As the old saying goes, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it can sure buy nitro — and snappy Coca-Cola pants to boot!
As drag racing matured, it became much more expensive to be competitive. Equipment manufacturers were building better parts, and now, the stuff was being designed specifically for drag racing. The science of nitro engine development, tuning and chassis design was making rapid advances. Crew chiefs were getting savvier. Drivers, many becoming full-time professionals, were constantly honing their skills.
All this was conspiring to radically improve the performance of Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars. This increase in performance came at a cost, though, literally. Racing was getting much more expensive. You could no longer get by on the parts deals doled out by traditional automotive-related sponsors.
This was the state of professional drag racing that brought about the “Hot Wheels Deal.” The whole deal kicked off in late ’69. I realized that if my racing career was going to continue to flourish, it was going to require a major injection of cash. To come up with the kind of money I needed, unconventional thinking (and funding) was required. After doing my homework, Mattel Toys and their highly successful Hot Wheels line of toy cars and accessories seemed like a natural target. The kids raced their cars in a straight line like we raced, and the parents, being about my age, were either already race fans, or at least potential fans. Throw in the Mongoo$e and Snake animals to use as advertising hooks, and it looked like a win-win situation.
Next: Can the Mongoose persuade the skeptical Snake to get on board with the deal?
I approached the Snake with the idea. He was highly skeptical of the whole thing, but climbed aboard anyway. His feelings were basically, “This idea ain’t gonna fly, but knock yourself out, kid.” There had been a few modestly successful non-automotive sponsorships through the years, like A&W Root Beer and Jim Nicoll’s Der Wienerschnitzel Hot Dog Stands come to mind, but nothing of the scope I envisioned.
I was well into my 20s when my mom married attorney Joe Ball, a partner in a high-powered California law firm. One of the firm’s clients was Mattel Toys. Joe was adamant about separating family from business, but he did give me a contact at Mattel, Art Spears, who was a company vice president. The first meeting went very well. The Mattel people liked the idea from its inception. Though McEwen and Prudhomme might not have been household names, my promotional efforts through the past few years had certainly put “The Mongoo$e” and “The Snake” on their radar screen. I had come prepared with a briefcase full of promotional ideas and the deal looked very promising. They wanted to meet Don, so a second meeting was scheduled.
Trick Question: What do the Mongoose & O.J. have in common?
After the second meeting, in which we granted them the licensing rights to use the “Animals,” the deal was done! Don and I immediately formed Wildlife Racing Enterprises and we were in business. Sensing this was just the first step in a potential sponsorship gold mine, we signed on with Sports Headliners Management Group to represent us in further business dealings. Their client list included Mario Andretti, the Unser Brothers, and O. J. Simpson. We soon added Chrysler’s Plymouth Division, Coca Cola, Federal Mogul, Champion Spark Plugs, Pennzoil, Wynn’s, Cragar, and Goodyear to our roster. Significantly, now these sponsors provided not only product, but big bucks, too. I honestly don’t remember how big the initial total package was worth, but in doing my research, I came across figures ranging from $160,000-to-$300,000. No matter the actual figure, it was more than Don or I would have dared dreamed of just a few short years before.
Until our Hot Wheels deal, Don had been competing solely in dragsters, and even though I had logged considerable laps in Funny Cars, I was still a dragster guy at heart. Mattel insisted we race Funny Cars. They thought the floppers would be a better fit for the Hot Wheels product line and the slab sides made them rolling billboards for their company logos. Plus, they provided more room for our associate sponsors.
Through the years, I had really focused on safety-related issues in our sport. Following John Mulligan’s tragic death, the threat of fire was one of my major concerns. Bill Simpson and I had many discussions regarding the development of some type of system, maybe something similar to what the NASCAR guys were using. Both cars featured his newly designed Freon fire-suppression systems. To my knowledge, this was the first application of such a unit in a Funny Car. Since we were now in bed with Plymouth, we were assigned bodies resembling their high-performance street offerings. Snake got a Fiberglass Ltd. Barracuda body, and I got a Duster body, created by Fiberglass Trends. Celebrated tinsmith Tom Hanna did the aluminum work for both cars.
Coca Cola Pants Add Life
Our racing operation was one of the first truly professional in appearance, featuring separate matching team uniforms for Don and me and all the crew members. We always looked sharp, whether at one of the hundreds of displays we did or at the racetrack. Do you remember our famous Coca Cola pants?
By 1970, the Hot Wheels deal had forever changed the face of our sport. The late, beloved Steve Evans, made famous by his “Be There!” race track promotion radio ads, who later went on to become the “face of drag racing” through his many years of Diamond P Television, was quoted as saying, “This sponsorship revolutionized the business of drag racing.”
Excerpt from MONGOO$E: The Life and Times of Tom McEwen. Get your very own copy here (http://store NULL.beckett NULL.com/Mongoose-The-Life-and-Times-of-Tom-McEwen NULL.html).
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