Photo courtesy Don Prudhomme

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

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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.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.