Snake’s in the house

Times Staff Writer

In one moment of reflection, drag racing legend Don “Snake” Prudhomme talks about the end, about possibly selling his racing team to Larry Dixon within the next three years.

Then, in another moment, he confesses, “I still lie in bed at night and I mainly think about the race cars.”

Nicknamed for being so quick off the starting line, Prudhomme owns the top-fuel dragster that Dixon has driven to two championships, and a funny car driven by Tommy Johnson Jr. that Prudhomme desperately wants to manage to another.


Prudhomme isn’t the only racer to think about his car at night, but few are as influential, successful or legendary.

A San Fernando Valley kid who became one of racing’s most famous names and built a racing empire in Southern California, Prudhomme has been named 2007 winner of the Justice Brothers Shav Glick Award, given annually for outstanding contributions to motor sports by a Californian.

The award is named for Shav Glick, retired longtime motor sports reporter for The Times. Glick will present it to Prudhomme before the Auto Club 500 Nextel Cup stock car race Sunday at California Speedway.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving under the criteria of a Californian contributing to motor sports,” said Glick, who does not vote on the award. “He was a true pioneer in drag racing as a teen in Granada Hills, and now he’s a team owner and a champion of drag racing society who still lives in California, and is most deserving.”

Other nominees were Chris Pook, founder of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach; former motorcycle rider Jeff Ward, a multiple champion in both motocross and supercross; off-road superstar Ivan Stewart; and the late Mickey Thompson, a race driver turned promoter.

Prudhomme is the eighth recipient, joining Dan Gurney, Wally Parks, Parnelli Jones, Rick Mears, J.C. Agajanian, Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill.

Prudhomme arrived on the racing scene in the 1960s, a few years before Glick, a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, began writing about auto racing in 1969.

Prudhomme, in fact, was the first drag racer Glick interviewed.

“It helped put me on the map, big-time,” Prudhomme recalled two weeks ago at the 47th NHRA Winternationals at Pomona. “I didn’t know what a thank-you letter was at the time because I had no reason to write anyone a thank-you letter. But I wrote him a letter thanking him.

“I wasn’t too approachable, I don’t think.”

Prudhomme’s legacy borders on unapproachable too. He is a member of two halls of fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich., where he was inducted in 1990, and the International Motorsports Hall in Talladega, Ala., where he was inducted in 2000.

Operating a shop in Vista, Calif., Prudhomme has remained in the sport as a team owner since he retired after the 1994 season as the winningest nitro-methane fuel driver in National Hot Rod Assn. history. He won 35 national events in funny car, 14 in top fuel.

“This is really special because Shav has done so much, not only for myself, but for drag racing, when a lot of reporters didn’t cover it, especially at Pomona,” said Prudhomme, who was 20 when he emerged from among 90 entrants to win the famed March Meet in Bakersfield in 1962.

“He helped put the sport on the map here in Southern California, and we all owe a lot to him in the NHRA.”

The same could be said of Prudhomme, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He dropped out of Van Nuys High before the 11th grade, something he hates to admit. It is his greatest regret.

“I wanted to get out and make a living because I didn’t have any money,” said Prudhomme, the first driver to win four consecutive NHRA titles and the first to break the 250-mph barrier in a funny car. “I was painting cars, and I got so wrapped up into what I was doing that I quit. Missed two years of high school. Never graduated. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve done OK. I’m not going to jump off the roof over it.”

He is today worth millions, a visionary in the area of safety, marketing and corporate sponsorship, still making deals, signing contracts, running for championships.

“Talk about something to be proud of,” Prudhomme said, “these cars are safer today at 330 mph than they were at 150 mph.”

He also played a key role in one of the all-time great marketing campaigns. When Mattel’s Hot Wheels introduced tiny versions of his yellow 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and match-race rival Tom “Mongoose” McEwen’s red 1970 Plymouth Duster, that set the stage for corporate sponsorship that followed.

Although no one has ever put together an undefeated season in which more than four NHRA national events were contested, Prudhomme won 13 of 16 events over the 1975 and ’76 seasons in his Army-sponsored Chevrolet Monza.

In 1975, Prudhomme became the first funny-car driver to run the quarter-mile in the five-second range, 5.98 seconds, and his run of 5.63 seconds at the 1982 U.S. Nationals -- nearly 2/10ths quicker than anything run previously -- is considered one of the greatest passes of all time.

He set eight national elapsed-time records in funny car and four speed records.

“He has been a winner on the racetrack, but at the same time he’s always been looking five years down the road, where the NHRA is going, how it’s improving, how he could leave it in better shape than he got it,” said Dixon, a Van Nuys driver who succeeded Prudhomme in the dragster in 1995.

“His passion was to make this a profession not only for himself, but for everyone connected to the sport.”

He did that -- and a lot more.