MONGOOSE M.I.A. IN GAINESVILLE, SNAKE CARRIES TORCH
If longtime drag-racing fans ever forgot the scene at the U.S. Nationals when Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen scored an upset final-round victory over Don “The Snake” Prudhomme days after losing his young son Jamie to leukemia, they had a movie to remind them how Snake crawled up under McEwen’s raised body at the top end and shared a poignant moment with his pal. What no one else but Prudhomme got to see was the last one they ever had.
Prudhomme received a phone call one morning last June at his home near San Diego and learned that McEwen had passed away in his sleep.
“I was shocked,” Prudhomme said. “I had just talked with him the day before. I jumped in my car and drove over to his place in Orange County and went upstairs in his bedroom,” Prudhomme said. “And there he was. I just wanted to see him one more time. I just spent some time with him. It was a sad moment. To this day I have a hard time dealing with it, because I want to pick up the phone and call him about some bulls--- deal I heard or something.
“We would always be on the phone together. He would even call me and tell me about stuff that was going on in my own shop, rumors. He always had my back,” Prudhomme said. Their friendship, he said, “meant everything to me. It was tough to lose him. It was very hard.”
Prudhomme had planned to have his sidekick right alongside him this weekend, regaling fans and media and the NHRA’s other legends with tales of the macho and mischievous, the daring and dopey. Gainesville Raceway was going to be McEwen’s stage. Prudhomme was prepared to sit back and be a fan of The Mongoose – unless he had to correct McEwen for saying “The Mongoose and The Snake” rather than the other way around.
“Like I told him, he had the mouth and I had the performance. I was just driven to win, and he wasn’t exactly that way. So we made a good team. He was a good mouthpiece, and I would cover the performance side of things, pretty much. He would lose a race and it was no big deal. Maybe inside it’d piss him off. But I showed my emotions, and he didn’t. And Tom, he was a little different with his money. He spent it on girls and jewelry.”
Lest anyone think they had a continual lovefest, The Snake and The Mongoose were like their namesakes, quarreling and sounding like enemies half the time – or, according to promoter extraordinaire Bill Doner, like a couple of immature junior high school kids.
“We were just like brothers,” Prudhomme said. “We fought like hell. We didn’t agree. We were totally different personalities. We were totally racing for different reasons. We were complete opposites.”
However, if anyone interfered with one of them, the other would attack the attacker and defend the other. “When it came time for that true friendship, he was always there for me, and I was always there for him.”
Ever since they met at Southern California’s Lions Dragstrip in the late 1950s, “we became instant friends. He just stuck to me like glue. We were just hooked at the hip,” Prudhomme said. “I was painting cars in the San Fernando Valley, and he’d drive out there. He wasn’t big on working; he just raced. And he’d drive out there to hang out at lunchtime. I don’t know, man, we just had a great time until the time he passed away. We worked together on pretty much every project. We still had deals going with Hot Wheels. Fifty years later, here we are.”
McEwen enjoyed being a mentor and helping others. (“He paid for more gold necklaces and boob jobs than anyone on the planet,” Prudhomme said.) “When we lost him, everybody who knew Tom knew he wasn’t exactly on a diet. He always had advice for everybody else how to take care of themselves. But he wasn’t so good on doing that himself. Yeah, absolutely, he liked being a mentor – on their personal life and everything – and his life was more screwed up than everybody’s. He’d tell you what you should eat and what you shouldn’t eat – and then he’d slip away for a cheeseburger.”
And together they made history, not just on the track but in the boardroom. “There were people who said we ruined the sport, brining in money like that,” he said of the Hot Wheels sponsorship deal that McEwen masterminded with Mattel. Tom was really thinking out of the box when he was able to get Hot Wheels to come in and join us. It completely changed the sport. I give a lot of credit to him.”
That same Corporate America tint to drag racing turned around and bit him in 2008. “I was caught not having a sponsor and we had four months to put [another] deal together. Companies were closing up left and right. Those were difficult years, 2007 and 2008. A lot of people went broke, and I didn’t plan on going broke. So I just closed up the shop. It’s as simple as that. I just stopped. I didn’t have another source of income. Also, I was at the age it was time for me to retire and start thinking about the rest of my life instead of one quarter-mile at a time.”
Another special person Prudhomme wishes could be at Gainesville to celebrate this race’s 50th edition is NHRA founder Wally Parks.
“He was kind of like my dad, in a way,” Prudhomme said. “He would scold me if he’d see I was out of line. He’d give me a call or set me straight on a lot of issues as I was coming up. He was as proud as punch of me. In 1989, we won at the U.S. Nationals – won the race, won the Bud Shootout, set records, did all kinds of stuff. After winning, I’m pulling in down at the end, and the first guy I could see was Wally Parks through the window of my car. There he was, standing with this big smile. I got out of my car – didn’t even take my helmet off – and gave him a big hug. He hugged me. He was as proud as punch of me. I know he was.
“And I was proud of him. He created amazing things,” he said. “He used to tell me that people were pissing and moaning about not making enough round money and not doing this and that. He said, ‘You know, Don, we didn’t start the NHRA to make people millionaires. We started to get kids off the street.’ That’s what he was all about until the day he passed away. He was all about the young racers and getting them organized and getting them off the streets.”
So Prudhomme has come to Gainesville for the 50th Gatornationals without his best friend and his father figure. But today he’s like a second father to young Top Fuel driver Austin Prock, who has a certain throwback sense of breezy brashness about him like a young Prudhomme, perhaps.
And where is Snake? Probably slipping off to have a cheeseburger in honor of The Mongoose.