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‘The Mongoose’ Provided Quiet In A Noisy Sport

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 15 2018

Drag racing pioneer Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen passed away this week.His quiet moments may have been his most significant moments. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – The passing of drag racing legend Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen on Sunday reminded me of an interview I conducted with him at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, years after his barnstorming match-racing days against Don “The Snake” Prudhomme had taken their well-deserved place in NHRA history.

McEwen, who was 81, is being remembered this week as drag racing’s first marketing visionary.  After acquiring corporate sponsorship from Mattel Toys in 1970, McEwen and Prudhomme traveled 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.

On the day we chatted at former Funny Car driver Billy Meyer’s facility, McEwen was back in the cockpit of a Funny Car as a father forever mourning the loss of a son, and a guardian angel to every cancer-stricken patient he met.

What follows is my column as it appeared in the May 1, 1989 Sports section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram under the headline: Son’s inspiration steers McEwen toward helping leukemia patients.

The sights and sounds of a typical drag racing weekend have a comfortable feel for Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. The shiny cars, the whining engines, the curious fans.

But not so with his weekly hospital visit.

Inspired by the teen-age son he lost to leukemia, McEwen has befriended countless kids in hospital cancer wards since 1979.

Jamie McEwen, the middle of Tom’s three sons, was diagnosed as suffering from leukemia in August 1976. He died at age 15, a little more than two years later, breaking a promise he had made to his dad to tough-it-out for one more racing weekend.

Shortly after Jamie’s death, McEwen contacted the non-profit Leukemia Society of America in New York City. The LSA sponsors programs on research, patient assistance and community services. Thus was born McEwen’s idea of a weekly visit to a children’s hospital in the area he happened to be touring.

McEwen and his popular ’57 Chevy Bel Air Funny Car spent the weekend at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis as part of Super Chevy Sunday. Yesterday the world’s fastest ’57 Chevy covered the concrete quarter-mile at 248 mph, 4 mph faster than its previous best.

On Thursday McEwen made some fast friends at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas _ located appropriately enough on Motor Street _ where he joked with kids and boosted the morale of parents.

“The parents take it tougher than the children, because the children don’t really know,” said McEwen, a 52-year-old resident of Fountain Valley, Calif. “All the kids know is they’re mad at the world. Most of them have lost their hair, they’re puffed up (from medication), they’re sick all the time. And every time someone walks into that room in the hospital, they’re coming in to ‘hurt’ them.”

Not McEwen, whose Dallas visit produced new encouragement _ and a batch of Nintendo video games to help the patients break their bed-ridden routine. It was one McEwen learned to endure as he watched leukemia drain the life out of his curly-haired, sports-minded, car-crazy kid.

“Everybody has a little bit of leukemia in them,” said McEwen, a member of the LSA’s national sports committee. “Something fires off the leukemia cells in your bone marrow and it starts making more leukemia cells than your white corpuscles _ the ones that fight infection _ can handle. It overpowers the system. It starts shutting it down. And then you die.”

His son’s final bout put him in a hospital in Long Beach, Calif., at the time McEwen’s battle against archrival Don “The Snake” Prudhomme was heating up for the National Hot Rod Association’s Funny Car championship. Next stop was the prestigious U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park over Labor Day Weekend, 1978.

McEwen told Jamie he was going to skip the race to stay with him.

“He said, ‘I want you to go and beat Prudhomme. Win for me and I’ll be all right. And I’ll be here when you get home.’

“So we went there and beat Prudhomme in the final,” McEwen said. “It was like a fairy tale (on national TV). But it was a very sad deal.”

Jamie had died the week before.

“I don’t think I would have gone if he was still alive,” McEwen said. “That’s probably why he died _ so I would go and race.”

Neither the passage of time nor an improving cure-rate have made the hospital visits easier.

“But some of them are getting better,” McEwen said. “Used to be zero (were cured). Now, 30 or 40 percent they can cure because of research. In the last year, they’ve developed a cell medicine where they can take the marrow out and treat it and then put it back. And those cells act like bounty hunters and kill the leukemia cells.

“Some of them walk away. That’s why I feel I need to do it, and to raise money.”

McEwen’s promotional efforts produced $88,000 for research in 1987.

“All we can try to do is cure the thing,” McEwen said. “It’s like Jamie didn’t die for nothing. I feel like he’s alive and with me all the time.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 15 2018
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