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‘The Mongoose’ Helped Steer Drag Racing Into Mainstream

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 14 2018

Drag racing pioneer Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen passed away this week.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Legendary drag racer Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, whose rivalry with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme carried NHRA Championship Drag Racing into mainstream America via a series of toy cars, is being remembered this week as the sport’s first marketing visionary.

McEwen died Sunday, June 10, at the age of 81.

“Drag racing never would be where it is right now without ‘The Mongoose,’^” said John Force, a 16-time Funny Car world champion and NHRA’s premier personality.

“People who never heard of John Force know about ‘The Snake’ and ‘The Mongoose.’ That’s how big they were,” said Force, who learned of McEwen’s passing while competing in the inaugural Virginia Nationals in Dinwiddie, Va.

After acquiring corporate sponsorship from Mattel Toys in 1970, McEwen and Prudhomme barnstormed the country’s drag strips for Funny Car match-races that raised the profile of NHRA and inspired a generation of fans via “Snake” and “Mongoose” Hot Wheels cars.

Force called McEwen “the P.T. Barnum of drag racing” for his marketing vision at a time when drag racing largely was viewed as a fringe motorsport.

McEwen won only five NHRA national events, highlighted by the prestigious U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis in 1978. McEwen defeated Prudhomme in the final round of NHRA’s oldest event, fulfilling a wish made by McEwen’s 14-year-old son, Jaime, less than two weeks after he died from leukemia.

“We are all saddened to learn the news of ‘Mongoose’s’ passing,” NHRA President Glen Cromwell said in a statement from the sanctioning body’s headquarters in Glendora, Calif. “He was truly one of the most brilliant pioneers of NHRA Championship Drag Racing and continued to support the sport through a number of initiatives including our current NHRA Legends Tour, in which he played an instrumental role.

“Everyone at NHRA will miss him deeply. Our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences are with the McEwen family at this difficult time.”

McEwen began his racing career at Santa Ana Dragstrip in Irvine, Calif., in 1953 and first crossed paths with fellow-Californian Prudhomme in 1964. In mid-1969, McEwen and Prudhomme formed a national touring team named Wildlife Racing with sponsorship from Mattel. That association ran from 1970-72, by which time the “Snake vs. Mongoose” rivalry clearly had elevated the profile of NHRA and the Funny Car class.

“I was the (BS-er) and Prudhomme was the racer,” McEwen said in an interview with NHRA. “I’d set up the deals, then we’d go out to the track, and he’d usually beat me. There were times when he was beating me so regularly that the only way I could have beaten him was if he got lost on the way to the track…

“We were a good team; we complemented each other. Don was the serious guy, spent a lot of time with his car, and I was more like the wrestlers today_ saying how bad I was going to beat him, to build interest in the deal.”

McEwen earned his first NHRA national event win competing under the Wildlife Racing banner during the Funny Car portion of the SuperNationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in California in 1972. McEwen added a Top Fuel victory to his resume in 1991.

McEwen and Prudhomme appeared together at various drag racing events in recent years, recounted their relationship during an interview on The Dave Despain Show and saw their rivalry celebrated in the 2013 film Snake & Mongoose.

Among the current generation of stars McEwen influenced most is Force, who spoke at length with veteran public relations representatives Elon Werner and Dave Densmore about the drag racing pioneer.

During the last month, McEwen had called Force to talk about the recent spate of engine explosions and crashes that had left the Hall of Fame team-owner and driver battered, bruised and besieged. The conversation was typically candid. McEwen reportedly said, “Force, are you trying to kill yourself? Let’s talk, call me.” It was the kind of conversation the two had engaged in for more than 40 years. 

“He could do that,” Force said. “I know, I don’t listen like I should because I’m always too busy talking about my kids or my sponsors or something else, but I would always listen to ‘Mongoose.’  He’d be honest.  If he thought I was screwing up, he’d tell me. Sometimes it would piss me off but when I thought about it, he was usually right. He didn’t pull any punches.  He knew the life.”

Force reiterated that the McEwen/Prudhomme partnership with Mattel Toys in 1970 that launched the “Snake and Mongoose” Hot Wheels cars completely altered the sport’s landscape. Ironically, Hot Wheels is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“He was a hustler,” Force said of McEwen, a longtime resident of Fountain Valley, Calif. “He was the first marketeer (in drag racing). Kenny Bernstein and Raymond Beadle, they sold the sport to corporate America, but ‘Mongoose’ in my opinion was the first.  He was the one who showed the way.

“He was one of the guys who taught me how to chase money and that the sponsors always had to be taken care of. Back in the early days he taught me how to talk to the racetrack promoters and what they really expected of me as a race car driver. Tracks like Irwindale, Orange County, Seattle, Bakersfield, Fremont and Phoenix _they wanted a showman, a fast-talker, tire-smoking, hot cars and story-teller _ and he was the king. I’m telling you, he was the P.T. Barnum of drag racing.  When I won my first round at an NHRA event in Baton Rouge (La.), all he said was, ‘Johnny boy, I’m proud of you.’^”

McEwen finished ninth in NHRA Funny Car points in 1976, a season that saw Prudhomme win seven races and his second consecutive championship. Prudhomme added a third title in 1977 and his fourth in ’78. “The Snake” won three national events that season while with McEwen won one event as the point-runnerup. In 1979, Prudhomme finished second to Raymond Beadle _ the first of the Dallasite’s three consecutive championships _ while McEwen finished 10th.

McEwen finished ninth in Funny Car points in 1984, one spot in front of Prudhomme. McEwen last appeared among Funny Car’s top-10 in 1986, when he won two races in a championship dominated by Bernstein for the second consecutive season.

McEwen’s foray into Top Fuel saw him finish seventh in points in 1991 with one victory, three spots behind Prudhomme as Joe Amato claimed his fourth of five world titles.

Prudhomme retired after recording 14 Top Fuel victories and 35 in Funny Car before continuing as a successful Top Fuel team-owner for several seasons.

“My kids would never have the kind of opportunities they have, or the lives they live (without McEwen’s vision),” said Force, referring to daughters Brittany and Courtney. Brittany is the reigning Top Fuel world champion and Courtney is leading the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series point standings in Funny Car.

“It’s very emotional for me because I’m losing all my heroes _ Gene Beaver, Keith Black, Joe Pisano, Raymond Beadle, (Dale) Armstrong, (Steve) Plueger, and now ‘Mongoose,’^” John Force said. “I know (death is) going to happen to all of us, we ain’t getting out of this alive. But this one is really hard because, to me, ‘The Mongoose’ was invincible.  He loved drag racing, he loved the fans and he loved life.  He would come to my shows for hours and sign for the fans.

“When I was 16 at Lions Dragstrip (in Long Beach, Calif.), I knew that all I wanted was to race but I knew it was impossible. But when I saw Hot Wheels with ‘The Snake’ and ‘The Mongoose’ years later, I saw that you really could make a living in this sport.  ‘Mongoose’ put us on the map.

“We all learned from him and right to the end he was still so big in the sport. I was emotional after hearing of his passing while at Richmond, because ‘The Mongoose’ was a racer that took care of so many including me. He loved the sport, he loved his family, he loved his friends, he loved his fans and NHRA drag racing.

“I realized something that I had missed.  I never said I loved him, but I always did.” 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 14 2018
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