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Snake & Goose: The Big Deal
The Snake (Left) and the Goose talk drag racing at the NHRA Motorsports Museum
The Snake and the Goose – there are no more symbiotic names in the history of drag racing than Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. According to Mark Vaughn of AutoWeek, “They were the biggest thing in racing in the early ‘70s.”
The Snake began his career driving for fellow Road Kings member, Tommy Ivo, back in 1960, and went on to enjoy 49 victories as a driver and 54 victories as an owner. He was the sixth winningest driver in NHRA history and the second winningest Funny Car driver in NHRA history – quite an accomplishment given his 46 years racing. The Snake continues to race to this day, fielding a Top Fuel team under the U.S. Smokeless banner with Larry Dixon Jr driving.
The Goose is likewise still involved, but in a much more relaxed manner, selling advertising for the popular Drag Racer magazine. Goose began racing in 1953, with a '53 Oldsmobile, at Santa Ana Dragstrip in Irvine, California. From the stock-car ranks, McEwen made the natural progression to gas coupes, altereds, and eventually dragsters. In 1963, McEwen achieved his greatest success at the time, when he posted a runner-up finish against Art Malone at the Bakersfield March Meet in California with the Broussard-Garrison-Purcell-Davis car. He also drove Ed Donovan's Donovan Engineering Special, the dragster he used when he first raced against "The Snake."
On Sept. 12, 1964, McEwen won his match race at Lions against "the Snake", who was driving a bright orange edition of the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, in two straight sets, inspiring what may be the most famous match-race pairing in the history of drag racing.
With their first get-together having stirred so much interest, two more races between "the Snake" and "the Mongoose" were staged at Lions, in 1965. McEwen wheeled the Yeakel Plymouth dragster past Prudhomme and his new ride, the Roland Leong-owned Hawaiian, two rounds to one in the first, then lost in two straight sets in the second.
As McEwen confined his racing to the West Coast, he and the touring Prudhomme raced each other only once in 1966, at the Winternationals, site of their first national event meeting. There, Prudhomme's B&M Torkmaster Special took a 7.59 to 7.69 win over McEwen. They would not meet again for the rest of the decade.
McEwen's extraordinary promotional ability and Prudhomme's success on the race track eventually led to the formation of a national touring team, and in mid-1969, McEwen and Prudhomme corporately became Wildlife Racing. "There were no big sponsorships back then," recalls McEwen. "Don had the Wynn's deal, and I had the Gold Spot/Tirend Activity Booster deal, but those were very small when compared with today's standards. I don't remember what Don's money was, but the Tirend deal for me was about $1,000 a year. We depended on cash flow to keep our acts going – match racing four times a week and hoping to keep breakage down.
Portraits of the pair by Carl Olson’s daughter, Shannon were auctioned at the event
"I'm guessing, but I'd say it probably took $40,000, maybe $50,000, when I toured in 1969, to keep the whole thing afloat. I remember thinking that it sure would be great if somehow we could start off the year with a big deal, then go about match racing and all that. Why, you could make all kinds of money."
The big deal Tom dreamed of came in the form of sponsorship from the world’s largest model car company – Mattel. Based near LAX, Mattel makes Hot Wheels and saw the potential in a pair or full-size, match racing Funny Cars.
The Mattel deal ran from 1970 through 1972, and in 1973, Wildlife Racing secured Carefree sugarless gum as a sponsor. McEwen and Prudhomme dissolved their corporation at the end of the 1973 season, but it was a very lucrative partnership and set the template for modern, sponsored drag racing. They didn't perform badly on the racetrack, either.
Recently, the two hosted a fund-raising dinner at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum to bench race, tell tall tales and show highlights from their recently released DVD, Once Upon A Wheel.
The Snake began his career driving for fellow Road Kings member, Tommy Ivo, back in 1960
During the video presentation, Prudhomme said, “I can earn one hundred grand a year at this.” He now owns a corporate jet, which was the subject of much ribbing from the Goose, who commented, “I have to take the Greyhound bus from here to Bakersfield. His Lear jet takes 17 minutes. I have to be there early to get his room ready.” The pair were to be Grand Marshalls at the 50th Anniversary March Meet.
In another scene, a bunch of kids approach them:
“You got any Hot Wheels?” asks Prudhomme.
“You got Snake and Mongoose?”
“Which one’s faster?”
McEwen shakes his head and says, “You paid those kids to say that.”
The evening progressed in much the same vein, with friends and contemporaries of The Snake and The Goose ragging on them. In fact, the group read like a Who’s Who of drag racing, with John Force, Danny Ongais, Carl Olson, Art Chrisman, Tommy Ivo, Roland Leong and Ed Pink all present.
John Force got a few words in during the evening
The festivities came to an end with a memorabilia auction that saw some heavy bidding for portraits of the pair by Carl Olson’s daughter, Shannon, a dragster nose cone signed by dozens of famous racers, and giant Lions and Bakersfield signs by artist, Robert Carter.
The crown jewel of the auction, however, was a pair of open-face helmets, recreated by Tom in the exact style that he and Don wore back in the ’70s. The bidding was frantic for a while, and Goose even bid on them himself, but finally, an anonymous woman succeeded in purchasing them – and then gave them back to the Museum for permanent display.
As a kick-off party for the NHRA CARQUEST Auto Parts Winternationals last weekend, it was the best.
Story: Tony Thacker
Photos: William Groak