Don “The Snake” Prudhomme: Still racing at 81
Six-time NHRA champion Don Prudhomme made a living piloting eye-catching race cars down the quarter-mile. Early in his career he drove the Hawaiian rail for the Leone family, and in the ’70s, he campaigned an Army-sponsored Chevy Monza. But his greatest fame came when he teamed up with Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, and they match-raced their funny cars—the “Mongoose” Duster and the “Snake” Barracuda—in the late-’60s. The pairing caught the attention of Mattel, leading to premium sponsorship for both cars, a line of Hot Wheels toys, and eventually a feature film titled “Snake & Mongoose.” McEwen died in 2018 at the age of 81.
Prudhomme turned 81 last month, as he prepped for a 1000-mile off-road down the Baja California peninsula. Just last year, after his class victory in the NORRA 1000, Prudhomme called it quits on off-road racing. “Yep, I said that,” Prudhomme recalls. “But Baja is just a place that keeps calling me back to try it one more time. I think we can win it again.
“I’m just ready to go—I’m 81 years old, but I still feel like I’m 51.” Aside from a sciatic nerve in his back that keeps acting up, Prudhomme says he’s in amazingly good shape. “I’ve been blessed. And I just got a cortisone shot for the sciatica, so my back should be good to go.”
Prudhomme and racer Dick Firestone (yes, from the tire family) will be racing the retired drag racer’s modified Can-Am UTV once again. “We’ve done some work on it, and it should be a little faster,” Prudhomme says of his wicked-looking side-by-side. In fact, when we spoke to the Snake—a nickname he earned in high school growing up in Southern California—he was taking the shocks from the Can-Am to veteran off-road racer and tuner Walker Evans for some last-minute tweaks. Apparently, it’s a star-studded affair, as P.J. Jones, son of racing legend Parnelli Jones, will be helping out, too.
“We’re serious about it,” Prudhomme says. “If we weren’t, we’d have no business heading down there.”
The 1000-mile scramble is sanctioned by the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA). The first NORRA Mexican 1000 ran in 1967, and eventually transitioned into what we know known as the Baja 1000. The NORRA 1000 is a little more low-key than the Baja 1000, with five days allowed to cover the 1000 miles.
Each year, the route is different, and unlike the Baja 1000, you can’t pre-run this race. You don’t get the chip containing the route for your GPS until the day before the race. Drivers have less than 24 hours to study the downloaded map before they careen off into the dessert. “It’s tough,” Prudhomme says. “Some days we’ll do 250 miles, some days 150, but we’ll average 200 miles over the five days.”
The race starts Monday, May 2, and runs through the following Friday. (It is live-streamed at NORRA.com.) The field is comprised of restored vintage race cars, historic vehicles, as well as modern-day, high-tech race cars, trucks, and motorcycles as they traverse the challenging and spectacular landscape of Baja, Mexico.
“I like going fast,” Prudhomme says. “I don’t go crazy fast anymore, I just go fast.”
Prudhomme went crazy fast for years. As a teenager, he joined a Southern California car club called the Road Kings of Burbank. “They had a dragster that they took to a track near where I lived, and I got to drive it. I was hooked. Absolutely hooked.”
Prudhomme won his first national event in 1965. (If you have Roku on your television, there’s a 24-hour NHRA drag racing channel, and they’ve been airing vintage black-and-white coverage of the first win for Prudhomme and his rail dragster.) Not long after, he moved to full-bodied Funny Cars. The Snake is one of the few drivers who have won titles in the NHRA’s Top Fuel and Funny Car classes.
According to veteran Prudhomme, the dragsters are easier to drive, but he preferred Funny Cars, and won four titles in the fiberglass floppers. “They’re a little trickier, but they are the most exciting to drive,” he says. He was also the first Funny Car driver to top 250 mph. Prudhomme eventually retired from driving in 1994 but continued to own winning race teams.
As for drag racing today, “I wish I had a lot of good things to say. It costs so damn much money to be in it professionally,” says “the Snake.” To race, you have to bring a lot of sponsorship, or your folks supply the money, or you marry into it, or something. The cost has run a lot of the good people out. But that’s the way it is with all professional racing. It’s all about money.”
“I’m glad I came up when I did. It was the golden years, really – the building of the sport, the innovation, the ability to do new things. I’m so glad I raced when I did,” says Prudhomme.
He added: “And I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing now.”