A few weeks ago we had a rare opportunity to sit down with an absolute legend of Drag Racing: Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. His Hot Wheels and Army funny cars are likely some of the most famous machines to ever thunder down the quarter mile, so it was quite an honour to spend time with him.
Speedhunters: Thought we would start talking about very early days, your name is synonymous with drag racing, but for you, when did you first hear about drag racing, two cars racing each other.
Don Prudhomme: Probably 1956, probably when I heard about it… as a kid we’d go to a drag strip out in Saugus/Newhall area, they had a Saugus drag strip. Then they built one in the San Fernando Valley Raceway, drag strip. That’s where I really got involved there, that’s where I really started driving cars. I drove a club car, I was in the Road Kings of Burbank, a car club, and Tom Ivo he was in the club, met him and just really took a liking to drag racing and they had club car and I was able to drive it a few times, you know guys would trade off, they’d say “hey you wanna drive this time?”
Speedhunters: So back then was drag racing on the strips and drag racing as a street racing scene, were they related at all?
Don Prudhomme: Yeah, yeah they were quite a bit. There was quite a bit of racing on the streets, that’s where everyone started… it was too much of a hassle to go to the track you know. It was more fun because you could hang out at Bob’s Big Boy and challenge some guy, hey! You know, you’ve seen that movie with James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause,well it was kinda like that it was a whole scene like that cause we’d all tear off from Bobs…
Speedhunters: It seems like that just being involved with the cars, hanging out with your friends, challenging someone on the street or the drag strip, it was all kind of like a lifestyle?
Don Prudhomme: Yeah, yeah it was a lifestyle it wasn’t really dangerous on the streets. I mean I don’t’ even know of anyone getting killed and the things you read about today, where kids are racing on the streets. It was a lot different, they didn’t have the traffic then and we were pretty organized. As far as where we went and you know, you’d mark the quarter mile and you know that kind of thing. Then of course the cops started crackin’ down on it. Sometimes they used to watch if it wasn’t too big of a…you know. You’d get to know a few of the cops because we weren’t “bad kids” you know, there were no drive by shootings or any of that stuff.
So that’s how we did it.
Speedhunters: You see some of the people that are into this nostalgic rodding scene and they’ve got tattoos and their trying to recreate this idea of greasers…
Don Prudhomme: I like tattoos! But they didn’t have the girls, You know the ones in the magazines, pinup girls. They really didn’t have that, I don’t even know where that came from. I go out to the track now and nostalgia races, I don’t know where those chicks…those gals weren’t around when I was around, I can tell you that! But the guys, you had tanker jackets because, you know, after the war in the late 40’s early 50’s if a kid wanted to go down and buy something fashionable there were no stores around like that. You know, think about it. So you go to the army surplus stores, that’s where we bought our stuff. You get a tanker jacket, they were bitchen’ – tanker jackets, you know. So we had that kind of stuff. We had jeans…anyhow…cigarettes, you know, smoking one after another and *** like that…
But what happened with street racing, once we went to San Fernando drag strip and drove a dragster, a B gas dragster with 6 carburetors on it and a nailhead Buick engine in it. And once you drove that, that was it. You couldn’t race that on the street, although some guys tried…not saying we never did…but once you did that and then you raced for trophies, then you got something you know, you got a trophy and there was a crowd there and it was all legal, ***, street racing was history after that for us. We never went back to street racing.
Speedhunters: For a long time there you were more a driver, less building cars and so forth? That came later?
Don Prudhomme: Yeah, that came later. I was a driver, I bought a car from Tom Ivo, a front engine dragster, took a Buick engine out of my roadster and put it in there. Ended up selling the roadster and kept the dragster. Then I started, guys were starting to get into racing quite a bit, you know drag racing was taking off, cause the guys that used to race at Bonneville and the salt flats, they started coming down to the drag races and they’d drag race instead of going all the way out to the salt flats where there’s no spectators. All of a sudden it was more organized and NHRA they started in about ’51 I think so they had a lot to do with organizing drag racing. Anyhow, once you drove a dragster and going to the drag strip, all the door slammers stuff was history after that. The 57 Chevys and all that ***, I didn’t care about any of that, I just wanted to go drag racing. Oh, then guys started asking me, “Heyyy you want to drive my car? I’d jump in a few cars and drive em and then I got my big break when I got to drive this car (little model) this is the Greer Black Prudhomme top fuel dragster.
Speedhunters: So, let’s get onto this Funny Car business…When did you first become aware of, they weren’t called funny cars at the time but when did you first become aware of these cars that eventually became Funny Cars and what did you think of them? AFX. You were in dragsters, right?
Don Prudhomme: I was in dragsters, didn’t really pay attention to any other class because all I was interested in doing was driving the fastest thing at the track. And by far it was the dragster, the fuel burning dragsters. Once you tasted champagne you just didn’t want to drink beer anymore! You know what I mean? And so that ‘s the way it was. Y’know it’s just once you smelled that nitro man, forget about it! Gas was for washing parts. It was! Yeah, and it still is as far as I’m concerned. But that’s what we did. And so I was driving this car in 1965 (other model). They came out with the 426 Hemi and so once they did that Dodge started building the, they ended up being the Funny Cars. Altered Wheel based cars, wheels forward, front ends long, Landy’s Dodge, was a good friend of mine, and so on. And so the factories really got involved with those cars for the muscle car era. And as the rear ends started moving forward and the front ends longer and the big overhanging wheel bay, or rear end of the car, that’s where they picked up the name Funny Car. So when they started, Don Nicholson… had a Ford funny car but it was a fiberglass body a few of the guys like Jack Chrisman had a fiberglass body too.
Don Prudhomme: I was a Irwindale running dragster, running testing or something out there during the week and Nicholson was there with the first flip top body car from Ford, maybe Mercury Ford and it blew off down at the lights. And we went “Haha! Look at that dumb thing!” It blew off and they actually, as I recall, they built a bonfire down there and they burned the thing so nobody could copy it or see it or something.
Don Prudhomme: So I got interested in the Funny Cars because I was a dyed the wool dragster guy because Don Garlitts came out in 1970 with a rear engine car and it just kicked all of our asses you know, and it really changed the sport. And they were cool looking cars, you sat in front, it was just bitchen’. So I like that, so that’s what we were starting to do but all of a sudden McEwen and I, who were racing each other at Lion’s dragstrip and the local drags around, he had a nickname The Mongoose cause he beat us a couple of times. You know that story, so Mattel, he told me one day, “hey I’m going to Mattel and talk to them about a sponsorship, about the Mongoose and the Snake as Hot Wheels cars”. I didn’t know what Hot Wheels cars were, he had kids, they had just come out a year before, everything was Barbie up until then.
Don Prudhomme: Bottom line, when they researched the sport, they said you two guys need to be in Funny Cars, and I said OK! Y’know if they were gonna sponsor us. That’s how it happened. I started runnin’ em, but I didn’t really like em at first. Because they weren’t like a top fuel car. The first one, it was ok, but it had automatic transmission in it, it wasn’t a real…I thought it was taking a step back, in my career, or just a step back period because it was slower. But it was way way more popular than the dragsters. (SH Why was it automatic?) They didn’t have the link on 2 or 3 speeds back then, they just had automatic transmissions when they first came out, B & M automatics.
Speedhunters: When did the technology change from the hard sidewalls, where you are leaving the line with the wheels spinning to the wrinkle? That was a major shift, wasn’t it?
Don Prudhomme: That was just a slow progression, how all that worked out. With them wrinkling the tires and everything. When these cars first left the start line the wheels were Pow! Up in smoke! Burning down the track. As time went on they learned that if you don’t’ spin the wheels so much it will accelerate faster!…no kidding! You know I thought the more smoke the better! Naw naw naw! Cause you go to the start line whumpwhump…screeeeech and pah! And you pop the clutch both of you blew the tires off and smoke went up by the engine, you go half way down the track and you go “is he there?” You didn’t know if a guy was next to you cause you couldn’t see for the smoke! Well you didn’t know. The thing would run out of the smoke and haul ass, but it took a long time to get there if you were smoking the tires. So as time went on, Keith Black was the first guy I knew that started building the slipper clutch so the thing didn’t smoke the tires as much, then M & H Tire Company started building tires that had a two ply sidewall to them and all of a sudden they wrinkled and they really gripped, and Goodyear build one that REALLY gripped and then they built them wider and the REALLY gripped and then all of a sudden it worked in to complete traction when you leave the line.
Speedhunters: In your mind what were the glory days of the Funny Car scene? There is this perception of this “Golden Era”. A lot of people are trying to recreate it now with Nostalgic drag racing.
Don Prudhomme: That’s a good question. The Golden Era of …oh jeez! I think that it was in the time of the Chi-town Hustler, Blue Max, Jungle Jim Lieberman, The Mongoose, myself because we all had nicknames and Hot Wheels and Revell, and it was I think what most people… rem…well I shouldn’t say remember, cause *** most of them are dead or too old now because…But I think those were the golden years, in the mid 70’s.
Speedhunters: You’ve got a lot of fans that grew up, like for us, we grew up on that era. We were kids in the 70’s, so I think that had an impression.
Don Prudhomme: No matter what I’ve done, I set many records in my career, over 120 National events, 6 World Championships and what I’m most remembered for is the Hot Wheels car (laughs). I’m not shittin’ you. The Hot Wheels car, in that short length of time, it was like 3 years and now it’s like “Hey man, I had your Hot Wheel car!”
I’m serious! (SH I had it!) And I’d say what about all the National events we won and the World Championships? “Oh yeah that was ok, but man that Hot Wheels car was cool!”
Don Prudhomme: You know what’s cool, for me now remembering back in those days we used to pull into a drag strip and unload the cars, and it wasn’t like you had these ropes up and nobody could come around and the hospitality and you couldn’t see the driver. We were there. You just parked and unloaded your stuff, the crowd would come around and then you would ask, hey man could we use your car for a tow truck? “Oh yeah you bet!, so a guy would have him and his girlfriend, they’d bring the car and we’d load the batteries and then another kid would help you pack the chute.
Don Prudhomme: We used to have guys, they’d drop the oil pan and they’d be like hey could you clean this oil pan up, so they’d go clean the oil pan out! And to this day I get guys sayin to me “You probably don’t this, but I helped you pack your chute in Lebanon Valley or Union Grove Wisconsin”. I’d say no, I’m sorry I don’t, but thanks for the help! But in today’s world, you go to a race and *** you can’t get near a car! But the kids that actually help you push the car to the starting line, it’s something they haven’t forgot, that moment. Or I let em sit in my car! “I got a picture of me sitting in your Hot Wheels car!” , that’s kinda cool! Cause they don’t get to do that anymore.
Speedhunters: What’s exciting about drag racing today?
Don Prudhomme: To tell you the truth, this is my first year retired in over 40 years of racing. The hardest thing in the world for me personally was after last year to have to announce that I’m retiring. And the reason I have to retire is that we didn’t have the funding anymore. US tobacco got out of racing and it took us off guard. Instead of looking for a new sponsor for this year, I decided to retire. That was the hardest thing I had to do. So I haven’t been to a drag race this year nor have I watched it on television. (SH Hard to do, since you’re not participating?) Yes, it’s hard to do, it’s a touchy thing with me, but I’m not bitter or anything, I’m trying to reinvent myself. I’m caught up in Indy cars and other things to keep my mind occupied. But I still kind of hear what’s going on.
Don Prudhomme: I think anything, especially in this day and age that you can have a good time at, enjoy the aspects of different things, whether it’s drifting or the nostalgia stuff. I can see it man. You go to these things, roadster shows, LA Roadster show and things like that, people are having a good time. And NHRA racing, it’s real serious business. The sponsorship, nowadays, to run a car competitively it takes about 4 million bucks, to have a real good car. Well that’s hard for people to come up with to go drag racing.
Don Prudhomme: The NHRA was created to get kids off of the streets running these cars, racing on the street. Wally Parks formed that. And it worked, actually, the LA police Dept used to help at the race track and run the thing at Pomona. Then it took off around the country and it brought people to the drag races that would otherwise be racing on the streets. So that was the intent of it, but what really happened is that the whole country exploded with drag strips and then they started figuring out different ways to, it got so expensive you couldn’t book in cars anymore. And they got too expensive to run. What’s wonderful about racing is just what you mention, the different types of cars that you can come up with. And high school kids would build these cars at school and come out and race, and there were these little tracks that Ive never even heard of. I think it’s wonderful, I think it’s great, but it really all started with the 50’s and 60’s drag racing the same quarter mile.
Photos: Ford Archive, Don Prudhomme, Hot Rod, Google
Thanks to the NHRA Museum for setting up the interview, Melinda Neil for transcribing Don’s words and Skip @ Snake Racing for hosting us.