As a young boy, the thought of seeing the front-engine fire-breathing quarter-mile runners would make my heart race.
“Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! See Tom 'The Mongoose' McEwen take on Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme in a best-of-3 all-out match race!"
This was the battle cry that once stirred excitement in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. The announcer over the radio conjured dramatic visions in a voice-over, and in the background you could hear the roar of nitro-burning funny cars, dragsters, and "diggers." As a young boy, the thought of seeing the front-engine fire-breathing quarter-mile runners would make my heart race and inspire dreams of emulating these larger-than-life heroes.
I idolized names like Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, "Blue Max," "the Ace," Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, "the King," and "Big Daddy" Don Garlits. These names were the epitome of "badass." Men who lived without limits or fear, in cars that for an ear-splitting few seconds lived on an edge that could end in total fireball disaster—or earthshaking victory. And I could witness it all first-hand; if not in person, then through the miracle of television.
In the world of drag racing there have been many great rivalries... legendary top-fuel jousting matches that were fought in a world of tire-burning, split-second face-offs that were only done, one on one, by squaring-off side by side, in full-on fire-breathing, high-speed, high performance driving all-out competition
When talking about some of these epic rivalries, instant memories flood into my mind:
- Don Garlits vs. Shirley Muldowney
- Bob Glidden vs. Lee Shepherd
But for me, the greatest of all these honored blacktop warrior battles was Don "the Snake" Prudhomme vs. Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen.
These two men were the biggest thing in racing from 1965 to 1970. Don "the Snake" Prudhomme in his earth-shaking Barracuda facing off with Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen in his fire-spitting demon, the Duster.
If you're still reading this, chances are you remember seeing (either live or on TV) a moment of drag racing history. You may have even had the Snake and Mongoose Hot Wheels cars, which were an excellent bit of master marketing and corporate sponsorship that made the pair's drag racing rivalry famous.
Just the thought of Prudhomme and McEwen in what was for me, quarter-mile racing's glory days, brings almost immediate goosebumps and long-ago vivid child-like memories of my heroes. Whenever the "Snake" and the "Mongoose" met on the track, fans were guaranteed a dramatic, compelling race, and you felt like these two men were putting it all on the line just for the sake of winning. Let's face facts, they pretty much were: there wasn't much money to be won in drag racing in those days... it was about the glory, the trophy, and living to race another day.
"The Snake vs. the Mongoose" rivalry began to gain momentum nationally, with help from a little bit of strategic marketing, inspired genius from the "Hot Wheels" brand of toy cars owned by Mattel. Prudhomme and McEwen created a partnership called Wildlife Racing Inc., which proved to be a lucrative venture for both men. They would go into a town that they were scheduled to race in and sometimes stop by the top AM radio stations (yes, kids, AM radio). They would do quickie interviews to boost the excitement of fiercesome race day. McEwen was the usually the mouthpiece of the duo. Tom would do all the bragging, saying things like. “SNAKE I’M TAKING YOU DOWN 3 OUT OF 3 SATURDAY NIGHT MAN, WHAD’YA GONNA DO ABOUT IT?” Prudhomme was a quiet guy. He would just modestly say, “Sure Tom, sure.”
But it was the Hot Wheels deal with Mattel Toys that made McEwen and Prudhomme legends in the minds and hearts of many children and household names to the racing fans all over the country.
Don "The Snake" Prudhomme
There have been very few drag racing personalities that have been as successful as Don “the Snake” Prudhomme. Don started out in his younger days as a car painter. By the late 1950s he joined the Los Angeles area car club, the Road Kings. Don attended drag races, and he worked as a crew member for “T.V.” Tommy Ivo. With Ivo's help in the 1960s, Prudhomme toured throughout the United States learning the ropes from Ivo, who is one of the true pioneers of professional drag racing. Tommy Ivo's 4 engined, “Showboat” thrilled drag racing fans from coast to coast.
In 1962, Prudhomme picked up his first big victory in Top Fuel drag racing by taking the Smoker’s March Meet at Bakersfield, California. It was from mid-1962 through 1964 that Prudhomme teamed up with Tom Greer and famed engine builder Keith Black, and became the nearly unstoppable Greer, Black & Prudhomme Top Fueler. Their car won nearly every event they would enter on the West Coast. Prudhomme, driving Roland Leong's "Hawaiian" Top Fueler, won his first NHRA race that he ever entered, the 1965 Winternationals in Pomona, California. Don was beginning a career that would make him one of the biggest names in drag racing history. A driving career that would see him take a total of 35 NHRA Funny Car national event wins, along with 14 NHRA Top Fuel national event titles.
In the mid- to late-1970s, Prudhomme was a nearly an unstoppable tsunami in funny car racing action, winning four straight NHRA Funny Car World Championships (1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978). “The Snake,” as he was called because of his quick reflexes on the starting line, won the prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals an incredible 7 times as a driver. He was the first funny car driver to make a 5-second pass, and also was the first to top the 250 mile per hour mark in the quarter mile in a funny car.
What really rocketed "The Snake's" career into the big time was when Don started teaming up with his rival and off-track friend Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen with their “Hot Wheels” team cars in the early 1970s. Since Prudhomme was known as "the Snake," McEwen, always the showman started to promoting himself as “the Mongoose” to help build a rivalry between the two, which in the end made them both and Mattel Toys a lot of money.
Today, Prudhomme is known to drag racing fans as a car owner as he fields the Miller Lite Top Fuel Dragster driven by two-time NHRA World Champion Larry Dixon Jr., and a pair of Skoal-backed nitro funny cars for team drivers Tommy Johnson Jr., and Ron Capps.
Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen
McEwen is still one of the best-known drag racing personalities. Always the promoter, he was responsible for bringing the first “big time” non-automotive sponsor into the drag racing arena. A move that changed the sport of drag racing forever.
In the early 1960s, McEwen raced at many of legendary Southern California tracks. McEwen was never afraid of being innovative, and he tried many Top Fuelers out. Tom was the driver of the “Super Mustang”, an unusual streamlined Top Fueler, built with Ford Motor Company backing. There was also the 1965 Plymouth Barracuda, a first of its kind funny car which was a rear-engined machine. One night, at the Lion's Drag Strip, Tom and his 1965 Barracuda took off of the starting line and flew at 150 miles per hour. The car, with Tom in it, become a work of twisted metal, and shards of fiberglass in a dramatic big-time crash. McEwen, undeterred from the crash, rebuilt the rear-engined Barracuda and ran it again. This time, Tom was reaching speeds of over 170 m.p.h., which was screamin' fast for those days. In 1967, along with help from engine builder Ed Pink, rival racer, and friend Don Prudhomme, McEwen helped to develop the slider clutch technique, which along with new tire technology, caused Top Fuelers to dramatically increase their performances during that racing season.
Still yet, McEwen’s biggest contribution to drag racing may very well be in sponsorship. It was Tom who in fact approached and talked to the Mattel Toy people. Tom convinced their Hot Wheels brand into sponsoring himself and longtime rival Prudhomme as part of his “Wildlife Racing” concept.
This was the first time a major non-automotive company had been involved in drag racing, and it paid off! Big, big money was made by everyone that was involved. Mattel made lots of money off of the relationship with McEwen and Prudhomme by selling Hot Wheels. The corporate sponsorship and attention thrust McEwen and Prudhomme into the spotlight as big-time professional drag racers in the minds of their fanatic public.
Call it what you will, but two of the biggest wins of McEwen's career came in the 1970s by beating Prudhomme. The first was the final round of funny car at the “Last Drag Race” ever held at the famous Lion’s Drag Strip in 1972. This was the famous drag racing venue that all California racing stars that had cut their teeth on. The second, and probably most sentimental, was the finals of a funny car race in 1978 at the NHRA U.S. Nationals held at Indianapolis, that win came just a few days after Tom McEwen’s son Jamie had passed away from leukemia.
These days, McEwen is a collector of diecast car and racing memorabilia. His main area of focus on collecting is NHRA and NASCAR, as well as other diecast collectibles. You can find many of his collectibles for sale at Prestige Hobbies in Anaheim, California. The 'Goose has also released a 1/16 scale model of his "World's Fastest '57 Chevy" funny car in partnership with Prestige Hobbies and Milestone Development.
A Tribute to Drag Car Racing
Snake, Mongoose, and Mattel
Prudhomme and McEwen burst onto the drag racing scene in the mid-1960s and developed one of the most publicized rivalries in the sport history. Prudhomme earned his "Snake" nickname early in his career for his inherently quick starting-line reflexes. McEwen's nickname, "the Mongoose," was a bit of showmanship Tom used to entice racing fans into watching Prudhomme and McEwen's high-exposure races. Even though McEwen won only five NHRA national events during his 35-plus-year career, he had the gift of gab and great promotional abilities that made him one of the sport's most influential and controversial figures.
It's hard to believe that almost 40 years have passed since the drag racing legends, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, joined forces in forming Wildlife Racing with then-unprecedented corporate backing from Mattel's Hot Wheels brand. A deal made by McEwen himself, that would become first large non-automotive sponsorship; changing the face of drag racing into a big-time, big-money motorsport.
"Fans of all ages come up to me at the racetrack and talk about the Snake and Mongoose and Hot Wheels all the time," Prudhomme said. "The Hot Wheels partnership really helped build our image and status and it's a good feeling to relive such great memories from years past."
"The relationship with Hot Wheels is definitely a highlight of my racing career," McEwen added. "Not only was the partnership with Hot Wheels a big deal for us, but also for the entire sport of drag racing."
Prudhomme and McEwen were veterans of the West Coast drag racing scene in the mid-1960s. They developed an off-track friendship and an on-track rivalry. These two men still hold two of the most hallowed nicknames in drag racing history, "the Snake and the Mongoose."
Snake vs. Mongoose - HO Slot Car Drag Race
Don "the Snake" Prudhomme Toy
Real Mongoose vs. Snake
Joe on September 08, 2011:
Kari don't be ashamed that you are a Nascar Fan and especially a Richard Petty Fan because most of 1965 Richard Petty was a Drag Racer due to the fact that Nascar banning Hemi Engines. Had they been true drag racing fans they would have known that as well.
ERIC on August 22, 2010:
IM JUST GETTING INTO HOTWHEEL COLLECTING, BUT I REMEMBER A TIME IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHECKING OUT FUNNY CAR BOOKS. LOVE THE CAR AND VIDEOS. STAY COOL
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on April 09, 2010:
RMBjr, Raider Brad, & Spork
For sharing such passion and awesomeness of a great sports era... not just in racing but in my opinion all sports
Spork on April 09, 2010:
I was 14 in 1970 and the only "sport" i was into was cars and racing. I read Hot Rod, Car Craft and Rod & Custom religiously. These guys were big heroes to me.
As a So Cal resident I've had the opportunity to meet both Don & Tom. I am really lucky to live here and get to go to all the cool places I read about as a kid (except for the drags strips that got torn down). The World Finals and Winter Nationals at Pomona, The March Meet & Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso (Bakersfiled), LA Roadster's Father's Day Run and The Grand National Roadster Show (now at Pomona) as well as countless other runs and cruise nights.
Although we are losing many of the giants that helped develop the sport of drag racing and dry lakes racing, many are still around and attend the events. I always try to say thank you to them for influencing me as a kid and providing decades of entertainment.
As far as drag racing goes, I always tell people that if you were deaf and blind you would still be able to tell when a top fuel car left the line. Not only by the sweet aroma of nitro-methane mixed with tire smoke but by the ground pounding vibration that goes through your whole body when 6000+ horsepower is converted forward motion!
rmbjr60 on November 30, 2009:
OMG does this ever bring me back to my Hot Wheels days!!! Snake & Mongoose were my very favorite cars from my modest Hot Wheels collection.
My friends & I would gather at a buddie's house with a long downhill driveway and we'd combine all of our HW track for one incredibly long run (at least 150'!) Those days were boss!
I also remember one of my favorite songs from those days was "No Time Left For You" by the Guess Who. The burning guitar sound was a complete match for the coolness of Hot Wheels.
I loved watching the drag racing on TV too (as well as Saturday morning pro wrestling - nothing like today's mega-hyped pro-wrestling).
The poster on my wall, however, was of an Indy racer. Hmm .. trying to remember who it was .. oh yeah, Mark Donoghue (rip). He had the coolest Indy car.
I'd still have the hot wheels if my mom didn't let my nephews play with them after I grew up. The cars pretty much got destroyed by those boys.
Now I'm gonna have to find them from a collector. But having my own originals sure woulda been sweet!
Anyway, thanks for helping me revisit some of my most favorite memories. Thx for the post!
Raider Brad on November 15, 2009:
I remember these guys like it was yesterday.... I had the Mattel Mongoose and Snake Hot Wheels cars! (I always liked "the Snake a teeny bit better. Saw 'em race at Baylands Raceway (called Fremont Dragstrip back then) in the Bay Area. Made me a fan for life!!!!!! Great Hub, St James!
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on April 14, 2009:
NOW THAT"S WHAT I AM TALKIN" ABOUT!!! RacerX518 You are a hero
racerx518 on April 14, 2009:
I grew up with these guys posters on my walls, while other kids had baseball and football posters and wanted to be like there favorite players, I wanted to be drag racer. Even to this day when I take my sons to the races and see Snake at the track, I become that little kid when I ask Snake for his autograph. Thank you Snake and Mongoose.
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on April 11, 2009:
Back then SoulaBee, these two guys changed the world of drag racing and corporate sponsorship. They added a bit of showmanship to a sport that was loud, faceless, and didn't quite have the interest that it did, until Don, Tom and Hotwheels started. These guys still are go friends, and they pretended to be rivals. Much like how pro-wrestling promotes today.
I thought the real mongoose and snake video kinda symbolized what the public thought what this rivalary was like. In real life it was theatrics and showmanship.
SoulaBee from United States on April 10, 2009:
I have to say I never really got into drag racing, but I love biographies, and this one is rather fascinating. I do remember the times, though I was very very young. I'm certain if my father had watched more of it, I would have been a much bigger fan and more knowledgeable about the people and the sport. Nice touch adding the "real mongoose vs. snake" video. I imagine it was a bit like that to spectators watching Mongoose and Snake.
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on April 09, 2009:
Eveeryone is allowed to choose the form of racing they prefer. I personally like quater mile. It's far more exciting. StudioN dig what you want to dig.
Thanks for your input.
Nancy Nuce from Florida on April 09, 2009:
I was enjoying this until you dissed NASCAR - Can't we all get along and acknowledge that there is room in our hearts for all different kinds of racing?
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on March 03, 2009:
That does suck... I used have some pretty cool drag racing memoribilia, but I don't have it anymore either. I guess that's what happens when your 8 years old and your parents let you handle your on cool stuff.
Deanomax on March 03, 2009:
Great hub on a great rivalry St.J ! I actually got an autograph from "The Mongoose" years ago but lost it when my wallet was stolen....bummer.
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on March 03, 2009:
Dink, I remember alcohol burners. I think that may be where cars like the Blue Flame picked up it's name. I have a few other legendary car jockies I will right about sometime.
Dink96 from Phoenix, AZ on March 03, 2009:
Amen to that! I seem to recall some of the dragsters back then ran on alcohol and seemed to be much faster than the other ones. That's really reaching back into the gray matter, so I could be off on my memory. Was/is there a difference?
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on March 02, 2009:
Drag Racing is by far more fun and exciting then watching a pack of cars going around in a circle 500 times.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on March 02, 2009:
I used to watch Richard Petty, whom I once met, through his nephew. Long time ago, and a different world. He didn't drag, but I still like him.
You make drag racing sound like so much fun! Makes me wonder what I've been missing all these years...Thanks for the heads up!
St.James (author) from Lurking Around Florida on March 02, 2009:
I know what you mean Dink... I grew up loving the old Drag racers, and going to the "Autorama" custom car shows. Even then in my young age I still wound up having a deep appreciation for brightly painted cars and the high-heeled bikini models who stood next to them.
Dink96 from Phoenix, AZ on March 02, 2009:
Gosh, this brought back memories! Beeline Dragway on the Beeline Highway for years staged drag races with all these big "stars" of their day. I remember one day in school the priest asking me why I had attended the Spanish mass on Saturday night over the weekend and I told him, "So my brothers could go to the drag races on Sunday, Father!" My mom took them several times to Beeline and I grew to enjoy the drag races. Especially the likes of Don Garlits and Tommy Prudhomme. To this day, my husband and his other radio friend like to imitate the radio announcement for Beeline: "Saturrrrrrrrday NIGHT!!! The FUNNY CARS!" I always collapse into laughter when they do, because they sound just like those old radio commercials.