A Snake’s tale: 50 years later, Don Prudhomme to drive again in Mexican 1000 off-road race

Photo courtesy Don Prudhomme
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Starting Sunday, thousands of Mexican officials and race fans will gather together from Ensenada to San Jose del Cabo, on the lookout for a slithering Snake on four wheels.

As in legendary drag racer Don “Snake” Prudhomme, who will take part in the five-day National Off-Road Racing Association’s (NORRA) Mexican 1000 Off-road Rally in Baja, Mexico.

While the part about Prudhomme being entered in the race is unique in and of itself, it’s the back story that makes this one of the best racing tales in a long time:

* Prudhomme will once again take part in the race 50 years after trying to make the 1968 race. You read that right: 50 YEARS LATER!

* Unfortunately, his bid in 1968 was cut short when his team was knocked out of competition the night before the race began due to a blown motor.

* Prudhomme has waited five decades to make another run at the 1000, and now he’ll do so at the age of 77. That’s also 24 years after he retired as an active drag racer following the 1994 NHRA season.

* And in perhaps the best part of the overall story, Prudhomme will try to fulfill a promise to late actor and racing fan Steve McQueen. In 1968, filming on McQueen’s epic “Bullitt” in San Francisco ran long, preventing him from competing in the Mexican 1000 along with friend and scheduled co-driver Tony Nancy. When McQueen realized he wouldn’t be able to race, he made Prudhomme his hand-picked replacement.

Unfortunately, the night before the 1968 race was due to take the green flag, the motor on Nancy’s and Prudhomme’s off-road buggy exploded and the team was unable to repair or replace it in time.

Ergo: a missed opportunity that has haunted Prudhomme ever since.

“It’s always bugged me,” Prudhomme told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “It’s been at the top of my bucket list ever since.”

HOW STEVE MCQUEEN PICKED PRUDHOMME TO TAKE HIS PLACE

Prudhomme then expanded upon his friendship with McQueen.

“Steve McQueen and James Garner used to go into Tony Nancy’s (car customization) shop (in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley) all the time,” Prudhomme said. “And Tony was a drag racer. So we all built our cars there.

“McQueen would come in to Tony’s store and I got to know him. He was just a really bitchin’ kind of guy. He had his motorcycles and we’d go out and ride our motorcycles and dirt bikes. He was just one of the guys.

“He was going to drive this car in Baja in ’68 with Tony and he had a picture he had to film and he couldn’t get out of it. So I was standing there and Steve said, ‘Hey, how about you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m in.’ Basically, I jumped at the opportunity to do it.”

Prudhomme was going to be the co-driver when Nancy moved from co-driver to lead driver to fill-in for McQueen. That is until the engine in their ride had other ideas.

Prudhomme with the off-road vehicle he will co-drive with P.J. Jones in the Mexican 1000. (Photo: Don Prudhomme)

A story in Hot Rod magazine three years ago that detailed Prudhomme’s 1968 unfulfilled adventure planted the seed that led to Prudhomme returning to the scene for this year’s five-day event, which kicks off at 9 a.m. PT on Sunday morning in Ensenada and runs five days, ending next Thursday, April 26, at San Jose del Cabo.

Prudhomme will team with P.J. Jones, son of legendary racer Parnelli Jones, both behind the wheel of a state-of-the-art off-road buggy by Polaris and sponsorship by JEGS. Off-road legend Walker Evans, a long-time friend of Prudhomme, built the heavy-duty shocks for their machine.

“We went down to Baja on a ride and must have rode 1,000 miles down there in five days last year,” Prudhomme said of riding with Jones. “After we finished, we said, ‘Hell, let’s enter this race.’ I haven’t been in competition since 1994, to actually race somebody myself. What a splendid idea.”

No expense is being spared, because Prudhomme and Jones aren’t just in the 1000 to play around.

No way, they’re in it to win it.

FROM DRAG RACING TO OFF-ROAD RACING

After retiring first from drag racing and then from running his own team, Prudhomme has spent a great deal of his retirement driving off-road vehicles in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.

Just for fun, he says, and that includes regular riding off-road and in sand dunes with famous friends such as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, Rusty Wallace and others.

But this race is all business, Prudhomme insists.

“I wanted to go back and do it and now I’m doing it in fine style,” Prudhomme said. “We’ve got chase helicopters, we’ve got a crew of six people, we’ve got all kinds of stuff. So, I’m going back with guns loaded and hopefully I can finish up good.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart and Don Prudhomme (Photo courtesy Don Prudhomme)

“It’s 1,000 miles altogether, so it’s grueling. We’ve got spare tires, spare A arms and spare shocks, all kinds of stuff. We’re way more prepared than we were the first time we went down there. We didn’t have a clue.

“We’ve got everything but a spare motor. If we blow the motor, we’re in bad shape. Nah, we won’t blow the motor. It’ll make it easy. We have to worry about all the other stuff, like A-arms and you tear things up, hit big boulders and rocks, things like that.

“And, oh hell, yeah, we’ve been testing plenty. We’ve run the hell out of it, changed the suspension and the shocks, just like the big guys.”

He then added with a laugh, “We’re not leakers, we’re really trying to win the damn thing.”

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER AND SNAKE’S HEALTH IS EXCELLENT

That he turned 77 years old on April 6 is not a concern for Prudhomme. On the contrary, for him, 77 is the new 57 – maybe even 47.

When asked if his doctor checked off on letting the Snake race in the grueling, bump-filled 1,000-mile off-road event, Prudhomme seemed a bit taken aback.

“Come on, come on, that’s embarrassing. How can you say that?” Prudhomme laughed.

His wife, Lynn, who was sitting near him during the interview for this story, quickly chimed in, emphatically saying, “He’s in GREAT shape,” also adding she’s totally in support of his attempting the 1000.

Don Prudhomme (Photo: SnakeRacing.com)

The Snake then continued, “I exercise, always have. I have a gym in my house, so I work out and take care of myself, eat pretty good. Heck, I hit the scale every morning and I’m 195 (pounds). I’m about five pounds over what I’d like to be. But by the time of the race, I’ll be right there. Hell, I’m six-foot tall and in good shape. I’m not bragging.”

But like Clint Eastwood said in the movie, “Magnum Force,” “A man’s got to know his limitations,” Prudhomme knows his. He may not be able to strike like the Snake of old, but he still has lots of venom and thread still left in him.

“I will admit I’m not the Snake I used to be, if you know what I mean,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, I hear ‘ya. My buddies are dropping like flies. When you get my age, 77, I’ll be honest with you, the big number to me is 80. If you hit 80, you’re doing great, and everything after 80 is a free lunch, it’s a bonus.

“I’m aware of it (being 77), but let me tell you, I’m doing everything I can do before that magic number comes up. I’m hitting it.”

An estimated 300-plus racers will take part in the five-day event in a variety of four-wheel cars, trucks and off-road vehicles, as well as motorcycles.

Prudhomme was asked why he waited a half-century before trying the Mexican 1000 again. Why not have tried it 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years after his first attempt? Why wait 50 years?

“My head was so into drag racing, that’s all I ever thought about, the quarter-mile,” he said. “I never thought about going 1,000 miles, I was just worried about the quarter-mile.

“I was all hell-bent on winning races and all that with no distractions. But since I’ve retired, I’ve been able to do plenty of things. I’m taking advantage of it while I can.”

WHAT’S NEXT ON SNAKE’S BUCKET LIST?

So what’s next on Prudhomme’s bucket list after the Mexican 1000?

He hints he might compete in November’s annual big daddy of off-road racing, the Baja 1000 (of which was preceded by the Mexican 1000). The Dakar Rally may also be something to consider.

IndyCar and NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi and Don “Snake” Prudhomme. (Photo courtesy Don Prudhomme)

But more immediately, he said, “At some point, I’d like to enter a car in the Indy 500, one of Chip’s (good friend and IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi) cars, a spare car.

“Each year we seem to work on that. I thought we might have a little something going this year but didn’t get it. But that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to be there when the flag falls, the race starts and you have a car in the race. That would be really high on my bucket list, so I’m working toward that.”

He then adds with a laugh, “Stay tuned for my next bucket list thing. I tell you, there’s more down the line and more things I want to do.”

But nothing is more important or more immediate to the legendary Snake than Sunday’s start of the Mexican 1000.

And just like he had in mind each time he got behind the wheel in the more than 1,000 drag races he competed in during his career, he has the same mindset for the 1000:

“Let’s hope I’m standing in the winner’s circle when it’s over.”

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Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”