The celebration of life of Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen last Saturday in Pomona provided a lot of closure for his friends in the racing community. It was chance to not only remember one of our great friends but, for many, the chance to do it together, to hug like the family we all are, to share great McEwen stories, and to bask in the memories of one of the sport’s greats.
Put together by his close lifelong friends the Prudhomme family -– Don, Lynn, and Donna -- along with Lynn Rose, Mike Thermos, Bud Rasner, Pete Ward, John “Rab” Kirchner, and the NHRA staff, most notably, Larry Fisher and Greg Sharp of the NHRA Motorsports Museum, the memorial packed the Sheraton Conference Center with nearly 1,000 well-wishers.
As you could imagine, a Who’s Who of the sport’s history turned out. The Prudhommes, of course, were there, along with fellow racing royalty including Roland Leong, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Richard Tharp, “T.V. Tommy” Ivo, Marvin Graham, Carl Olson, Mike Kuhl, Ed Iskenderian, Bob Brandt, “Waterbed Fred” Miller, Simon Menzies, Don Hampton, and many more that I can’t remember or didn't see. In addition to a strong turnout of NHRA staff members, today’s racing stars also were in evidence, including “Fast Jack” Beckman, Mike Salinas, Steve Chrisman, and, flying in from Indianapolis, Jimmy Prock and family and Don Schumacher Racing vice president Mike Lewis. And those were just the list of those not speaking on the stage.
Here’s a photo recap of the celebration, with images courtesy of NHRA photographers Teresa Long and Marc Gewertz.
As is always the case, Bob Frey was the perfect master of ceremonies, sharing his knowledge and humor in running the show and introducing the evening’s speakers. Frey read passages from McEwen’s book, Mongoose: The Life and Times of Tom McEwen, and, noting McEwen’s never-ending quest for money, made a running joke of the book’s availability online for anyone interested in buying it. Frey also read messages from many who could not attend, including Linda Vaughn, Snake-Mongoose biographer Tom Madigan, memorabilia expert Mike Goyda, and the Auto Club’s Tom McKernan,
Frank Baney, son of 1960s drag racing entrepreneur and car owner Lou Baney, reminisced about McEwen’s involvement with his dad’s cars. “The best thing about Tom was just being around him," he said. "We could run great or we could run crappy, and he would just be shucking and jiving with everyone in the car no matter how we did." Baney also marveled about how McEwen played to the crowd (and how they loved him back) as they towed down the return road after a run. “He was like a rockstar to me,” said Baney. “It was like having Elvis in the car. Everyonewas yelling at him and he’d just be BS-ing back. It was the high point of my life.”
Even after McEwen was replaced in Baney’s Ford cammer (by, of all people, Prudhomme), the younger Baney recalled with a laugh how McEwen continued to drop by the Baney house for dinner three nights a week, often accompanied by a gorgeous woman, and how McEwen would get under his dad’s skin by calling him “Jack,” as in jack o’lantern, a reference to the gap between Baney’s front teeth. “His head would just explode,” whenever McEwen called him that, recalled Baney with a chuckle.
Baney also referenced the Monday dinners that have become a tradition among the legends of the sport, and how McEwen never let the chance for a good barb get away. “There was no line of decency,” said Baney to knowing laughs around the room. “He’d pick whatever was your worst [trait], whether you were short, fat, bald, diabetic, broke, rich ... he’d grind on you. It was hilarious.”
Donnie Couch, who wrenched on McEwen’s Funny Car starting at age 12, was forbidden to share his notoriously-good “Snake” imitation but shared a sentiment of his and fellow coming-of-age crewman and good friend Pat Galvin, reflecting, “We were the luckiest guys in the world because we got to grow up and work with our heroes and travel in those Hot Wheels trucks and race around the country. We were like rockstars out there. If we wanted a good pit spot, we’d just give a Hot Wheels kit to the track guy and parked anywhere we wanted.”
Couch also noted McEwen’s fierce loyalty to his young crewmembers, sharing a tale he first told me in an earlier column about choosing “his kids” over veteran crew chief Alan Gillis. “He meant so much to us and taught us how to treat people,” he said. “And I look out over this crowd and realize I know all of these people because of Tom.”
Legendary 1970s racetrack owner and promoter Bill Doner admitted that he wasn’t big on speaking at memorials -– “I was crying so bad the last time they literally had to carry me out,” he said of Steve Woomer’s service –- but admitted that since talking is “the best club in my bag,” he’d do it for his old pal McEwen. “I’ve known a lot of people in my life,” he said, “a number of really good guys and a lot of a**holes, but Tom McEwen was a really good guy. Not just to me, but to everybody. I fished with him in Mexico, he stayed at my house down there, and did a lot of things with him.
“He raced for me, of course. I remember the first time that ‘the Snake’ and ‘the Mongoose; raced for me. Prudhomme came roaring up to me because McEwen had made the deal and said, ‘Are you paying him the same money you’re paying me?’ -- I knew right there and then there was trouble ahead -- ‘Because if you are, just give it to him now, because I’m going to win the race.’ Tom called me up just the other day to ask if his magazine could help me with this Heritage Funny Car group I’m promoting. I bet every one of you out there has a Tom McEwen story to share, some nice thing he did for you. He was a helluva good guy.”
Former Los Angeles Rams defensive star Fred Dryer, whom non-football fans may remember as "Hunter" from the eponymous TV detective show of the 1980s, was just a teenage fan when he first saw McEwen at Lions Dragstrip, but later connected with him at Orange Country Int’l Raceway during his playing days and became good friends and ending up playing Ed Donovan in the Snake and Mongoose movie. Dryer shared funny stories about McEwen’s well-known penchant for selling (and sometimes giving away to pretty girls) jewelry and how he became the unofficial jeweler to his Rams teammates and front-office staff.
Dryer especially remembered a Monday Night Football game at the L.A. Coliseum against the Cincinnati Bengals. McEwen had gotten himself a sideline pass. “I see him over there, holding court and having such a good time, so I just leave him alone,” he said. “I go out onto the field [for the first defensive plays] and I look over and there’s Tom in a cluster of newspaper photographers and girls pulling out of his waistband a strip of plastic bags full of jewelry. He’s doing business on the sidelines of the game! I don’t know where else that could happen except Los Angeles -- drag racing meets pro football on the sidelines –- but if it would ever happen, Tom would be the guy to carry it off. I don’t remember if we won or lost that game but I told everyone that story, and I’m still telling it because that’s our guy. God bless him.”
Pat Galvin echoed Couch’s sentiments, calling himself “the luckiest guy at the dragstrip," having idolized both “the Snake” and “the Mongoose” and then going on to work for both of them. “Tom was more than just a boss; he was a friend for 40 years," he said. "When I was 20 years old, he’d call me to tell me to take a shower, have dinner, and go to bed early because I looked tired today. He did it when I was 60, too. He was a tremendous friend and I feel really blessed to have been part of this world with him and ‘Snake.’ “
Former NHRA vice president and competition director Steve Gibbs lauded McEwen for his help in solving problems -– “rules, money, procedures” –- and trying to help bring the situation to a resolution between the racers and NHRA. “He was open-minded, he would work with you, and it was always a pleasure to have that relationship with him,” he said. “The first time I met Tom I was 22 years old in 1962 when I was writing articles for Drag News for the old San Gabriel dragstrip. It’s hard to imagine that started the relationship and ends up with me up here saying our farewells. We transitioned through life and ended up being a couple of old men having Monday-night dinners that were some of the best times of that relationship, like a bunch of old guys hanging out in the park playing checkers.”
Dennis Givens was involved in McEwen’s other passion, quarterhorse racing, from the mid-1970s as the trainer on with a long string of horses whose names all included the word “Mongoose.” Like most things in his life, McEwen approached horse racing with a zeal, learning about breeding practices. “He told me, ‘Givens, we’re going to get some rocketships,’ and sure enough we got them," recalled Givens. "They were fast; there wasn’t one that we brought to the gate that didn’t run good and fast. He was really good at it.
“One time we had a horse and he named it ‘MongooseFirst.’ I asked him why in the hell he named it that. He said, ‘Well, Givens, no matter what people read in the newspaper, they’ll think Mongoose was first.’ He had another one named ‘SpecialMongoose’ that turned out to be the fastest qualifier out of 88 and asked me, ‘Well, Givens, do you know now why I named him ‘Special?’ He was very funny, always witty. We were friends for over 50 years and never had one argument. If we did bad, he’d say, ‘Well Givens, I guess I have to get you better horses.’ If we did good, he’d say ‘Good job.’ Without him I’d never had the chance to train such good horses.” With that, Givens broke into tears and received a warm round of applause.” His tears weren’t the last ones to fall this day.
“I’m usually a comedy act, but this is hard for me, as it is for so many,” began John Force, who voice also cracked during his remembrance. Drag racing’s all-time winningest driver, wearing strategically-deployed dark sunglasses, paid homage to McEwen for teaching him so much about the sport and about marketing, and recalled how McEwen personally gave him a lesson to remember when both ended up in the final round of a match race at OCIR.
Recalled Force, “I’d never won a race, and he came over and told me ‘My car’s broke. You have to go up there and run or Doner won’t pay you.’ I ran around the pits telling everyone that I’d won the race. It was special because these guys were like gods to me. I did a big ol’ Chi-town [burnout] and I’m backing up and here goes McEwen doing a burnout past me. I thought he was broke! We pull up there and stage and I got to about 300 feet and it exploded. I ran over to McEwen at the other end and went, ‘You said you were broke!’ and he said, ‘First lesson, kid: Never trust a drag racer.’ “
Force's longtime confidant, Dave Densmore, was in the audience and later shared with me why the ceremony was so hard on Force.
"John Force and I go back a long way," he said. "I met him in 1979 while I was Publicity Director for the NHRA and I worked with him on Castrol’s behalf for 28 years beginning in 1987. We have been friends for almost 30 years and at no time has that friendship been more meaningful, more welcome or more necessary than during these all too frequent periods of shared grief over the loss of someone influential in our lives. For Force, few people had a greater impact on him personally or professionally than 'the Mongoose,' his friend and confidant for more than 40 years.
"He and I both attended McEwen’s Celebration of Life. We didn’t go there together but afterward, while reluctantly acknowledging our own mortality, we talked about the emotion of the moment. Both of us were overwhelmed by the turnout of those from both inside and outside the racing community who had been positively impacted by a man who genuinely was larger than life. To Force, the turnout seemed as big as that for an NHRA banquet -– only without the tables.
"Nevertheless, even more than the large turnout, we were taken aback by the tribute program organized by Don and Lynn Prudhomme, Donna Prudhomme, Pete Ward, and so many other of close friends of 'the 'Goose,' and with Bob Frey’s ability as master of ceremonies to manage so many different elements and make everything appear so seamless.
"John especially was blown away by the video presentation put together by Lynn Rose insomuch as it focused not just on drag racing but on aspects of the 'Goose’s life of which the two of us were only marginally aware –- like his career as a race horse owner and his interactions with his family.
"Most of all, though, it was the theme of the occasion that brought both of us, along with Steve Cole, John’s sales manager at JFR and one of the ’Goose’s” closest friends from the old Action Performance days, to the brink of our emotional limits. On behalf of John and Steve and everyone else who loved him, a heartfelt thanks to those who were a part of such a fitting tribute to a unique, talented and caring person."
Two of McEwen’s closest friends, “Rab” Kirchner and Pete Ward, came up together to express their affection for McEwen. “He was like a father to me,” said Kirchner. “I was with him almost every day. We had a real special relationship. He was just a great guy, so good to me and Pete. I’m really going to miss him.”
Ward thanked everyone for coming, and “everyone for being such a good friend to Tom, for supporting him, for loving him, for taking care of him. We’re going to miss him.”
Legendary announcer Dave McClelland, one of NHRA’s first television personalities and an epic voice on the P.A., called McEwen, “one of the best friends I had in drag racing,” a sentiment that a lot of people in the room could probably claim as well. “Big Mac” recounted McEwen’s support for him and wife Louise after McClelland underwent bypass surgery in 1991. “I was beyond appreciated over his concern for my family, my wife, and me,” he said, “and that continued until his passing. He was one of the nicest guys. I’m proud to have called him a very close friend.”
“The Old Master,” engine impresario Ed Pink, was up next. McEwen had driven Pink’s dragster in the 1960s and Pink provided power for McEwen’s Funny Cars. “He was a great friend, always upbeat,” recalled Pink. “He was just one of the guys that put a smile on your face.”
Pink reminisced back to the early days of the Ford cammer fuel engine in Baney’s McEwen-driven Top Fueler. “At the start of the campaign, the thing didn’t run that good,” he admitted. “There were a lot of things that weren’t good and one of those things was when it got down to the lights oil would come out of it. One time I got down there and put my hand on his shoulder and he asked, ‘Who is it?’ because he had so much oil on his goggles. Someone else would have gotten nasty about it, but he realized it was a great project that required a lot of work, and he just went with it. He was always upbeat; whatever went on, he looked at the glass as half full.”
Tom Prock, perhaps McEwen’s closest friend among his fellow former racers, first was rivals on the track with McEwen then joined together with him as crew chief and driver after a fatal highway accident destroyed McEwen’s rig.
“He was one of a kind and developed a lot of things for racecars that people don’t know about, like the [spill plates] on the Funny Car body and the little handle on the brake for the fire extinguisher," said Prock. "He had a proudness about him. He was a big part of my life. I’m going to miss him.”
If Prock was McEwen’s closest racing friend, Bud Rasner may well have been his longest. Rasner was McEwen’s first racing partner on a Fiat Topolino gas altered with Joe Reath, but before that the two were members of the Marauders Car Club at Long Beach (Calif.) Polytechnic High School (where McEwen lettered in basketball) in a time when the future “Mongoose” as was known to his friends as “Spotty,” for his red hair and freckles.
“Even then, Tom was always the center of the action and very loyal to his friends,” recalled Rasner, who recounted how McEwen got his start in racing with secret outings in his mom’s ’54 Olds. “We took that Olds to Lions and to Santa Ana. We’d take out the spare tire and the back seat, let some air out of the rear tires, remove the hub caps and the air cleaner, and move the timing a few degrees. We were real tuners.” The fun came to an end when the local dealership discovered the exhaust cutouts McEwen and friends had installed; “He was grounded for a while after that,” Rasner remembered.
“I still have three messages on my phone from Tom’s last two days alive, and I can’t bring myself to erase them,” he said later, his voice breaking, then intoned a message shared by many on this day. “He was worried about me, but he took care of others better than he took care of himself.”
John Ross was the motorsports manager for the Coors Brewing Company when it sponsored McEwen’s Funny Car in the 1980s [to the tune of $3,124.57 per run, as he recalled McEwen exactly calculating it]. He was there for McEwen’s first sponsorship proposal through the glory days that followed, especially the steal-their-thunder victory at the 1984 Big Bud Shootout.
“[Budweiser-sponsored] Kenny Bernstein always bragged to Tom that Budweiser paid him an extra $25,000 if he won the race, so Tom asked me to get with [Coors marketing director] Rob Klugman to see if he could get a $25,000 bonus if he won the race," recalled Ross. "Rob said, ‘John, do you think he can [win]?’ [I replied] ‘I don’t think so,’ but Tom put it all together that day and won the race. It was unbelievable. He was just a great man. He supported Coors and always had the Coors hat on. I hope he took it with him to heaven because when I get there, he’d better have it on.”
Katie Sarna, McEwen’s daughter, who traveled from Kansas City to attend, along with her son [McEwen’s grandson] Christian, expressed her gratitude to the multitude.
“I’ve been so touched by the love and outpouring of support from all of you,” she said. “I’ve heard some fabulous stories and things that I never knew and can’t wait to tell my husband, Robert, and our other son, Jonathan. My dad was an amazing man -- smart, funny, very generous –- and I know that he loved all of you very much, and I see that you loved him, too. I’m overwhelmed by it.”
Before she left the stage, Katie was joined by famed Hot Wheels designer Larry Wood, who presented her with a drawing of her dad’s Hot Wheels Funny Car, signed by everyone in Mattel’s Hot Wheels department. “Back in the day, when I was the only guy there, these two clowns come in with this proposal to make a racing team out of Hot Wheels,” he said, his voice also quivering. “I have to tell ya –- drag racing, Hot Wheels, and the world would never be the same. Thanks, Tom.”
Finally, the guy that everyone came to hear, took the stage, and “the Snake” didn’t waste any time chuckling about the “Spotty” nickname revelation and also little time before becoming emotional, too. For all the gruff persona that Prudhomme fostered during his racing career, the last decade has revealed a caring and loving guy, and, as you could expect, this loss really hurts.
“I don’t know why, but I feel like the jerk all the time because McEwen was so cool and we’ve heard so many nice things about him,” said Prudhomme, who mentioned that even after he replaced McEwen at the wheel of the Baney/Pink cammer, McEwen never held a grudge against him, the very mention bringing tears to his eyes and forcing him to pause to collect himself.
“He treated me like we were still the best of buddies,” he continued. “If it had been me I would never have talked tlo the guy again; I’d have been pissed that someone took my ride. He never had any hard feelings. It’s pretty amazing.
“I know a lot of things about 'the Mongoose,’ “ he teased. “He spent his money on women, women, women, gold jewelry, horses, more women, and the rest he just pissed away. Those were his priorities. I love him. We had a great run together. The Mattel thing was amazing. Neither one of us knew how to make a living in this sport. I was painting cars and he was out looking for a job. There was absolutely no money in the sport and he came up with the idea of going to Mattel. Our lives completely changed after that.
“It’s been a few weeks since he passed so I’ve been able to digest it,” he admitted, again briefly losing his composure before switching to his go-to McEwen chopbuster about “the ‘Goose’s” unrelenting quest for ‘Snake”-signed collectibles and side projects to bring in income.
“By the way, I didn’t know he had this goddamn book out either,” he said picking up the copy Frey had been mock-hawking throughout the afternoon. “He was always doing [stuff] like this and not telling me about it. Tries to one-up me, y’know what I mean? He was always promoting himself, still banging the circuit, working with NHRA, going to Bakersfield selling t-shirts.
“As was said earlier, if he’d have taken a good care of himself as he did other people …”
Prudhomme’s words failed him again as he trailed off. “Good night,” he said with a wave and was embraced by thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
And good night to a good day remembering one of the good guys of NHRA. RIP Mongoose. We love ya.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]