Photos courtesy Don Prudhomme

NHRA legend Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme completes Mexican 1000 off-road race, 50 years later

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If Don Prudhomme rear-ended another driver on a Southern California freeway, you couldn’t blame the other driver if he or she would be at least a bit upset.

But when Prudhomme rear-ended another driver during this past week’s Mexican 1000 off-road race in Baja, California, well, let’s just say the outcome was markedly different.

Prudhomme was caught in a massive dirt cloud and couldn’t see anything when he slammed into the car in front of him Wednesday.

While initially ticked at the contact after climbing out of his VW Dune Buggy, the other driver quickly made a 180-degree turn in reaction to the crash when he recognized the man famously nicknamed “The Snake” was the one who hit him.

“Hey, you’re Don Prudhomme! Can you sign (autograph) my car?”

Prudhomme kicks off his five-day Mexican 1000 adventure.

Exactly 50 years after failing to run the Mexican 1000 for the first time due to a pre-race engine failure, Prudhomme not only came back to run the predecessor to the famed Baja 1000, but he also finished.

He drove more than 1,100 of the 1,300 mile-course (including transition and connecting roads) and crossed the finish line to take the checkered flag, something they don’t have in NHRA drag racing, of which Prudhomme was a multi-season champion as both a driver and team owner.

Prudhomme finished 95th out of more than 150 entries in the premier event of the year for the National Off-Road Racing Association.

But it didn’t matter where he wound up, the key was he finished the grueling off-road course. To Prudhomme, who turned 77 on April 6, finishing was just as good as winning for him.

“It was the most unbelievable experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Prudhomme exclusively told MotorSportsTalk. “I’ve never done anything like this. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but it was on my bucket list and it was just unbelievable.

“You can’t describe it unless you’re out there. We crashed, fixed the car, crashed again, people run into you, it’s full of dust and dirt – you’ve never seen so much dust and dirt.”

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

Wanting to run the Mexican 1000 has gnawed at Prudhomme for 50 years. He was slated to run in 1968 as replacement for actor Steve McQueen – after filming legendary movie “Bullitt” took longer than planned – but the team blew up the motor the night before the 1000 was to get underway.

Prudhomme always told himself that if the right opportunity – and the right timing – came along, he’d give the 1000 another shot. It may have taken a half-century, but he’ll no longer have any regrets or wonder “what if?”

He finally can say he did it.

“I wanted to do it on my own,” Prudhomme said. “I wanted the experience of doing it to see what it was like, not just to tell someone I rode maybe 100 miles of the Mexican 1000. I didn’t want any of that, I wanted to do it myself.”

To drive 1,300 miles for a guy who made his living racing a quarter-mile at a time, it took nearly two years of preparation, being in great health and a determination that was aided by a full team behind him that got him back on-course whenever there were in-race mishaps.

And even when mishaps occurred off-track.

“The second day, when we stopped at Bahia de Los Angeles, my co-driver Mike Byrd, thought it was a great idea if we stopped and ate some tacos,” Prudhomme said, before breaking into a laugh as he continued the story.

“Don’t eat tacos in the middle of nowhere! I don’t recommend it to anybody. But he had a taste for tacos and the next morning woke up sick as a devil, so I had to get a replacement.

“I lost my co-driver. And I was pretty discouraged about it because at that point, we weren’t even halfway through it, not even close. Then, all of a sudden, there was this Canadian kid, Shane Chatwell, who was on our pit crew. He said he could drive, but I asked him if he could navigate. The navigator is the biggest thing. I mean, driving is one thing, but navigating is something else.

“You have to remember you have this computer screen right in front of you with a chip in it, and it’s pitch dark and we’re talking to each other over our radios, where it’s “go left here, go right, we’ve got a right-hand swing coming up then a lefthander. I mean, this kid saved my ass, that’s all I can tell you.”

Prudhomme was one of four cars that were part of the team of P.J. Jones, son of legendary racer Parnelli Jones. The younger Jones not only built the car Prudhomme competed in, he also prepped the Snake on what to expect and how this would be a race of strategy, not just playing around in the desert.

“P.J. had the trucks, trailers, the crew, the fuel,” Prudhomme said, adding with a laugh, “I mean, you just don’t find a gas station in the middle of the desert.

“This is not child’s play. You don’t just get in this thing and drive. You need to know how many miles per gallon you get, the precise distance between one point and another.

“Sure, we carried a spare 10 gallons of fuel with us, which we had to stop and put in out in the middle of nowhere, but if that chase truck wasn’t out there at a designated point that’s on the map, we’d be screwed.”

As the race – which began this past Sunday and finished Thursday evening – wound on, determination was Prudhomme’s own personal fuel. He wanted to prove to himself, first and foremost, that he could not only be competitive, but that he could finish.

“There were a lot of guys that broke down (and didn’t finish),” Prudhomme said. “But the big deal wasn’t just who won, but just finishing the race. The people down there were cheering you on and celebrating just so you’d finish the son-of-a-bitch. It was so nice. Each competitor in all these different classes were high-fiving each other, it was remarkable. It was like this bond you got with these people, just finishing the race.

“They put you up on stage and the wives, girlfriends, pit crew members were all around the car, taking pictures.

“First, to me, was just finishing the race. That’s how I looked at it.”

While he was all business and serious about competing, there were other humorous moments like when he autographed the fellow driver’s car.

In fact, one incident gave Prudhomme a new-found respect for cacti.

“We hit one of those big Saguaro Cactuses, those big, tall sons-of-bitches,” Prudhomme said. “I ran into one as we were trying to get through this dust field.

“The guy in front of me turned left and I couldn’t see nothing, I was blind, and I hit one of those cactuses, and man, that thing didn’t even move. It was like running into King Kong.

“It tore the left front suspension off and we had to limp to our pit crew on three wheels so they could put a new a-frame on it.”

While he dismisses running in races like the Baja 1000 or the Dakar Rally, even though Prudhomme said this week’s Mexican 1000 may be the only time he’ll ever run it, he admits he is already giving thought to doing it again next year.

Actually, my ass is just fine. What really hurts is my neck, shoulders and arms, gripping that wheel.

“I am considering coming back,” Prudhomme said. “I really didn’t know anything about it, didn’t know the terrain, didn’t understand it, didn’t know we’d be going through all these little villages and there’s goats and sheep and cows on the highway. I didn’t know we’d be running in pitch dark night along these narrow cliff-like roads and rocks and stuff.

“Next year, if I do this again, I’ll be better equipped and I’ll be able to run faster and know the terrain.”

There’s no question that riding 1,300 miles in a wide-open four-wheel-drive vehicle takes a toll on the body. One would think the biggest problem would be saddle sores, so to speak, what with all the bouncing and shifting in the seat across all types of terrain.

Not so, Prudhomme said.

“Actually, my ass is just fine,” he said with a laugh. “What really hurts is my neck, shoulders and arms, gripping that wheel. My hands are like swelled up. I had to put them in ice because you’re moving the wheel back and forth and you’re holding on through the bumps that your upper body is what takes the beating, not your ass or legs. That’s nothing.”

Crossing the finish line Thursday night gave Prudhomme pause of sorts. It took 50 years, but he finally can say he not only ran in the Mexican 1000, but that he succeeded in making it all the way through.

“Yeah, I thought about it: we’d have never made it (back in 1968),” he said. “We didn’t even a crew back then. We didn’t have pits. We thought we could stop at a gas station and get fuel when we needed fuel.

“To be honest with you, I hate to say it but I’m glad we broke because we’d have never made it. And there might not have been a Snake because he’d have been out there, wasted away to bones in the middle of the desert. We weren’t prepared. It was a blessing in disguise that we didn’t make it.”

Driving from eight to sometimes nearly 15 hours per day in the five-day adventure, what kind of payoff was there at the end for Prudhomme completing the 1000?

Nothing. Nada. No check, no prize money, no trophy – just the self-satisfaction of completing the whole distance, as well as a combination pin/medallion that is proof Snake did what he set out to do.

I’m now in a select fraternity that I’m pretty happy to be in.

“I’m going to treasure this thing forever,” Prudhomme said. “You only get this thing when you cross the finish line. It’s as good as any trophy I’ve ever won.

“It’s bragging rights. You don’t do this sh** for money. To get from Ensenada to San Jose del Cabo, across backroads and dirt roads and all the dirt and dust and rocks and stuff, it’s a challenge.

“I’m now in a select fraternity that I’m pretty happy to be in.”

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Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.