Features

Band of brothersWednesday, August 11, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess
How many can you name? (View bigger)

They belong to a fraternity founded in the 1960s, back when they were all younger men with limitless dreams in their heads and scores of quarter-mile runs in their future. Theirs is a friendship forged in the fires of competition, strengthened in years together on the road, and cemented by camaraderie in pit areas across the country, where their common bond allowed them to understand one another, regardless of the type of car that they drove or owned or what kind of engine was in the framerails.

It's a band of brothers, if you will, whose passions continue to burn long after their last header flames were extinguished, and a family of friends that 40-something years later still seek the company of one another, to catch up on one another's lives after drag racing, to retell and exaggerate old tales, and to bask in the warm glow of careers that made many of them more famous than they ever dreamed.

They came together again Monday at what can only be described as a mini Hot Rod Reunion, far from the dusty trails of Bakersfield and the sweltering heat of Bowling Green, at the Southern California shop of perhaps the most famous of their own, Don Prudhomme, and I was the lucky fly on the wall.

I had been jealously reading about the planned get-together in some of the drag racing e-mail groups to which I subscribe, but belonging to such a group does not earn you an invitation; that came from Roland Leong, legendary owner of the Hawaiian Top Fuelers and Funny Cars, who has been a great friend over the years. He didn't have to ask twice.

I had only seen a partial list of expected attendees, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I rolled up to "the Snake's" shop in Vista, but whatever I could have imagined or dreamed of could never have matched what I walked into: a Who's Who of Southern California drag racing royalty, all chitchatting amicably inside Prudhomme's cavernous shop, sharing space with his incredible collection of restored Funny Cars.

Roland Leong and Dode Martin
Harold Miller, left, and Danny "Buzz" Broussard (Tom Jobe photo)

Some of them I knew already, and many I’d only heard about, but Leong and Steve Gibbs kindly offered up introductions to the ones I didn't know. Man, where to start?

How about 85-year-old Dode Martin, founder of the famed Dragmaster chassis company, whose headquarters is just down the road in Carlsbad? Decades after changing the way in which race cars were built and sold, they’re still in business, still selling parts and pieces and, on occasion, an entire dragster to a retro-crazy clientele. Leong introduced me to him as his first boss, as it was in the Dragmaster shop that he first landed when he came Stateside from Hawaii. Martin is in the process of restoring the team's famous Dragliner entry.

Leong also pointed out Harold Miller, the only black member of the original Bean Bandits team that ruled Southern California drag racing in the 1950s and later a crewmember for guys like Bill Leavitt and Jerry Baltes.

I spent some time talking to two old pals, Dale Armstrong and Donnie Couch, guys I've known for decades from interviewing them in the pits. As Prudhomme later pointed out, you know it’s a big deal when Armstrong shows up because the perpetual tinkerer usually has to be pried from his garage with a 10-foot crowbar. Couch, a standout crewmember for so many of drag racing's biggest stars, is now a bright light himself on the nostalgia circuit thanks to his West Coast Funny Car Factory, where he assembles machines to do battle in the nostalgia wars.

There was "Snake's" old crew chief, Bob Brandt, with whom I've also created a great friendship, and another former Prudhomme crewmember, Pat Galvin, who, like Couch, has a résumé of famous employers as long as a dragstrip. There was Wes Cerny, who crewed for Leong and Prudhomme, and Mike Kuhl, former partner with past Winternationals Top Fuel champ Carl Olson.

From left, Tom Jobe, Broussard, Willie Wolter, and Dale Armstrong

Who else? How about Tom Jobe, a third of the famed Skinner-Jobe-Sorokin Surfers team? Jobe and I have exchanged numerous e-mails over the years, but this was our first meeting. (He also kindly sent me some of his photos to round out this column.) I listened raptly as he told tales of the Red Apple motel, where the trio kept and worked on its famed dragster between events, and how Bob Skinner's mom managed the place and was quick to give the heave-ho to any customers who complained about the noise her boys were making. Armstrong told Jobe, whom he hadn't seen since then, how he had gone to see the Surfers at the Santa Monica, Calif., motel to buy a helmet from Sorokin, one that he sure wishes he still had.

Hey, look, there's Frankie Pisano, Joe's brother and owner of Venolia pistons, and Tom Prock, who drove Funny Cars such as the Bergler & Prock, Custom Body, and Detroit Tiger (not to mention the Prock & Howell F Troop Willys gasser) before becoming the general manager at Venolia. I chatted with Bob Muravez (aka Floyd Lippencott Jr.), the famous driver of the Freight Train Top Gas dragster, while we stood on the landing high above the shop to take photos.

I met Dan "Buzz" Broussard, owner of the Garrison-Davis-Broussard-Ongais Top Fueler of the 1960s. I interviewed him last year for the story I wrote on the late, great Leonard Harris but never had met him. Leong also introduced me to Larry Bowers, whose superchargers once proliferated the nitro pits and who drove gas and fuel dragsters (you'll remember him from the famous shot of the entire bellhousing being blown out of his car at Orange County Int’l Raceway).

Bill Doner, "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry, and Armstrong relived West Coast memories.

I also got to meet the legend that is Bill Doner, the dragstrip impresario who once owned a good chunk of all of the famous West Coast dragstrips from Seattle down to Orange County, and famed wheelie king "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry, whom I'd seen in action dozens of times but only spoken to on the phone. Doner still has 'em eating out of his hand; people gathered around as he wove stories about promoting events and the lengths he'd go to, including the famous Linda Lovelace-at-Seattle story. Doner also fondly remembered a forever-trying, forever-unsuccessful Funny Car racer who begged to be in his famous radio ads in the 1970s, even telling him that he'd accept less money to race if he could only be in the ads so that his mom could hear his name on the radio. That racer was John Force.

Spider Razon, half of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Dead End Kids dragster team (who is now in the apparel business), was there, as were Danny Porche, former car owner of the famed Howard Cam Rattler, and Roy Miersh, who worked on the car and now helps his son, Larry, on an injected nitro dragster. Harold Owens, whom SoCal racers know from the staging lanes in Pomona or from Inyokern, was there along with fellow Inyokern/Dust Devils alumnus Dennis Garrett.

From left, Roland Kleinsorge (who worked with Tommy "the Watchdog" Allen's Top Fueler), Jess Sturgeon, and Bill Pitts (Tom Jobe photo)

Who else? How about Dominick Cordoza, driver of the Huff & Cordoza Top Fueler and co-owner of "Diamond Jim" Annin's Mike Snively-driven Top Fueler? Bill Pitts, owner of the Magicar Top Fueler. Jess Sturgeon, driver of the Sturgeon Bros. Top Fueler from the 1960s. Roger Garten of War Horse Funny Car fame. Former Pro Comp wiz Jimmy Scott and alky dragster ace Don Irvin. Chassis builder Bob Meyer. Pete Eastwood and Derek Bower, who did the incredible restoration of the Mondello & Matsubara fuel altered. Billy “Bones” Miller, longtime friend of "the Snake" and "the Mongoose" who brought many sponsorship deals to the latter. Harold Meziere of the famed SoCal racing family. Former Drag Racer magazine editors Scott Cochran and Randy Fish and former San Diego-area photographer Mike Mitchell were on hand, as were Top Fuel owner/driver and WDIFL.com photographer John Ewald and everyone's favorite "wavemaker," Don Prieto. The list goes on and on. In all, probably 70 or 80 of SoCal's drag racing royalty were under one roof.

I also met Ralph Whitworth, to whom Prudhomme had once sold many of his restored cars that they had hoped would form part of a collection at Whitworth's Nevada museum, America's Car Collection, before the project got derailed. Whitworth's newest project, with the help of Prudhomme and Willie Wolter, is Tom Cobbs' historic roadster, which, as legend has it, was part of what is considred the first "legal" drag race in history, against Fran Hernandez at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport in April 1949. Armstrong is helping, too, with engine work on the old blown flatheads.

So many of these famed racers stopped by to tell me how much they enjoy this column, which was music to my ears. They like what we're doing here, and that makes me happy.

Drawing almost as much attention as Prudhomme's fleet of floppers is his collection of vintage racing jackets from places like Lions, San Gabe, Irwindale, and Pomona, plus a Road Kings jacket and more. Too cool! (Tom Jobe photo)
(Tom Jobe photo)
After a couple of hours of extreme bench racing, we headed off to lunch at nearby Nucci's Italian Café, where more than 60 of us packed one wing of the restaurant, and the good times rolled on. I sat with Leong, Brandt, and Jim "Dudley" Rickart, whom many of you may know as the wheelman for Jim Jennard's coach, but he's been around a long time, too, and seen a lot. More stories flowed over pasta and salad, and, unfortunately for you, most of them can’t be told to protect the "guilty" parties.


As we sat there, Leong looked around the room, and he, too, was amazed that this group of guys, who all pretty much started together as young men – he was always among the youngest, and he's 65 now – are still hanging out all these years later.

The party broke up after lunch, and a few of us headed back to "Snake's" shop. I wanted to check on the progress on the former Tom McEwen ramp truck (see below) and maybe chat with Prudhomme a while longer. Goodbyes were said and promises made to do it again real soon.

Back at Snake Racing, I sat with Prudhomme for a half hour, talking about his absence from the sport ("Y'know, I miss parts of it, like the competition and that moment when you’re standing behind the car as it's ready to launch, but there are definitely parts of it I don’t miss") and especially about the day's get-together.

"Man, this was really cool," he assessed. "You know, to have all of these guys come back together and still be friends all these years later, it really says something. To me it says that drag racing is one of the best things that ever happened to them in their lives."

I couldn't agree more.
 

She ain't beautiful ... yet
Cutting the ramp off the truck
El Jefe himself got on a creeper to check out the progress.

Work is well under way on the former McEwen hauler, and there's a lot of work to be done. Although Wolter said that the interior of the truck is in better shape than Prudhomme's when they found it, there's going to be quite a lot of labor put into the old girl, who's pretty rusted in areas.

The ramp is cracked (probably for the short time when it also hauled a tractor puller), and the cabinets have been altered and pretty beat up. The truck actually runs and is drivable but is still probably better than a year from active duty.

When I was there, a couple of workers were crawling around and underneath the behemoth, using cutting torches to hack off brackets so that the entire back section could be lifted off and both parts could be worked on. Once it's freed, they'll lift it off the chassis with a pair of forklifts and place it on a rolling dolly so that repairs can be made and the entire truck prepped for painting.

There's little doubt in my mind that, under Wolter's guidance and with Prudhomme's unquenchable thirst for authenticity, the truck will turn out as smashingly awesome as Prudhomme's own rig. As someone commented, "Man, when it’s done, he's going to have a pretty nice set of bookends."

I can hardly wait.

OK, that's it for today and likely the week. Sorry for the delayed posting, but the little trip put me behind in all of my National DRAGSTER work, and I spent yesterday catching up on that, and tomorrow I head out for Brainerd and the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

I've received another batch of ramp-truck stuff that I'll share with you probably next week. National DRAGSTER subscribers in the meantime should be checking their mailboxes for this week's issue, which is our annual Readers Choice special, and, as always, it's heavily nostalgia-oriented. We have a feature of the Frantic Four Top Fuel team, histories of Modified eliminator and alcohol racing, a look at the sport's one-hit wonders, an Ed McCulloch life story, a look back at the introduction of Funny Cars, and more.

Be sure to check it out.

Of Snakes, Mongooses, and horsesFriday, August 06, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Today's column is a bit of a mash up of comments from recent columns, including the ongoing ramp-truck discussions, Tommy Ivo's glass-sided trailers, "the Snake" and "the Mongoose," and Hot Wheels. I'm having to create so many subfolders in my email's Inbox to keep everything in order that it’s beginning to look like a many-headed snake … so to speak.

OK, first things first. I finally got a chance to speak to Tom McEwen about his recently recovered ramp truck that Don Prudhomme is restoring, and I've received a few more photos of the machine, in two paint schemes, from Mark Dias, who holds the rather cool title of road speed control products manager at Sturdy Corporation, a North Carolina-based company that works on "mechanical, electrical, electronic, and software solutions with a focus on applications designed for harsh environments." Like drag racing? 

Anyway, here's a shot of "the 'Goose" standing next to his truck at Tri-State Dragway in 1971, when the truck was wearing its second paint scheme (blue; originally red, as shown in the second photo from 1970, parked outside a motel somewhere on the road).

McEwen expressed a bit of surprise at all of the love still being shown to his career and especially the truck, considering his love-hate relationship with it.

"Every time I think of that truck, I have nightmares," he told me. "I had nothing but trouble with it at the end. They were so heavy, and there's a key in the rear drive axle that kept breaking, I had to have that sucker towed in so many times I lost count. I’d have to get towed in the last couple of hundred miles to make the date. Oh, man, I'm telling you. They were nice trucks but sometimes a real pain.

"I know Prudhomme has been talking about wanting to find my truck ever since he found his, and I'd had guys call me over the years and telling me it was here or there and if I was interested in buying it. I was told years ago that it was in a field somewhere in Arizona all broke down, so I wasn't interested in any part of that."

McEwen also got the chance to talk about his other favorite brand of horsepower, which runs on four legs. McEwen has long bred and raced horses, and his newest star is Mongoosecharminghawk, a 3-year-old filly that earned him yet another win last Saturday at Southern California's Los Alimitos Race Course, where she won the California Breeders Matron Stakes, which is what they call a Cal-bred race because it's limited to fillies and mares, 3 years and old, that were bred in California.

Mongoosecharminghawk, trained by Dennis Givens (who has trained McEwen's horses since 1978) and ridden by Jay Conklin, edged Irish Idol by a nose to win the $13,750 first-place prize. She covered the 350-yard distance (1,050 feet for you non-mathematical drag fans) in 17.33 seconds.

All of McEwen's horses historically have had the word "mongoose" in them, and this horse's name, in racehorse tradition, is a combination of its relatives. Her mother is Charming Effort (who also produced Mongoose Hawkette). 

Hall of fame photog Steve Reyes has chipped in a few new items on the "Snake" and "Mongoose" front, beginning with this amazingly cool photo from Fremont Raceway that shows a gang of Funny Car stars perched on high to watch Top Fuel qualifying. I don’t know everyone in this photo, but that's obviously Prudhomme seated on the tire at left, and he's chatting with Kelly Brown (blond hair). McEwen is down a few more in the dark glasses, standing next to "Jungle Jim" Liberman and "Jungle Pam" Hardy, who are standing next to Gene Snow and Jake Johnston, who was driving for Snow back then. What a cool "class picture."

Reyes also killed two birds with one photo (well, two photos), dovetailing the Prudhomme-McEwen talk with the Hot Wheels commercials shown here last week. Reyes was on hand at Orange County Int’l Raceway for the filming of one of the Mattel commercials (to promote the Wild Wheelies set, I'd guess) with their slab-sided, front-engine machines.

Now, the first thing that any hard-core drag fan — especially any of us who had the honor of actually going to OCIR — will pick out is that the cars are headed the wrong way on the track, and that's they're also doing burnouts back to the starting line from not all that far up the track. What's up with that?

"Lighting problems," explained Reyes, "so, heck, let's run them the wrong way. They placed the cars going the wrong way out past the Tree and had Prudhomme and McEwen smoke the tires. I thought they were going to crash through the back fence behind the starting line. What a Chinese fire drill."

Reyes also tossed me a couple of more ramp truck photos for the collection. The most interesting to me was this one, showing just how versatile they were. Here, the Custom Body Enterprises team uses theirs to haul the remnants of their mini-Challenger body after losing it in the lights at Indy 1972. How convenient!

 

Moving on to glass-sided trailers …

As I mentioned previously, I've received lots of little notes about the many others who had see-through rigs but got this nicely detailed note from Betty Green, who with husband Jim fielded the Green Elephant floppers (world champs in 1973 with Frank Hall in the saddle!) and some photos of their 1977 rig.

"We had a lot of fun traveling with the car visible," she remembers. "The only problem was when someone would be glued to the side of our trailer looking at the car when we wanted to change lanes. Jim would have to give a little wiggle to wake them up.

"Jim built the short motorhome with the platform back to tow the goose-neck trailer, which he also built. There were a lot of great features to our rig, including a fold-out door just in front of the window that stored a rack of parts needed for every day work on the race car as well as slide-in trays of tools for each job; fuel and oil barrels that had hoses on the boom of the fold-out door so fluids could be added to the car from above; tools, generator, starter, and air compressor in side boxes of the hauler, which was also our tow vehicle at the race track; and a wheelchair lift inside of the hauler for our son, Jamie. We sold the trailer to someone in Hawaii. We don't know where it is now. We still have the motorhome, which extended to full length about 1980, and used it often throughout the 1980s and 1990s when we were truck and tractor pulling. We have an Alpine now but loved our old motorhome; it was like putting on a comfy old shoe."

David Ray tossed me a few photos of glass-sided trailers, including this one of "Diamond Jim" Annin's beautiful stars-and-stripes-themed Top Fueler, sitting pretty as you please in the Indy pits.

Reader Bill Klinger was thinking about the various tow vehicles he's seen over the years, and two unusual ones came to mind. "The first is the box truck of Shirl Greer," he writes. "I remember awing over what must have been a 1950s or early 1960s delivery truck. I saw the truck many times back in the early '80s and then again at a nostalgia event in Valdosta, Ga., a few years ago. The other vehicle was the converted school bus used by the Cassidy Bros. team in the '70s and '80s. Seeing a nicely painted BB/FC though the standard windows of a school bus was a strangely interesting experience." I've received a few comments about the Cassidy bus but don't have anything in our files. Anyone?

And speaking of odd haulers, former National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland recalls, "Back in the days when we had the National DRAGSTER Open in Columbus, Ohio, I can still see Paul Longenecker (Arcanum, Ohio) showing up at National Trail Raceway with a gorgeous new rear-engine Top Fuel car built by Mark Williams ... on a flatbed hay trailer. Paul had previously raced a '55 Chevy in Stock Eliminator (which, as I recall, would never be a contender for Best Appearing Car honors), and to show up with a beautiful new Top Fuel car on a hay trailer was a bit incongruous. To his credit, Longenecker's debut resulted in an event win." More strange but true stories from the strip!

Jeff Mittendorf's extensive "Snake"-"Mongoose" collection drew a lot of oohs and aahs (even though, based on the emails that keep appearing in my Inbox from him, only scratched the surface), and a few had tales to share as well.

Kevin Aardahl also has a set of those first "Snake" and "Mongoose" Hot Wheels that he bought back in 1969/1970. He brought them both to the 35th anniversary Hot Wheels celebration at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum back in 2005 and had both Prudhomme and McEwen sign them. " 'Snake' was very careful signing both the car and button and used an extra-fine permanent marker," he reported. "Tom used a silver pen so it would stand out. That made my day. I still have my first Hot Wheel, the Custom Cougar, bought in December 1968. I had various track sets, but my folks gave it all away when I went to college. Thankfully, they kept my cars."

Longtime pal Dan "the Sign Man" DeLaney responded to Mittendorf's query about the mail-in coupon for a Hot Wheels Funny Car. "I got my first 'Snake' Funny Car through that coupon offer from Coke," he reported. "I couldn't wait until it showed up in the mail. I drove our mailman 'Whitey' nuts chasing him down around the neighborhood seeing if he had it in his mail bag. Then it finally came … Oh boy!  I'm surprised the wheels are still on this thing because I ran it down the orange track so much. I honestly can't remember how it was packaged, but it didn't matter: I had the 'Snake's' Hot Wheels car! Today, it sits in my display case at the shop along with hundreds of Hot Wheels, including the chrome King Cuda, Boss Hoss, and Heavy Chevy, for all to see, and I still tell this story of how I got it. Love the ramp truck stories, too! I was always fascinated by them. I guess all of us around our age have our memories of that era, and I'm so glad I lived in that great irreplaceable time as a kid and as a kid going to the drags. Looking around my shop, I guess I'm still that kid."

Among the many other items that Mittendorf shared with me was this original Mongoose II crew jacket, "the prize possession" of his entire toy/memorabilia collection. It's one that hits pretty close to home for me, too, and it involves my dear friend, the late great National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Leslie Lovett.

"This jacket was gifted after the 1971 season to Leslie Lovett and had Leslie's name embroidered on it," he writes. "There are three more floating around out there that were gifted to other photographers who were friendly with Tom. After Leslie died, it made its way to the hands of a noted drag memorabilia dealer, who sold it to me."

Mittendorf went to great lengths to authenticate the jacket. He spoke to a mutual acquaintance to get McEwen to bring him a similar jacket, one that meant as much to McEwen because it was the one worn by his late son, Jamie, so that Mittendorf could compare them and be sure he had the real deal.
 

Stewart See never got tired of playing with his Hot Wheels dragstrip sets, and still does. He has created a scale drag racing event for kids ages 4 to 16 that includes three tracks: two gravity-fed for the two younger age groups and a raised track for the older group.

"All tracks use original and vintage Hot Wheels equipment from 1969 and 1970, and the older-age bracket uses the Hot Wheels Big Belter/Matchmaker (mechanical Christmas Tree and launcher)," he said. "Every track is exactly a 1:64th-scale quarter-mile, meaning the launch edge to the finish gates is precisely 20.625 feet.

"When I had this idea back in 2005, I sought sponsors, and Lowe’s was kind enough to donate the materials to build the upper-age track, wood carpet, brackets, and bolts. We had local trophy sponsorship as well as for the banners, staff shirts, and prizes. The whole idea is for any kid to bring an original, out-of-the-box car and win either prizes, trophies, or both. No cost to anyone. I did add an Open Dragster bracket for the last event for any car (modified included) and any age, and sure enough, the girl who won the upper-age bracket also beat two adults for the Open Dragster trophy.

"I think all of the racers' parents thought this was the coolest thing they had ever seen! Probably brought back some memories of those Mattel-sponsored Test Days, but this event is much more than that. This is a true drag race experience in every sense of the word, only on scale and for the younger racers. We even have tech inspection during the registration process. Heck, I even registered and copyrighted the name DieCast Nationals. My inaugural event was in October 2005 in Hemet, Calif., and my last event was in October 2009 in Deer Park, Wash. I am trying to organize another event for Sept. 18 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It will all depend on sponsorship."

What a great idea! Am I too old to take part?

OK, friends, that's all for the week. I'll be back next week, but it may not be until Tuesday, depending on if I'm able to keep a very special lunch date Monday that will consume a large part of that day. If I do make it, boy will I have a story to share with you! Until then, thanks, as always, for reading.
 

'Snake' and 'Mongoose' collectionTuesday, August 03, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Y'know, I thought I was one of the biggest "Snake" and "Mongoose" fans in the world, but Jeff Mittendorf has me and just about the rest of you beat like the Army Monza did the world in 1975-76. I was the lucky guy who grew up playing with the Hot Wheels cars of Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen and today can pick up the phone and call either of them on a whim, but my collection of stuff pales in comparison to what Mittendorf shared with me recently. I find it interesting to see what kind of effort Mattel put into the line in addition to the commercials I showed here previously.

Check out some of his collection. Click on any of the images for a bigger version.

Here are genuine factory-sealed 1970 "Snake" and "Mongoose" "redline tire" cars and collector buttons still in their original blister packs. I found similar ones on sale on the web for as much as $400 each.

Here's the Club Kit magazine you got when you joined the Hot Wheels Club. According to Mittendorf, you received a box with a special chrome-plated car (King Kuda, Heavy Chevy, or Boss Hoss), a patch, stickers, membership card, and this catalog that featured "the Snake" and "the Mongoose" on the cover (left) and the dragstrip track set inside (right). I have a chrome Heavy Chevy in my collection, but I don’t recall getting it by joining the club. I think I mailed away for it somehow.

At right is the "Mongoose" and "Snake" coloring book. I find it interesting that McEwen gets top billing here because you most often hear people say
" 'Snake' and 'Mongoose.' "  Other than the slightly chopped tops, it's a pretty cool drawing of the old rivals racing each other.

According to Mittendorf, the book is about 50 pages and tells a story about two kids who do chores to save money for Hot Wheels. 

"On their way home from the toy store, they see a billboard promoting a local drag race," he continued. "When they get home, they play Hot Wheels with their dads. The next day, the dads surprise the kids with tickets to the race. At the race, the kids meet 'Snake' and 'Mongoose' in the pits. After the race, the kids win a raffle for a 'Snake' and 'Mongoose' drag set, which they then play upon returning home." Lucky kids!

Above left is an interesting ad that Mittendorf said appeared on the back of the October 1970 Archie & Me comic book (and probably several others) promoting the "Mongoose"/"Snake" dragstrip kit, "a realistic recreation of the coast-to-coast racing struggle between the two champs." The more I think about the whole "Mongoose-first" thing, it dawns on me that maybe because it was McEwen and his contacts (through his stepfather, Joe Ball, an attorney whose company counted Mattel among its clients, McEwen got the name of company vice president Art Spears) that launched the history-making deal, maybe he got first billing. Mittendorf also pointed out that for some reason "the Mongoose's" car is depicted as McEwen's red-white-blue '69 Barracuda Funny Car and not the red Hot Wheels '70 Duster. Weird.
 
Above right is an awesome ad that ran in several car magazines in 1970 with the tagline "Don Prudhomme says it tears even better than his" that plays on the fact that the Hot Wheels cars could hit a scale speed of 440 mph. There's a pretty cool time-to-distance/time-to-speed graph and some specs about the Hot Wheels diecast (including curb weight: 42.5 grams; wheelbase: 1.860 inches; width: 1.16 inches; ground clearance: .03-inch; and many more). I've made the "bigger" image of this, well, bigger so you can read the details.

Such a deal. For 70 cents and a six-pack of Coca-Cola, you could have had your own "Mongoose" or "Snake" (see, I learn fast) Hot Wheels car. Given the price today, that would be a pretty shrewd investment. "I'm curious if any readers bought some this way, how they were packaged (blister pack, baggie, loose), and if they came with the buttons," said Mittendorf. Anyone?

The 72-car storage/carrying case featuring our two heroes on the front. There are two different versions here, with a text color change on the front chin spoilers. My guess is that the one on the right, with the red lettering, was either a mistake or the designer realized they were hard to read and changed it to black somewhere in the run. (Sorry, there's no "bigger" photo of this one.)

Here's the 1971 model offerings, including the Snake II and Mongoose II Funny Cars and their short-lived front-engine cars that worked in the Wild Wheelie set. The art on the Dragster Pak is pretty cool, Make sure you click on the small image here to see the bigger version. According to Mittendorf, the dragsters were only available in the Wild Wheelie set or on the two-pack and were not available individually. Note also that the track pieces that make the dragsters come out of their wheelie position are under the cars. Smart thinking!

Above are the wedge dragsters in blister packs. "These are not mine since, as you recently noted, they aren't legit," said Mittendorf. "I only collect the toys/memorabilia related to the real cars, but I thought I should include these since they are relevant to the topic." What makes them "not legit" is that Prudhomme's Hot Wheels wedge was red and McEwen never had one.

Here's one of Mittendorf's prize possessions, an original 1972 press kit, signed by both. "This is extremely rare," he noted. "I've only seen a couple." You can buy a duplicate of the kit online for about $100, but the originals, according to The Toy Peddler website, "cost a fortune." The front of the press kit holds two cars in blister packs ("The cars included were leftover 1971 Funny Cars, as Hot Wheels became an associate sponsor for 1972 and didn't produce the Carefree Gum cars," said Mittendorf). There's some cool art on the back (above center) and a black-and-white photo of the famous duo holding 1/24th-scale Monogram models of their front-engine dragsters.

Below are the inside of the kit, with more cool line drawings, and Mittendorf even has the original press releases that came inside, containing info about Prudhomme and McEwen and drag racing in general.

 

I bet you never knew that Tom McEwen drove a Barracuda Funny Car. Well, of course, he never drove a Hot Wheels 'Cuda; this is the result of cost-cutting by Mattel in 1973. According to Mittendorf, "In an effort to cut costs, they made both the 'Snake' and 'Mongoose' cars out of 'Cudas and scrapped the Duster. No body prop or windows were included, and the chassis was now a one-piece casting instead of a multi-piece assembly. There was no special 'Snake' and 'Mongoose' blister artwork. They also released all four of the previous colors at once (white and yellow 'Snake', red and blue 'Mongoose'), but the shades were slightly different. The paint is also not as high quality as before and chipped/peeled much easier than the previous versions, especially the red 'Mongoose.' "

Only Snake II and Mongoose II stickers were used, so in addition to the Mongoose II being a 'Cuda, the yellow Snake II had incorrect blue artwork, as shown at left. Production numbers were way down, so the 1973 "Snake" and "Mongoose" cars are easily the most valuable of the "Snake" and "Mongoose" Hot Wheels. At right is another of Mittendorf's prized possessions, a 1970 "Mongoose" car on the 1973 blister card. "There are only three of these known to exist in the Hot Wheels community," he stated. "There must have been some leftover red "Mongoose" Dusters in the factory, and when the 1973 cards came out specifically labeled for "the Mongoose," someone must have seen an opportunity to get rid of unwanted/obsolete stock. There is no sticker sheet under the car, just the one on the passenger side of the car, as was the manufacturing procedure in 1970-71. To my knowledge, there aren't any yellow 1970 Snakes, white 1971 Snakes, or blue 1971 Mongooses on 1973 cards (if there are, I'd love to see/find it). There are a couple of other castings from previous years known to have appeared on the 1973 card. They are easy to spot as they were painted in spectraflame colors, whereas the 1973 cars were all solid enamel colors."
 
OK, that's enough for today. I've got a few other things from his collection to show you later this week and still more ramp truck madness!

More ramp-truck ramblingsFriday, July 30, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess


Not unexpectedly, everyone flipped over "T.V. Tommy" Ivo's trailer gallery here Tuesday, including Jim Randel, who saw Ivo's Corvette-topped truck in the early 1970s.

"This was probably around 1971 to 1972 timeframe at Motion Raceway off of Route 51 outside of Assumption, Ill.," he remembered. "Back then, that was the top of the heap. I thought to myself, 'What a way to travel!' I don’t remember who he was racing that night, but I can still picture the hauler, and when I read the [column], the picture of it at the track came back." Randel is still peripherally involved with Funny Cars; he works at Levi, Ray & Shoup, sponsor of Tim Wilkerson's flopper.

Predictably, ramp-truck photos are starting to come out of the woodwork, including this fine shot from Charlie Fischer of Tom McEwen's recently recovered ramp truck. As you can see, the car and truck are mismatched as McEwen was transitioning from the blue Hot Wheels Duster to the red Carefree Gum car.

Reader Ben Griffin wanted to know what if any weather protection teams employed to keep water and debris off the car and engine while it was being transported on the ramp trucks. "I can imagine getting caught in a monsoon and water getting everywhere you really don't want it to be in a Funny Car or dragster,' he mused.

Skip Allum asked Don Prudhomme the same question, and "the Snake" pointed out that thanks to the design of their ramp truck, the front of the car was tucked underneath the truck, and this would protect it somewhat, but they still would often use a car cover to protect the Funny Car during transit.

It's not a touring pro, but Craig Smith wanted to show off his father Howard's ramp truck, which he built in 1967 to haul his Iowa-based '63 Ford Ranchero to and from the track. "I know you write about mostly the famous/pros, but his truck did make it into a movie," reported Smith. "He rented his ramp truck out to some movie people to make Fever Heat, with Nick Adams. It isn't a well-known movie, but the ramp truck Nick is driving is my father's." I know there are dozens and dozens of photos of door cars on ramp trucks -- I've seen them all over the Web -- but let's not go there.The original theme here was floppers on ramp trucks.
 

One ramp truck eluding photographic recovery is Ken Veney's old black truck. Longtime Insider reader Andy Perreault wrote, "As a kid growing up in Torrance, Calif., I remember seeing Ken Veney's Vega Funny Car go by my house on the back of a black Chevy ramp truck. Ken must have lived around the corner from me, but, regretfully, I never did jump on my bike and try to follow the truck. I was wondering if you or one of your readers might have a picture of Ken's ramp truck and Funny Car. That would sure bring back some childhood memories for me!"

We tried, Andy, really we did. The first thing I did was forward your e-mail to Ken's son, Todd, who didn’t have any photos, but this query sent Ken and wife Rona scurrying to the attic to search for photos of the truck, but we came up empty. If you know Ken at all, he's not the kind of guy to just get caught up in some random folly, so you know it meant a lot to him as well. I did get this early photo of the hauler from Larry Pfister, who, I was sad to see, is shutting down his long-running Horsepower Heaven website, one of the true history books of Northwest racing.

Todd, however, still can see it in his mind's eye and remembers so much about the truck.

"Nicest damn one you ever saw - all black," he said. "He built it himself, naturally. It was low and super swoopy. He and I were just talking about it not that long ago, and I told him I remember the day he went and got the truck from an ad in the L.A. Times because I went with him. He couldn't believe I'd remember it because I was such a little kid at the time - probably 6 years old.

"I told him how he got it from a guy in Pasadena, which was a long way from Torrance for a little kid, and that we went right up the 110 Freeway past Dodger Stadium, and he knew I wasn't kidding.

"He made the whole frame and body himself at his muffler shop in Redondo Beach, and it eventually had see-through sides that he made for it in 1974. The Miner Bros. team bought it from him when he got his first Chaparral from Bill Bagshaw."


Gary Crumrine loved the photos of the Chi-Town Hustler hauler. "That was 'MY' car when I was a kid," he testified. "You can have the Hawaiian or the Blue Max, etc., I’ll take the Chi-Town guys any day. They used to swoop in and kick all the national cars' butts at venues like Byron and Rockford Dragways. And they were the burnout kings of the sport back then; you can thank Pat Minick for that. I can almost smell the nitro. … I only wish you had pictures of the '69 Charger. That is my favorite car. Very unique layout for its day, and it was a world-beater. [Austin] Coil was a winner long before he made John Force famous. Before then, John was always good for at least one or two oildowns and fires per event. Coil fixed that and increased the performance."

A few folks wrote in to give props to the Lagana family for its longstanding use of a ramp truck, even when Bobby Sr. switched from Funny Car (his famed Twilight Zone machines) to Top Fuel and Bobby Jr. (and later other son Dom) took over the controls.

Seeing that 300-inch dragster perched atop their '69 Ford ramp truck, with the front end hanging over the cab of the truck, was an incongruous site amid a sea of 18-wheelers at national events, and they kept that old truck in action up until just a few years ago. I think I saw this truck for sale on the Web somewhere. It looks to be in remarkable shape still for a 40-year-old truck with lots of miles on it.

Dennis Friend, who runs the TwoToGo website specializing in twin-engine dragsters, passed along this photo that he found of the truck.

Back quickly on the glass-sided trailer front, there were a lot of shout-outs to George "the Bushmaster" Schreiber for his see-through trailer, which was described by reader David Allgeier as "black lights on a Peter Max-styled Zodiac paint."

"I looked through my 1,000 or so pictures and don't have a picture of it," wrote Mark Harmon, "but I do remember the last time I saw it was at Lions around 1971 at night. The dragster had a psychedelic paint job, and he had it in the trailer, which had windows, strobe lights, and music. Too cool!"

"What a scene that was," agreed Dale Smith.

And finally, I was glad to hear from Barb Santucci, wife of the late Top Gas and Funny Car great Domenic (D.A.) Santucci, who wanted to comment on the tale of "Rapid Roy" Harris. Bobby Frey mentioned that Harris' Omni had been destroyed in a crash at Maple Grove Raceway, and Barb knew the exact date: April 18, 1982. How did she know that?

"The car that Roy destroyed at Maple Grove was the sister car to our Omni built by S&W," she wrote. "In a rare twist of events, both cars were destroyed on that day, Roy's at the Grove and ours at Suffolk. The first person to call Domenic happened to be Roy."

Santucci banged the blower in the lights while they were match racing John Speelman's Blue Bayou entry, which set the car alight. It ended up off the top end of the course, as you can see in these photos from the late great DRAGSTER photog Eric Brooks, which Barb had never shared. Thanks, Barb!

This week's Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER is the continuation of the Misc. Files feature that was introduced in this column a while back. We're all the way up to W – there will be two W installments – and this week, it features Jim Wetton's ex-Dick Landy Studio Dodge ’65 Coronet Experimental Stocker, “Howdy” Williams' Top Fueler, Don Wiley's Plum Crazy mini Charger nitro Funny Car, Gary Weckesser’s four-engine, four-wheel-drive Mach IV ’69 Mustang exhibition car, Bob Weidlein's Chain Gang Mustang injected fuel Funny Car, Henry Walther's Junior Fueler, Ron Williams' Shakey Pinto flopper, the Wick family Pro Stocker, Bill Wigginton's Top Fueler, and more.

That's it for this week. Have a good weekend, and I'll be back next week with some fun "Snake" and "Mongoose" stuff and, I'm sure, more ramp-truck madness.
 

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