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The Snake Is Missing and Missed At Pomona

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2010
The familiar car of Don Prudhomme will be missing from the Winternationals this weekend. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

The familiar car of Don Prudhomme will be missing from the Winternationals this weekend. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

First-round qualifications for the golden anniversary of the NHRA’s Winternationals are scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon, albeit with a huge void in the staging lanes at Pomona, Calif.

Legendary owner/driver Don “The Snake”  Prudhomme announced in early January he was parking his Top Fuel team and retiring after failing to land a primary sponsor for the 2010 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season.

Prudhomme’s decision has made a free agent out of Texan Spencer Massey, who won two races and finished sixth in points at the conclusion of the six-race Countdown to 1 schedule in November. Massey subsequently was voted winner of the Auto Club Road to the Future Award as the National Hot Rod Association’s top rookie.

Prudhomme, who will turn 69 in April, spent 32 years as a driver in Funny Car and Top Fuel. Prudhomme retired from the cockpit following the 1994 season and spent the last 15 years as a team-owner – and one of the most recognizable and popular figures in motorsports.

All those facts have not been lost on the drag racing community as it prepares to open the season with the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway. The reigning professional class champions are Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel, Robert Hight in Funny Car and Mike Edwards in Pro Stock.

“Well, we hate that Don’s not going to be performing this year and running,” said Kenny Bernstein, a championship contemporary of Prudhomme’s in both Funny Car and Top Fuel. “It’s a great loss to the NHRA community and the sport in general, obviously. He’s a legend in this sport.  A name that’s synonymous with this sport just like (Don) Garlits. The bottom line is we don’t want to lose any of those guys as long as he wants to do it, and I know that he enjoys doing it.

“The facts are the facts though.  This thing is very expensive out here.  Has been for years, and it still continues to go (up).  And consequently, Don and myself, and John Force, and a few people, this is how we make a living.  So without sponsorships, we can’t do it.  You’re not going to spend your own money.

“I couldn’t afford to do it, and I know Don doesn’t want to do that either.  If we had businesses to fall back on – if we were fortunate enough to have large companies to fall back on that we could utilize for advertising extents – that would be a different story.  But the three of us don’t.  So in all reality, it’s a great loss to NHRA racing and to us.”

Prudhomme learned in late August that U.S. Tobacco would be ending a 23-year association with him at the end of the 2009 season. A four-time NHRA Funny Car champion, Prudhomme explained that his decision to retire was based on the fact he did not see the team breaking even financially without a major backer. For the record, Prudhomme sat out the 1986 season because of a lack of sponsorship, returning in 1987 in the Skoal Bandit Racing Funny Car.

Similarly, Bernstein’s 30-year association with Anheuser-Busch and the Budweiser King Dragster ended after the 2009 season. The Budweiser-Bernstein relationship stands as the longest-running in motorsports history, eclipsing Scientifically Treated Petroleum’s (STP) 28-year sponsorship of seven-time Sprint Cup champion Richard Petty in NASCAR. Bernstein since has signed COPART Inc. as primary backer on a Top Fuel car driven by son Brandon, who finished fifth in points last year.

“I hope that Don finds sponsorship for 2011,” said Kenny Bernstein, a six-time NHRA world champion, including four in Funny Car (1985-88) and two in Top Fuel (1996 and 2001). “I think knowing him he will want to do that because he does enjoy it.  But in all honesty, the bottom line is it’s dollars and cents.  In our case, if COPART hadn’t come aboard, if we hadn’t gotten COPART, we wouldn’t be here either.  You would have had two of us out of the sport.  I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but I don’t think it’s good.”

As as driver, Prudhomme earned his  consecutive Funny Car championships from 1975-78. In each of those seasons, Prudhomme won the Winternationals. His popular U.S. Army-sponsored Chevrolet Monzas won six of eight national events in 1975 and seven of eight in 1976. Prudhomme drove Plymouth Arrow-bodied cars to his titles in 1977-78.

Overall, “Der Snake” recorded 49 victories in 68 final-round appearances – 35 Funny Car wins and 14 in Top Fuel. Seven of those victories were scored in the prestigious U.S. Nationals, but his racing roots remain tied to the Winternationals. A native of San Fernando, Calif., Prudhomme scored his first NHRA national event victory in the 1965 Winternationals driving the “Hawaiian” Top Fuel Dragster in conjunction with owner/tuner Roland Leong and Chrysler engine-builder Keith Black.

As a team-owner, Snake Racing earned NHRA Top Fuel championships in 2002-03 with protege Larry Dixon at the wheel. As an entrepreneur, Prudhomme helped take drag racing to a more mainstream audience via Mattel Toys’ introduction of “The Mongoose (Tom McEwen) and Snake” Hot Wheels sets.

Meanwhile, seven-time Top Fuel champion Schumacher – who has been sponsored by the U.S. Army since late in the 2000 season – lamented the sidelining of one of the sport’s icons and a detour to Massey’s promising career.

“Well, you know, that’s a great team.  Spencer is doing a heck of a job driving,” said Schumacher, son of Funny Car pioneer Don Schumacher and a student of the sport. “It’s unfortunate that a guy like Don Prudhomme and Spencer couldn’t put a deal together.  But it’s not over yet.  They announced they’re selling their stuff, but if something comes up, I guarantee you he’ll be back out there.

“It happens.  Cars come and cars go.  When it comes down to it, there’s nothing easy out there.  I’ve got two cars in my own camp I’ve got to worry about.” Schumacher was referring to Don Schumacher Racing teammates Antron Brown and Cory McClenathan, who finished third and fourth, respectively, in the 2009 standings.

“So, there’s a lot of good cars out there,” Schumacher said. “Yeah, we lost a good one. I hear Spencer will be driving for somebody.  You know, he’s a good guy. There’s teams that will be forming that we’ve never even heard of at this point that will come out in the next one or two years. Doesn’t matter who is in the other lane, doesn’t matter if a guy comes and goes, you have to stay focused.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2010
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