by Jennifer Harrington
Born in 1941, Californian Don “The Snake” Prudhomme earned the best win record in the NHRA with his Greer-Black-Prudhomme Top Fuel dragster. Prudhomme won four NHRA Funny Car championships during his 35-year career, and was also the first drag racer to exceed 250 mph. Prudhomme’s start and his Mattel/HotWheels partnership with Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen is featured in the upcoming movie Snake & Mongoo$e, arriving in theaters on September 6, 2013.
What influenced you to begin drag racing at the age of 20?
The biggest influence was getting hooked up with the Road Kings of Burbank car club. It was a group of hot rodders who were also into drag racing. It was my experience driving the club car that made me want to keep pursuing drag racing.
How did your nickname “The Snake” come about?
I get asked that question a lot, but there’s really no great story behind how I got that nickname. One of the crew guys from back in the early days made the comment that when I left the starting line, I had a quick reaction, like when a snake strikes. I didn’t really care for it at the time, but I learned to like it and it definitely stuck.
In 1973, when you switched from Top Fuel to Funny Car, what made you choose to race a Plymouth Barracuda?
I had driven front-engine dragsters my whole career up until the Mattel/Hot Wheels deal started in 1970. It was Mattel’s idea to have Tom and I both drive Funny Cars as they were really growing in popularity. I already had a good relationship with Dick Maxwell and the folks at Plymouth, as they were supplying me with engine parts for my dragster. When Tom and I spoke with Dick about the Funny Cars, it was Dick who wanted to see me in the ’Cuda and Tom in the Duster.
What was it like being partnered with Tom “Mongoose” McEwen on the Hot Wheels team?
Being teamed up with Mongoose was great. We were buddies, so that made it a good combination and a lot of fun. He was way more into the marketing and having fun with it all, where I was mainly focused on the race car and winning races. We are still good friends today.
How much success did the Mattel/Hot Wheels sponsorship bring?
We enjoyed a tremendous amount of success because of the Hot Wheels deal. It really launched both of our careers with the help of Mattel. It’s been more than 40 years since then, and we both are still approached by fans who watched us match-race back then or bought the little Hot Wheels cars. We still have a good relationship with Mattel – they continue to make Snake and Mongoose diecast cars and still have us appear occasionally at collectors conventions.
What was your favorite dragster that you drove?
I’d have to say my favorite dragster was the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car. We had a pretty good run with that car, winning around 200 rounds, and we didn’t lose very often. The car is now owned by Bruce Meyer and is in his collection. It’s in great condition and still runs. In fact, I had the chance to drive it around a little bit during the filming of the movie, and that was a lot of fun.
Did you prefer the Mopars over the Chevy Vega or Pontiac Funny Cars?
In the early days I was always a Plymouth and Mopar guy. During that period, the ’70 Plymouth ’Cuda with the 426 Hemi was the car to have, so that’s what we had. It was the cat’s meow. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that I started to build a relationship with GM and Chevrolet and started to run a Chevy body.
What was the transition like when you went from being a racer to a team owner?
The transition to becoming a team owner solely was great because I was already an owner/driver by the time I retired. I had the experience being a team owner and hiring other drivers to drive allowed me to continue on. I never thought the sport would grow into something like that and [thought] that I might just fade away like an old soldier. As it turned out, I was able to stick around for 50 years.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming movie, “Snake & Mongoose”?
My thoughts about the movie are that it is a small movie with a real big heart. I hope that it is successful and that people enjoy it.
How much consulting or advising did you provide for the film, if any?
When it came to giving advice on the movie, I offered as much as they would let me! Both Tom and myself were on set quite a bit – got to know the actors and everyone involved. I also made several of my old cars available for the film, and they are shown a lot throughout the movie.
How accurate do you think the film is/will be?
I think the story overall is quite accurate, the way that Tom and I came up, getting the Mattel deal, the historical stuff. Like any movie, Hollywood doctors it up, but the basic story is accurate.