Don Prudhomme : A Snake That Flies on Nitro

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If his car had wings, this snake would fly.

Yet with a 480-cubic-inch, 2,500-horsepower motor that burns nitro-methane fuel sitting practically in his lap, that is almost what drag racer Don Prudhomme of Northridge does anyway. He can go a quarter of a mile in less than six seconds.

Prudhomme, known to a couple of generations of drag racing fans and young model-car kit makers as “The Snake,” is currently priming a Pontiac Trans Am for his 20th Winternationals funny car competition. The winner will get $20,000. Racing begins at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona today and ends Sunday.

Racing has changed as fast as the cars themselves since Prudhomme ran his first race in 1960 at the now-defunct San Fernando Drag Strip.


In that one, Prudhomme, 43, used a small dragster with a stock motor. It topped out at 125 mph, but wasn’t fast enough. The Snake, who grew up in Van Nuys, lost.

“Now we do that in low gear,” said Prudhomme, answering questions in his Northridge shop Tuesday night while putting finishing touches on his car.

In 1960, equipment was a little easier on the pocketbook. Prudhomme’s--from transport trailer to radiator cap--was $4,000. That wouldn’t pay for one of the three engines he’ll take with him to Pomona.

“Nowadays you’re talking beaucoup money,” he said. “It takes a half a million to do it.”

Prudhomme’s shop is spotless. Several funny car bodies lay around the revamped warehouse. But the point of interest Tuesday was the motor Prudhomme will use in Pomona. Several crew members hovered over it.

Prudhomme’s outlook going into the Winternationals is good. He said some new equipment, tested last week in Phoenix, worked out well--his new dragster reaching close to 260 m.p.h.

Giving a nod of approval to his competitors, Prudhomme said: “I think we’ve done our homework during the winter months. I hope they haven’t.”


“They” are some of the drivers he’ll compete against this weekend in Pomona. Prudhomme says the funny car field will be one of the toughest he has faced. Among the top drivers there will be Kenny Bernstein and Prudhomme’s old rival, Tom (Mongoose) McEwen. Another who will compete is Li’l John Lombardo of Newhall.

Prudhomme has won the funny car division of the Winternationals four times--each at a faster speed. After first winning it in 1965 in a top-fuel dragster, he won four straight from 1976 to ’79 in a funny car. He is a four-time National Hot Rod Assn. champion.

Almost every part of his car--which is a modified Fiberglas replica of a production automobile--is custom-made and of aircraft quality. Most of the equipment on his early racing machines was built from reclaimed junkyard parts.

Yet the junk--not just a slick nickname--helped him fly.

Drag racing, like a 100-meter dash on foot, is a sport that can be decided by thousandths of a second. Two drivers line up in front of a “Christmas tree”--a bar with red, yellow and green lights--waiting for the signal to start. The drivers then race the quarter-mile course in two gears--low and high--at full throttle.

Life at almost one-third the speed of sound is exactly where Prudhomme feels most comfortable.

“At 260, I feel just fine,” Prudhomme said, smiling. “You can’t get tired of it. It’s always a new E.T. (elapsed time) or a new speed.”


One mistake at that speed could be devasting. To combat the threat of death or injury, Prudhomme has helped to develop new safety equipment.

He’s a member of the Professional Racers’ Assn.’s Safety and Rules Committee, a five-member board sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Assn.

“We just look for ways to make the cars safer,” Prudhomme said of the committee. “We know the speeds are going to get faster.”

The panel has been successful in recent years, developing better front brakes and on-board, push-button fire extinguishers. The features helped to save the life of drag-racing legend Don (Big Daddy) Garlits at Firebird Raceway last week. Prudhomme said Garlits walked away from a 259-m.p.h. crash.