NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Legendary NHRA car owner Roland Leong, "the Hawaiian," passes away

Legendary NHRA team owner Roland Leong, known far and wide for a string of beautiful Top Fuel and Funny Cars emblazoned with the name The Hawaiian in tribute to his birthplace, passed away Dec. 29.
29 Dec 2023
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Legendary NHRA team owner Roland Leong, known far and wide for a string of beautiful Top Fuel and Funny Cars emblazoned with the name The Hawaiian in tribute to his birthplace, passed away Dec. 29. He was 79.

Leong was a successful gas dragster driver in Hawaii and a mild celebrity on the islands, but left his native Hawaii to come to California in the early 1960s and got work at the famed Dragmasters chassis building emporium near San Diego. Leong’s Dragmaster-built rail was driven to the Top Gas victory at the 1964 Winternationals by future motorsports legend Danny Ongais

Leong had ambitions of being a Top Fuel driver but infamously crashed at more than 191 mph the end of his first run, and his mentor, engine-building great Keith Black, suggested that he would be better off as a car owner and recommended that another growing legend, a young southern California car painter, Don Prudhomme, would be a good driver.

Prudhomme, who had already begun to gain a reputation as a great driver as the wheelman for the recently sidelined Black-tuned, Tommy Greer-owned Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, had met Leong earlier that year when the G-B-P toured Hawaii, and they had become fast friends.

They were an odd couple for sure, Leong, the son of well-off parents James and Teddy, who owned an insurance agency and a stake in a local hot rod shop where Roland worked, and Prudhomme already the savvy and battle-tested veteran of street and strip wars at age 23.

“I guess I always wanted a little brother,” Prudhomme once said. “He was just like me. All we cared about was drag racing and cars. Even though I had a lot more experience than him, I really felt like we were equals. I think he looked up to me a little more than I realized at the time, but it wasn’t like I was the boss or anything.”

Together they famously won the 1965 Winternationals and U.S. Nationals and even though they parted company before 1966 — Prudhomme to go out on his own and Leong to continue a growing legacy as a savvy car owner and tuner — they remained close friends right until Leong’s death. Leong had been in poor health the last couple of years and Prudhomme visited him the day before his passing, and the two spent a long afternoon together reminiscing.

“He was my buddy, my brother,” said Prudhomme. “There’s probably no one in this sport that I was closer to than Ro. I'm so sorry to see him go, but at least he's no longer suffering. I'm going to miss him.”

Leong continued to have success after Prudhomme – duplicating those Winternationals and U.S. Nationals victories in 1966 with new driver Mike Snively – but switched to Funny Cars in 1969 and was immediately successful there as well, winning the Winternationals back to back in 1970 and ’71 with drivers Larry Reyes and Butch Maas.

Leong’s Funny Cars, with beautiful paint schemes and The Hawaiian name often lettered in faux bamboo letters, was an immensely popular draw on the match-race circuit in the 1970s and ‘80s with a litany of drivers including Bobby Rowe, Leroy Chadderton, Gordie Bonin, Mike Van Sant, Denny Savage, Norm Wilcox, Larry Arnold, Ron Colson, Mike Dunn, Rick Johnson, Johnny West, and Jim White.

“It was an experience; for the age we were, it was a helluva experience,” said Leong. “We saw a lot of the country, and after we’d been on the road for so long, we got to know people in almost every town, and we’d do something with them whether it was to go to their house for dinner or go out and do things with them. For me, it was the experience of a lifetime.”

Leong even reunited with Prudhomme during his Final Strike tour of 1994 and a few years later served as a crew chief for budding class superstar Ron Capps and would enjoy a resurgence in popularity and admiration over the last two decades as one of the preeminent tuners in the Nostalgia Funny Car wars of the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series.

He received many honors in his career, most recently being inducted into the Hawaii Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Look for more on Leong’s career in the Dragster Insider column Jan. 5.