NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

An all-star turnout as friends and family celebrated the life of Roland Leong

On the Thursday before the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, nearly 500 friends, family, and hot-rodding compatriots of legendary car owner and tuner Roland Leong gathered at the Lions Automobilia Foundation and Museum in Southern California for a celebration of his life.
29 Mar 2024
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Roland Leong Celebration of Life

It’s a sad but real truism that you'll probably never really know just how appreciative people are of your efforts and friendship or how deeply you're admired until you’ve left us, because we all invariably forget to say those things before it's too late, until people we love and respect are being mourned, their lives memorialized, and great stories are being shared about how they touched our lives.

If all of that is true — and I believe it to be — then Roland Leong must surely be among the most revered figures that drag racing has ever known.

On the Thursday before the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, nearly 500 friends, family, and hot-rodding compatriots of the legendary car owner and tuner gathered at the Lions Automobilia Foundation and Museum in Southern California for a celebration of his life.

Hosted by Rick Lorenzen and staff at their shrine to the fabled West Coast drag racing Valhalla, and organized by the Prudhomme family — Don, Lynn, and Donna — it brought out a mix of both old and new faces from the sport and the industry, as well as a large group of Leong’s family, to honor “the Hawaiian,” who passed away Dec. 29 at age 79.

I’ve been to a few of these mega gatherings, most recently after the passing of Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen in 2018. Still, I can’t say that I’ve seen such a wide spectrum of attendees as I did at Roland’s farewell, a testament to his long involvement in the sport and those whom he befriended, assisted, and encouraged, a collection that extended well after his car-owning and car-tuning days ended.

As I filed into the venue with my car-pool buddies — NHRA President Glen Cromwell and fellow high-ranking NHRA execs Ned Walliser and John Siragusa — there was, of course, a sign staked out front with Roland’s photo on it, and I couldn’t help but chuckle, remembering a day in April, 13 years ago, when it was Prudhomme who was being honored with a surprise 70th birthday party at the NHRA Motorsports Museum. Incredibly, through the planning and invitation phase, “Snake’s” family and everyone on the invite list somehow kept it a secret from him.

Even as the Prudhommes approached the museum doors where a crowd had gathered that night, the surprise was kept intact as the sign pictured here was posted out front, advertising it as a private, invitation-only party celebrating Leong, and, in fact, Prudhomme had even seen fake flyers advertising the Leong tribute. After the surprise-party shock had worn off, Prudhomme had joked at the time at the expense of his longtime pal that he was a little surprised to see that so many people had turned out to honor Leong.

But “the Snake” certainly couldn't have been surprised this time at the size of the turnout for a real affair honoring Leong, an event that was so popular that many requests had to be turned away due to fire department regulations.

This great shot of the Leong-driven gas dragster that he had was one of many played on a video loop throughout the show

"I was totally blown away,” he told me earlier this week, just before he and daughter Donna got on an airplane to fly to Hawaii for another celebration with additional Leong family. “People really loved him. He's been around since the early days, and he was there through so much of drag racing history and people followed the Hawaiian, but it's pretty amazing the friendships he's had for so long with so many people.

“Lynn was very involved in the show with Roland's daughters, but without Lana's [Chrisman] help. it would never have happened. They just opened the doors for us, and they were amazing. Everybody just went out of their way. It just kept growing. One day they told me, 'It's 100 people,' and then the next day, it was 200, then 300. I'm just thankful that it all came off. It was a big undertaking.”

The pre-celebration mixer, held as we were surrounded by the millions of dollars worth of rare cars accumulated by museum founder Rick Lorenzen and the incredible dioramas and faux Lions starting line, was incredible. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into a familiar or famous face.

Richard Tharp, Don Prudhomme, and Ed Pink

Linda Vaughn and the Lions Museum's Rick Lorenzen

Aftermarket legend Ed Iskenderian. Nitro engine maestros Ed Pink and Steve Montrelli. Bob Brandt. Donnie Couch. Pat Galvin. Former Hawaiian drivers Mike Dunn, Johnny West, and Rick Johnson. Renowned chassis builders Don Long and Steve Davis. John Force. Ron and Jon Capps. Richard Tharp. Brad Anderson. Larry Dixon. Carl Olson. Marvin Graham. Robert “Bones” Balogh. Warren Gunter (of Durachome Bug fame). Bob Muravez. Steve Levy. Danny Thompson. Simon Menzies. Former NHRA Vice Presidents Graham Light, Steve Gibbs, and Mike Lewis. Cindy Gibbs. Former Orange County Int’l Raceway/Firebird Int’l Raceway owner Charlie Allen and Lynn Rose. Harry Hibler. Glenn Menard. “Techno Tim” Gibson. Jr. Fuel great Jimmy Ige. Famed motorsports artists Kenny Youngblood and James Ibusuki. Tim Boychuk (whose Nostalgia Funny Car was one of many that Leong tuned). Mark Pawuk. Mike McClelland (son of late, great announcer Dave McClelland). There were so many people and friends that I actually lost count, so I apologize if I saw you and didn’t include you here. It was also good to see Linda Vaughn, looking hale and hearty (and, as always, huggable) after some recent medical woes.

Hawaiian-print shirts, old Hawaiian race-car T-shirts and crew uniforms, and leis were part of the attire for many in attendance.

Prudhomme, Ron Capps, Mike Dunn, Steve Gibbs, Pat Galvin, and Donnie Couch

Roland's longtime love, Susie Sue

Leong's family was touched by the outpouring of love and respect for Roland

And it wasn’t just the old-time drivers and manufacturers, as a large number of recent and current crew chiefs and crewmembers were also on hand, including fellow Hawaiian Todd Okuhara, one of many people whom Roland helped along the way, plus tuning luminaries such as Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Tom Buckingham from Ron Capps’ team, plus Kalitta Motorsports' Chad Head, as well as Glenn Mikres, David Fletcher, and Brian Vanetti. Antron Brown tuner and former Top Fuel and Funny Car driver Mark Oswald was there, and it was fun to listen to him and Tharp, both driving alums from the Candies & Hughes team, compare notes about Leonard Hughes, just as it was fun to hear Dunn and West share their tales about racing with Leong.

Lou Hart, who recently completed a book about Leong, was there, as was Prudhomme biographer Elana Scherr, and Auto Imagery’s Richard Shute captured the great images you see here. Darr Hawthorne was collecting one-on-one video tributes with some of the guests to be part of the video that the museum will post on its YouTube page in the near future.

Jack Beckman, as usual, did a wonderful job as emcee

Emceed by “Fast Jack” Beckman, the affair had a number of wonderful guest speakers, including Larry Reyes (via video), Ron Capps (for whom Leong tuned on Prudhomme’s car in 1997), Dunn, Galvin, Couch, Gibbs, and Leong’s daughters Lani and Rolanda. (Couch, of course, had to sneak in one of his spot-on Prudhomme impersonations.) Throughout the group’s speeches, the topic of family repeatedly came up, for it seemed the world was Roland’s family, including those of us in attendance. This column got a pleasant shoutout from Beckman, who pondered aloud if I could take a guess at how many Hall-of-Famers were in the audience. (I would have said more than 100.)

Mike Dunn was hilarious, recounting his Leong stories and fencing with Ron Capps about who was Leong's "best" driver

Leong's daughters, Lani and Rolanda, shared their insights about Roland Leong, father

But the one we all came to hear was, of course, “the Snake” himself, who met Leong in the early 1960s when they were both just young bucks, and with whom he formed a lifelong bond as tight as any brothers.

Prudhomme, long known for being the epitome of cool, was choked up and moved to tears as he spoke of his longtime pal, and the years they raced together, and all of the success that they enjoyed. Prudhomme was at Roland's bedside not long before he passed, and he was thankful they had those last moments together.

“It was the toughest thing I've ever had to do,” he confided to me Wednesday of speaking at the event. “I don't think I've ever been that emotional. It just really hit me.”

It was a very touching moment on a very touching night celebrating one of our best, and a racer whose contributions have long resounded in the sport, from giving Prudhomme one of his biggest breaks, to the 20 drivers he hired (and fired) over the years, and all of the people whose careers and lives were better for being touched by “the Hawaiian.”

On the back of the event program for the service was this beautiful passage:

Aloha means farewell to thee
Aloha means Good-Bye;
It means until we meet again
Beneath a tropic sky.
Aloha means Good Morning
And always to be true,
But the best thing that Aloha means
is I love you.

For all of those reasons, let me say from all of us, Aloha, Roland.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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