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‘The Snake’s’ Take

Legendary drag racer Don "the Snake" Prudhomme looks back on his career and shares his thoughts on topics ranging from his best cars, best seasons, and best pals like Tom McEwen and Roland Leong.
15 Sep 2017
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Don Prudhomme

snake15.jpgLast week’s wide-ranging remembrances from Ed McCulloch inspired some extremely positive responses from the Insider Nation, so, as promised, here’s a similar type of article that I wrote a few years ago (2010) for National Dragster featuring another of our sport’s nitro-burning legends, Don Prudhomme.

I had just finished an extensive interview with Prudhomme that came on the heels of the announcement that he was retiring from sport. As tough as the subject was, “the Snake” was in a chatty mood, and as we bantered about this and that, I asked if he would offer up some final thoughts on great moments in his career. He was probably tired of answering the same old questions, but I thought that, in light of his tough decision to retire, the time was right. As we were talking, I quickly jotted down, from the memory bank that is my mental shrine to the man, a list of highlights, then fed them to him for his remembrances.

Enjoy.

Greer-Black-Prudhomme

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Though it wasn’t “the Snake’s” first Top Fueler, it’s certainly the one in which he quickly came to fame in 1962-64. Owned and financed by Tommy Greer and tuned by legendary Keith Black, the car racked up a reported 236-7 record in match race competition.

“Snake’s” take: “Man, that was unbeatable, wasn’t it? I was driving the Zeuschel-Fuller car [engine whiz kid Dave Zeuschel and chassis builder Kent Fuller] at the time, and we could only run every so often, but Keith Black called up Fuller and asked him about me, and I got the gig. Not only was that car a great winner, but even today, the thing is a piece of art. You look at that car, and there’s not a bad angle to it. I wish I had it in my collection.

“Maybe as the driver I had a little bit to do with the success of it, but Keith Black was just a genius. There are certain people in this sport without whose help I never would have made it, and Keith Black was No. 1 among them. He was cool. He financed my first engine when I had my own team.”

Roland Leong

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snake-leong2.jpgPrudhomme met the man who would become his lifelong friend and tune him to his first NHRA national event win (1965 Winternationals) when the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car went to Hawaii for an exhibition pass. The Hawaiian dragster, with Prudhomme at the wheel, swept all 1965 honors — Prudhomme and Leong also won the U.S. Nationals -- but they parted company at season’s end. They remained pals, and Prudhomme later hired Leong to tune his Ron Capps-driven Copenhagen Funny Car.

“Snake’s” take: “The Hawaiian in 1965 was a storybook year. For some reason, he and I just clicked right away. It’s like you meet this kid in school, and you become fast friends. I met him in Hawaii, and we just clicked. We truly were good friends who got to race together, and we’re still tight. I talk to him a lot.”

Winning Indy

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Prudhomme won drag racing’s biggest race seven times, first in 1965, then in 1969 (pictured  with Leong), 1970, 1973, 1974, 1977, and 1989.

“Snake’s” take: “That race just meant so much to all of us; it was such a huge deal. Ask “the Ace” [Ed McCulloch] or anyone else that won it in those early days. When I won it for the first time, in 1965, there were only two big races — Indy and the Winternationals — and we won ’em both. Those were moments that you never forget.”

Tom McEwen

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Together, Prudhomme and McEwen made history with the signing of the Mattel Hot Wheels deal in 1970, the first major sponsorship by a non-racing company. They were teammates yet sometimes bitter rivals, and sometimes at each other’s throats off the track, too.

“Snake’s” take: “Man, we really showed ’em all how it could be done, didn’t we? That rivalry was real and benefited us both. There’s never been anything like it. [Larry] Dixon and [Tony] Schumacher doesn’t hold a candle to ‘Snake’ versus ‘Mongoose.’

“For some reason, we have completely different personalities. I still drive myself pretty hard, and he’s still laid back. We don’t think alike on a lot of stuff, so it’s kind of hard to reconcile all of that. I like smoking a cigar now and then and a shot of Jack Daniels or a couple of beers now and then, and he’s a teetotaler and wants to go to bed at 7. We’re just kind of different and have always been. We’ve had our differences, and we still have our differences to this day, but he’s family. It’s like having a brother that you don’t get along with, but they’re still family.”

“The Snake” and “the Mongoose”

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Prudhomme received his famous nickname from crewmember Joel Purcell during the days of the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car. Purcell, a friend of Black’s, noted Prudhomme’s long, lean frame and exceptional starting-line reflexes and began calling him “the Snake.” Not long after, McEwen beat Prudhomme in a match race, and Ed Donovan suggested that McEwen dub himself “the Mongoose” after the only creature capable of defeating a cobra.

“Snake’s” take: “Not many guys had nicknames back then that I remember. I thought it was cool, and it really took off, and everyone started calling me that, so I started putting it on my helmet not long after that. Then along comes McEwen calling himself ‘the Mongoose,’ and I thought that was cool. We were buddies back then and hung around — it was kind of like forming a band or something — and it really helped us both with bookings. He did a great job of promoting the rivalry in the magazines. After that, everyone seemed to have a nickname. Of course, John Mulligan tried to top us both by becoming “the Zookeeper.” I thought that was pretty funny."

ALL WORK, NO PLAY

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While McEwen enjoyed the social aspect of racing as much as the competition, Prudhomme was a relentless competitor who hated to lose and wore his heart on his sleeve and sometimes on the end of his temper.

“Snake’s” take: “I was a jerk. I recognize that, especially now. I just had this thing about drag racing from the day I started doing it that I’d found why I was here. It was my purpose. I certainly didn’t do it for the money because there was no money in it early on. 

“Back in those days, there were no sponsors, and you had to fight from track to track and day to day and race to race. You had to win or you wouldn’t get booked again. When you left a track after a match race, you had to leave them breathless and something to remember you by; I don’t mean punching someone out — even though that happened a few times. 

“You had to haul ass so the track operator would want you back. It was an intense time, and I was just a fierce competitor. I suppose I offended some people along the way, but, hey, sorry about that. If I hadn’t been that way, the sport would have chewed me up and spit me out. [Don] Garlits would have spit you out. Hell, he still would.”

1975-76

snake76.jpgPrudhomme and crew chief Bob Brandt dominated these seasons with their vaunted Army Monza, winning six of eight events in 1975 and seven of eight in 1976 en route to the first two of four straight championships.

“Snake’s” take: “We were running an Ed Pink engine at the time, and Bob Brandt and I were tuning it and were really almost always on the same page. We just really understood what it took, and we were damned good at doing that. We used to say, ‘The harder we work, the luckier we get,’ so let’s keep working.

“We had a real good thing going with our clutch; it was kind of a lockup thing that a lot of people didn’t know about. It was all within the rules; we never cheated … well, at least that I remember. We’d push the rules for sure, though. That was a moment in time that I thought would never end.

“People ask me who was calling the tuning shots, and if you asked him, he’d probably say me, and I’d probably say him. He was real responsible for a lot of the tune-up, and I don’t think I really realized that then because we just worked really well together. I don’t think either one of us was trying to take the credit for how well the car ran. We butted heads all the time, but it always seemed to end up OK because we were always on the same wavelength.

“I think we just wanted it more than the rest of the guys. That might piss off some people for me to say because they want to think that it was just because we had a sponsor and more money, but that wasn’t really it. Ed Pink will tell you that we certainly didn’t spend a lot of money with him.

“It was really gratifying to win those championships as more than the driver because I was actually helping Bob tune it. That was the ultimate.”

The 1980s

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After his fabulous success in the 1970s, the early 1980s were lean times for Prudhomme. After winning 24 races in the 1970s, he won only six from 1980 through 1985, then had to sit out 1986 because he had no sponsor. When he returned in 1987, it was with the Skoal Trans Am, his first association with the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., and by decade’s end, he had returned to form; in his domination at the 1989 U.S. Nationals, he scored a Shootout victory and his final Indy win and posted a dazzling 5.17 pass.

“Snake’s” take: “Sitting out that year was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was able to sit down and collect my thoughts. The sport had changed a lot, and we were getting guys into the crew-chief role like Dale Armstrong, and the computers were coming in. Everyone was getting real crew chiefs, so I had to wean myself from being a driver/crew chief to just being a driver and having a true crew chief.

“After winning all of those championships in the ’70s, the early 1980s were a rough time for us. The sport was changing, and maybe we weren’t keeping up with it. It was starting to cost a lot more dough, too. I was fortunate to get involved with the folks at UST. UST was the best sponsor I ever raced for … ever. I’m still friends with them over there. I was just talking to Murray Kessler, chairman of the board at U.S. Smokeless. We went through several chairmen, and they just had a really good attitude about racing. I was really happy to win for them, especially that U.S. Nationals where we ripped their throats out. We won the Bud Shootout and then the Nationals on Monday, and the car ran so good. That was a special weekend. It’s great to have a car that dominates.”

Return to Top Fuel

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After an amazing Funny Car career from 1970 through 1989, Prudhomme, along with fellow flopper ace Kenny Bernstein, returned to his dragster roots in 1990. It was a tough go as he crashed twice, including a memorable blowover in Montreal. He finished 13th that year, third in 1991, sixth in 1992, then slid to 14th in 1993. He announced 1994 as his final season behind the wheel, then had his best year of the decade, winning three times en route to a second-place finish.

snake94.jpg“Snake’s” take: “[Going back to Top Fuel] was kind of a dumb decision. If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t have, and I think Bernstein probably feels the same way. More than anything, I think I was looking for a new challenge, and I certainly found it. I crashed the damn thing twice that first year, and I could have kicked myself in the butt. But we were able to see it through and ended up pretty good at it in the end. We started coming on pretty strong near the end. We finished second in points that last year; we were kicking ass and winning.”

So, why retire?

“You want to hear the real truth? Even though we had Skoal, the people in charge at that time weren’t that keen on drag racing. Richard Petty had just retired, and that was a big thing, so they started asking me, ‘ “Snake,” why don’t you retire?’ I was like, ‘Uhhhhhh. ... never thought about it.’ We weren’t doing a lot of winning, and I think there’s a bit of a perception that when you’re getting older and you’re not winning that you’re not winning because you are getting older. I knew it was the car and not me, but who am I to argue?

“They offered me a retirement plan — they were going to pay me for five years — that was too good to pass up. I went to [wife] Lynn at the dinner table and told her what they were offering, and she said, ‘Take it!’ So I took it."

Being an owner

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Although Prudhomme had planned on retiring from the sport after 1994, he suddenly got all revved up about team ownership when longtime crewmember Dixon piloted “the Snake’s” car to a stunning 4.76 during testing after the 1994 Gatornationals, three-hundredths quicker than Prudhomme had ever gone.

“Snake’s” take: “I was ready to stop driving; I just didn’t know I was ready. What happened — and I’m really thankful for this — is that Larry, who had been a crewmember with me for a long time, had left to drive an alcohol car for someone but came back to me early that year and said that his credit cards were all maxed out and would I hire him again for the final year. I told him, ‘OK, but don’t plan on driving.’

“His attitude had changed because he’d seen how hard it was to be out there, and I took such a liking to him that I wanted to help him get his Top Fuel license so at least he would have one and a chance to drive for someone after I retired. We put him in the car Monday, and he hauled ass. He didn’t do the burnout quite right, but he ended up running really good; he ran quicker than I’d ever run. I got on my motorcycle with the time slip, and I was smokin’ it on down there on the minibike to tell him, and I was real excited about it for him. That’s when I knew it was over because in the old days, there’s no way I’d be happy with someone running better than me in my own car. That’s when I knew I’d be OK.

snake-dixon2.jpg“That’s when I decided to stay in the game. I tried to convince UST to stay on with this new kid, but they really didn’t want anyone but me, so I took him to Miller Brewing Co. — I had to tie his tie for him because he didn’t know how to tie one and suit him all up — and we got the deal. They wanted a young guy, and I wasn’t in that age group, and so to continue on, I knew it had to be him. It was a ball being a car owner and having him as my driver. I made sure I kept UST informed on how Larry was doing — winning races and being rookie of the year — and they were really pissed because they’d gotten some bad advice on me. So when it came time to have my Funny Car with Ron Capps and Copenhagen, they were ready to be back with me.

“So, in the end, it wasn’t hard for me to stop being a driver, and my wife hopes that it’s going to be the same way now that I’ve stopped being a team owner. I’m hoping that will happen.” 

Epilogue, 2017

"The Snake" did eventually become at peace with no longer being actively involved in the sport, taking up other interests -- he's a huge fan of many motorsports, especially IndyCars -- but he's far from being an absentee drag fan. He's a regular at both Pomona events, keeps up on what's going on at the track through a network of friends, still regularly text messages or calls me and a bunch of his old NHRA pals to get the latest scoop on who's doing what and why (he actually stopped by NHRA HQ earlier this week and we spent some time just BS-ing in my office), and, best of all, fans can expect to see a lot more of him on the tour in 2018, working with NHRA to promote some cool upcoming events.

He hasn't driven now for 23 years (is that really possible?) and out as an owner for more seven, but he's still the legend, still cool as hell, and still "the Snake."

Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]

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