Tom “Mongoose” McEwen may not have been one of NHRA’s more prolific winners (he had five national event wins including one at the prestigious U.S. Nationals), but the colorful character’s gifts included a proclivity for enticing sponsors into the sport and the ability to stir up his perennial “frenemy” Don “Snake” Prudhomme, creating a rivalry that still transcends the sport.
McEwen, 81, passed on June 10, 2018, leaving behind a legendary history. both on and off the dragstrip. Voted the 16th top driver in NHRA’s Top 50 list in 2001, McEwen made his mark in both Top Fuel and Funny Car classes over a 35-year career. The Californian began his racing career on some of Southern California’s most celebrated racetracks beginning in 1953.
He progressed through gas coupes, altered and eventually raced gas and fuel dragsters. In 1962 he drove Gene Adams’ Shark dragster, one of the first to use a streamlined body with an enclosed parachute pack. It became one of McEwen’s more famous racecars.
The battles with Prudhomme began at Lions Dragstrip, Long Beach, Calif. in September of 1964, in a heavily promoted match race. McEwen, piloting Ed Donovan’s Donovan Engineering Special dragster, won that race against the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster. That one match race created a great deal of interest and spawned the “Snake vs Mongoose” battles on the West Coast as McEwen kept his racing activities in the Pacific region.
Although McEwen had good success on the many West Coast tracks, it was his battles with Prudhomme in their Hot Wheels Funny Cars struck a chord with both adults and young racing fans. McEwen’s promotional ability and Prudhomme’s trackside success eventually led to the formation of a national touring team sponsored by Mattel; in mid-1969 the duo incorporated as Wildlife Racing, racing with Mattel sponsorship from 1970 through 1973.
McEwen knew his place: “I was the [BSer] and Prudhomme was the racer,” he said. “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 and I got to single,” McEwen told NHRA.
They made a good team for those few years and complemented one another well. “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’s most dramatic victory, at the U.S. Nationals against Prudhomme in 1978, came just days after the death of his son, Jaime.
A member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America – just to name two – Tom McEwen remained popular in his retirement. He was a welcome visitor to NHRA events and at car shows. He had a big hand, NHRA said, in helping put together this year’s NHRA Legends Tour, making 2018 appearances in Las Vegas and Houston as part of the program.
A 2013 film, Snake and Mongoose, told the story of McEwen’s and Prudhomme’s battles on the track in their Hot Wheels cars and the great friendship that transcended their racing activities. McEwen, who suffered from colon cancer, would likely remind one and all to get screening for this devastating disease.