SNAKE BACK IN THE SADDLE FOR DESERT MARATHON
Don’t even consider that, at age 80, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme is too old for off-road racing.
And not just a little off-road action, but a lot.
Later this month, Prudhomme will compete in the NORRA Mexican 1000, a 1,000-mile race contested over five days. It will be his third consecutive outing in the marathon test; last year’s event was scratched due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prudhomme’s first attempt at such a race came in 1968 when he was chosen to drive a car owned by actor Steve McQueen when the latter’s movie-making schedule had to take priority. The engine burned up before the car ever got to the course.
In the years since Prudhomme never lost his desire to test his mettle in the Mexican outback. He’s back this year, along with navigator/co-driver Rich Minga, hoping to greatly improve on his 16th-place finish of 2019.
This year, Prudhomme will be competing in the Modified Turbo UTV class driving a Can-Am UTV.
“I’d like to win the damn thing and then I won’t go do it again. If I can win it, I’m going to retire -- once and for all, I’m going to retire,” Prudhomme said Wednesday. “My buddies are telling me, ‘Eighty? You can’t do anything like that.’ I said, ‘The hell I can’t! I feel great!’ ”
As Prudhomme tells it, he couldn’t resist the temptation to tackle the race in his late 70s due to the proliferation of quality ATV equipment.
“I fell in love with it about five years ago after I retired and stuff,” said Prudhomme, NHRA’s Funny Car champion from 1975-78 and the No. 3-ranked driver on NHRA’s list of 50 Greatest. “We’d been going on these long rides down to Mexico, and I finally entered a race and built a car to race. I really like it. it’s a thousand miles, so you’ve got to like it to do it.
“Honestly, these Can-Ams (off-road racers), I cannot tell you how well they ride. They have great suspension on them -- a Walker Evans suspension on them -- so they ride pretty damn good.
“They’ll run 80, 90 miles an hour, but you can’t do that very often in the dirt, so you’ll have an average speed of maybe 45, 50 miles an hour. But that’s fast when you go down a dirt trail with cows on it. I ran into a donkey here a while back; hurt the car worse than it did the donkey. There’s cows and everything back in there. You don’t want to hit livestock.”
This year’s race originates with tech inspection in Ensenada, Mexico, less than two hours from San Diego on the Pacific coast. On April 25, the competitors will take off from Santo Tomas, an inland town on the Baja Peninsula, and head to San Felipe. The next day calls for a run to Bahia de Los Angeles on the eastern coast of the peninsula, followed by a stage the ensuing day that loops back to Bahia. The finish, on April 29, is in San Felipe.
It’s a test of roughly 200 miles per day, which “doesn’t sound like a lot,” Prudhomme said, “but when you’re in the dirt, it is. We’ve got big high-beam lights in case you get into the dark. We’re all set to go.”
Last year, Prudhomme, co-driver Jagger Jones and crew spent race nights in sleeping bags on the ground. This year -- in Bahia de Los Angeles, anyway -- they’ll hit the sack in the much comfier confines of a motorhome. “We’re gonna live it up,” he said.
That’s not to say the race doesn’t present a large dose of challenges.
Prudhomme said they’ll eat before heading out each morning and pack “very little” food in their vehicle because “you don’t have time to eat” when you’re racing. The Can-Am will also be outfitted with CamelBaks, and its tubes are connected through their helmets to provide water at will.
And if there’s the need for … for when nature calls?
“Well, they have this thing that looks like a condom that you -- you know -- and it runs out through the bottom of your pants onto the floor. if you really have to go, you do that,” he said.
“All the guys wear it; that’s the way you do it. You can tell who’s serious because they’ve got a tube sticking out of their pants when they’re walking around. We’ve got to wear that or else you’ll piss in your pants, and you don’t want to do that and be in a wet seat all the time.”
Prudhomme asserts that he’s not your average 80-year-old when it comes to physical fitness. He does some light weightlifting to maintain strength and muscle mass, and he spends time stretching his back because desert racing “is kinda rough on your system.”
And, he noted, “I’m not running a thousand miles all by myself. I have a fella running with me, a navigator, and he’s gonna drive some. We’ll see what we can do. It’ll be real exciting this time because I’m more prepared for it than ever before. Our car’s in good shape. I’d like to place in the top five. If I could do that, I’d be happy, but that’s really hard to do.”
The cost of the car excluded, Prudhomme said he’ll spend about $30,000 to compete in the event. “Thirty grand just to race for a trophy,” he added with a laugh.
MAVTV and Lucas Oil have pitched in to help sponsor Prudhomme and Minga. ”They paid for the entry,” Prudhomme said, “and that really helps out. Really nice of them. It’s expensive to take the money out of your pocket.”
Prudhomme’s 2019 effort was hampered on the final day by fuel pump issues, and he and Jones were forced to stop every 20 to 25 miles to refill the fuel tank as a means of addressing the issue.
“We nursed it home,” Prudhomme said. “Finishing is an accomplishment. There are cars on the side of the course, crashed and out of the race.
“We passed Tanner Faust (Global RallyCross racer and X Games medalist). He was rolled over on his side. He was OK or else we would have stopped to help him. He just waved at us going by. Even big teams with professional racers can crash out in this thing. All day it looked like roadkill on the side of the road with so many cars crashed or upside down.”
Prudhomme’s last blast down a dragstrip came 26 years ago at age 54. He stayed in the sport as a team owner through the 2009 season, then returned in 2019 in a pairing with driver Austin Prock as part of the John Force Racing stable. Prock was the Top Fuel winner at the NHRA Seattle event that season en route to the Rookie of the Year crown. Prock’s racing is currently on hold, but he remains a part of JFR as a test and back-up driver.
Besides, Prudhomme said he’s “not in any hurry” to get back into the sport.
“I’m having too much fun off-road racing. I’m not ready for that grind again. I’m officially retired from NHRA,” said Prudhomme, who won 49 NHRA national events as a driver -- including the U.S. Nationals seven times -- and pocketed another 63 wins as a team owner.
“I still like smelling the nitro, though. ... It’s had me hooked the better part of 50, 60 years. I like other forms of racing, but drag racing hooks you.”