Prudhomme eyes 100th career victory

In 10th Season as Team Owner, Prudhomme Eyes 100th Career Victory In more than 50 years of NHRA drag racing, one colorful nickname has become synonymous with the sport - The Snake. After accomplishing nearly every major feat in the sport, Don...

In 10th Season as Team Owner, Prudhomme Eyes 100th Career Victory

In more than 50 years of NHRA drag racing, one colorful nickname has become synonymous with the sport - The Snake.

After accomplishing nearly every major feat in the sport, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme is nearing another milestone -- 100 career victories. Prudhomme enters the 2004 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season with 96 career victories.

Growing up in Log Angeles' San Fernando Valley, the birth place of drag racing, the former automobile painter from Van Nuys, Calif. earned his stripes as a member of the famed Los Angeles-area Road Kings Car Club before graduating to greatness in drag racing's two marquee categories (Top Fuel and Funny Car).

b^0x001cIt was the hot spot of drag racing," Prudhomme said. "It was a huge thing, especially Bakersfield. In the early days of Bakersfield, they were running nitromethane up there and NHRA didn't run nitromethane at the time, they ran gasoline. It was pretty much the birthplace, you know Wally Parks and (Herm) Petersen. California was the hub."

Prudhomme initially made a name for himself driving various front-engine dragsters to wins across the country. He earned his first of a record seven U.S. Nationals titles in 1965 driving a rail owned by Roland Leong. Prudhomme scored two more Top Fuel victories at "The Big Go" in 1969-70 before piloting his Funny Car to Indy glory four more times. And that was just at Indy.

Overall, "the Snake" won 49 NHRA events - 35 in Funny Car and 14 in Top Fuel - in 68 final-round appearances for a staggering .721 final-round winning percentage. He also holds the distinction of winning the second most Funny Car races ever, despite the fact he split time between two professional categories.

Although his footprints can clearly be seen in every decade since the 1960s, Prudhomme's heyday as a driver came in the mid-'70s when he shocked the motorsports world with a dominating string of four consecutive NHRA Funny Car championships from 1975-78. He earned seven consecutive race victories, the most in NHRA Funny Car history, over a two-year span in 1976-77 and advanced to a record 13 straight final rounds in 1975-77. He also recorded low qualifier honors 52 times and is one of 13 drivers to have earned victories in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.

b^0x001cThose were some of my best days as I look back on my career," Prudhomme said. "There was a four-year period of winning championships. I've had some great moments in drag racing. I think that was the peak of my racing days as a driver."

After 32 years of piloting Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, 49 race victories and four NHRA Funny Car titles, "the Snake" decided 1994 would be his final season as a driver and fittingly termed the campaign his "Final Strike Tour." Aside from giving his multitude of fans one last chance to see him race, "the Snake" made another important decision that year, tabbing a baby-faced, second-generation driver named Larry Dixon to fill one of the most coveted seats in the sport.

"It was really a no-brainer with Larry," Prudhomme said. "He had the desire and when we went to test the car, I wasn't 100 percent sure until he drove it. He had driven other things, but never anything with that much power. He was like a duck to water and I was like a proud papa watching him in the car."

In 1996, Prudhomme -- who achieved much of his fame and recognition from his partnership with Mattel's Hot Wheels brand and rivalry with fellow Funny Car ace Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen -- jumped back into the Funny Car wars with the help of longtime sponsor U.S. Tobacco Co. and its Copenhagen brand, naming up-and-coming driver Ron Capps to drive a black Camaro Funny Car.

"I guess I would have to compare it to like being called up to play in the major leagues," Capps said. "It would be like being a college football quarterback and having Joe Montana walk on the practice field and give you some tips.

"When you grow up wanting to emulate somebody or idolizing somebody, you never figure you'll get close to that person. You'd like to be able to take the career path they did and do what they did. To be able to work for that person and become part of their family is something you dream about."

As the fad of multi-car teams swept the Funny Car ranks, Prudhomme added Tommy Johnson Jr. -- long considered one of the best all-around drivers in the sport -- to his organization in 2001, teaming the blonde, spectacle-wearing Iowan with Capps to drive a second Skoal Camaro.

Prudhomme still casts a daunting shadow at drag strips up and down the West Coast to Florida, New Jersey, and anywhere else in between. With his confident swagger and cool demeanor, the toothpick-clenching Prudhomme has toasted a Miller Lite nearly 50 times after witnessing his stable of drivers race to 47 victories (Dixon 33, Capps 13 and Johnson Jr. one) and two NHRA POWERade championships -- giving Prudhomme six titles in his illustrious career.

Combined with his 49 wins as a driver, Prudhomme has his sights set on "Wally" trophy No. 100, becoming only the second driver/owner behind John Force to reach the 100-win plateau.

"I think what's more important are the three teams doing well," Prudhomme said. "I look at the Funny Car team doing well, the dragster team doing well and when they do, the wins will come. I don't really look ahead. It's a good number to have up there, but Force has already done it. I'd have been more impressed if I was the first to get this thing.

"We're focused on winning races and championships and if all that happens, the 100th will come in short order. It's more of a team thing now then Don's going to win his 100th race. What's turns me on is when the cars win."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Larry Dixon , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Montana , Tommy Johnson Jr.