No. 16: Tom McEwen
Tom McEwen wasn't one of drag racing's most prolific drivers, but he was one of its most colorful.
Nicknamed "the Mongoose" in 1964, largely as a device to entice Don "the Snake" Prudhomme into a high-exposure match race, McEwen won only five NHRA national events during his 35-plus-year career, but his gift for gab and promotional ability made him one of the sport's most influential and controversial figures.
Through his association with Prudhomme, McEwen helped blaze the trail toward the sponsored drag racing team. Their Mattel sponsorship, which gave way to "Snake" and "Mongoose" Hot Wheels toys, and backing from big names like Coca-Cola and Carefree sugarless gum were of major significance, but McEwen was a drag racer first.
Long before he first tangled with "the Snake," McEwen had accrued a ton of experience in a variety of rides. He began racing in 1953 with a '53 Oldsmobile at Santa Ana Dragstrip in Irvine, Calif., then raced a '54 Olds at Lions Dragstrip in Long Beach, Calif.
From the stock-car ranks, McEwen made the natural progression to gas coupes, altereds, and eventually dragsters. Among the cars he drove were the Stone-Woods-Cook '50 Olds fastback, the Bader & Ferrara Cadillac-powered Crosseyed Crosley, Art Chrisman's Hustler II, the Bud Rasner and Gary Slusser Fiat coupe, Dick Rea's blown-gas Chrysler dragster, and Gene Adams' Albertson Olds.
McEwen's relationship with Adams continued for several years, and, in 1962, he drove Adams' Shark car, which was one of the first dragsters to use a streamlined body with an enclosed 'chute pack and one of McEwen's most famous rides.
"Driving for [Adams] was like going to college for me," said McEwen. "I had to learn to drive all over again; to get the feeling of driving without smoking the tires."
In 1963, McEwen achieved his greatest success at the time when he posted a runner-up finish against Art Malone at the Bakersfield March Meet in California with the Broussard-Garrison-Purcell-Davis car. He also drove Ed Donovan's Donovan Engineering Special, the dragster he used when he first raced against "the Snake."
On Sept. 12, 1964, McEwen won his race against "the Snake" at Lions Dragstrip. McEwen beat Prudhomme, who was driving a bright-orange edition of the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, in two straight sets, inspiring what may be the most famous match-race pairing in the history of drag racing.
Later that year, McEwen drove Lou Baney's Yeakel Plymouth-sponsored dragster to victory at the 32-car UDRA meet at Fontana Raceway in Fontana, Calif., then swept Top Fuel titles at Lions Dragstrip and Pomona Raceway.
Because their first get-together had stirred so much interest, two more races between "the Snake" and "the Mongoose" were staged at Lions Dragstrip in 1965. McEwen wheeled the Yeakel Plymouth dragster past Prudhomme and his new ride, the Roland Leong-owned Hawaiian, two rounds to one in the first, then lost in two straight sets in the second.
Because McEwen confined his racing to the West Coast, he and the touring Prudhomme raced each other only once in 1966, at the Winternationals, site of their first national event meeting. There, Prudhomme's B&M Torkmaster Special took a 7.59 to 7.69 win over McEwen. They would not meet again for the rest of the decade.
Though McEwen did not enjoy as lofty a status as Prudhomme at the time, he performed exceedingly well as a driver for Jerry Bivens, Kenny Lindley, and Don "the Beachcomber" Johnson.
McEwen won the 1966 Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway and the 1968 Stardust National Open in Las Vegas. He also recorded the lowest elapsed time ever, a blistering 6.64 with Lindley's dragster, at the Orange County PDA Meet in 1968.
McEwen also continued to build on his ever-increasing reputation as a promoter. The Hemi-Cuda that he unveiled in 1965 was featured in every car magazine, from Hot Rod to the weekly Drag News. He corralled the support of the Southern California Plymouth Dealers Association and displayed the car all over the West Coast.
In 1967, McEwen took the same approach with one of drag racing's great one-shot wonders; Ford Motor Company's Super Mustang. When it made its eagerly anticipated debut at the Winternationals, the subsequent coverage was remarkable. Though the car was never seen again, it showed off McEwen's ability to generate publicity.
McEwen's extraordinary promotional ability and Prudhomme's success on the racetrack eventually led to the formation of a national touring team sponsored by Mattel, and, in mid-1969, McEwen and Prudhomme corporately became Wildlife Racing.
"There were no sponsorships back then," said McEwen. "Don had the Wynn's deal, and I had the Gold Spot/Tirend Activity Booster deal, but those were very small when compared to today's standards. I don't remember what Don's money was, but the Tirend deal for me was about $1,000 a year. We depended on cash flow to keep our acts going - match racing four times a week and hoping to keep breakage down.
"I'm guessing, but I'd say it probably took $40,000, maybe $50,000, when I toured in 1969, to keep the whole thing afloat. I remember thinking that it sure would be great if somehow we could start off the year with a big deal, then go about match racing and all that. Why, you could make all kinds of money."
The Mattel deal ran from 1970 through 1972, and in 1973, Wildlife Racing secured Carefree sugarless gum as a sponsor. McEwen and Prudhomme dissolved their corporation at the end of the 1973 season, but it was a very lucrative partnership. They didn't perform badly on the racetrack, either.
In 1972, McEwen won his first major event when he overwhelmed the Top Fuel field at the Bakersfield March Meet. A year later, he scored his first NHRA national event victory by outlasting the quickest Funny Car field in history at the SuperNationals at California's Ontario Motor Speedway.
"I was the [BSer] and Prudhomme was the racer," said McEwen. "I'd set up the deals, then we'd go out to the track, and he'd usually beat me. There were times when he was beating me so regularly that the only way I could have beaten him was if he got lost on the way to the track and I got to single.
"We were a good team; we complemented each other. Don was the serious guy, spent a lot of time with his car, and I was more like the wrestlers today; saying how bad I was going to beat him to build interest in the deal."
McEwen went on to win four more national events, including his dramatic U.S. Nationals Funny Car victory over Prudhomme in 1978, following the death just a few days earlier of his son, Jaime. He also won the prestigious Big Bud Shootout in 1984 and won Top Fuel at the 1991 Summernationals. - Steve Waldron
Comments from the panel
"Behind every good snake lies a 'Mongoose.' Formed "Wildlife Racing in the late '60s early '70s - drag racing's first major corporate sponsorship deal. What he lacked in driving talent, 'Goose made up with marketing savvy. The final at Indy against 'the Snake' in '78 when he beat Prudhomme shortly following the death of his son Jaime is one of drag racing's benchmark moments." - John Drummond
Although never a major winner, he was instrumental in obtaining the first major non-automotive sponsorship and once said ' a big following and good performance is better for the sponsors than big wins and no following.' " - Greg Sharp
"Helped create the legends both he and Prudhomme became; initiator of sponsorships from outside of drag racing/speed equipment industry." - Geoff Stunkard
"One of the first to make a living drag racing. One of the first match-race pros. From Adams & McEwen to HemiCuda to Hot Wheels to English Leather to Coors to two-car-team concept, etc., always at the leading of edge of trends. Put together the unprecedented Hot Wheels program, among other precedent-setting sponsorship deals with non-automotive companies. A master at creating and fulfilling media opportunities. Driving career touched five decades." - Dave Wallace Jr.