MICHAEL ECKERSON March 15, 2023 Industry Updates
It’s remarkable how much Tom “Mongoo$e” McEwen influenced what we now know as drag racing. Today’s crescendo of excitement on the strip with bold racers who regularly top 300 MPH. Racers like Force, Pedregon and Hight to name a few, who share the legacy of the lane with the pioneers of the sport like Garlits, Muldowney, Bernstein and yes, Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen to name a few.
Time has a tendency to fade the memories of those who were caught up in the fever that emanated from The Snake and Mongoose rivalry. Even today’s race fans who were not of a certain age in this Golden Era might not know how lackluster its beginnings were. Drag racing back in the early days was made up of a rag-tag group of enthusiasts. Greasy palmed young men who wrenched on their rides until race day. Then they would meet at race tracks like the venerable Lions Drag Strip in Santa Ana to test their mettle and their machines.
It was in this era that Tom McEwen began forging who we would know him to become – the legendary Mongoo$e. In the early days of his childhood however, Tom struggled with the loss of his father who was a test pilot and whose life was lost in a flight accident in Panama. Tom was only two years old at the time.
Not long after the loss of their father, Tom’s brother was born in Panama. Their mother soon moved to Long Beach, California in the early 40s where their grandmother came out from Missouri to help raise the boys.
Tom began racing at the age of 16 with a 1953 Oldsmobile at America’s very first drag strip, the Santa Ana Drag Strip The strip at the Orange County Airport California.
As time passed, Tom honed his drag racing skills in gas coupes, altereds, gas and fuel dragsters, and later, Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters. Each one more powerful than the last.
Back then, drag racers lived a gypsy life, traveling from one town to another, promoting ticket sales by doing interviews with local radio stations and newspapers. There wasn’t the kind of big money in drag racing then like there is today. Drivers often won parts, a case of oil and sometimes a savings bond.
…race fans who were not of a certain age in this Golden Era might not know how lackluster its beginnings were.
Tom McEwen continued to race with moderate results. In 1963, McEwen achieved his first noteworthy success, posting a second place finish at the Bakersfield March Meet in California. He also drove the Donovan Engineering Special dragster, and it was in this car that he first raced against Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. McEwen won the race against Prudhomme at Lions Drag Strip on September 12, 1964, spawning what may be the most famous match-race pairing in the history of drag racing.
Later in 1964, Ed Donovan, a drag-racing pioneer who was known as the Mole, came up with a nickname for Tom McEwen. Every driver needed a nickname. Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen were racing each other a lot at this time. Prudhommme’s nickname was The Snake because he was a tall kid and known for his great reflexes. Ed Donovan, told Tom about Rikki-tikki-tavi, the name of the mongoose in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Tom found it funny that a mongoose is a big, ugly, rat-looking thing, so Prudhomme and McEwen had a friend do some artwork and started calling themselves the Snake and the Mongoose. And so it began.
McEwen became the spokesman for the competitive rivalry, but the quieter Prudhomme actually won more races. They were just a match made in heaven,” said Tom Madigan, a former drag racer who wrote a book about the rivalry, “Snake vs. Mongoose: How a Rivalry Changed Drag Racing Forever.” Their match races became genuine showdowns. The rivalry grew between the two drivers — McEwen’s Plymouth Duster and Prudhomme’s Plymouth Barracuda — the sport changed forever.
In 1970, McEwen talked the Mattel toy company into producing 1:64 scale Snake and Mongoose cars as part of its Hot Wheels die-cast toy line — and thereby becoming drag racing’s first sponsor outside the automobile industry.
“The licensing, the merchandise, the racing, it just seemed like it all happened at the same time,” said Tony Pedregon, a fellow NHRA funny car driver. “I don’t know that there were too many kids that are my age that didn’t have the Snake and the Mongoose Hot Wheels set.”
In 1974, Skip Hess asked him if he could use Mongoose for his new line of performance bicycles. Prudhomme and McEwen struck a deal with Hess, a drag racer turned businessman whose company became a billion-dollar business. Mattel withdrew their sponsorship in 1973, but the two drivers had drawn so much exposure they were able to form their own company, Wildlife Racing, that attracted other corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola. Soon, other teams had non-auto logos splashed on their cars. A trend that continues today.
There is no question, Mongoo$e is one of the best-known drivers in NHRA history. He was voted Number 16 on NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers and was inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
The Mongoose” vs “The Snake” is known as the greatest rivalry in drag racing. Even though Prudhomme won more of the races and four NHRA funny car Championships, McEwen said he won the “best race ever” between the two, at the United States Nationals in 1978, just four days after the death of his son, Jamie.
In an recent interview, Tom is quoted saying; “These top fuel cars now produce 10,000 to 12,000 horsepower. You know how you hear advertisements [that] you can buy a new car that will run 0 to 60 in 3 or 4 seconds? These top fuel dragsters run (zero to) 150 mph in less than a second from a standing start. The noise and the power shakes the ground. It’s an experience you can’t experience on TV. You’ve got to be there.”
Yes sir. We do indeed.
Thank you for all that you accomplished for the sport, the fans and the shared experience.
You are missed.
Stories from the road by long time friend and colleague Peter J Ward of Drag Racer Magazine
One of the small joys of being on the road with The Mongoo$e all those years was all the strange, funny stuff that took place.
This was a classic. 1986, the team was competing with the Coors Corvette at an IHRA race in Norwalk, OH, picture a typical sleepy mid-western small town.
Early Sunday morning Goo$e, Sharon Lasater, a dear friend and wonderful lady who was our Coors Rep and Pete Ward , stopped at a small country store for race day supplies.
We’re talking country store, not convenience store…well-worn wood floor, hunting supplies, fishing licenses, those old fashioned yellow fly strips curling down from the ceiling, soda pop iced down in galvanized tanks…country store.
Goose and company were walking up and down the narrow gathering stuff and notice a guy with his kid, kind of lurking around, stealing glances at the group…Goo$e looks at him, he looks away. This store has some really neat stuff, nothing like you’d see in a 7-11, so they’re in no hurry…and this guy is shuffling around the store, nodding toward Tom and kind of whispering to his boy.
Finally he gets a little closer, nodding, smiling at Goo$e, who’s wearing a Coors Racing Team/Mongoo$e polo shirt and Coors Race Team baseball cap, but he doesn’t say anything, Tom smiles and nods back. Sharon and Pete figure the guy’s a fan and he’s too shy just to come up and say hello. Goo$e asks Pete if there are any extra caps in the car, to give to his bashful fan and his boy, yes they do, so he goes out and get a couple and a pen in case they want the caps signed.
Pete comes back and finally all the supplies are gathered up to the register…next to the register is a giant glass jar with a half dozen or so picked eggs floating inside. The guy’s standing by the door, so on the way out, Goo$e walks over, extends his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Tom McEwen, good seeing you” or something to that effect.
The guy looks at Tom, down at his extended hand and gets this real quizzical look on his face…and exclaims “No you’re not…You’re Burt Witherspoon!”
Now it’s Goo$e’s turn to look quizzical…and he comes back “No, I’m Tom McEwen”.
To which the guy replies, “No you’re not, you’re Burt Witherspoon, you went to high school with my brother…you used to live down the road from us, until your folks sold the farm”. Now he’s shaking Tom’s hand rather vigorously, like he’s trying to talk some sense into a drunken friend. “You dated Mary Kay (somebody) who lived in town by the drug store. The last I heard, you were holdin’ down a job at the Ford plant in Cleveland.” By now both men are totally confused and Sharon and Pete, standing off to the side, laughing their butts off.
Trying to make some sense of all this, Goo$e hands the caps to the guy and calmly explains “I’m Tom McEwen, a race car driver, we’re here for the race today.” He might as well have said “I’m an alien from Mars and I’ve come to abduct your wife and dairy cattle”. This guy was absolutely certain he was talking to the Witherspoon’s eldest son, who obviously had suffered some kind of mental breakdown.
After several more awkward moments, the two men agreed to disagree, the goods are loaded up and the befuddled trio drive off… and for the next couple weeks Tom became known as, Burt “The Mongoo$e” Witherspoon.
Stories from the road by Peter J Ward of Drag Racer Magazine
In April of 1987 R. J. Reynolds unveiled its’ premiere Winston All-Star event, for drag racing, hosted at the Dallas Motorplex. It featured the sport’s Top Ten, the best of the best. Stick and ball sports had their all-star players and events, this was to be drag racing’s version. Invitations were awarded to the Top Ten, based upon the previous season’s finishing order. Following the event’s qualifying sessions that ten was culled to a final eight car field.
’86 was a good year for the Mongoo$e, he finished 7th in points. On the other hand, Raymond Beadle, who was going through a thorough transition with his racing business, didn’t fare as well, finishing out of the top ten.
Come ’87 Goo$e was experiencing a major gremlin in the Coors Corvette. He launched more superchargers (blown off the top of the engine due to engine failure) than NASA was launching rockets. Poor Buster Couch, NHRA’s illustrious official starter, who had experienced all types of starting line mayhem, was even getting guy shy when Goo$e rolled up to the starting line. Needless to say, a trip to Dallas for the All-Star event would have been an exercise in futility. As usual, with Dale Emery tuning, the Blue Max was still hauling ass. So, Goo$e and Raymond struck a deal. He provided his entry slot which went with the driver and Raymond provided the Blue Max Pontiac Trans Am…and thus was born “The Blue Goose”. Tom quickly acclimated himself to the new ride, qualifying second with a 5.45, his quickest personal ET.
Come race day, the weather was cool and gloomy, with rain threatening, but the all concrete track was in killer form with traction abundant and atmospheric conditions perfect. In the first round Goo$e faced off with John Force, who had yet to win a major national event, and on that day the trend continued. John got out first, but the Blue Goose flew by at half track. In the second round, Goo$e proved to be a bad guest, beating the event’s host and track owner, Billy Meyer. Naturally Raymond and the boys were thrilled with how well the plan was working. But Goose was conferring with Emery, concerned with how light the Trans Am’s front end was.
In the event finals it was McEwen tuned by Dale Emery facing off against Kenny Bernstein tuned by none other than Dale Armstrong. Goo$e left first and was leading by a sizeable margin, but going into the lights, with the Blue Goose’s nose floating off the surface, he was forced to lift. Bernstein rocketed by in the lights for the win. In the process, the quickest side by side funny car race, in history, was contested: Bernstein’s 5.36 to McEwen’s 5.42.
Thus ended the tale of Tom McEwen, Raymond Beadle and the Blue Goose. A blink of eye away from a story book finish.
Born January 14, 1937
McEwen gains early experience in a variety of rides, beginning with a ‘53 Oldsmobile at Santa Ana Dragstrip in Irvine, and a ‘54 Olds at Lions Dragstrip in Long Beach, California. He went from the stock ranks to gas coupes, altereds, and eventually dragsters and funny cars. Noteworthy cars he drove were the Stone-Woods-Cook ‘50 Olds fastback, the Bader & Ferrara Cadillac-powered Crosseyed Crosley, Art Chrisman’s Hustler II, the Bud Rasner and Gary Slusser Fiat coupe, Dick Rea’s Chrysler-powered blown gas dragster, and Gene Adams’ Albertson Olds.
McEwen continues relationship with Adams and drives Adams’ Shark. Significant because it was one of the first dragsters to use a streamlined body with an enclosed parachute pack.
McEwen achieved his greatest success to date when he posted a runner-up finish against Art Malone at the Bakersfield March Meet in California in the Broussard-Garrison-Purcell-Davis car.
He also drove Donovan Engineering’s Special dragster. This was the car he first competed against Don Prudhomme with.
McEwen won his race against Prudhomme at Lions Dragstrip on September 12, 1964.
McEwen beat Prudhomme’s famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme car in two straight sets, paving the way for what may be the most famous match-race pairing in the history of drag racing. Later in 1964, McEwen drove Lou Baney’s Yeakel Plymouth-sponsored dragster to victory at the 32-car UDRA meet at Fontana Raceway in Fontana, California. He also took Top Fuel titles at Lions Dragstrip and Pomona Raceway.
Because their first get-together had received so much attention, two more races between McEwen and Prudhomme were staged at Lions Dragstrip in 1965.
McEwen drives the Yeakel Plymouth dragster to victory over Prudhomme and his new ride, the Leong-owned Hawaiian, two rounds to one in the first – then McEwen loses in two straight sets in the second.
McEwen and Prudhomme raced each other only once in 1966, at the Winternationals, site of their first national event meeting. They would not meet again for four years. McEwen won the 1966 Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway and then went on to win the 1968 Stardust National Open in Las Vegas.
McEwen records his lowest ever elapsed time to date with a blistering 6.64 at the Orange County PDA Meet in 1968.
McEwen also continued to build on his reputation as a colorful promoter. The Plymouth Hemi Cuda he unveiled in 1965 was featured in every major car magazine. He convinced the Southern California Plymouth Dealers Association to support him and displayed the car all over the West Coast. In 1967, McEwen took the same approach with one of drag racing’s great one-shot wonders: Ford Motor Company’s Super Mustang. When it made its highly anticipated debut at the Winternationals, it generated significant publicity.
McEwen’s strong promotional talent and Prudhomme’s success on the racetrack eventually led to the formation of a national touring team sponsored by Mattel and, in mid-1969, McEwen and Prudhomme corporately became Wildlife Racing.
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.
McEwen won his first major event when he dominated the Top Fuel field at the Bakersfield March Meet.
He scored his first NHRA national event victory A year later by topping the quickest funny car field in history at the SuperNationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
He went on to win four more national events, including his dramatic U.S. Nationals funny car victory over Prudhomme in 1978, following the death just a few days earlier of his son, Jamie.
He wins the prestigious Big Bud Shootout.
Wins Top Fuel at the 1991 Summernationals.
Tom McEwen retires and raises quarter horses — all of which, he had said, have Mongoose in their names. McEwen continues to influence drag racing and is publisher of Drag Racer Magazine, as well as attending car shows and doing promotional work for a long line of admirers, and was a semi-regular presence at races. McEwen also had a big hand in helping put together the NHRA Legends Tour.
Stories from the road by Peter J Ward of Drag Racer Magazine
It was toward the end of summer in ‘85. The season was winding down, ‘Goo$e was at home in SoCal, taking care of all the business that piled up while he was on the road.
The phone rings: “May I speak to Mr. Thomas McEwen?”
“This is Tom McEwen”
“Mr. McEwen, this is Ms. Smythe from the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency in Ottawa, Canada.
“Mr. McEwen, are you the proprietor of Tom McEwen Racing Enterprises, Fountain Valley, California?”
“Yes I am, what’s this about?”
Well sir, our records show you owe the Canadian Government $375,000 American for the sale of your entire business operation to an unknown purchaser here in Canada”.
At this point in the conversation Goo$e swallows his tongue. “I DID WHAT?”
Now, he thinks this is some elaborate stunt someone’s pulling on him…Bill Doner, or maybe Jack Williams, so he starts pushing back a bit.
“Mr. McEwen, I assure you, this is no laughing matter. In August of this year our records show your transporter crossed the border into Canada at Port Huron in Michigan and it did not leave the country. We must assume that you sold your tractor, trailer and its entire contents to a Canadian citizen.”
Now, he’s starting to worry a bit. This woman is serious. For the younger of you out there, NHRA used to hold a national event at Sanair outside Montreal, Canada. It was always a pain in the butt, because if the Canadian Customs agents wanted to screw with you, they could make you inventory your entire trailer and tractor… every nut, bolt and washer…before letting you into the country. You could literally spend a couple days in the process. So, we were always very, very , VERY polite and soft spoken when we crossed. Plus we love our neighbors to the north. So now what the hell had happened? This was serious governmental stuff here.
“I’ll contact my people and find out what happened! and get right back to you!”
Of course there was always reams of paperwork involved with border crossings, so now, it a bit of a panic mode, Goo$e tracks down Tom Prock, Goo$e’s Crew Chief and Team Manager. No cell phones, so it’s not that simple.
“Tom, I just got off the phone with a woman in Canada, she says we sold our whole operation while we there!”
Of course Prock doesn’t have a clue what Goo$e is talking about…it’s sitting out in the lot of a truck stop, where ever they might have been at the moment. So they go back and forth, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
Finally Prock recalls…”Now I remember! We crossed late at night and there wasn’t anybody at the Canadian Customs Station, so we just blew through.”
“What about the paperwork?!!!”
“I got it here somewhere.”
So now Goo$e has to call the Canadian tax lady and explain to her the situation. She was none too pleased at this transgression…but thankfully was understanding. Basically all he had to do was take a picture of the rig with a newspaper showing the date and location, pay a fine and end of deal….instead of doing time in a Canadian prison for tax evasion.
Stories from the road by Peter J Ward of Drag Racer Magazine
1991 NHRA Mopar SummerNationals at Englishtown, NJ: The Goo$e’s final major event win.
Tom’s team: Crew Chief Larry Meyer (Larry’s wife, team mother bear ‘Mo’) Andy Woods, Guy Tipton, Pete Ward and fly-in crew member Tom (last name lost to history).
They were there campaigning the Mobil 1 Top Fuel dragster owned by baseball legend Jack Clark (then playing for the Boston Red Sox). He was a power hitter nicknamed “Jack the Ripper” who played for the Giants, Cards and Padres during his illustrious career.
The season had gotten off to a tumultuous start, chemistry between the original crew and ‘Goo$e was caustic. One day prior to the start of NHRA’s Mid-South Nationals in Memphis, Clark terminated operations. After the smoke cleared Goo$e and Ward were the only ones who remained.
During that same period, Larry Meyer was running Lori Johns’ Jolly Rancher T/F operation, Andy Woods and Ted Fasching were part of Larry’s crew. Bad blood was also simmering in that camp. Long story short, Larry took over the Mobil 1 operation and relocated it from Indy to Dallas. Andy came along and Guy, who had worked for Goo$e on his fabled ’57 Chevy F/C joined the group.
The newly formed team, led by Larry Meyer, took a hiatus from competition, and basically redesigned the entire car. At the time, Top Fuel dragsters were running two fuel pumps. One of the major changes was the installation of a newly built big single fuel pump, the brainchild of the late Ed Cluff. Many had scoffed at Cluff’s design, and finished product. Meyer laughingly attached a small tag to the pump which read “Hillbilly Engineering”.
Profound changes in technology and public interest have accompanied Mongoo$e in his journey from early drag racing meets to Hall of Fame recognition
After a two race absence Goo$e stepped back into the fray at E-Town. Some wished the team well, others hoped they’d fall on their butts. The car performed flawlessly, at one time clocking the event Low ET and ended up qualifying a respectable fourth.
During competition on Sunday, Goo$e defeated both Team Kalitta entries, Dick LaHaie and ironically Lori Johns in the finals. It was a vindication of Goo$e and the entire team.