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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A viewer’s guide to the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: What to watch in the debut of GTP

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona could put an unbelievable twist on one of motorsports’ most famous adages: Money buys speed, how fast do you want to go?

Money is being burned at an ungodly rate for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, but the correlation between cash and performance might be completely disjointed after 24 hours on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

The debut of a new premier hybrid prototype category has some of the world’s largest automakers flocking to the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP), where annual budgets have been estimated at $15 million per for the new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars.

With nine GTP cars starting the Rolex 24 at Daytona across Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, it’s safe to say the manufacturers have committed at least nine figures to launching what many are calling a new golden age for sports car racing.

But there’s no guarantee that any of the cars will finish the race. In fact, some are predicting it’s inevitable that all will spend at least some significant time in the Daytona garage repairing a high-tech car that never has raced for 24 consecutive hours. And in an era of pandemic-related supply-chain worries, there are major concerns that full repairs will be impossible even if necessary.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

It’s added another layer to the pressure involved with one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“From a manufacturer perspective, this is high-stakes motorsports,” Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Acura driver Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “This is as big as it gets. To debut at the Rolex 24 is such a high-stakes event and puts such a big test on everybody. The pressure all the manufacturers and teams are under is immense. Once we get through it and survive, there’ll be a sigh of relief. But until then, we all feel the eyes of the manufacturers on us.

“It’s going to be a pressure cooker for sure.”

Along with “unpredictability” and “reliability” being buzzwords the past two weeks at Daytona, there also has been some wistful predictions that this year’s Rolex 24 will be a throwback to a bygone era when endurance races truly were a survival of the fittest instead of the fastest.

After turning into a series of 24 one-hour sprint races for many years, no one is predicting that drivers will punish their equipment with so much at stake and so few safety nets.

“This race is going to be like races from the bloody ‘70s and ‘60s,” pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist of defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing told NBC Sports. “So it’ll be like when you watch that ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ and they’re coming into the pits repairing serious things and still going out and coming back. It’s going to be like that, mate.

“Yeah, we don’t know. We are not 100 percent confident that our car is as reliable as it needs to be. We definitely would have liked another year. All season before we came here to this race. But everyone’s in a similar boat. Some manufacturers are further down the line than others in terms of mileage. We’re still finding things popping up here and there that we didn’t see or suspect. It’s going to be a tough race without a doubt. I’m almost certain that we’ll be spending some time in the garage. Hopefully we get lucky, but let’s say we’re not going to be surprised if we are back in the garage at some point. We don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best sort of thing.”

Teammate Simon Pagenaud said the race will be “the 24 Hours of the Mechanics. It’s going to be a team that’s able to repair the car the fastest way possible. It’s a little more like it used to be about reliability and making sure you take care of your equipment.

“We don’t have enough time yet to be able control fully the reliability, and we haven’t done enough laps to be able to say what’s going to break first or second. You’re going into it with a bit of jitters not knowing. It’s going to be definitely a very, very different race, I think.”

Here’s a viewer’s guide of some topics to keep an eye on during the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Testing time: Though announced in January 2020, LMDh cars have been on track since only about a year ago. Porsche was the first to commit and has logged more than 30,000 kilometers of testing. Cadillac also has done significant real-world testing, but Acura admittedly has done little endurance testing, and BMW has tried to play catch up since being the last automaker to commit to the project.

Only Porsche and Cadillac can claim to have simulated the duration that cars will face this weekend. Porsche Penske Motorsport conducted a 36-hour test that managing director Jonathan Diuguid confirmed was “slightly higher” than 24 hours consecutively. Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, confirmed the No. 31 Cadillac ran for a full 24 hours at Sebring International Raceway last November. Acura also had attended the session but cut the test short after mechanical problems.

–Tortoise and hare: Every manufacturer has at least two cars, which creates opportunities for divergent strategies. When his team won the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Nelson said it was pushed hard by Chip Ganassi Racing’s prototypes in this tactic to wear down the competition.

“In old-school endurance racing, they’d call one a rabbit,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “He’d try to run the guts out of everybody to keep up with him, while the other (car) just followed around. There’s potential for something like that. I don’t think it’s in our playbook, but potentially there are people in these corporate offices, these manufacturers coming in, because they advanced through racing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now they are managing these motorsports programs for these corporations. It’s very possible there’s someone from that era will say we’re going to have one rabbit, one tortoise. That’s very likely.

“We see that, I don’t think we take the bait. I think we stay with the plan.”

–LMP2 overall win? If mechanical problems do crop up for the GTP cars, the door will be opened for a victory by a car in the junior LMP2 prototype class. The LMP2 cars lap a few seconds slower and will need to make roughly nine extra pit stops than the GTP cars.

But according to NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish, those factors would leave LMP2 cars about an hour behind GTP. That means if major mechanical problems befall all the GTP cars, an LMP2 likely would be leading. Diuguid said it would take over an hour to change out the major components on the hybrid system.

“If you have to change the gearbox, a suspension component or a hybrid component, your opportunity to win is probably over,” Diuguid said.

Nelson also predicted that teams will be more aggressive with making brake changes. Though his car’s brakes made it 24 hours last year, they generally require at least one swap. Nelson believes that will happen anywhere between the sixth and 18th hour – but probably on the early end in a concept similar to short pitting in NASCAR.

“We’re hoping our brakes make it all the way and haven’t seen anything that told us they won’t,” Nelson said. “A few years ago, we were changing brakes on anything between 6 and 18 hours. If everybody had to change the brakes in past years and you’re the last to do it, you have the least amount of time to gain it back.”

–Electric pit stops: Though it’s not IMSA-mandated, teams are using electric power only to enter and exit the pits for myriad reasons. The practice allows for a more efficient acceleration and deceleration that helps ensure hitting the speed limit. And it puts less strain on gearboxes that will be stressed over 24 hours.

–New tire strategies: With teams restricted to about a dozen fewer sets of tires, teams will be double-stinting for fuel only without opting for fresh rubber.

Nelson said the Action Express Whelen Engineering team was planning to make its tire changes coincide with its driver changes (unlike the normal practice of changing tires on most pit stops).

–Three’s the magic number: More than half the GTP teams are employing a trio of drivers instead of the maximum four that has been popular with many teams in past years. Though Colton Herta is listed as the fourth driver on BMW’s two cars, the IndyCar star might only drive one.

The shift comes as Penske and Porsche plan to field full-time entries in the World Endurance Championship, which allows only three drivers per car.

–GTD battles: Mercedes dominated qualifying, but there have been charges of sandbagging by the Ferrari and Porsche GT favorites.

That isn’t the case with defending GTD Pro class winner Pfaff Motorsports, whose No. 9 Porsche struggled to make laps in practice.

Women in racing: Led by the all-female Iron Dames lineup, there will be several opportunities for women to reach the podium or take a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Sports car ace Katherine Legge is teamed with Sheena Monk on the No. 66 for Gradient Racing.