As a young boy, the thought of seeing the front-engine fire-breathing quarter-mile runners would make my heart race.
Snake and Mongoose
“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 voiceover, 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, and 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 race day. McEwen was 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 the 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.
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In the mid-to-late 1970s, Prudhomme was 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 promote 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 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, became 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 cars 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 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.
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's 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 the 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."