Remembering "the Mongoose"
Stunned. Crushed. Heartbroken. Really, really sad. Teary-eyed. Despondent.
Those are pretty much my first six stages of grieving over just the two hours after I got the call Monday morning that we’d lost “the Mongoose.”
I know I’m not alone. As John Force told me, “This one took a bite out of all of us.”
We’ve lost legends and heroes of our sport before -– too many to count, including Bob Glidden, Dale Emery, and Steve Plueger earlier this year -- but losing Tom McEwen seems to be in whole other league for me and many others. I say this with the utmost respect for every other hero we’ve lost, but the outpouring of love on social media has far outstripped anything I’ve seen in our world. That’s how much “the Mongoose” meant to us all. Whether you were a friend, a fellow competitor, a fan, a student of the sport, or just raced your Hot Wheels across the living room floor, he meant something to all of us. A memorial celebration of life for "the 'Goose" will be held July 14 at 2 p.m. at the NHRA Museum. It's open to the public, Y'all should join us and show what he meant to you.
If you’re reading this column, I probably don’t need to recite to you the dozens of reasons why he meant the world to the sport of drag racing [if not, you can find that here], so I thought instead I’d share with you the thoughts and memories of some of those who knew him best and loved him the most.
I’ve reported on it here before, but the nitro racers from the 1970s have remained good friends and see each other socially often. They talk on the phone all the time and have regular dinners and lunches together. It’s a tight circle, and each loss is painful. I had a hard time reaching some of them, because their phones were overflowing with calls from people like me, and because they were dealing with their own grief. He had come through a recent surgery fairly well they all thought, and then he was gone. Some of them had talked to him the night before he passed, most within the previous week. It’s all so shocking, and I thank them all for taking the time to share their thoughts with me.
It wasn’t easy for them to talk about losing a close friend like Tom. He was generous almost to a fault, always checking up on people and caring more about the other guy than himself –- they jokingly referred to him as “Mother Goose” -- even while dealing with a personal life filled with sorrow and hardship -- the tragic deaths of two sons and a third son with a life-threatening disease, all on top of his own medical and financial issues. They all loved him, but sometimes hated the way life had unfairly treated him. Still, to those outside the world, he was the smiling, funny, charming “Mongoose,” and that’s how he –- and they -– would want us to remember him. I wish I had the time and energy to craft this remembrance differently, to interweave the thoughts and memories of his friends, but instead I’ll let them do the talking with comments and recollections that are poignant and funny, just like him.
It’s hard to have a discussion about Tom McEwen without talking about his longtime rival, former teammate, and lifelong friend Don Prudhomme. “The Snake” and “the Mongoose” will be forever entwined in each other’s careers and lives as well as our minds.
“He had a great smile at the races and for the fans, but his personal life was always upside down,” Prudhomme remembered of the guy who changed his career and life. “He took care of other people more than he took care of himself. He was just a huge giver. I’m gonna miss him. We were brothers who would fight and argue but then we’d laugh and cry together. We had great times together. We grew up together. We rode motorcycles together. We hung out at Lions Dragstrip together. ‘The Snake’ and ‘the Mongoose’ –- he always called us ‘the Mongoose and the Snake’; he said it sounded better that way.”
On whether he was upset when McEwen became “the Mongoose” after the animal that kills snakes:
“I never named myself; a guy on my crew [Joel Purcell] did that, but when McEwen started beating us and [Ed] Donovan named him ‘the Mongoose,’ I thought it was great. I wasn’t much of a promoter, but I liked my nickname, so I was way good with that.”
On their Hot Wheels partnership:
“I’ll never forget the day he walked into my shop and said, ‘I’m going to the Mattel toy company and see if they want to sponsor us.’ I thought he was nuts. The balls he had -- I was still a shy kid – and I thought they’d throw him out on his ear, but he had the balls to do it.”
On McEwen’s notorious womanzing in the 1970s:
“He was as slick as they come, he knew how to work the crowd. He was good. If there was a cute trophy girl, you can be sure that when he left the track that night she was riding with him.”
On the famous 1978 Indy final, where McEwen beat Prudhomme just weeks after his son, Jamie, died of leukemia, which became the inspiration for the recent film Snake & Mongoo$e.
“When Jamie died, Tom was at his worst. He was really down, emotionally and financially. At the time, I was unbeatable, winning all these national events, and he was just struggling, I mean really [freaking] struggling and for some reason it brought out the best in him.
“I was tight with Jamie, he’d hang around and wash parts for us. I’m going to have to get that movie out and play it tonight.”
On their on-track rivalry:
“We were always friends, but there was a real rivalry. People would say, ‘Oh, who’s going to win this weekend?’ like we had it scripted. I would tell them, ‘Are you kidding?’ It would piss us off because I would blow the engine out of the car if that was what it took to beat him and he’d burn his car to the ground to beat me. And this was just a match race. Track operators thought we were just this act, but we always left there breaking a track record. We were always trying to one-up one another.”
On their long friendship:
“There was a period where he didn’t talk a lot. Once he got out of racing, and I was so busy running my teams. I was trying to win national events and that wasn’t part of his life anymore, so we kind of drifted apart. Even through all that, we’d stay in touch. Some deal that Mattel wanted to do or some diecast deal, we’d do it. Anytime someone wanted ‘Mongoose’ for something they wanted me, too, or vice versa. That will forever bind us together.
“We’d argue like cats and dogs but when it came time to stick up for one another, if someone said something bad about the other one, we were ready to fight for each other.”
On his death:
“It’s the end of an era. He was a guy who did so much for drag racing and showed so many people how to get sponsorship and bring them into NHRA. I hope it goes into the history books that he was the guy who did it.
“I’m going to deeply miss him. It’s a sad day.”
Donnie Couch was just 12 years old when McEwen offered to take the race-obsessed kid of the road with him in the summer of 1970. The kid stayed with him for eight years, from the heyday of the Hot Wheels cars (the dragster and the Funny Car) through the late 1970s. That’s Couch above, holding the valve covers as McEwen celebrates his huge win at the 1972 March Meet with engine builder Ed Pink and a crew that included Jerry Bivens, Russell Long, Mark Miller, and Billy Pink.
Early lessons in life:
“My dad used to be a friend of Prudhomme’s and we’d go to Keith Black’s shop. I’d go to the races with them and I really wanted to go on the road but, you know, ‘Snake’ was awful tough to be around if you were a kid. McEwen took me in, under his wing, and talked my dad into letting me go on tour. I was on tour at 12 years old and he pretty much raised me. If I got good grades, I got to go all summer, and we’d stay back east at the Ramchargers and race three times a week, riding around in the Hot Wheels truck.
“It was me and a couple of other kids and Tom was good to us, and very loyal. [Veteran crewman] Alan Gillis had come over from the Ramchargers to work with Tom and Al finally had enough with us kids; we wouldn’t get up early enough for him and finally he went to ‘Mongoose’ and said ‘Tom, I’m tired of these [expletive] kids; it’s them or me,’ and McEwen looked at him and said, ‘Well, I wish you luck in whatever you do.' Al and I still laugh about this to this day.
“He loved having kids around. I was around Tom with all three of his sons, and for him to lose two of them [Jamie and Joey] and dealing with Tommy’s disease, it just doesn’t seem fair, y’ know?
“I spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot about life and what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do. He was very good and very generous to people. He never badmouthed anyone, and you never heard anyone badmouth him.”
On McEwen’s intensity:
“People think that he wasn’t intense like Prudhomme, but he could be, He’d get all wound up and get in the car all strapped in and forget to have his facemask or boots on, and he’d yell at us. He always wanted to win against "the Snake,’ but Prudhomme was such a feared competitor it wasn’t easy, but he kept trying. If Ed Pink had the best engines at the time he’d go to him; if the Ramchargers did, he went to them. He wanted to win.
“That’s not to say that he didn’t have distractions. ‘Goose loved the women and Prudhomme just wanted to rip your throat out.”
Just that kind of guy …
“He took care of everybody. I’ve been married 30 years and remember him coming to our house to have dinner and he was so excited for me because I had a house and everything and I was kind of a product of him. He was proud of me and bought us a TV. We didn’t have one –- I don’t know how he knew that –- but he just did. That was him. “
Life ain’t fair:
“We’ve lost so many of our friends this year. Dale Emery was my mentor and [Pat] Galvin and I idolized him and did so many things with him. [Steve] Plueger was my neighbor; I saw him every day. How can we keep losing all these guys? This one really hurts. This one is bigger because we had such life experiences with him. I talked to him last week after his surgery and had been in touch quite a bit later. As we got older, I appreciated him a lot more.”
Much as you can’t talk about McEwen without talking about Prudhomme, a lot of folks can’t talk about Donnie Couch without talking about Pat Galvin. The two Southern California teens became famous as some of the best hired hands a team could find and both worked for a Who’s Who of the sport during their careers and remain dear and close friends to this day, both reveling in their fortune to have been friends with “the Mongoose” and “the Snake.” Galvin was there in 1977 when McEwen figured out the weird aerodynamics for the cursed Corvette bodystyle and was crew chief for McEwen’s unforgettable Indy win the next year.
“Who’s going to call me now and tell me I look tired and should get to bed early or tell my son that’s he really good looking and to date a lot of women or tell my daughter who he thinks she’s going to marry? I actually talked to him on Saturday during an oildown [at the Virginia NHRA Nationals] He sounded good.
“He would call me out of the blue all the time and tell me what was going on, what he thought about certain things, what he thought was perfect for me. He was great, I have so many memories of him and I’m so glad that my children grew up around ‘the Snake’ and ‘the Mongoose,’ and people like Connie [Kalitta] and Shirley [Muldowney]. I’m a lucky guy. It’s everything I ever dreamed of as a kid.
“I met him in the early ‘70s but really got to know him in 1975 when Bob Pickett and I took the Mickey Thompson [Grand Am] on the road. Neither of us had been on the road before, so he became our mother, guiding is on where to go, who [booked] match races. I started working with him at end of ’76 and stayed through 1979, until just after the accident.
[Galvin and crewman Mike Mills were in the crew cab en route from an AHRA victory in Springfield, Ill., in June 1979, riding back to their home base when another crewman, who was driving, fell asleep. The rig collided with the expansion gap on a bridge near Champaign, Ill. The fifth-wheel trailer jackknifed and collided with the truck. The crewman was killed, Galvin was throw from the truck and severely burned. Miller, riding in the sleeper was uninjured. Together Galvin and Miller freed McEwen’s son, Joey, from the trailer where he had been sleeping, before the who rig burned to the ground. Rahn Tobler and Connie Kalitta got him transferred to a Michigan burn ward and Lynn Prudhomme [Don’s wife] got him home to Southern California, where he spent months recovering.]
“I didn’t come back until Indy because I had skin grafts wasn’t supposed to work on the car. I left over that winter -– Tom and I had a falling out over some things –- and didn’t see eye to eye for a couple of years. He apologized to me and I’m all about friendships and life, so we moved on past it and we’ve been great friends ever since.”
The Indy win:
“I didn’t think we were going to go because we’d just lost Jamie. I thought he didn’t want to go, but he told me ‘Jamie wants us to go to Indy and beat “the Snake” ‘–- and Jamie loved 'the Snake' –- and I thought, ‘OK, we’ll go do our best,' and the rest of it just played into our wheelhouse.’
“Billy Bones, who with Skip Hess owned Mongoose BMX bikes and a chain of Sizzler restaurants, funded Tom’s world. Earlier that year, he bought us a complete new motor and drivetrain. We ran pretty well but we had one motor and ‘Snake’ had three. We ran the engine at Indy but he also bought us that 4.30 [rear-end], which ended up doing exactly what he thought it would for the car. He was the genius behind the rear end gear.
[Prudhomme and McEwen were on a collision course for the final; the only problem for McEwen and crew was that “the Snake” was running fives and 6.0 and “the ‘Goose” was in the six-teens. They caught a break when Ron Colson, driving for Roland Leong, crossed the centerline on a second-round bye, giving McEwen, his otherwise scheduled opponent, a bye in the semi’s. With nothing to lose, Galvin bolted in the stiffer gear.]
“We took the bad lane and went up for a planned halftrack shutoff just to see what it would do. We got after it a little bit and it carried the [front] wheels as far as he drove. We looked at each other amazed it would go down that lane like that. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain, knowing ‘Snake’ would have lane choice and we could give him a race in the bad lane and the rest is history.
“It was hot and we thought ‘Snake’ would run a mid-.0 so that’s what we tried to do. And ‘Mongoose’ was the king of ‘I’ll drive it different this time; I’ll leave on him.’ I never thought [Prudhomme] would smoke the tires, everything worked out according to plan, which is surreal. It’s surprising to me how big that is today. ‘Mongoose’ was totally jacked about going to Indy this year for the 40th anniversary of that race. We talked about it all the time."
“He was so more than what people thought. If you didn’t know him you’d have no idea how smart he was. No one could make a Corvette work before him and he talked to [a team that ran Corvettes in another motorsports series] and found out about the aerodynamics. He had the first spill plates anyone ever ran [that kept the air on the short rear deck; the key to its success].
“He was instrumental in a lot safety equipment, like the breather mask and parachutes. He had a lot to do with a lot of things and I don’t think he got a lot of credit for all of the things that he touched."
A man of many words
“He was incredible with words; he could say the funniest things. We ran Dragway 42 one time, which was a short track with an uphill shutoff with a guardrail across the end. The ‘chute didn’t come out and he ended underneath the guardrail up to the injector. I ran up the hill, stuck my head in the window, and he’s sitting there. His helmet and facemask already off and looks and me and says to me and ‘Okie’ [crewman Steve Bernd], ‘You [expletive] butchers have done it to me this time. I knew you guys wanted a vacation but I never knew it would come to this.’ He had lots of comments like that; he was quite the character.”
A tough year
“Dee Gannt, Dale Emery, Steve Plueger, and ‘the Mongoose.’ All people I had 40 years of friendships with and talked to weekly, and now they’re all gone in a year.
“The only thing I can do is go into the memory mode. How lucky was I? I was the kid who in school who had all the pictures on his wall and told my mom I was going to beat ‘Snake’ at Indy and she was like June Cleaver -– ‘Of course you will, Pat, of course you will.’ And then you do and I had to run to pay phone to call her that I really did it. He was close with our families, our wives, our children. We all just had dinner with him -- the Kuhls, the Procks, my family, and some others; 15 of us went to Dana Point and had a nice dinner.
“I’m missing his calls already.”
Tom Prock became and remained one of McEwen’s closest friends. The former driver of the Custom Body Enterprises and the Detroit Tiger machine with fellow Michigander Poncho Rendon (and father of current-day wunderkind tuner Jimmy Prock), shared garage space with McEwen on “the Mongoose’s” trips back east and, once his racing days were just about over, he rode to the rescue after McEwen lost his entire rig in that fatal 1979 accident.
“I heard about the accident and called up and told me he was out of business. I was done with match racing so I got my truck and trailer and me, Jimmy, and Joey Oster, who used to work for ‘Jungle’ [Jim Liberman] drove out to California and helped him get his old car out of mothballs and put it together for him and took it to Englishtown, I stayed with him for five or six years.” (That's Tom, in the foreground at right, with the Coors crew.)
“I met him at Logghe Stamping Company. He had just bought the direct-drive Candies & Hughes car and he went to Capitol Raceway with it. I pulled into the lot in the morning and he was there, sleeping in his truck, That’s where we met and we hit it off right away and have been friends ever since.
“Losing him is a shocker. I just had dinner with him Monday. My phone’s been ringing off the hook. He was just a terrific guy and true and great friend.”
Richard Tharp knew McEwen from back in their shared Top Fuel days in the mid-1960s and raced against each other in both classes, especially when Tharp started wheeling the Blue Max and other top Funny Cars in the early 1970s.
"I just saw him in Houston, where we were both there for the Legends Tour," he said. "It was just like the good old days, giving each other a lot of crap. It was just the same old 'Goose. When I was with the Max, me and him and 'Snake' and Schumacher's group and Chi-Town all traveled together and stayed in the same hotels. We had a great time. He was a lot of fun. He's probably the wittiest guy I've ever met in my life. The things he could come up with instantly were amazing.
"He was a damn good racer, too, and no one ever had a bad thing to say about him. We all loved him."
McEwen had a lot of buddies from his racing days, other drivers and crewmen, but his constant companion for decades has been Pete Ward, a one-time fan who partnered with drag racing photo great Jim Kelly in the 1970s to sell race coverage to magazines –- Pete’s word, Jim’s photos -– and met all the stars along the way, which led in 1982 to him handling McEwen’s merchandise sales. He accompanied McEwen everywhere he went, helping him with travel, rooming together on the road, and being a confidant for the racing star he idolized as a fan. Pete knew him in ways many of us never did.
Our call was long and poignant, with Pete fighting back tears many times throughout at the memories of his friend.
“Tom had a larger-than-life persona, but that was in business. When it came down to him as a person later in life, he kept more to himself, he didn’t go to the bars with guys -– truth is, even when he had the Coors sponsorship for so many years, he never ever drank a can of Coors -– and I think that made people think he was standoffish, but he really wasn’t. He was just a private guy, but he cared about everyone.
“That ‘Mother Goose’ name? He earned. When we were on the road he’d call the guys: ‘Have you done your laundry? Don’t be out too late. Do you really think you should be dating that girl?’
“He helped so many people. He got Jim White the ride with Roland [Leong]. He got Johnny West a ride with Roland. I can’t tell you how many guys he got jobs for. He got Jimmy [Prock] hooked up with Joe Amato. Guys like Tony and Cruz Pedregon would call him for advice. He never made a big deal about it. He just liked helping people. He was just a good guy, a great human being. He was honest, he was honorable, and I never saw him screw anyone over.
“You hear a lot about athletes getting involved with causes, and most likely if an athlete goes into a Boy’s Town or whatever, there’s a camera crew. Tom never made a big deal about it but, honest to God, any time we were in a town that had any kind of hospital that had a cancer ward –- especially a child’s cancer ward -– Tom would make a point to go visit. He still worked with the cancer society and the leukemia society, all these years after Jamie’s death, just to make sure it was OK. He didn’t want any attention, no press.
“We’d take a basket of Hot Wheels and just be there with them. He felt a connection to these kids and their parents. If you’re a parent whose kid is underdoing all these procedures and seeing all of these doctors, and you’re just inundated with information, and Tom would talk to the parents and try to help them assimilate the information and what it means to their kids, based on his own experience and because he kept up on all of the latest medical information. That was just something he did because he wanted to reach out to these kids.
“When my wife had an accident at work and had a lingering illness in 2004, Tom was with me through that. When his mom died, I was one of the pallbearers at her funeral. We’ve just been a big part of each other’s lives. I’m going to miss him more than I can ever imagine right now.”
I talked to John Force three or four times early this week as he struggled to find the words he wanted to share. It was clear that McEwen meant more to him than any of us could ever imagine. He and I talked openly and emotionally about their relationship, but he wanted his thoughts clear and to say exactly what he wanted to say. He knows he can ramble, and it meant a lot to him to get it right. He asked if I would wait for a prepared statement, which I did, and which is presented below.
Although the Sunday death of Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen at age 81 reverberated throughout the sport of drag racing, it hit few harder than it did John Force, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion. Force spoke at length with his PR representatives Elon Werner and Dave Densmore to collect his thoughts and feelings about McEwen. This is what he wanted us to share with the NHRA community.
As recently as three to four weeks ago, McEwen had called Force to talk about a recent spate of engine explosions and crashes that had left the Hall of Fame team owner and driver battered, bruised and besieged.
The conversation was typically candid. “Force,” McEwen said, “are you trying to kill yourself? Let’s talk, call me.” It was the kind of conversation in which the two had engaged in for more than 40 years.
“He could do that,” Force said. “I know, I don’t listen like I should because I’m always too busy talking about my kids or my sponsors or something else, but I would always listen to Mongoose. He’d be honest. If he thought I was screwing up, he’d tell me. Sometimes it would piss me off but when I thought about it, he was usually right. He didn’t pull any punches. He knew the life.”
Without McEwen’s vision and his expertise not only as a driver, but as a “marketer and hustler,” Force said the sport never would have become what it is today in his opinion. When McEwen partnered with Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and enticed Mattel Toys in 1970 to create the “Snake and Mongoose” Hot Wheels cars, it changed the sport’s landscape, transforming it from club sport to mass appeal sport.
“He was a hustler,” Force said. “He was the first marketeer [in drag racing]. Kenny Bernstein and Raymond Beadle, they sold the sport to corporate America, but Mongoose in my opinion was the first. He was the one who showed the way,” said Force.
“He was one of the guys who taught me how to chase money and that the sponsors always had to be taken care of,” Force said. “Back in the early days he taught me how to talk to the racetrack promoters and what they really expected of me as a race car driver. Tracks like Irwindale, Orange County, Seattle Bakersfield, Fremont and Phoenix. They wanted a showman, a fast talker, tire smoking, hot cars, and story teller, and he was the king. He would always tell me like it was and I’m telling you, he was the PT Barnum of drag racing. When I won my first round at an NHRA event in Baton Rouge, all he said was “Johnny boy, I’m proud of you”.
“Drag racing never would be where it is right now without the Mongoose. My kids would never have the kind of opportunities they have, or the lives they live. It’s very emotional for me because I’m losing all my heroes Gene Beaver, Keith Black, Joe Pisano, Raymond Beadle, [Dale] Armstrong,[Steve] Plueger, and now Mongoose.
“I know (death is) going to happen to all of us, we ain’t getting out of this alive. But this one is really hard because, to me, ‘the Mongoose’ was invincible. He loved drag racing, he loved the fans and he loved life. He would come to my shows for hours and sign for the fans. When I was 16 at Lions dragstrip, I knew that all I wanted was to race but I knew it was impossible. But when I saw Hot Wheels with 'Snake' and 'the Mongoose' years later, I saw that you really could make a living in this sport. ‘Mongoose’ put us on the map.”
“We all learned from him and right to the end he was still so big in the sport. People who never heard of John Force know about 'the Snake' and 'the Mongoose.' That’s how big they were. I was emotional after hearing of his passing while at Richmond, because the Mongoose was a racer that took care of so many including me. He loved the sport, he loved his family, he loved his friends, he loved his fans and NHRA drag racing.”
“I realized something that I had missed. I never said I loved him, but I always did.”
And, at last, we come to me. It is my column after all. As I said in the opening, this one was hard. I loved Tom McEwen. Growing up, playing with their Hot Wheels cars, rooting at the races, I was a hardcore “Snake” guy. Still am. I love chatting with Prudhomme on the phone, BS-ing about the latest goings on, or just calling to say "Hey.” Like Couch and Galvin, somehow I became a friend to the guys I idolized as a kid. Amazing.
It was John Raffa, my late, great mentor here at ND – a veteran of drag racing writing while I was still in diapers -– who really clued me into the ‘Goose. They were buddies for a long time, and I remember going with him, in early 1987, to a little press junket that McEwen staged before the Winternationals, inviting a bunch of us to dinner over in the San Fernando Valley; not exactly close to Pomona, but we all went. He gave us all swag bags before that was really a thing, including a handsome leather-covered notebook -– with one of his cloisonné pins embedded. I still have it.
Somewhere along the way, and I can’t exactly pinpoint when, but McEwen started “Mother Goose-ing” me. He’d call and see how I was doing. He loved to call me to make sure I’d heard that latest pit-area news. Who had a deal coming. Who just got fired. He never wanted to be named as a source, just to point me in the right direction, because a lot of the stuff was maybe minutes old. He was dialed in to the grapevine. I owe a lot of scoops to him.
He called me “Philly” -– not because I was from Philadelphia, of course; he just liked the way it sounded –- or, lately, “kid,” even though I’m well into my 50s.
I always knew I could pick up the phone and ask him anything. He was invaluable many times for this column when I needed to know how something really was in the 1960s or ‘70s –- I loved his contributions to my On The Road Again column –- and always made the time.
A few years ago, while Prudhomme was still getting all the ink for being a team owner, some people forgot about the ‘Goose, especially because he was not racing anything after the ’57 Chevy. I got real paranoid and wanted to give him another moment in the sun, which I was able to do in a very thorough interview in National Dragster, where I got the chance to ask him all the questions I’d be mad at myself for never asking if we lost him. I should share that sometime. It was some good stuff.
My autographed copy of the book that he and Pete Ward and Randy Fish put out a few years ago -– Mongoose: The Life and Times of Tom McEwen –- is a cherished keepsake, and should be must reading for anyone who was a “Mongoose” fan.
I saw him a lot the last couple of years as it seemed like he was at NHRA HQ at least once a month. He became a real friend and ally to many of NHRA’s top execs -– guys like current president Glen Cromwell -– and quickly became our go-to guy for the current NHRA Legends Tour. Earlier this year, Glen and ‘Goose and NHRA live-events whiz Evan Jonat went to breakfast together, hashing out the program over omelets. As Glen and Evan watched, I’m sure a bit chagrined, McEwen and I went venue-by-venue to suggest racers in that region who might attend the event. It was great fun for me to compare notes and who-lives-where ideas with him.
I hung out with him a bit in Houston, where he was one of the legends on hand, he and Pete manning a booth behind the tower, greeting fans like they were old friends, and I saw him just a week or two ago, before his operation.
We all knew that he had health issues. He had put on some weight and had heart issues, and I guess I always feared that I’d get the call Monday that I did. It came from Glen as I was driving home on the 605 freeway from LAX after returning from that weekend’s race Richmond. Just as I’ll never forget where I was when I heard that Elvis Presley had died, I’ll never be able to pass that spot on the freeway without thinking of Tom.
Earlier this year, at Pomona, I got up the nerve to ask for another photo with both of them. I’m not a big “fanboy” who runs around getting autographs and posing for photos with the famous people I meet, but something told me I needed this one. I’m glad I got it because, well, you just never know and, again, I’d be mad if I had the chance and missed it.
The two had been guests at the NHRA holiday party in 2012, where I got my 30-year anniversary watch from NHRA. You’re allowed to give a brief speech and although I didn’t come with anything memorized, I remember standing on the stage, and seeing them in the front row, and launching into an emotional ramble about them and what they meant to me as a kid and what they meant to me today. I’m glad I got to do that, too.
We had a scare with McEwen two years ago, when he wasn’t feeling right and, against all of his well-known despair of doctors, he went to the hospital and saved his own life. He ended up getting a pacemaker --“a new fuel pump,” he told me in an interview we did –- and I listened to the tape of that interview earlier this week. It was bittersweet to hear the voice I’ll never hear again in the end of the phone.
I had told him how worried I had been when I heard the news and that it was relief to talk to him again. We chatted for a while about this and that and as we got ready to hang up, he thanked me for checking up on him and said, “You’re a good friend, kid.” Listening now to him say that brought tears to my eyes.
So were you, ‘Goose, to many of us. Thank you. We love you.
This column was supposed to end there, but then I was woken Thursday morning by a phone call at 1 a.m., and you know that those are never good things. Just a few days before Father's Day, it was my mom calling to tell me that my stepfather, Lee, had passed away. I've written about him before and what he meant to me as a kid. My biological father had died when I was nine, and when my mom remarried, Lee became a father to me, and taught me all of the "guy stuff" I needed to know, Tom McEwen was like the incredible uncle and Lee was like a dad., so it's been a tough week. I'm going to miss them both, probably more than I can even fathom right now, but as someone told me recently, don't mourn for the time you're not going to have with them, celebrate the time that you did. I will.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]