The Hawaiian, Roland Leong has Passed

Roland Leong and Don Prudhomme were life-long friends - NHRA National Dragster photo
Roland Leong was recently inducted to the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame – NHRA National Dragster photo

The Hawaiian has left the building.

He’d been in failing health for quite some time and Roland Leong, 79, succumbed to the vagaries of older age on December 29th. A legendary NHRA team owner who elevated the careers of Don Prudhomme and fellow Hawaii native Danny Ongais, Leong’s Top Fuel and Funny Car “The Hawaiian” race cars were beautiful, quick and fast.

A successful driver who raced gas dragsters in Hawaii, he left the islands to ply his craft in the hot rod center of the universe, California. In the early 1960s Leong began to build race cars at the famed Dragsters chassis shop near San Diego and his rail took victory in Top Gas at the 1964 Internationals with Ongais at the wheel, one of the driver’s first major victories.

While Leong had visions of driving in Top Fuel, crashing on his first run and only run – at more than 191 mph – scuttled those plans. His then-mentor, engine-building maestro Keith Black convinced Leong that he’d be more successful as a car owner. Black suggested he hire Prudhomme, then a Southern California car painter, as his driver. They became fast friends and that friendship has lasted through the years.

Roland Leong and Don Prudhomme were life-long friends – NHRA National Dragster photo

While Leong came from a well-to-do family, Prudhomme emerged from more of a rough-and-tumble early existence. Still, the duo merged their talents and found success both on and off the straight-line racetracks where they plied their trades. The duo actually met in Hawaii in 1963, where Prudhomme was racing a dragster shipped to the islands with a Black engine.

In his book, “Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme: My Life Beyond the 1320”. Prudhomme spoke of their meeting and lifelong friendship: “We were total gearheads. All we talked about was drag racing. He was like a little brother to me,” Prudhomme admitted.

They won the 1965 Winternationals together with a Top Fuel car they put together, but by 1966 this duo would separate with Prudhomme going out on his own and Leong continuing to build his legacy as a car owner and tuner. He won both the Winternationals and U.S. Nationals in 1966 with Mike Snively, yet decided to work with Funny Cars in 1969, where he was successful once again, this time earning back-to-back Winternationals victories in the Flopper class with Larry Reyes and Butch Maas.

As much as for his technical prowess, Roland Leong was known for building beautiful cars with the nomenclature that told fans exactly who he was and where he was from: the cars would have The Hawaiian nomenclature with bamboo letters, so that everyone knew whose cars they were.

Johnny West burnout in Leong’s Hawaiian Punch Funny Car – NHRA National Dragster photo

In the 1970s and 1980s, match racing was a big deal and Roland Leong’s cars, driven by such well-known noon drivers as Gordie Bonin, Bobby Rowe, Norm Wilcox, Larry Arnold, Rick Johnson, Mike Dunn, Jim White and so many others, were as successful a draw as his NHRA entries.

“It was an experience,” Leong recalled of those match racing days. “For the age we were, it was a helluva experience. We saw a lot of the country, and after we’d been on the road for so long, we got to know people in almost every town. We’d do something with them, whether it was to go to their house for dinner, or go out and do things with them. For me,” he said, “it was the experience of a lifetime.”

Just before the turn of this century, Leong and Prudhomme reunited, with Leong tuning the race cars of upcoming star Ron Capps. In addition to returning to NHRA drag racing, Leong enjoyed tuning Nostalgia Funny Cars for NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Series, gaining admiration of yet another generation of drag racing fans.

Former NHRA competition director and current promoter of Nitro Revival, an annual celebration of earlier drag racing eras, Steve Gibbs lamented the loss of The Hawaiian: “It was ‘his time,’” Gibbs said, “as Roland had been in poor health for a long period. His presence and impact on the sport cannot be overstated. He absolutely lived to drag race. I certainly treasure every moment I shared with the man and the friendship we long enjoyed. My hat’s off to Snake and Steve Levy, for the kindness and compassion they showed to Roland in his final days. This sport has a huge heart.”

Jim Epler, the first Funny Car racer to exceed 300 mph and now executive vice president of Top Fuel ace Justin Ashley’s sponsor, Phillips Connect, thought he might have another chance to visit with Leong in 2024: “He was my last crew chief in 2001 with [Chuck] Etchells. He was a true racer and taught me a lot. He will be missed,” Epler said.

Leong was a hands-on car owner who was an ace tuner – NHRA National Dragster photo

When Leong was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame – an induction that was intended for 2020 but actually occurred last year, Ron Capps was effusive in his praise: “HUGE congrats to my mentor and friend Roland Leong for his induction into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame. The induction was supposed to happen in 2020, and we’re SO glad he got to share it with his family and friends, as well as his longtime friend, Don Prudhomme,” the three-time NHRA Funny Car champ said.

Details about a memorial are forthcoming. Racing Junk extends our sympathy to Roland Leong’s given and chosen family.

About Anne Proffit 1280 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

2 Comments on The Hawaiian, Roland Leong has Passed

  1. I was lucky to spend about a half hour with him in 2011 at the NHRA museum collectibles show the weekend of the Winters. They had let me in early since I was VERY early and I found him sitting with The ‘Goose. We all talked about what Tom had there and I bought something he signed. I don’t recall what Roland had there. I began to excuse myself by stating that I should look around before the show opens and Roland said he’d like to look with me! So we walked around and talked about this and that and I bought a few things I knew would be gone in an instant once the doors opened. I’m sure I bought something of his but the item escapes me now. Regardless, what a pleasure to spend that time with him at HIS request!
    R.I.P. MR. HAWAIIAN!
    Side note, I raced on ‘his’ strip in Hawaii in ’73 or 4 in a rented, 22 second Vega just for fun!
    Since I was the only one in C/Mini I won the class! HA!!!

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