No. 3: Don Prudhomme
No. 3: Don Prudhomme

 

It takes years for even the most gifted of individuals to achieve legendary status in his or her chosen field, but Don Prudhomme had already become a larger-than-life figure in drag racing when he was barely out of his teens. He had outlasted 90 entries to win the prestigious Bakersfield Top Fuel & Gas Championships in 1962 at age 20, three years before Don Garlits won his first March Meet title. Prudhomme trumped Garlits in 1965 as well when he became the first drag racer to sweep the NHRA Winternationals and Nationals (the only two national events at that time) while driving Roland Leong's Hawaiian dragster.

Though no drag racer has enjoyed an undefeated season since NHRA has hosted at least four events in a season, Prudhomme came closest in the mid-1970s when his nearly invincible Army Monza Funny Cars won six of eight national events in 1975 and seven of eight in 1976.

When Prudhomme retired from driving at the conclusion of the 1994 season, he had recorded four consecutive NHRA Winston Funny Car championships (1975-78), was the then-winningest nitro fuel racer in NHRA history with 49 victories (14 in Top Fuel, 35 in Funny Car), and had recorded the first five-second Funny Car run, a 5.98 at the 1975 NHRA World Finals. His 5.63 clocking at the 1982 U.S. Nationals, nearly two-tenths of a second quicker than anything before, is considered among the greatest Funny Car passes ever.

Prudhomme earned his "Snake" nickname, for his inherently quick starting-line reflexes, early in his career, but his desire to win proved to be the biggest factor in his tremendous success. Said Prudhomme, "I raced for the sheer thrill of driving and winning. I certainly didn't get into drag racing for money because it just wasn't there at the time -- just trophies. That didn't do much for me, but the winning certainly did."

Said Prudhomme's wife, Lynn, who had met her husband in a high school art class, "Being in the [Burbank, Calif.-based] Road Kings car club was the first thing that Don was a part of that he loved, and he pursued it with a passion. He didn't ask permission from his parents or anybody else to get involved in racing; he just did it. Don was a driven person from the very beginning."

In 1960, Prudhomme left his job at a paint shop to travel with fellow Road Kings member Tommy Ivo, an already established drag racing star who became the sport's first touring professional. Not particularly fond of his "go-fer" role on Ivo's crew, Prudhomme stubbornly paid his dues, and the efforts paid off with the establishment of several key friendships.

Prudhomme teamed with longtime rival Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen to secure support from Mattel with their Hot Wheels Plymouth Funny Cars in 1970, setting the stage for today's corporate sponsorships.

After he bought Ivo's Kent Fuller-built dragster in 1961 and replaced the original Buick engine with a Dave Zeuschel-prepped 392-cid blown Chrysler, Prudhomme teamed with Zeuschel and Fuller and won the 1962 Bakersfield March Meet, then was recommended by Fuller to drive what would become the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme car that recorded a 230-7 win-loss record in 1963 and 1964.

That memorable stint caused Prudhomme to be picked for Roland Leong's Hawaiian ride, a virtual copy of the G-B-P vehicle, and after his sweep of NHRA's national events in 1965, Prudhomme ventured out on his own in 1966 with the B&M Torkmaster. Though the entry was more than competitive with a winning match race record, Prudhomme was dismayed that his replacement for the Hawaiian, Mike Snively, repeated "Snake's" feat of winning in Pomona and Indianapolis.

Said Prudhomme, "I had given up the best ride in the country so I could start racing on my own. We did okay, but the Hawaiian team just kept on rolling like they never missed me. Still, it was a great learning experience. Up until then, I was just a driver. I stayed at Chris Karamesines' shop, and he showed me the basic fundamentals to begin expanding my racing skills. Before that season, I was afraid to take the mags out because I didn't know if I could get them back in right."

Prudhomme was back on track in 1967 behind the wheel of Lou Baney's SOHC Ford-powered dragster, and after becoming NHRA's first six-second national event winner with a Springnationals triumph, he secured sponsorship support from Wynn's for his own Top Fuel dragster in 1969. By the end of 1970, Prudhomme had repeated Garlits' feat of back-to-back Nationals Top Fuel wins and had joined forces with Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen to campaign the Mattel Hot Wheels Funny Car team.

The driven, reclusive Prudhomme and the easygoing, glib McEwen couldn't have been more opposite in nature, and that was the key to their success. McEwen needed Prudhomme's winning record to enhance his image, and "the Snake" was more than pleased to have "the Mongoose" handle the public relations.

More significantly, Prudhomme had established a degree of financial security in racing, an accomplishment that had been a distant dream at best for so many years. "There was never a backup plan for me if racing hadn't worked out," said Prudhomme. "I had to win to keep food on the table. During the times that I didn't have Zeuschel or Black around to help me with the motors, I had to learn all that on my own. You don't see that sense of desperation very much these days."

Prudhomme received additional support in 1974 from the U.S. Army, and though he spent the bulk of that season on the match race trail, he finished second to Shirl Greer in the NHRA Funny Car championship. "I hadn't really heard about the points program until the last race of the year, the World Finals at Ontario [Calif.]. But when Winston got involved in 1975 and the whole thing took off, it became a big deal. I was hungry, and we mauled them."

Years later, Prudhomme revealed that the secret to his 13-3 national event record from 1975 through 1976 was the clutch. "[Mechanic] Bob Brandt and I knew different ways to run the clutch so that we could always lean on the engine extremely hard, no matter what track we were at. I was pretty much calling the shots back then. I tuned it, drove it, and did the clutch. To me, that was a big deal."

The Wynn's Winder dragster that Prudhomme drove to his second straight Nationals Top Fuel win in 1970 was one of his favorites. Upon engine builder Keith Black's recommendation, Prudhomme ran a smaller 396-cid engine against his competitors' 426-cid engines. The reduced torque resulted in less tire smoke off the line.

Although the level of success he enjoyed in the 1970s largely eluded him in the 1980s -- in which he won only 12 national events -- and he even sat out one season, 1986, without a sponsor, it was not without highlights. At the 1982 Cajun Nationals, he became the first Funny Car racer to exceed 250 mph and later that year recorded the devastating 5.63. In 1989, he swept both the U.S. Nationals and Big Bud Shootout titles.

When Prudhomme finished second to Bruce Larson in the 1989 NHRA Winston Funny Car championship, he had not driven in national event Top Fuel competition since 1973, but he returned to his roots in 1990. After a disappointing 13th-place finish that year, he rebounded to finish third in 1991. A sixth-place effort in 1992 followed by a No. 14 showing in a winless 1993 campaign prompted "the Snake" to announce his retirement at the conclusion of the 1994 season, during which he embarked on his "Final Strike" tour.

Prudhomme thrilled his legion of fans when he won the Slick 50 Nationals in Houston in March for his first victory since the 1992 California Nationals, and followed with wins at the NHRA Winston Invitational in April and the Brainerd national event in August. He ended his final season as a driver with a second-place finish, only eight rounds behind Winston champion Scott Kalitta.

Strongly urged by NHRA to maintain a presence in the sport, Prudhomme embarked on a new career as team owner for the Miller Genuine Draft Top Fuel team, and rookie driver and Prudhomme protégé Larry Dixon put "the Snake's" car in the winner's circle in only his second national event outing. Dixon was chosen at season's end as NHRA Winston Rookie of the Year. Prudhomme's team has since expanded to include the Skoal Chevy Funny Cars driven by Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr.

Throughout the years, Prudhomme has been a many-time winner in fan balloting for the Car Craft Magazine All-Star Drag Racing Team and winner of the prestigious Ollie Award, a co-grand marshal with McEwen at the 1995 California Hot Rod Reunion, and an inductee into numerous motorsport Halls of Fame.

A key ingredient to Prudhomme's success is his penchant for looking ahead. "Whenever we'd lose a race, I'd hope it would rain so that nobody could win, but I never agonized over a defeat for very long, even my final-round losses in Indianapolis [in 1975, 1976, and 1978]. It just made me hungrier. I don't get caught up too much in the nostalgia stuff. I'd rather look at some new racing technology rather than at an old restored racecar. I'm always thinking about what's going to get me my next win." -- John Jodauga


Comments from the panel
"Fits all six factors of criteria as well as anybody. Succeeded as hired driver, driving his own cars, and as an owner. The Mattel & Army sponsorships were corporate breakthroughs. To the fans, one of the most charismatic figures in drag racing history." -- John Jodauga

"Embodied a no-prisoners approach to racing." -- Thomas Pope

"Great career as a driver has been followed by team ownership which has created new star drivers." -- Keith Burgan

"A pure racer who lives to win." -- Rick Voegelin

"From the beginning, he has been a star in the sport, and his marketing with Army and Hot Wheels helped broach the gap between the gear heads and the general public." -- John Miller

"Perhaps the finest driver to ever drag race." -- John Drummond

"His steely-nerves, plus dominating and winning edge, remained sharp despite constant national and match race tours that went on for decades and stand as a testament to his never-ending drive to succeed." -- Don Gillespie

"His drag racing list of achievements and ability to present the highest degree of professionalism for sponsors, event promoters, and fans makes 'Snake' an easy choice." -- Jim Hill

"Exceptional ability to attract and keep major, non-automotive sponsors -- even before it was fashionable." -- Dave Wallace Jr.

"A true superstar in our sport." -- Bob Frey

"NHRA's ultimate pro racer." -- Steve Gibbs