A Visit to the Snake Pit

Jul 30, 2012

Editor’s note: With the efforts of Project 1320 and other initiatives aimed at preserving and celebrating what many refer to as the heyday of drag racing’s modern era, interest in the sport’s history is peaking. When friends and fans gathered at Don Prudhomme’s museum-type shop in Vista, Calif., for an open house car show and get-together, it provided an opportunity to swap stories and catch up with the man they call the Snake. Having retired from the NHRA scene as a team owner going on three years now, Prudhomme has been keeping plenty busy with personal appearances as well as doing vehicle restorations with help from his longtime employee Willie Wolter. More information is available at www.snakeracing.com

Don Prudhomme became infatuated with cars while working at his Dad’s paint and body shop in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California in the 1950s.

As a young kid, he’d pitch in by helping to hold a bumper, tightening nuts and doing odd jobs. As he grew older, he started to sand cars and eventually tried his hand at paint work. He also had a paper route at age 14, and saved up for a small motorbike called a Mustang.

Unfortunately, soon afterward it was stolen out of the family garage, but he kept his spirits high and moved on, next getting a job mowing lawns, then feeding chickens and collecting eggs. For fun he and his best pal, Tom McCourry, would spend time at the Van Nuys Rainbow Roller Rink where he would race other kids on skates, his first real taste of competition.

A 1948 Mercury was his first car, soon replaced with a ’50 Olds and then a 1955 Buick. But the one that really got him started as a serious car fanatic was his ’27 Ford “T” Roadster, a hot rod he built on his own. It had a big-inch Buick V-8 Nailhead engine with six two-barrel carburetors sitting on top.

“When I was a kid in 1958, I had a T-Roadster with a Buick engine in it and just about had it finished up and I was at Bob’s Drive-In in Van Nuys and I was kind of a squirt and nobody really knew me,” he recalled for Jay Wells years back while writing a press kit in the 1980s. “There was this guy putting through the drive-in, he had a hot Oldsmobile. He was making a lot of noise and started pushing me around a little bit. I had just put lights on my ‘racing mobile.’ I had never done much street racing and I almost had my T-Roadster ready. We went to the shop on Oxnard Street and a bunch of people came to the shop because the guy had chosen me. I got that roadster out and fired it up. The car had open headers on it and I guess it was about 2 o’clock in the morning and we had the street blocked off and I raced this guy and smoked his ass off. That was my first real drag race that I remember.”

Hitting the Road

As it turned out, street racing was not the direction young Don Prudhomme was heading. During the late ’50s he joined a car club called the Road Kings of Burbank, and after a while got the chance to drive the club’s dragster.

Tagging along with Tommy Ivo, Prudhomme went on a nationwide tour in 1960, seeing the country and meeting famous drag racer Chris Karamesines.

Later that year, the then 19-year-old Prudhomme had built his own B/Dragster drag car and set a record of 9.10 seconds down the San Fernando quarter-mile. Next he hooked-up with Dave Zeuschel, who worked for C-T Automotive (Don Clark and Clem Tebow) and with his mechanical wizardry added to the mix, Prudhomme started to make a name for himself.

One day in 1962 after winning the prestigious March Meet in Bakersfield, Prudhomme received a phone call while at the shop of chassis builder Kent Fuller. The voice on the line identified himself as Keith Black, and he was asking Don to have lunch with him and Tom Greer, a bucks-up machinery shop owner. They wanted Prudhomme to drive a new, orange (later yellow) race car that came to be known as the “Greer-Black-Prudhomme” dragster.

The deal was for Prudhomme to do the driving, along with helping out with other chores (running errands, etc.) and for that he was to receive 50 percent of the winnings.

Next came an opportunity to drive for a young guy from Honolulu who had moved over to the mainland and built a stunningly beautiful blue dragster called the “Hawaiian” with the best-of-the-best from Keith Black Racing Engines.

The car owner was Roland Leong and he knew early on that if he combined a KB power plant and got a great driver in Prudhomme-who had by then picked up the nickname “Snake,” given to him by crew member Joe Purcell because of his starting-line quickness-there was a very good chance that the combination would win some drag races.

And win races it did. After earning a victory at the season-opening Winternationals in 1965, the two young guns went on tour and smoked ’em, scoring win after win with only two defeats, both to the Ramchargers dragster. The Hawaiian reportedly grossed about $65,000 during that year-however, unlike the previous deal Prudhomme had struck with the G-B-P entry, the majority of the winnings went to the car owner, Leong.

More to Prove

Besides having the desire to make more money racing, Prudhomme was also dealing with talk that Black’s engines were the reason he was winning so much. This talk really got under his skin-so much so that the very next year he quit the Hawaiian team and got a gig with his neighbor Bob Spar, who lived down the street from him in Granada Hills.

Prudhomme drove and ran the show with the B&M Torquemaster in a program where he could campaign the car all season to provide exposure to the automatic transmission business that Bob and his brother Don owned in Chatsworth, Calif.

During his year in the B&M car, reality set in for Prudhomme-he really didn’t know that much about engines and yes, he now realized that the engine was just as big a part of winning races as the driver!

So, with help from “Golden Greek” Karamesines while on the road, he started an all-out effort to learn what there was to learn about the inner workings of nitromethane as applied to the Chrysler Hemi engines.

Later Snake was fortunate enough to become the driver of a brand-new, unusual dragster-the Ford S.O.H.C. (single overhead camshaft) car called the Lou Baney-Brand Ford Special (that later became the Shelby Super Snake) before again setting up his own operation for 1969 with a Top Fuel car all his own.

Prudhomme’s career took another big step forward thanks to Carl Wynn, who listened to the driver’s request for support of his car. The result was a much-needed sponsorship deal with the Wynn’s Oil Co.

This was also a time that tested Prudhomme’s dedication to the sport. While racing side-by-side against fellow Top Fuel pilot Jim Nicoll, the clutch violently exploded in Nicoll’s car and the force of it blew the chassis into two pieces. The front section (including the engine) flew past Prudhomme after the finish line.

Nicoll, from Spring Valley (San Diego), Calif., was fine, but the incident prompted Prudhomme to briefly reexamine his chosen profession before carrying on.

Eventually, the Top Fuel cars switched to a rear-engine chassis configuration and things were much safer starting in the early 1970s.

Meet the Mongoose

Prudhomme did get away from running exclusively dragsters for the next year, 1970, and it was a positive move in his career, as well as foreshadowing of how things in the drag racing industry would change. An influx of major corporate sponsorships coming from outside the automotive world steered the next chapter of Prudhomme’s career.

Tom McEwen was a rival driver, but he and Prudhomme got along on a friendly basis. While the Snake had been given his name by another person, McEwen dreamed up his own nickname of “Mongoose” as a way to gain extra publicity for himself, claiming that he was like the animal in India, the mongoose, that was quick enough to catch and kill a snake.

The play between Snake and Mongoose allowed McEwen to approach the Mattel Toy Co., then located in Hawthorne, Calif., about sponsoring him and Prudhomme. He convinced Mattel to promote its new line of Hot Wheels die-cast cars (that McEwen knew about through his kids), and prior to the initial meeting he played up the “Snake and Mongoose” identification as the hook.

McEwen’s plan worked perfectly and he and Prudhomme assembled what was at the time the most lucrative two-car drag racing team in history. But Mattel wanted them driving the hot new Funny Car-type of cars, so much so that all the artwork the toy company provided at the first meeting featured them in Funny Cars and not dragsters.

When the deal was completed, the main backing of course came from Mattel. Added to the mix was financial support from the Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Plymouth, Pennzoil, Wynn’s, Goodyear, Champion Spark Plugs, Cragar Wheels and more.

In a few years after Mattel left racing, Snake would secure major support from the U.S. Army. This was also about the time that he stepped-up his on-track Funny Car performance to historic levels. Prudhomme won four consecutive NHRA Funny Car world championships from 1975-’78, won numerous AHRA national events as well and was the biggest draw on the Funny Car match race circuit. To say the Snake was dominant was the ultimate understatement.

Fast-forward to the end of the 1985 season. The sponsorship scene (Pepsi) wasn’t working out for Snake and there were problems with the crew. He was burned-out and wanted to take some time off, so there was no Don Prudhomme on the drag strip during 1986.

Fortunately, during his time away from the track, he was able to put together a deal with U.S. Tobacco to back his operation in a big way-the type of large support that allowed him to race in the all-out style he wanted.

He eventually retired as a driver in 1994, but kept on as a team owner, with the added responsibilities of running a multicar team. In 2001-’02, Snake Racing won back-to-back NHRA Top Fuel championships (Larry Dixon driver, Dick LaHaie crew chief), and he continued to win NHRA events with his drivers (including the hot rookie driver Spencer Massey during 2009) all the way to the end.

Lacking major sponsorship in preparation for the 2010 season, Prudhomme walked away from the sport after 47 years, ending a celebrated career that spanned five decades.

Not Gone nor Forgotten

When the NHRA named its Top 50 drag racers of all time, Prudhomme was listed at No. 3. Many say his impact on drag racing is immeasurable-for decades his name, whether it was Snake, Vipe or simply Prudhomme, was synonymous with not only NHRA drag racing but more importantly for him, winning those drag races.

At the top of his game as a team owner, Snake had three nitromethane cars on the circuit (Dixon T/F, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. F/C) and a racing budget between $9 and $10 million a year.

Today, his race car collection showcases examples of his historic rides that are so much a part of drag racing’s past. Included is a pair of ramp trucks faithfully restored to their former glory, which were showcased in the grand lobby of the SEMA Show a couple of years back. The trucks are the original Hot Wheels Dodge rigs that were used to haul the Mattel cars (his Barracuda, McEwen’s Duster) back in the early 1970s.

About the only car of significance from his past that Snake hasn’t gotten his hands on is his famed 1975-era Chevy Monza ARMY car. It had the #001 Keith Black aluminum Hemi block in it that powered him to an amazing 5.98-second run during the mid-1970s.

When the car was retired from competition (replaced by a revolutionary Plymouth Arrow that was a 247-mph winner right out of the gate, and with a body he and his crew developed way before there were Funny Cars in the wind tunnel) it was traded for a Ferrari at the end of its use and displayed in the Harrah’s auto museum for years. It is currently is in the National Automobile Museum, Gallery 4 in Reno, Nev.

(Snake says he’s tried more than once to get it back, but they don’t want to take it out of the collection.)

Signs of his success over the years ranged from owning his own business jet to attracting factory support throughout his career from all three major U.S. car manufacturers: GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Looking back, he says there was a time in 1962 when he got his picture on the cover of Drag News that he thought he had made it to the top. Thankfully, there was much more to come from a living legend they call the Snake.