By Bob Golfen
Nitro-fueled funny car drag racers roared into the consciousness of mainstream America in the early 1970s when two of the sport’s biggest competitors, Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen, squared off against each other in match races as the Snake vs. the Mongoose, respectively, in what’s considered the greatest rivalry in drag racing history and perhaps the most famous matchup in American motorsports.
Barrett-Jackson became a major part of the rich legacy of the Snake and the Mongoose for the next few months, both at the inaugural Hot August Night’s Auction presented by Barrett-Jackson this past August and at the 2014 Scottsdale auction in January.
Anyone with even the least interest in motorsports knows the story of the Snake and the Mongoose, a rivalry that was put over the top with the then-unique sponsorship of Mattel’s Hot Wheels. This was notably drag racing’s first major non-automotive corporate sponsor, and the beginning of the NHRA’s booming popularity with high-dollar teams and championships.
What also made the Mattel deal so very special was the miniature embodiment of the two Plymouth drag racers as Hot Wheels toys, complete with vivid cartoon depictions of a leaping mongoose fighting a cobra that’s ready to strike. Hot Wheels logos were emblazoned on the real-life drag racers, and the Hot Wheels toys flew off the shelves and into the hands of kids anxious to re-enact the thunderous drag races in their own living rooms.
The blister-packed toys remain collectors’ items today, especially for those Hot Wheels kids who grew into nostalgic adults.
Barrett-Jackson’s role in the drag racing legend began at Hot August Nights, which featured the initial public screening of a Hollywood film called “Snake and Mongoose” that focuses on the friendly rivals and the historic period in drag racing. The film stars Jesse Williams as Prudhomme and Richard Blake as McEwen. The red carpet premier on Aug. 9 of the new racing movie during the Reno/Sparks Tahoe, Nev., car-cruising festival predated its official opening Sept. 6 at movie theaters nationwide.
Part of the celebration of the movie was the special appearance of the original pair of Snake and Mongoose transporter trucks, complete with race cars on board, all lavishly restored by Prudhomme (pronounced: pru-DOME) in his private shop. On the back of the Snake “ramp truck” is one of the original Plymouth Barracuda funny cars raced by Prudhomme during his Hot Wheels days. The Mongoose truck also carries a race car, this one a replica of the Plymouth Duster that was campaigned against the Snake by McEwen.
But that’s not all. The showing of the Snake and Mongoose transporters and race cars was part of the run-up to the 2014 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction, where both will be offered for sale.
“Obviously it’s an honor and privilege for Barrett-Jackson to have such an historical offering,” said Barrett-Jackson President Steve Davis. “But also for me, personally, from being a Hot Wheels kid from that era and collecting the Hot Wheels cars. For me, this is kind of an iconic cultural cornerstone.
“Last year, we had the Batmobile, and everybody related to that on a certain level. In many ways, the Snake and Mongoose, while not TV cars, have the same sort of aura, that same sense of history and excitement.”
The Snake and Mongoose transporters and cars are being offered by Prudhomme, who said they are just as they were when he and McEwen would arrive at drag strips around the country during the 1970-72 heydays of the Hot Wheels competitions, as well as the scores of appearances the pair made at toy stores, shows and other locations. The race cars are cool, he said, but it’s the specially designed and extravagantly painted transporters that make the package special.
“That’s really the big deal, the transporters,” Prudhomme said from his Vista, Calif., restoration shop and museum. “They are the original transporters. The red one is the one the Mongoose had; the yellow one is the one I had. I completely restored them.
“I think they’re the coolest trucks and haulers of all time. I thought so then and I still think so.”
Prudhomme said he is a major collector of historic race cars and no stranger to Barrett-Jackson auctions. Among his many appearances, in 2009 he joined Carroll Shelby on the auction block in Las Vegas to help sell the 2007 concept Prudhomme Edition Shelby GT500 Super Snake, an 800-horsepower Supercar that hammered sold for $275,000, plus buyer’s premium.
The Dodge D700 transporters are essentially identical, aside from the competing Snake/Mongoose paint jobs that replicate how they looked back then. Prudhomme said that he bought his used truck in 1969 after it was traded in by Richard Petty’s NASCAR team, and had it rebuilt for his drag racing team’s needs. McEwen followed suit and bought his truck from the Sox & Martin drag racing team, and he rebuilt it to match Prudhomme’s. They both sold them shortly after the Hot Wheels racing ended.
“In the days when this was built, that’s what we had; they were all called ramp trucks,” Prudhomme recalled. “NASCAR guys had ramp trucks – drag racing guys, they all had these. They didn’t have tractor trailers like you have today. This was top of the line.
“The biggest response was when we would pull into the pits, and everybody would say, ‘Here comes the Snake and the Mongoose.’ They would cause quite a scene. And they still do.”
Prudhomme, who got his Snake nickname due to his lightning-fast shifting reflexes during drag races, said that a few years ago he hatched the idea of finding his old Snake ramp truck to go with his restored original funny car, one of two that he raced during that era. He tracked down the truck – still owned by the guy who bought it from him in 1973 – in nearby San Fernando Valley, “which was good because it wasn’t back East sitting outside, rusting away.”
But it was in rough condition, sinking into the earth and last registered in 1992. It took all of two years of steady work by three restorers to get the Snake truck back as it was, he said. After it was done, he brought the transporter to the SEMA show with the race car on its back, and the overwhelming reaction convinced him that he needed to find the Mongoose truck as well. That proved a bit more difficult.
“I heard all kinds of stories; I searched all over the country,” he said. “One guy told me for a fact that it was down on the border in Mexico being used to haul old cars over the border, stuff like that. We just looked everywhere.”
He was nearly ready to give up, Prudhomme said, when a guy came up to him at the LA Roadster Show in Pomona where the Snake truck was on display and said, “I used to have a truck just like that.” That and a few other bits of information provided valuable clues.
“So that started an adventure,” he said. “We found it out in Riverside behind a house in a field, weeds growing knee deep, just sitting there, wasting away. We hauled it out of there and restored it. What you see is what we did.”
Both of the ramp trucks were faithfully restored and are fully drivable, and they will create a scene anywhere they go, Prudhomme promised.
“When they show up at a show, it’s not just a car, it’s everything. They’re beautiful,” he said.
“That’s what I like about it, you can drive it someplace, you can use it. I’ve driven them both over the hill to Bakersfield.”
The restored Barracuda Snake funny car, which is the only survivor from the 1970-72 Hot Wheels match racing days, is also completely drivable and ready for the track, Prudhomme said. It’s powered by a 446cid V8 with an original 671 supercharger, and it runs on 85-percent nitromethane. It’s hooked up with a B&M TorqueFlite transmission and DANA 60 3.90 rear, with Hurst Airheart brakes. The wheels are Crager in the front and Halibrand in the rear.
The Duster Mongoose funny car was built only for display to mark the 35th anniversary of Snake vs. Mongoose. While it’s not a running race car, it looks plenty authentic on the back of the ramp truck.
Both the trucks are ready to roll with Dodge Industrial 413cid V8 engines that produce 385 horsepower, a DANA 10-speed transmission and 2-speed rear axle. Each truck is outfitted with a sleeper cab, roof-mounted air conditioner and storage compartments designed to hold tools and spare parts. And, of course, they include the evocative Snake and Mongoose cars on their ramps.
The backdrop to all of Prudhomme’s search and restoration activity was the Snake and Mongoose movie that was about to go into production.
“When they started talking about the movie was about the time I found the (Mongoose) truck,” Prudhomme said. “We kind of held up the movie a little bit until we had the trucks all done and everything. Both were used in the coming movie.”
The Snake and Mongoose transporters and race cars will be sold in Scottsdale as a single Lot, Prudhomme said. “Yeah, they have to go together. I’d hate to see them split up.”
Prudhomme, now 72, said he still shakes his head at all the fame and notoriety he gained because of the Snake and Mongoose promotions.
“I’ll tell you, I went on in my drag racing career and won four championships after that, set every national record there is, every hall of fame there is, everything until I retired about three years ago,” he said. “I had three race teams. I did this, I did that, the first guy to go 250 (miles per hour in the quarter mile).
“But you know, what people remember me for are the Snake and the Mongoose Hot Wheels sets.
“Those three years when we were together, it was awfully cool.”