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Fans remember 'the Mongoose'

Over the past month, you’ve heard from Tom McEwen’s closest friends about what the fabled “Mongoose” meant to them. This week, we share some thoughts and memories from his fans, who were touched by him in myriad ways.
27 Jul 2018
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Tom McEwen

Over the past month, you’ve heard so much from me and from Tom McEwen’s closest friends about what the fabled “Mongoose” meant to us, but, as you can imagine, my Inbox was overflowing with thoughts and memories from his fans, so I thought I’d share some of them this week.

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Ricky Farrow: "I was deeply saddened like the rest of the drag racing community in finding out the passing of Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen. I was one of the countless number of children in 1970 who were introduced to drag racing through McEwen's idea of approaching Mattel in sponsoring and making the ‘Snake’ and ‘Mongoose’ Funny Car sets. Never have I ever look forward to seeing a TV commercial like I have look forward to seeing the Hot Wheels ‘Snake and Mongoose’ TV commercials. 

“Like you, I became a diehard Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme fan, happy when he won, upset when he was beaten. The only time I was kind of OK with him losing was when Prudhomme lost to McEwen in the finals at Indy 78' after McEwen lost his son Jamie to leukemia. In 2004, when the NHRA tour came to Houston, Prudhomme autographed an airbrushed painting I made of him and McEwen facing off at OCIR at night (kind of funny being that I never been no further west than San Antonio Texas; now on my bucket list to go west). About a year later. I found out who McEwen's publicist was. He emailed me an address to send my painting, and lo and behold, three weeks later, my painting came back with .the Mongoose's. autograph! Thanks, ‘Goose. Rest in Heaven.”

Don Thomas: “I just thought I'd share a small perspective of an average fan who has followed ‘the Mongoose’ over the years. I've only met him once many years ago. He would not have remembered me from Adam but below is just a quick description of the influence he had on me.

“We get to the point where we take their presence for granted. They become as household items. We wake up, walk into a certain part of the house and that thing that has always been there will still be there, no problem. On the morning of June 11 I got up, went into the den, turned on my computer, logged into nhra.com and Tom McEwen was no longer there.

"I was floored, and my heart was broken. We have lost a number of wonderful drag racers. But, in all respect to those past great competitors who have passed on, I've never personally had the sense that a part of the sport of drag racing had passed with them. If I actually took some time to think about it, I'm sure there are, but with ‘the Mongoose’ there is no need for even a hint of thought concerning this racing legend's legacy and influence in the sport of drag racing. And surely, ‘the Mongoose’ took a part of the sport with him when he left us. 

"NHRA will go on and will be great. But there is a sweet spot about it that will never, ever be the same and that spot will remain a void in the sport for the remainder of its days. As for me, a simple fan, with an undying love for the sport of drag racing, my life will continue on for however long the good Lord allows. Part of the rest of that life will be spent remembering and missing Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen. Rest well, ‘Goose.” 

hanlon2.jpgMike Hanlon: “With the recent loss of Tom McEwen, I remembered this poster I had squirreled away. I believe I got it at Maple Grove. There was a trailer for ‘Snake’ to do autographs. I believe it was some sort of Wynn's promotion. As it happened, 'Goose’ was also there. I put the poster in front of ‘Snake’ and Tom grabbed it and said he had never seen one of them before. So, of course, I asked if he would autograph it’ too. He did and thanked me for bringing it. I have no idea why Tom was left off the poster as Wynn's also sponsored him. In any case, it means more than ever to me so it will soon be in a frame.”

Howard Hull: “I remember him clearly with his boys at OCIR as I too was close to their ages as well. I have bits and pieces of him as a little guy, Him driving up in his Lincoln Continental at the pit entrance and paying his entry fee. His gold watch and diamond-encrusted ring (weird thing for a 12-year-old to remember). Of course, into the ‘70s with Bill Donor running the track. ‘Mongoose’ and ‘Snake’ over the radio for the spots for the race. 

“Jamie was getting sicker at that point and we talked about it. He told me that he missed the pool and playing water polo with his friends. I was at the neighboring high school in Costa Mesa while he played at Fountain Valley. went up with Doner and a few others to the service in Apple Valley, Other than family, I was the only school-age kid there. He came up to Doner and ‘Snake’ and I, was thanking them for coming to the service. He smiled at me and gave me a big hug, He told me, ‘Keep at it kid, Keep up your swimming.’

“Afterwards, when he came back to OCIR to run a match race after winning ‘the Big Go’ was epic. Doner and his champagne in the pits after Friday night qualifying and all of the local racers came over to congratulate him.”

Skip Young: “I am just a drag racing fan, love the only sport on the planet as far as I'm concerned. I was at a diecast show during the U.S. Nationals in 97 and handed Tom my t-shirt for an autograph. He turns and says [to artist Kenny Youngblood, ‘Hey ‘Blood, draw something,’ so there's a Snake and Mongoose drag race on the shirt a few minutes later with the caption ‘Eat this Snake, ’signed by Tom saying ‘Blood did it.”

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Ken Castleman: “I was just reading your post about ‘Goose and wanted to tell you how he touched my life. I was one of those kids who got the Hot Wheels ‘Mongoose and Snake’ race tracks for Christmas when they came out both with the Funny Cars and the front engine Dragsters. I have always been a ‘Mongoose’ fan and will always be. I have told people that I am probably the biggest fan there is of [his]. 

“I was able to talk with him several times the past several years and right after the movie came out we were talking. I told him that I am blind and he asked me how I would see the movie. I told him that I had vision in my early years and still can remember what the cars looked like. He sent me a copy of the movie and it is something that I will always treasure. I had just talked with him not long ago and we had made arrangements for me to send some of my diecast cars to him to sign for me but I hadn't finished getting them ready before [he died]. I do have some pictures that he signed for me and they are in my collections for everybody to see. He had even given me his cell number but I didn't call him on it because I respected his privacy. I wish that I had made just one call to him now just to say ‘Hello’ to him. Tom ‘The Mongoo$e’ McEwen will be missed by all of us. I am glad to say that I was able to thank him for all of the great memories of watching him battle the quarter-mile at places like Green Valley [Race City] and the Texas Motorplex. I will miss him very much.”

Mark Elms: “Just like everyone else, the passing of ‘the Mongoose’ has set me back. I loved watching Tom smile. I told him more than once that I was at Famoso in '72 when he won the March Meet, that always got a smile. Seen him last in Vegas this spring, he had an interview with ‘Snake’ that was priceless. I try to remember to thank all our heroes and legends for still coming out to the drags and supporting what I love and what they love, drag racing.”

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“Chicago Jon” Hofmann: “In '72, my brother went to Columbus for the Springnationals. Seeing that they (McEwen and Prudhomme) had run out of handouts, he asked Tom if there were any more. Tom dug into that legendary briefcase of his and gave my brother two 8x10 glossys. (still have 'em) That's probably about the time I started referring to them as 'Mongoose and the Snake', instead of the other way around -- it was a pretty cool thing to do (back then you knew not to bother Don for ANYTHING).

“McEwen always said he fashioned himself after the 'bull-(spitter)' from’TV Wrasslin shows,’ so when his Indy '78 win was voted in as a top moment, I fashioned a WWF-style sign and waited for TV to go live at Indy. This would get written about in Drag Racer, "by Tom" (Pete Ward) and the clip is still up on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVNL76pbbTk

“You know that nothing lasts forever, but that doesn't mean your heart still doesn't break.”

hw.jpgDon Hirsh: “As a fellow Irwindale pit rat, I wanted to express something that I don't think was touched on at the memorial for Tom McEwen. When I was a youngster, my favorite toys were Tonka trucks and Matchbox cars. But when Hot Wheels came out, that all changed. Now I was curious about those flashy paint jobs, big fat tires and high performance, so I began checking out library books and browsing the magazine racks to learn a bit about hot rods and drag racing.

“For my birthday in August of 1970, I got the ‘Mongoose-Snake’ Funny Car set. Now I had to see drag racing firsthand because when I raced down that orange strip, I was ‘the Mongoose.’ It may have been because the vicious-looking animal portrayed looked so cool. Or maybe I liked the red paint job more than the yellow one on ‘the Snake.’ So upon seeing an ad in the local sports page for an upcoming Irwindale event featuring the real ‘Mongoose’ and ‘Snake’ in action, I had to go! 

“I worked out a deal with my sister Kathy to wash and wax her VW fastback and she'd take me to the race. I got in free being under 12 and only needed a buck for a pit pass. So off we went to see the East vs.West championships.Sixteen  of the best floppers in the business, including Whipple-McCulloch, Kingfish, Chi Town Hustler, ‘Jungle Jim,’ and, most important to me, ‘the Mongoose.’ Well,that night set the stage for me to become a lifelong drag racing fan.

“Some 49 years later, I know that whatever bad things may be going on in my life or stressing me out, when I'm at the track, big event or small, I'm in my favorite place to be. And it's all because I wanted to see Tom ‘the Mongoo$e’ McEwen race his Hot Wheels Funny Car. He was my hero and this is the toughest loss in drag racing for this fan.

Al Kean: “I had many chats with him over the years and cherish every one. He phoned my house years ago to talk about my ‘Snake’ fire photo from Seattle. At the time my son was quite young but it was him that answered the phone. I was sleeping after working night shift, so he asked who was calling.  When Tom said who it was, my son responded with ‘the REAL Tom McEwen?’ He then came and woke me up, very excited !

“Next to Wally Parks, ‘the Mongoo$e's’ passing is the biggest loss to our beloved sport that I can think of. I am so glad that the Snake & Mongoo$e movie happened while he was still with us.”

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Dan DeLaney: “My Heart is broken for the loss of ‘the Mongoo$e.’ You, like I, loved our Hot Wheels and I, too, was a bigger ‘Snake’ fan than ‘Goo$e’ fan, but in time and with age and being around the sport and the friends I have in the sport I got to know Tom from a different view, although he didn't know me by name. I believe he always would recognize me when visiting with Pete Ward and Gary Nastase and was always a delight to speak with.

“Pete clued me in on most everything when we'd cross paths -- some priceless stories, because he knew I would ‘get it’ and there's only so many people you can share them with. I was privileged to be in a small part of that circle. I can't imagine the loss Pete is feeling.

“The loss is a major one for this sport and not only drag racing but all of motorsports. With each generation, new heroes come along, which is only natural. But thank God you and I and our buddies grew up with the bunch that we got to enjoy. With tears in my eyes, thanks for sharing the stories of his inner circle with us and to his friends for sharing them with you. I can't tell you how much my heroes from back in the day made an impact on my life and career. A big Thank You to them. Prayers for Tom, his family, his family of friends and fans.”

Phil Burgess can reached at pbur[email protected]

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