Int’l Raceway, and Edgewater Raceway Park -- which at the time were part of the points-scoring equation.

Prudhomme holds no grudges for Burgin spoiling his perfect season and admires the work ethic of his fellow Southern Californian --“He was very, very good and a very bright guy,” he said. “He was one of those guys who could not only drive but really understood the engine” -- and when he saw that he beat longtime pal Ed “the Ace” McCulloch all four times they raced in 1976, including in three final rounds, he quipped, “Now I know why he was so pissed at me all the time.”

Prudhomme also claimed wins in 1976 at Beeline Dragway’s Winter Classic, Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Fox Hunt, Irwindale Raceway’s 64 Funny Car Spectacular, Byron Dragway’s Manufacturers Fuel Funny Car Showdown, the Super Stock Nationals at York U.S. Dragway, Lebanon Valley Dragway’s Northeast Funny Car Nationals, both the Pop Rod Funny Car Preview and the prestigious Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 Dragway, both days of the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova Dragway, Fremont Raceway’s Back to School Race, Irwindale’s Funny Car Team Championships, and OCIR’s famed Manufacturers Meet and set track records at the Pomona, Gainesville, Columbus, Englishtown, Montreal, Indy, and Seattle national events as well as at match races at Beeline, OCIR, Irwindale, Fremont, Edgewater, Famoso Drag Strip, Byron Dragway, Connecticut Dragway, Quaker City Dragway, Sacramento Raceway, U.S. 131, and Pueblo Motorsports Park.

“I don’t know how I had time to even wind my watch,” he joked, looking back at that list, which only includes races at NHRA tracks for which I had results. “It was so cool back then; we didn’t tear up the engines like they do today. Those were just really the best times in racing.”

I’ve always thought about what kind of reception touring stars like Prudhomme got when they visited faraway tracks, wondering if the local heroes tried extra hard to beat him to defend their own turf in front of “their” fans.

“Oh yeah, definitely, that’s what it was all about,” he affirmed. “They wanted to show off for their fans, and I liked that; in fact, I thrived on it. We were all business from the moment we pulled in the gates. If something wasn’t working right, we’d tear it all apart – engine, clutch, tires, whatever it took. It didn’t matter that it was ‘only’ a match race – we wanted to win. We weren’t just there to cash a check.

“People always think that I just had a chip on my shoulder; I didn’t have any chip. I was just so devoted to the sport. It was like because I’d found my niche in life, I wasn’t going to let anyone take it away from me. That’s part of the reason that guys like me have a hard time dealing with it when it’s finally over. It’s a really tough thing to deal with.”

His racing career may be over, but we'll always have the stories, and for that I'm grateful.

If you’re an NHRA member, you can find my “Almost Perfect” story about Prudhomme’s 1976 season online at NationalDragster.net, Volume 56, Issue 06.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next Friday.