50 years haven’t slowed Don “The Snake” Prudhomme
There’s a photo of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme (above) from the mid-1970s that illustrates what made him such an intimidating competitor. He’s in a T-shirt and fire-suit pants, holding a jackrabbit at the starting line of Fremont Drag Strip. The rabbit looks startled. Prudhomme looks as cool as ice. The story, he says, is that a group of racers were standing around waiting for track prep when this little critter came running right down the drag strip. Prudhomme leaned down and snatched him up, to the surprise of man and beast. Imagine being a driver about to face off in a test of reaction times against someone who just grabbed a running rabbit with his bare hands. The bunny was set free in a field; Prudhomme’s reputation was set in stone.
They say the Snake has mellowed since his retirement in 2010, “they” being every race reporter, driver, and former crewman who has ever called a run or turned a wrench for him in the past 60 years of National Hot Rod Association drag racing. He says he’s mellowed, too, but can a snake really be mellow? Don’t they just hibernate until they get hungry?
Don Prudhomme started racing front-engine dragsters in the psychedelic nitro haze of the 1960s. Back then, he was just another skinny Southern California kid geeked out on the growing sport of drag-racing the era’s far-out nitro rails, diggers, and slingshots. You might know Prudhomme from the 1970s Hot Wheels–sponsored “Snake and Mongoose” Funny Car rivalry that pitted his yellow Hemi Barracuda against the red-and-white Duster of Tom “Mongoose” McEwen. Mattel’s promotional zeal put a 1/64-scale Plymouth Funny Car in every toy box, and the Snake and Mongoose became household (nick)names.
Prudhomme continued racing long after it stopped being about toy cars and had turned into big business. By the time he retired from driving, he’d claimed 389 round wins out of 589 starts, made it to 68 final rounds, and brought home four consecutive championships. After his final season in 1994, in which he finished second in points, he added two more championship trophies as a team owner. He developed a reputation as the coolest, coldest, most unshakable man in the paddock. He’s in the top 10 of most-winning NHRA drivers, the first to break the five-second mark in a Funny Car, and the first to run 250 mph. He is number three, after John Force and Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, of the NHRA’s 50 greatest drivers.
A man who built his career on being intimidating can be, well, intimidating. But the Snake is less cold-blooded than his reputation suggests. He’s always said he was more shy than unfriendly, and now in retirement, he’s done putting on the cool-guy persona. So he says. But when I meet him at the 2018 Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, the kick-off in Pomona, California, of the NHRA drag racing season, Prudhomme seems every bit as controlled and confident as a sun-warmed viper in a field full of rabbits.
Prudhomme told me to meet him at 9:00 a.m., but when I arrive at the Pomona Fairplex at 8:35, there is a crowd around the Snake’s flaming red, 840-hp Dodge Demon. Leaning against it, signing autographs and posing for photos, Prudhomme is holding court. A press photographer in an orange vest breaks the documentarian role to lean in and tell Prudhomme that he used to have the Hot Wheels set, and Prudhomme nods. He hears that a lot. He turns to me and pulls off his Snake Racing ball cap. His hair, normally a soft, gray cap of curls, is buzzed short. “Did you do that on purpose?” I ask. “Accidentally on purpose,” he answers. “I went to Supercuts, and they went bzzzzzt and cut it all off.” The man drives up in a $100,000 car with a $17 haircut.
“The first thing I ever learned about was money,” Prudhomme told me once. “I had this complete fear of being like my dad and growing up not having anything, not knowing how you were going to pay the rent. When I started making money racing, the first thing I’d ever do was pay my bills.”
He looks at me and asks, “Where we gotta be, baby?” Somehow, I’ve turned into his agent for the day. A combination of the way he asks and the surety that you’ll listen makes people jump to please him. Those green eyes don’t hurt. I’ve watched him turn surly security gals to simpering mush just by looking at them. Surly security guys, too. And I’m not immune, because I pull up the schedule and tell him, “Ten a.m., the Auto Club stage for ‘Nitro School’ with Tom McEwen.” They’ll talk about the Hot Wheels days with longtime NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart.
Once onstage, Reinhart interrogates Prudhomme about being on the road and how the job of driving 300-mph Top Fuelers has changed. “How is it different from the old days?” is a common question in settings like this, but Prudhomme always answers like it’s the first time he’s talked about it. “You’d be on the road for months. There were no cell phones. You’d pull into a payphone and call your wife ’cause you hadn’t talked in a week.”
The responsibilities on the driver have changed with technology as well. “When the dragster went down the quarter-mile,” he says, “you had to know what it was doing, when to shift, what the tires were doing. When the crew came to meet you, you needed to know what needed to change for the next round.” Now there are computers to report back to the crew chief. It’s better from a tuning standpoint maybe, but old-school drivers like Prudhomme and McEwen feel it takes something away from the sport, makes the driver matter less. Prudhomme once told me a monkey could drive a modern Top Fuel car, and that’s why he liked watching road racing. But then he took the remark back, worried that it made him sound ungrateful.
Well before Prudhomme was monkeying around in a Top Fuel car, he was sanding automotive filler in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. He was the youngest of five kids, three sisters and a brother. “I was the little runt,” he says, and I try to imagine this six-foot baron of the burnout box as little. He’s still thin, but he’s always been broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, perfectly built for driving a race car that, in 1970, required straddling a 2000-hp nitro bomb and wrestling it down 1320 feet in six seconds while wrapped in the era’s finest asbestos fire suit (and, before asbestos, in a leather jacket and your mama’s prayers). Drivers back then were blower-driven bull riders, although Prudhomme didn’t see himself as a cowboy growing up. “I was kind of a punk. I just liked cars.”
Prudhomme’s father worked in automotive body shops and unfortunately liked his drinking more than his work, to the detriment of the Prudhomme family finances. “My home life was [unprintable],” says Prudhomme, clipping the end of the swear word to a hard tee. Not the long drawn-out f-bomb of bemused acceptance but the sharp edged curse of a memory that still draws blood. He looks away from me. “We lived in these rundown rental houses. We were always moving.” He doesn’t want to keep talking about it, switching instead to his mother, who set him on the car path. She taught him to drive in the family Dodges and De Sotos when he was still too small to reach the pedals. He’d sit on her lap and steer, and by the time he was old enough for a license, well, “I was doing donuts in the DMV parking lot, I was so ready,” he says, turning an imaginary steering wheel to full lock and miming a tightly spun skid.
Walking to the next event, an autograph session with fellow drivers past and present, Prudhomme is still thinking about the early days of racing. “When I drove,” he says, “I was the computer. What made me and guys like Garlits so special is we knew about the car, we could report back, especially when it started getting into Funny Car. You’d watch clutch dust come up and float in the air during the run, and you’d know how much the clutch was wearing by how much dust was in the car.”
I watch Prudhomme and the 31-year-old defending Top Fuel champ, Brittany Force, sign hero cards, T-shirts, and hats and wonder if she or her teammate, Robert Hight, or any of the other current drivers at that table, could judge remaining clutch life by the sparkle in the air. Maybe, but there’s no need these days. Instead of driving and tuning, their skills need to be in driving and smiling and pleasing sponsors and remembering who to thank at the finish line, all things Prudhomme found increasingly difficult during his career. On the surface, he left racing to keep from becoming an also-ran, but I think he grew tired of having to talk nice to the money people. In 1986, he sat out a whole season when he couldn’t find a sponsor. “I knew better than to race with my own money,” he says. “I’ve seen that movie.”
When he was racing, he didn’t like small talk with anyone, but he says he wasn’t as unfriendly as people thought. “I just got focused, you know?” In a 1979 People magazine interview, his wife, Lynn, who has been a part of his life since they met in high school art class, was quoted saying, “He’s a teddy bear before a race and a tiger in it.” These days, he’s somewhere in between, not quite cuddly, but he won’t rip your head off, either. At the autograph session, he sits next to McEwen and they smile and sign hundreds of posters until my own wrist aches just watching them. Prudhomme perks up when kids and pretty women came through, but you can see him get tense when obvious autograph hounds dump armfuls of eBay-bound memorabilia in front of him. He’ll sign for the most part and then just stop and wave the stuff away. As the session winds down, a few old racing buddies swing by to say hi, including his former crew chief from 1965, Roland Leong, whom Prudhomme refers to as his “brother from another mother.” They greet each other with real enthusiasm. Prudhomme’s relationship with McEwen is genuine but also performative, a legacy of friendly rivalry for the cameras. His fraternity with Leong is different, less for photos, more for love. Prudhomme turns away from the fans to catch up, and I look over at the rest of Leong’s entourage.
“Tired of watching him be famous?” I ask Billy “Bones” Miller, who used to work with McEwen. “Honey,” he says, “I got 50 years of watching that.”
I never saw Prudhomme during his racing years, but I remember him as a team owner. He’d stand at the starting line, as long, lean, and dangerous-looking as the dragster in the lights. When his driver won, he’d nod and flash a quick smile. When his driver didn’t, well, you didn’t envy anyone that post-race debrief. His competitors respected him, but he wasn’t a hang-out-in-the-pits kind of guy. “If I lost,” he says, “I left, and I hoped the race rained out.”
Our next stop is the announcing booth high above the starting line, where the nitromethane wafts up and gives the nostrils a pleasant burn, like the horseradish on good prime rib. A nitro pass can cost upward of $10,000, and that’s if the car stays in one piece. Most of them don’t. Prudhomme gets agitated watching the destruction. “I don’t know how they can do it. When I won here in ’65, we didn’t take anything apart.”
When Prudhomme was a team owner, he had a good nose for young talent, bringing drivers like Larry Dixon and Ron Capps, both future champions, into the big leagues. As we watch from the tower, he points out teams he thinks have picked good shoes. “Leah Pritchett, I like her.”
“Why?” I ask. “Because she’s pretty?”
“No! She is, but she’s scrappy. She makes it happen for herself. It’s hard for the gals. They have it harder.”
He likes dragster driver Antron Brown, too, NHRA’s first pro-level African American champion. Prudhomme is tan-skinned and light-eyed, and in the melting pot of 1950s Los Angeles, he could have passed as white or black, depending on who was looking, but race has never been something Prudhomme would discuss. “I never considered myself black or white,” he says cautiously. “I guess the best I could tell you is that I grew up white. My parents didn’t talk about it.”
Prudhomme’s parents moved to Los Angeles from Natchitoches Parish, a former plantation area of Louisiana that was home to a Creole community made up of descendants of French and Caribbean émigrés, freed African slaves, and a native-born mix of all the above. Prudhomme thinks his folks were tight-lipped about their roots because they moved to Los Angeles to escape the racism of the South. “It wasn’t until much later, when my sisters and I looked into it, that I met this whole other branch of our family.”
He sighs and rubs his head. “I felt so sad to hear this. When I met my cousins, they said they used to come to the races to watch me. I asked why they didn’t say hi, and they said, ‘Oh, we were told by our parents not to talk to you.’ ” He thinks it was an attempt by the whole family to sidestep any public conversation of race and thus bypass the barriers that being black in motorsports would present at that time. Read any interview with stock car driver Wendell Scott—the first African American to win a race in top-level NASCAR—to get an idea of what Prudhomme might have faced in an alternate life.
Surely as he got older and started traveling, there must have been some moments that made him question who he was. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I knew the guys who said nasty things behind my back, and I kicked their asses on the racetrack,” he says.
He’s excited now to embrace his heritage, offering to lend me a video about Creole history, but he’s also bashful, unsure of his place in it. The official titles of “First African American to win an NHRA National Event” for Top Fuel and Funny Car belong to younger drivers Antron Brown and J.R. Todd, respectively, and Prudhomme believes this is right. “I don’t want to be in a museum. I am happy for Antron.” The subtext is that since he didn’t race while openly enduring the challenges of being black in a majority-white sport, he won’t now claim any celebration for it.
It’s heavy stuff. Prudhomme seems happy to finally talk about it but also relieved to change the subject. The Funny Cars provide an excuse for a new topic as they roll past with their bodies tilted open. With their rounded carbon-fiber shells over short tube-frame chassis, they look like an automotive Pac-Man until they fasten the bodies at the start line. Like Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Cars run a descendant of the 426 Chrysler Hemi that Prudhomme rebuilt so often during his racing years. The basic design of the modern floppers is the same as the fiberglass Plymouths and Chevys he ran in the 1960s and ’70s, although one could argue that the aesthetics have been sacrificed in the pursuit of speed. It is hard to distinguish a “Dodge” from a “Toyota” today, but in 1970, you could have parked a Funny Car in a dealer lot and it wouldn’t have looked out of place. Since then they’ve grown longer and wider, dropped their sides to scrape the ground, and sprouted wings to hold them down. Tech and safety have changed, too. No counting the clutch dust sparkle, and there’s a way better ratio of walking away to funerals when they crash.
Six decades ago, Prudhomme was wiping tires and checking oil for former child actor and innovative racer “TV Tommy” Ivo, famous for his “Showboat” four-engine, four-wheel-drive dragster. Prudhomme bought his first real drag car, a front-engine dragster, from Ivo. Two years later he was piloting another rail for chassis builder Kent Fuller and engine builder Dave Zeuschel. That was how drag racing worked in the early ’60s: A guy with a motor met a guy with a car, and they went looking for a guy who could drive it. Prudhomme drove “it” pretty well, winning the 1962 Bakersfield March Meet, then the premier quarter-mile race in the country. Fuller recommended Prudhomme to Keith Black, a Southern California engineer known for building fast boat engines, and car owner Tommy Greer, and the Greer-Black-Prudhomme team was born. Between the summer of 1962 and the end of 1964, the GBP car would rack up an incredible 230 wins against seven losses. Prudhomme’s career was born, and so was “the Snake.”
“A guy by the name of Joel Purcell on the GBP team gave me the nickname,” says Prudhomme. “I didn’t like it. He was a funny guy. I was not. He started calling me Snake, the way I’d leave the starting line. Then the announcers started saying it. Snake—thank God. It could have been worse.”
Success in the GBP slingshot led to a seat in the “Hawaiian” car, built in 1965 by brother-from-another-mother Leong, then a young crew chief. Prudhomme continued winning in dragsters, including the Super Snake, a Ford SOHC 427 Cammer-powered machine sponsored by Carroll Shelby. In 1970, he made the jump to the new Funny Car class on the advice of Tom McEwen and the Hot Wheels rep, who saw them as better sponsor billboards and toy prospects. The Snake went from successful drag racer to must-have Christmas present for 1970.
The Snake kept biting well into the 21st century, but the appeal of those dangerous and exhausting early days was that they were also fun. Even Prudhomme can be seen smiling in the Hot Wheels photos. Later on, it got harder to be happy. “Man, I had heartburn all the time,” he says, as we watched the sun set over the emptying grandstands. “The worst was in ’08 and ’09, finding sponsors. That did me in. That broke my back. Took years of nitro rehab before I even wanted to watch it again.” Even now, Prudhomme can only stand about half a session before he starts pacing, touching that long-stubbed-out cigarette. Earlier, one of the NHRA people told me they purposely make his schedule almost impossibly busy or else “he gets bored and grouchy.” I relay that to him during our follow-up interview. He laughs and asks, “Who said that? Those assholes. It’s true, though.”
Prudhomme might not want to own a team, but the itch to race is barely below the surface. When I visit his shop in Vista, California, after Pomona, he’s crouched over a workbench with a razor blade, cutting out the Jegs logo from a parts catalog. “Help me out with this, will you?” he asks, handing me a roll of clear tape with which to attach the clipped Jegs logo to his blue buttoned-down so it will look like sponsor apparel in a photo. “We used to do this all the time back in the day,” he says. “We’d get a new sponsor and need to get a press release out and there was no time to make new patches.” Today, he could call and get a crate of Jegs-branded shirts overnighted to his door, but he still has that “pay the bills first” approach to life.
Jegs is sponsoring his latest race car, a 2018 Polaris RZR1000, prepped by P.J. Jones (son of Parnelli) and driven by Prudhomme, who is making up for all those missed quarter-miles since his retirement with one 1000-mile go in the NORRA Mexican 1000, an off-road rally in the Baja desert. It will be his first time behind the wheel in competition since 1994. Maybe the Snake is still hungry.