Snake Racing News: Don Prudhomme Racing U.S. Nationals Q&A VISTA, Calif. (Aug. 16, 2004) - There aren't many things that Don "The Snake" Prudhomme hasn't accomplished in the sport of drag racing. From race wins, national records and Funny Car...
Snake Racing News: Don Prudhomme Racing U.S. Nationals Q&A
VISTA, Calif. (Aug. 16, 2004) - There aren't many things that Don "The Snake" Prudhomme hasn't accomplished in the sport of drag racing. From race wins, national records and Funny Car and Top Fuel championships, the Snake has done and seen it all in quarter-mile racing.
In two weeks, the National Hot Rod Association's marquee event, the U.S. Nationals, will celebrate its Golden Anniversary as the famed multi-purpose racing facility at Indianapolis Raceway Park will host thousands of fans for the 50th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Prudhomme has experienced his share of success at I.R.P. He won the prestigious event seven times during his 32-year driving career and has gathered two additional Indy triumphs as a team owner (Larry Dixon - 1995, 2001).
The NHRA let fans vote on the 20 U.S. Nationals Most Memorable Moments and Prudhomme was a part of five of the 20 and four of the top 10 moments. Since his retirement after the 1994 NHRA campaign, Prudhomme saw his understudy, Larry Dixon, drive to the Indy victory in his Rookie of the Year season of 1995, and Funny Car driver Ron Capps power to the $100,000 prize in the Skoal Showdown bonus event three times (1998, 1999, 2002). Prudhomme scored the Skoal Showdown win in 1989, while doubling-up for his final Nationals victory on Labor Day the next afternoon. In this Q&A, Prudhomme, his drivers and crew chiefs reflect back on their memories and experiences of the U.S. Nationals.
Q: When you look back on all your accomplishments, where does winning the U.S. Nationals seven times rank?
DON PRUDHOMME: When I look back at Indy as a driver, I felt that that race made my career. That race track made my career like winning the Super Bowl did at the end of John Elway's career. Indy is our Super Bowl. I have so much respect for that place. It's done so much for so many people in our sport like (Don) Garlits, Shirley (Muldowney), (Kenny) Bernstein and even the young guys like (Larry) Dixon.
Q: What are your feelings as you go back to Indianapolis Raceway Park for the 50th annual U.S. Nationals?
PRUDHOMME: It'll be fun going to Indy this year. There will be a lot of nostalgia cars that will be on display. I'm going to have my yellow 1970 Hot Wheels car there. It will be great to see some of the past winners that will be at the race this year. I think it will be a lot of fun, a real historical moment for our sport.
Q: Any memories that stand out in your mind about the event?
PRUDHOMME: Yeah, sure, lots of them. I remember when we first started going to Indy, there was only one small paved area in the entire pits. It was about 10 feet wide. People would line up in advance to get that one little spot. The rest of the cars would be in the dirt or it was bring your own plywood. Everybody started fighting over who would get that spot and then they started reserving it for the previous year's winner. It's apples and oranges now. The place has a big tower and suites along the track. It's got all the bells and whistles.
I remember the first time I went there in 1965 with Roland Leong and we had won the Winternationals in Pomona (Calif.) earlier in the year. We beat Tommy Ivo in the final round. He was a guy that I grew up with in the Road Kings Car Club in Burbank (Calif.). It was quite a thrill.
In the early days, the track wouldn't open the gates until 7 a.m. and we would jump the fence to go work on the cars because there was so much to do. We didn't have eight or nine crew guys in those days. Yeah, I have tons of stories and memories of that place.
Q: What is your proudest U.S. Nationals moment?
PRUDHOMME: I think that the Jim Nicoll thing in 1970 stands out with the accident at the finish of the race and not knowing who won or if he was injured. It was a sweet victory. It was great to win, but it made me realize that the price you have to pay in racing to be the best or to win can be a high price. That was quite a moment for me. There have been several others too. Racing against the Mongoose (Tom McEwen) after he lost his son to leukemia and seeing him win was quite a memory. The 1989 win was very special. To win the Showdown and dominate the way we did to double-up was great. It's great to win, but it's better to win when you dominate. That's what I enjoyed about the 1989 race. The 5.63 (elapsed time) in the Funny Car in 1982 was cool. That was two-tenths of-a-second quicker than anybody had ever run in a Funny Car.
Q: Do you enjoy it as much as a team owner?
PRUDHOMME: Oh sure. I'm really proud of my guys. Larry (Dixon) has won it a few times. As a car owner, to see him win, that was a hell of a thrill. I feel like a proud father. (Ron) Capps has had some good runs and some runs with lady luck on his side, but it's been great for him winning the Showdown three times. Anything you win at Indy is a good thing, even if it's the best appearing car. You know, you feel tighter at that race. I guess because it's Indy. Plus, our shop is there too. We bought our shop there along with many of the other teams. Years ago, it was only open wheel cars in the area. Now, they call the street our shop is on 'Nitro Alley.' You better have a big stick when you go through the gates at Indy.
Q: What does the U.S. Nationals mean to you?
PRUDHOMME: I hope I'm around for the next 50. There was a time when winning Indy would make your career. ABC's Wide World of Sports was there. I remember winning in 1969 and everywhere I would go across the country, people would say I saw you on television, I saw you win that race. That was a national television audience - The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat - Wide World of Sports was a big, big deal in those days. Keith Jackson was covering the race for them. Today it's still a big race. You've heard it a million times, you don't win Indy, you haven't made it. There are so many races today though. In 1965, there were two races, Pomona and Indy. It's different today. There are a ton of races now with really beautiful tracks like Chicago (Route 66 Raceway) and (Las) Vegas (Las Vegas Motor Speedway). Sure, we want to win Indy, but we want to win them all.
Q: As a second generation driver and a historian of the sport, what does the U.S. Nationals mean to you?
LARRY DIXON: It's the biggest race of the year. It's no different than the (Nextel) Cup guys going to Daytona or the open wheel guys going to the Speedway (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in May. It's our biggest event of the year.
Q: What is your best U.S. Nationals experience?
DIXON: With two U.S. Nationals wins under my belt, my proudest moment would still be being part of Snake's Funny Car team in 1989 when we ran through everybody. We won the Showdown, we won the race and ran literally one-tenth of-a-second quicker than anyone else on that weekend. As Tony Schumacher would say, it was abuse.
Q: Did you feel fortunate to win the Nationals in your rookie season as a driver in 1995?
DIXON: I look at it on two different levels. One, we ran 4.90s all day long. It wasn't a dominating win, but we did what we needed to do to get the win light at my first Indy. I didn't have to think, 'when am I going to win this race?' It happened before I could think about it and I was happy about that. In 1994, I really felt like we had a car that should have won the event in Snake's last Indy as a driver and we had a driveline failure and it was really disheartening. On one level, it was cool to win Indy in '95, but on the other side, I think that was a payback for losing in '94.
Q: You helped Dick LaHaie get his first U.S. Nationals victory in 2001. Where does that moment rank?
DIXON: Winning Indy in '01 was pretty cool. Kenny (Bernstein) ended up winning the championship that year, but we won Indy and the Top Fuel Shootout and those are the two biggest races of the year. We actually ended up with more purse money than he did and he won the championship. So, that was a good consolation prize for our team for not winning the championship.
Q: You've been going to I.R.P. for many years. Any memories about that place that come to mind?
DIXON: It's so much different now than it was then. When I was a kid and my dad raced in Top Fuel at the Nationals, there would be 75 cars shooting for a 32-car field. Everybody in the country gathered there. There were probably 10 or 12 touring pros and everybody else just worked in their area, but everybody went to Indy because that was the race. So, if you went rounds there, you kind of had some bragging rights because you knew you could run with the best in the country. That was the only race where you could go and compare yourself against other teams from around the country. It's the only race that everybody showed up for. It was cool. I had a lot of fun as a kid hanging out at that race track.
Q: Is this year's event a bit more special since it is the 50th?
DIXON: Everybody is putting a lot more hoopla on the race because it's the 50th. For me, I don't know how I'm going to get any more jacked up for Indy this year more than any other year. It's Indy. I'd be thrilled to win the 51st just as much as winning the 50th. It's still Indy. There's only one Nationals each year.
Q: How special is Indy to you?
RON CAPPS: Everything said about Indy is cliche, but to me, Indy is the 'holy grail' of our sport. It's hard to imagine that you'll ever win Indy. It just seems that big. To conquer and win that race is so huge, that it's hard to imagine doing it. Winning that one race can make a career.
Q: You've been fortunate enough to have won the Skoal Showdown three times since joining Don Prudhomme Racing. What does that event mean to you?
CAPPS: : The Skoal Showdown is the ultimate in pressure. There's a lot of money on the line, and you're competing against the top eight guys in the class. You can't make any mistakes. To win it once was amazing, but to win it three times is unbelievable. It took a couple days to sink in when I won it the third time two years ago.
Q: What would it mean to win the U.S. Nationals?
CAPPS: : For any driver, winning Indy means a complete season. If you're not going to win a championship, the only thing you can look back on and be happy about it is winning that one race. It's everything just short of winning the title.
Q: What would a "Wally" trophy from the U.S. Nationals mean to you?
TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: To have a good career in drag racing you have to have a win at Indy on your resume. Your career just isn't complete unless you have a "Wally" from Indy. I could see extending your career just to get that one win.
Q: Would winning the 50th annual Nationals be any more special?
JOHNSON JR.: If you're going to win one race at Indy, it might as well be the 50th. I wasn't around for the first one, and I doubt I'll be around for the 100th. The next important one will be 75th. If you're going to put your name in the record books, you might as well win the 50th Nationals. It would be even more special since my racing idol, Marvin Graham, will be at the race this year.
Q: You've experienced a lot of success at the U.S. Nationals. Any moments that standout?
ROLAND LEONG: The first one always stands out. We won in 1965 with (Don) Prudhomme driving. Also, in 1991 when we won - they're all a big moment, winning Indy is a big deal - but we won the Skoal Showdown and the race in the same weekend with Jim White driving. We also set the speed record. Also, with Ron (Capps) winning the Showdown in back-to-back years when I was tuning also stands out. And, we won the race in 1966 as well. That was the first time that anybody had won Indy back-to-back at that time.
Something about 1991, we had a different set of cylinder heads. We qualified with the older heads and had low E.T. Then, we put the new heads on the engine and the car went faster and quicker and won the race and Showdown with those heads. However, each run, we were burning up those heads because we weren't used to running them, and by the final round of the race it looked like someone dragged them from California to Indy on the back of a truck because the things looked so bad. Everyone was wondering what we were running at the time and they were saying that when we took the heads off, people were out there with cameras trying to take pictures of them. I don't know how true that was, but I thought it was pretty funny.
Q: You've accomplished many things in this sport. Any particular moments that stand out for you at the U.S. Nationals whether as a tuner or driver?
DICK LAHAIE: I lost in the final a couple of years. In 1989, we pretty much had the thing in the bank. I had a good light in the final and the car had a problem with the blower drive against Darrell Gwynn. The year we won with Larry (Dixon) driving in 2001 would be the highlight of Indy for me. I went there for a lot of years and was never able to win it and we finally got the win. It was like the resume was complete. I pretty much won everything else at one time or another, so that was probably the biggest moment for me there.