Don Prudhomme reflects on the past 40 years

The 2002 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series which kicks off on February 7 will see Don "The Snake" Prudhomme celebrate his 40th anniversary season in the sport of drag racing. With his own sense of style, Prudhomme has always set the standard for...

The 2002 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series which kicks off on February 7 will see Don "The Snake" Prudhomme celebrate his 40th anniversary season in the sport of drag racing.

With his own sense of style, Prudhomme has always set the standard for those participating in the world's fastest form of motorsports. His four consecutive World Championships and landmark sponsorship agreements as a driver gave future quartermile pilots a guideline for success.

Since retiring in 1994, Prudhomme has also blazed a trail in terms of making the successful transition from driver to multi-car team owner as he directed each of his three teams to top 10 finishes in 2001, including Larry Dixon's exciting runner-up effort in the Miller Lite Dragster.

Following is an interview with Snake as he comments on the 2001 season, comments on the upcoming 2002 campaign and recalls what it was like starting out in the sport 40 years ago.

Q: Last season was your most successful to date since becoming a multi-car team owner. How enjoyable was the 2001 season for you?

DP: "The thing that always keeps you going in drag racing is trying to be No. 1 and win it all. First and foremost, we fell short of that and we didn't get the title. Was it a good year? Hell yeah it was a good year, but did we win the World Series? No, but we came awfully close which made it a good year. I was pumped up all the way until the last minute of the last round of the last race until the red car clinched the deal. But going into the last race ofthe year and winning the Bud Shootout and seeing Larry ride back up the racetrack on the Clydesdales with the wagon pulling that $100,000 check, that was pretty good. That was quite athrill. I was really proud of him, Dick and the entire team on the job they did. I mean Larry, the way he drove last year, it was the best he has ever driven. He did a hell of a job and the way the team performed together made it a lot of fun because to get that right chemistry with the driver, crew chief, sponsor and everybody pulling in the same direction is pretty hard to get. We have the right sponsor, the right crew chief, Larry is still a young guy, so there is a huge future still out there for winning races and championships."

Q: The team has continued to improve each year since the hiring of crew chief Dick LaHaie. How happy are you with the progress he has made with the team?

DP: "I am quite delighted with him not only as a crew chief but as a person too with his thoughts and ideas, the type of person he is, the things he expects out of people and the team, and the way he conducts himself has been just great. It's nice to have a situation, not only in racing but in any business, where at the end of the day you like each other. It makes it a lot more fun. We could have been in a situation where we won more races but didn't like each other, but that's no fun. It is very cool that we pull the same plow and Dick has lived up to everything that I thought he could do. But there is still more to accomplish."

Q:  Larry and the Miller Team came so close last season to winning their
first championship.  What more does it take to get that done?

DP: "We know what it takes. The car needs to run a little bit quicker. It needs to perform a little bit better. I think that Larry really did his job last year, but the competition is slow close out there. All we need is just a little bit more, not much, just a taste. And I think we are going to have that with the new engine combination and the things we are doing. We certainly worked hard over the winter months getting that all together and did a little bit of testing with it last year, so I would be highly disappointed if that didn't help. We are just thinking about winning the championship."

Q: If someone had told you at the beginning of 2001 that Larry would win 6 races, reach 9 finals, win 57 rounds and still not win the championship, would that have surprised you?

DP: "Well, maybe so back then, but the way the rules are now in drag racing with the 90 percent rule and some of the things they are doing, these cars are pretty close. During last year, Bernstein's car and our car were identical cars. They sounded the same and warmed up the same. When you watched them run, they were twins, they performed the same. Their thoughts apparently over there and our thoughts are pretty similar, I would say. Either car could have won the championship, it was just the way that the ball bounced. We were pretty evenly matched and in saying that, the Yankees car, Amato's car and a couple of others are very close. It isn't like we had a tenth (of a second) ahead of the field or we had five or six hundredths in the bag that we could play with all the time. I mean, one race last season we were in a dead heat. That's why I talkabout the performance because we need to get a little bit extra in the bank and that's what we are looking for right now."

Q: Larry begins his eighth season behind the wheel this year. How has he evolved as a driver and in your opinion, when does a driver truly become a veteran pilot?

DP: "I guess you could call Larry a veteran now, he certainly isn't a rookie any more. Larry handles himself much better than he used to. He is very, very focused on what he needs to do. He doesn't have a lot of distractions in his life. When you are young and driving the car, everything is candy-apple paint and hot rods and "look at me, I am at the drag races." Now it's big business and I think he realizes that. You can get taken out in any round you make, so you have got to be on your toes. He drives against the No. 16 qualifier the same way he drives against a top ten guy and that shows the signs of a real driver when they can do that, not when they are all over the map. He is very focused and has matured a lot both personally and in the race car."

Q:  The Miller Lite Team finished third after the 2000 season and second
after 2001.  What are your expectations as a team owner for 2002?

DP: "If it keeps going like it has been, then the next stop is winning the championship. I have been in this business a long time and you don't want to put yourself in a position where you aren't going to be happy with anything outside of winning the championship. I am not going to be happy if we don't do the best job we can and we don't put 100 percent effort into it. If we put that effort into it and don't win, then that's the way the ball bounces. But if we put that effort into it like we did last year and the year before and we win the championship this season, well that's going to be the icing on the cake. It would be wonderful, but I am not going to jump off a building if we don't. But I will jump if we don't run right and we don't get after it out there. But I told Larry and Dick that I was proud of the season we had and I think we are in good shape."

Q: Last season you opened up Don Prudhomme Racing Indianapolis, and moved the racing operations for all three teams to your second race shop. How has that worked out for you?

DP: "It's been great. I don't get to spend as much time there as I would like to, but I like the shop a lot. It's got a real good working atmosphere and that was the most important thing when we put it together. I wanted the teams to be able to work in a facility that is clean and nice, so that when their wives, families or girlfriends come over to see them at work, they are in a facility that is real nice. I think we have accomplished that with a good environment for the guys to work in."

Q: How much would it mean to you to win your first championship as a team owner?

DP: I think it would absolutely be wonderful. I think as a team owner, I think it would be absolutely fantastic. It's a hard thing to put into words because I know that we are all working very hard to accomplish that. I have a lot of people that work for me that would equally feel as great I would if we did that. But at the same time if we don't win, I don't want them to be down because they think I am so disappointed. I don't want them to wake up everyday thinking that they have to win a championship for Snake this year. It's not that kind of deal. I feel confident that eventually we will win it."

Q: You accomplished so much in your driving career, all while doing it with a certain style. Now as a team owner, what more do you want to do before your time in the sport is done?

DP: "Back then I controlled everything. I physically tuned the car and got in there and pushed the throttle. I had to do that. I was so thirsty to do that, it was unbelievable. But to take those same emotions and put them into Larry and into the team, I don't know how to do that. I do know that Larry knows how I am because he was with me when I was still driving, so I feel like he understands me pretty well. There's no sense in me putting any extra pressure on him especially when he is doing a good job. But as far as a goal, I would like to win the world championship in the dragster, then the next year with the championship in Funny Car and have the second one finish runner up. I don't know if all the stars will ever line up for us to do that. Our intent is to do that. That's shooting high, but that's what we are looking to do."

Q: The 2002 season marks your 40th Anniversary in drag racing. Talk about the early stages of your career, beginning with your rookie season in 1962.

DP: "In 1962, the NHRA wasn't running fuel, only gasoline as they banned nitro for a while. The Smokers race in Bakersfield was looked at around the country as the biggest race of the year and attracted guys like Don Garlits and Chris Karamesines. I was fortunate to be driving when we won that race and it was the first big race I ever won. It was like apples and oranges compared to today's racing. I remember being there, racing there, towing back, all the things we went through. It was like a bunch of rock-n-roll guys playing in a garage, and now they are playing in Carnegie Hall. Winning that race in '62 opened a lot of doors and let's face it, that's what winning is all about. I got a call from Keith Black who wasn't really known that much in drag racing, he was pretty well known in boat racing, to drive a car that they were building. A fellow by the name of Tommy Greer owned the car and was doing the engine work and they wanted me to drive it. Well, that would be like Ferrari calling you up and asking you if you wanted to driver Michael Schumacher's new F1 car. I mean that was top of the line to even have a shot to do that. Back then, guys worked out of trailers and didn't have shops. I was working out of my garage at the house. Well, Keith had a shop with block walls and everything. So, I got the job driving for him and that opened up more doors as I went on to drive for Roland Leong and won over at Pomona in 1965. Then I went on my own for a while, got my own dragster in 1968, got the sponsorship from Wynn's and just started building from there. Then of course, I got some notoriety with the name "Snake" and Tom McEwen "The Mongoose" came along and we got a sponsorship from Mattel Hot Wheels and then it just took off from there. I tried to stay at pace with the sport because drag racing was growing pretty fast, but so were we. I think we kept pace pretty well."

Q: If you had to name one thing over your 40 years in the sport that makes you most proud, what would it be?

A: "By far, being a team owner. The determination of winning and driving the car was fun because it was man and machine so to speak - to weld on the pipe and jump and drive it. It was the best. But I have gotten more gratification out of racing by being a team owner and accomplishing what we have than of all the rest. It's strange. I thought I might want to drive again at some point, but I don't. To see Larry mature into the kind of young man that he has, to see his lifestyle with being married, having a baby and a nice home and nice cars, this is stuff that I think is pretty cool. The same with Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson, and all the guys that work for you, to play a part in creating that is big. This is the best time in racing for me right now."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Michael Schumacher , Larry Dixon , Chris Karamesines , Tommy Johnson , Don Garlits , Don Prudhomme , Dick LaHaie