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WHICH SNAKE WILL SHOW? : Prudhomme Has Been King Snake and Also Snakebitten This Year

Times Staff Writer

Which Snake will turn up at the drag races this week?

Only Don Prudhomme, the original Snake of drag racing, knows--and he probably won’t know himself until Sunday when they run the funny car eliminations in the Winston Finals at the Fairplex in Pomona.

There’s the Snake who smokes the opposition the way he did in winning consecutive National Hot Rod Assn. national championship funny car events at Montreal and Englishtown, N.J., in midseason. The same Snake who set a national record of 5.305 seconds for elapsed time in his ’87 Pontiac Trans Am at Seattle in August.

Then there is the Snake who smoked his tires and failed to win in the last seven NHRA events, failing to get past the first round in three of them. The same Snake whose car overpowered the race track Friday and failed to finish the qualifying run.

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“I’d still like to think we’ll have a good weekend here,” Prudhomme said. “We were right on Thursday, when we hit a 5.500 and only one car (Ed McCulloch’s ’88 Cutlass) was ahead of us. That gave us the freedom to experiment, which is what we were doing today. Obviously, we had too much horsepower, but with that quick time in the first round, we had the luxury of taking a chance. It didn’t work.”

After 2 rounds, with 2 more remaining today, Prudhomme’s Thursday time was good enough for sixth position. John Force, in an ’87 Olds Firenza, moved into the No. 1 spot with a run of 5.370 seconds. Sixteen cars will qualify for Sunday’s eliminations.

“Besides that, I like the track,” Prudhomme said. “It’s been awful good to me over the years.”

Prudhomme, 47, won his first race on the Fairgrounds strip in the 1965 Winternationals. He was driving Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, a top fuel dragster, and it was his first victory in a national event.

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Later, after switching to funny cars, Prudhomme won the Winternationals in 1975 and 1976 in a Chevy Monza, and 1977 and 1978 in a Plymouth Arrow. He won the national championship each of those same 4 years.

But he has not won a Winston Finals since the season’s final event was moved to Pomona in 1984.

“I’ll admit, after we won those two races in midseason, I thought we were on a roll and were on our way toward another national championship,” he said. “At the time, we were really outperforming the other cars on the circuit.

“Then we started falling off, mostly with the clutch department. We couldn’t get a handle on the clutch management system. The skill of the individual has been taken out it. You have to set up what you want the car to do before you start. You just hope you hit it right.

“There is such a fine line between a perfect run and a wasted one. You can be just a hair off and you can end up smoking your tires and losing. Falling off that fine line is real easy.”

Prudhomme has been seeking that fine line at the highest level of drag racing since 1962, when he came out of Granada Hills to drive a dragster for Tom Greer and engine builder Keith Black.

He has won 32 NHRA funny car events, more than any other driver. Current champion Kenny Bernstein is next with 27. Prudhomme also won 5 top fuel events.

In 1986, after 3 winless seasons and loss of his sponsor, Prudhomme took a year off.

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“That year off was good for me,” he said. “I found out how much racing meant to me. I was crazy every weekend there was a race. I’d check the papers to see how everybody was doing and I’d be on the phone to guys to find out the latest scoop.”

Armed with substantial sponsorship money from a tobacco company, the Snake returned in 1987 with a Pontiac and won his second race, the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. It was his first win since 1982 and when he beat Johnny West in the finals, cries of “The Snake is back!” echoed across north central Florida.

“It’s great to talk about the good old days, back running the Smokers meet at Bakersfield and hauling around the country for match races, but for me, the good ol’ days are right now,” he said. “I’ve never had so much fun racing as I’m having now. I think my enthusiasm level for every run is as high today as it ever was.

“Drag racing today is a science, but there’s really no substitute for an intuitive driver. I’m always listening for a certain tune from my engine, certain beats, hits and rhythm of the parts.

“The toughest part, but it’s the same for everyone, is that we spend weeks working on figuring everything out and then we only have 5 1/2 seconds to check it out. One little error in your calculations and you’ve lost all you’ve planned.

“The mechanics and I get here at 8 in the morning and don’t run until 2 p.m. and we’re checking and rechecking and calculating right up until we stage. Then, when we run, it’s all over in less than 6 seconds. That doesn’t give us much lab time.”

Perennial pro stock champion Bob Glidden, who has already clinched his ninth national championship and its $100,000 bonus, set a track and Winston Finals record with a speed of 188.60 m.p.h. in his new ’89 Ford Probe.

“It was a good run for us. It’s always good to be on top,” Glidden said. “We never get tired of winning and qualifying No. 1. Every time we do, it gives us a big lift as a team and a family.”

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Glidden’s wife, Etta, is his crew chief and sons Bill and Rusty are the engine builders and crew.

“To be honest with you, the run should have been better,” Glidden said. “We had a little tire shake at the start, and that shaved a few hundredths off of our time.”

The old record of 188.40 was set last year by Glidden.


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