It was a sweltering-hot night in north Texas, almost suffocating hot, and Don Prudhomme was elbow-deep in his car engine late into the night. He had that match race coming up in just hours, and he had to be prepared.
His sidekick, his nemesis, his racing partner -- Tom McEwen -- had other interests when the sun went down.
"As he would like to tell you," McEwen said, "I'd be in the motel with the blonde and he'd be out in the parking lot at three o'clock in the morning, honing his engine. And I'd open the door and ask him if he could keep the noise down a little bit."
And so it went, Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen inventing drag-racing lore as they went along, barnstorming the country with their Funny Cars. But this dynamic and distinctly different duo, this high-octane odd couple, weren't just Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen.
They were the much more dashing "Snake" and "Mongoose" with their Hot Wheels cars, triggering a marketing mania for Mattel and bringing some testosterone-laced romance to drag racing. Pied Pipers they were to a generation of boys who loved cars -- boys like Ron and Jon Capps, in whose heads swirled visions of being behind the wheels of those race cars, going breakneck speed, and outdoing the other. America was full of Ron and Jon Cappses.
The Snake and Mongoose . . . It was Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers against , well, not necessarily Gene Upshaw of the Oakland Raiders or Rayfield Wright of the Dallas Cowboys. It was more like Mean Joe Greene versus Carrot Top. They were Piers Morgan and Howie Mandel. Prudhomme was the icy-cool, smooth, ruthless racer, sending off "Drop dead" vibes, and McEwen was a racer skilled at his craft and sharp with his instincts who simply didn't take himself too seriously.
Today, as McEwen said he sees it, "He's Keith Richards and I'm Brad Pitt."
Whatever. Rock stars, movie stars . . . They were "It" in their time, icons of post-war pop culture, when drag racing was one of the coolest phenomena (back, by the way, in the days when nobody said "phenomena" and everybody said "coolest"). The Snake and The Mongoose and their real-live Hot Wheels cars, which reflected a reverse marketing spin-off, put drag racing on the map.
The Snake and The Mongoose did that. They were pioneers, although they didn't try to be that. All they wanted to do was race their cars. And for their efforts, for helping usher in the current landscape of easier economics and elevated stature for the sport, for not only their national-event victories and their championships but also their financial and professional inspiration, the National Hot Rod Association has showcased them as legends.
So when they were honorary starters last Sunday at Las Vegas and signed a thousand or more autographs at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they took time out to look backward and forward at their influences.
"We're a lot different," McEwen said. "He's much more serious, working on the car and all that. I liked to drive, but I didn't like working on the car so much."
Prudhomme, defending his obsession with his race-car engine that hot, sticky night in Texas decades ago, said, "It was 120 degrees, and I'm out there honing cylinder walls and he's peeking out the motel window with this blonde behind him, laughing at me. Guess who won that night."
Someone suggested that with a blonde in the motel room, it was advantage, Mr. McEwen.
The point is that, as McEwen said, "We've been at this a long time, and we feel that we brought a little but to the sport, helped it a little bit. We feel we've done good, and we've had a lot of fun doing it."
That's not entirely true. They helped the sport a lot.
Prudhomme said he prefers today's set-up to the "good old days," because, he said, "It's more professional. "Back then . . . oh, man . . . it was different. We were just fighting for our survival. Today guys can make a ton of money. It's a wonderful world, compared to what it used to be. It was pretty hard goings."
As the opposite force to Prudhomme, McEwen naturally said he liked the early days. "People were more friendly. We used to loan each other parts and engines, and we were more of a family. Today, since the money came along -- which is really good for everybody -- and the computer age and all the stuff they're doing, there's not as much of a friendliness anymore. The money causes that. Tune-ups, crew chiefs, guys, sponsorships . . . Everybody's trying to get the other guys' stuff. It's very professional now, and it’s neat to watch how fast they go, but to me, fun-wise . . .
"The first time we went on tour, 1968 or '9, it was just him and his wife and me by myself on the road and we just started going places. And we didn't have a big crew. We would get guys at the local tracks to help us. And we would just kind of go from track to track," McEwen said. "In those days, if you got $1,000 appearance money, that was big money in those days. You could build a car for $1,000."
Then, he said, "We got the Mattel thing and turned that around in '69 and they started the big corporate stuff that has gone on to be the big thing now."
Said Prudhomme, "That was Tom's idea. He had kids. He was married -- ahem . . . believe it or not. And he came to the shop one day and said, 'Hey -- My mom knows someone at Mattel. I'm going to go to Mattel and see about sponsorship with the Hot Wheels cars. I thought he was crazy. And he did. They said, 'Both you guys come back. We want to talk to you.' By the time we got back, they already had it drawn up, the cars. how they should look. It was the easiest sell in the world. It was just a perfect match. It was pretty much the first non-automotive sponsor in the sport.
"And people thought we were screwing up the sport. We were like the Middle East coming into drag racing," Prudhomme said.
McEwen said what inspired him to approach Mattel was the notion of kids having animals on the cars.
"I had an idea because of the animals, the Mongoose and the Snake. Hot Wheels started in 1965, and they were generic cars. I always thought with the kids that it'd be fun if they had cars with little animals on 'em. I thought they'd like that," he said.
"So I went to him [Prudhomme] and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'Well, they're probably going to throw us out. Try it and see.' We did, and they thought it was a great idea. Like he said, we went back and they had drawings. We've been with them ever since 1969, making cars. I think it helps keep us alive with all the kids growing up in the sport, playing with cars on the floor. And I think it's good."
Prudhomme put it in perspective: "You didn't have to have a major sponsor back then. We really made our living barnstorming around the country. We'd run four or five times a week. So a sponsor was a good thing to have, but [Tim] Beebe and [John] Mulligan and Jungle Jim Liberman, none of those guys really had sponsors."
The two did enjoy some corporate funding, Prudhomme with Wynns Oil ("the first real paid money I got and that was in '68, but it was small, compared to Mattel") and McEwen with Bardahl.
"That was just at the turning point of the sport, when it got so expensive," Prudhomme said.
Besides, who had time to make sales pitches and phone calls or do any homework regarding sponsorships?
"When we left town and we were on the road, we'd try to trace two, three, four times a week. The guy who was promoting us . . . We were in Maryland, and he'd say, 'Tomorrow you need to be in Rockford, Illinois.' We'd say, 'Well, that's 16 hours [of driving time]. And he'd say, 'Well, it's only an inch on the map.' We didn't have time. We were so tired, being up all night, looking for that Waffle House glow in the sky in the middle of the night, being hungry."
Today McEwen spends his time with a different kind of horsepower: quarter-horses. And Prudhomme is exploring his longtime interest in open-wheel racing, working with Chip Ganassi (who rents his shop space in Brownsburg for two of his four IZOD IndyCar Series entries, those of drivers Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal). Prudhomme said he's trying to put together a deal for an entry in next May's Indianapolis 500.
But they have the satisfaction of knowing they made a difference in the sport they loved. They helped make drag racing safer.
"In the early days, we did a lot for these guys safety-wise. He and I brought the fire extinguisher to drag racing. We did the spoilers, the safety equipment, Simpson, Goodyear Tire," McEwen said. "We brought a lot to the sport that these guys here are getting the benefit from it."
The sport overall has gotten the benefit of The Snake and The Mongoose.
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