From The Snake Pit Roland Leong VISTA, Calif. (July 14, 2004) - Roland Leong is truly a pioneer of the sport of drag racing. The Hawaii native has been involved in quarter mile racing since the early days of the sport as an owner/tuner. In ...
From The Snake Pit
VISTA, Calif. (July 14, 2004) - Roland Leong is truly a pioneer of the sport of drag racing. The Hawaii native has been involved in quarter mile racing since the early days of the sport as an owner/tuner. In 1965, Leong partnered with icon Don "The Snake" Prudhomme to win both the Winternationals and historic U.S. Nationals. He repeated the feat a year later, with the late Mike Snively at the wheel. Leong has worked with a variety of NHRA stars from Prudhomme and Snively, to Danny Ongais, Mike Dunn, Rick Johnson, Johnny West, Jim White, Jim Epler and Ron Capps. Leong, 62, admits he has always had a passion for drag racing and started toying with race cars at 12 years old. The veteran tuner began his second go-around at calling the shots for 14-time NHRA winner Ron Capps after the Joliet, Ill. race in May. In their first stint together (May 1997-1999), Capps and Leong won seven races and finished second the Funny Car points race in 1998. In this Q&A, Leong talks about growing up and racing in Hawaii, working for Prudhomme, his friendship with Capps and his excitement to be involved at the 50th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
Q: How different was the early hot rodding scene in Hawaii compared to Southern California and the rest of the United States?
LEONG: Everything was always a lot slower on the island. I would say it was always behind with what was happening in the states.
Q: How did you get your start in racing?
LEONG: I got a job with the Dragmasters out of Carlsbad (Calif.) and they built dragster chassis at the time. I had a blown gas Chevrolet dragster that they built and we were involved in a speed shop in Hawaii. Their owner, Jim Nelson, came over to show us how to run it because we had never run a blower before. Then, I talked them into hiring me as a kid just to go to work. At the time, they had a dual engine Chevrolet dragster. My job was to pull the engines out. I got all the bolts loosened up and at the time we didn't have electric pulleys, so I had to use a chain pulley and I had both feet hanging off the ground to pull the engine out of this car. Then, I got my dragster license at Riverside (Calif.) and I kept going back and forth from California to Hawaii. I couldn't make up my mind where I wanted to live. Then in 1964, Danny Ongais and I had a gas dragster that we ran in California with a blown 480 cubic inch wedge Dodge engine that we raced.
Q: When did you and Don Prudhomme join forces for your successful 1965 campaign?
LEONG: At the end of 1964. I had a dragster being built and I attempted to drive it at Long Beach (Lions Dragstrip) and I crashed it. Keith Black said I made him a nervous wreck. So, I gave up driving and if I was going to stay in racing, I'd better run the car and let someone else drive it. I met Prudhomme through Keith Black when they came to Hawaii for the opening of a drag strip.
Q: You two had some pretty good success in your first season together in 1965, were you proud of that?
LEONG: We won Pomona and Indy in '65, which at the time was the first time that anybody had won both races. Yeah, I'm proud of that. You're proud anytime you can win a race. After that, Prudhomme went with the B&M car and I hired Mike Snively to drive my car and we proceeded to win the Winternationals and Nationals again in 1966. I guess that was a pretty big accomplishment to win four times in a row. Of course, that was before there were a lot of national events.
Q: You're throwing out all these legendary names and places like Prudhomme, Snively, Black, Lions and Indy, what was it like in the early days growing up as a pioneer in drag racing?
LEONG: I don't consider myself a pioneer. I think I was just at the right place at the right time. We just wanted to go racing. I did what it took at the time. Like I said, I don't consider myself a pioneer. I consider a guy like Don Garlits and those in the late 1950s or earlier '60s as the pioneers.
Q: Some 40 years later, how drastically different is the sport from the mid-'60s?
LEONG: It's unbelievable. It has grown because of the sponsors and NHRA of course. It's just at a whole new level. It's not a hobby anymore, but than again if it was still a hobby, a lot of people couldn't make a living doing this like they can today. It's different, but it all turned out for the better.
Q: Did you think you'd still be involved in drag racing this many years later?
LEONG: Yeah, I thought so, mainly because I grew up with it. I have a lot of knowledge from making all the mistakes from owning and running my own car when I was younger, which nowadays as you can see, there's only select people that own teams. I know all the aspects as far as budgets and people and what it takes to run a team. We couldn't afford crews back then. We had our buddies go help out. Nowadays, it's as much about people as it is about the parts you buy. You spend the money on parts and people. People are instrumental in having a successful operation.
Q: What is you biggest career accomplishment to date?
LEONG: Winning those races way back when was great, but I think the biggest achievement was in 1991 when we were the first Funny Car to run over 290-mph (Jim White). Winning Indy and the Skoal Showdown, which today only a few other people have done. We also set the national record in Indy that year. We went to Reading and set it again. We went to Dallas and set it again and then at the World Finals again. At Pomona in '91, we ran 291-mph and that was top speed of the race for both dragsters and Funny Cars.
Q: From the early '90s when you were having all the success to now, how different is the Funny Car class?
LEONG: The technology is different. Like anything else it's changed two-fold since then. The many different parts we can get compared to then is a big difference. That's progress and that will never slow down.
Q: You've had a lot of success at the U.S. Nationals. With this year being the 50th anniversary of the Nationals, will it be special for you to go back being involved with a race crew?
LEONG: Oh yeah, big time. In fact, I was wondering if I was even going to go if I wasn't working or running a car. Now, I think I'll be there.
Q: You and Ron Capps developed a pretty good working relationship. Talk a little bit about working with Ron.
LEONG: When I first came to run the car in 1997 I didn't really know him. I started working on the car and we made progress and I was glad to give him his first Funny Car win at St. Louis. At the end of the year, we were fortunate to win another race, I think it was Sonoma, and then going from 15th in the points to No. 5. He had a deal where U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. paid him 'x' amount of money for every race he won after three races. So, I felt I let him down. But he won the Auto Club Road To The Future Award and I felt I was somewhat instrumental in that.
Q: In 1998, you guys had a great year winning a category-best five races and finishing second in the Funny Car standings. Was it tough not to win the championship?
LEONG: Oh yeah, very frustrating and to this day I feel that I have accomplished a few things, but I've never won the world championship and that's my goal before I get out of the sport.
Q: You left Don Prudhomme Racing in 1999, you worked with Jim Epler's car in 2001, what have you been doing the past few years?
LEONG: I've kept in touch with a lot of people out here. I talk to people as far as where the technology is going. I was always interested in that. Basically, I was the best arm chair crew chief. I was sitting on my couch telling guys I knew they were going to smoke the tires, you should have done that or done this. Actually, I had a couple calls from people that wanted me to come help them, but I really didn't want to for one reason or another. A lot of it was them not having the budget to get ahead, like we have here with Prudhomme.
Q: How did it come about that you and Capps are working together again?
LEONG: Ron called me and asked if I'd be interested in doing it and I said yes. To me, he's one of the best drivers out here and I know that if we can give him a good car, we can win races. That's already a proven fact. As far as a motivator for the guys, he's the best. Nowadays, I feel that's very important because you're going to have ups-and-downs. It's a lot easier to get through the down times when you work with people like Ron. I know for the crew guys, just look at the hours they work and how hard they work, it helps a crew chief to run the team if the driver gets along with the crew members and Ron's the best at it.
Q: Did you and Capps keep in touch after you left Snake Racing in 1999?
LEONG: We did, but not as much as I wanted to, but I know he was busy running around the country racing. As far as having a good relationship with a driver and I had a lot of them, I'd have to say that he was the best for me.
Q: What's your relationship like with Prudhomme?
LEONG: It's pretty good. Every owner has their own idea of how they want to run their team and I'm not saying I'd run it exactly the same way as he does, but then again, he's the one that's had the success and has the teams. We all don't agree all the time, but it's good fun.
Q: What is his biggest asset as an owner?
LEONG: Being able to come up with the sponsors and dollars to do this. He's one of the few people, along with Kenny Bernstein and (John) Force that have been able to keep the sponsors. To keep them happy and just keep going down the road with the same sponsor is tough to do and he's one of the best at it.
Q: What's your goal for the remainder of the 2004 season?
LEONG: To get this car to become more consistent. Unless you have consistency, you're not going to win. The chances of you winning are pretty tough if you're not consistent. So, that's one of our goals. We have to learn about the car. It's hard to speed up the process because you can only do it one run at a time. Sometimes you have to take a step back to go two forward. You know you can turn the knobs and the car will go quicker, but until you know enough about the car to do that then it's a gamble and if you miss, you'll be another run behind. Coming in here, compared to all these other guys, I'm already 100 runs behind, but then again in 1997 it was no different. The process is the process and that's the way you have to do it. Hopefully, we'll make some gains on this thing and maybe win a race or two this year.