Legendary Funny Car and Top Fuel racer Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen passed away Sunday at the age of 81.
McEwen had been beset by health issues in recent years, including a battle with colon cancer for the last several months, but no immediate cause of death has been given.
Fellow drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein spoke exclusively with MotorSportsTalk about McEwen and both his impact upon the sport as well as his influence on Bernstein’s racing career.
“Oh man, this is terrible,” Bernstein said. “The Mongoose was an icon in the sport. He probably brought the first marketing ideas and thoughts to the sport in the late 1960s. He was one of the first.
“I bought my first dragster chassis from Tom in 1968. I was in Dallas, racing for Ace Muffler Company. Tom and I teamed up, where I bought the chassis and he furnished the engine and ran the car for a short time before I moved over to the Anderson Brothers with the same car.
“I bought the car in 1968 for $2,000. It was called “the Preying Mantis” because it had a real screwy front end that looked like a preying mantis. He had originally built the car for himself and I remember the first time I drove it, I said to myself, ‘Man, I’m driving the ‘Goose’s’ car!’ He was already a star in the sport at the time.
“It was a front-engine dragster and I actually won my first two Top Fuel races in that car. They weren’t national events, local races in Texas, but that was the car I was driving and it was McEwen’s car. Then we moved to the Anderson Brothers (team) and we won our first two races with them in Tom’s car, as well. So our first four wins overall were in Tom’s car.
“We cared about Tom a lot. He was just a great sounding board for me over the years, especially when it came to PRO (Professional Racers Organization), dealing with NHRA, dealing with other owners and drivers and people like that. I had a lot of respect for Tom, I really respected the marketing side of him because that was non-existent before that.
“He was absolutely a big influence on me, more so even off the track than on the track because he showed me how you could very well could get an outside company that wasn’t motor-driven to be in our sport. He was so far ahead of his time.”
It was McEwen, along with one of his closest friends — and biggest rivals on the drag strip — Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, who helped bring NHRA drag racing into the mainstream with their fabled Hot Wheels cars sponsored by Mattel Toys in the early 1970s.
“He was just a serious icon in the sport, no question,” Bernstein said. “I’m very sad, by all means.”
McEwen enjoyed numerous honors in his career, including being inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and others. While he earned just five wins in NHRA national event competition, including a huge upset over Prudhomme in the 1978 U.S. Nationals just a few days after the death of McEwen’s son Jaime, the Mongoose was a noted barnstorming racer who competed primarily on the West Coast.
His rivalry with Prudhomme began in the mid-1960s and became the biggest ticket on the national match-racing circuit.
“I was the [BSer] and Prudhomme was the racer,” McEwen told NHRA.com. “I’d set up the deals, then we’d go out to the track, and he’d usually beat me. There were times when he was beating me so regularly that the only way I could have beaten him was if he got lost on the way to the track and I got to single (a solo run without a rival).
“We were a good team; we complemented each other. Don was the serious guy, spent a lot of time with his car, and I was more like the wrestlers today; saying how bad I was going to beat him to build interest in the deal.”
Former team owner and crew chief Roland Leong once said: “McEwen was the smartest of the bunch. When he came up with the Hot Wheels deal using the Snake and Mongoose characters, it shook the world of drag racing big time. He produced a sponsorship package that allowed him and Prudhomme to buy the best equipment, pay expenses, make money and sell their image all over the United States.
“I hate to admit it but McEwen and Prudhomme showed us the way to the future. They were a lot smarter than most of us who didn’t see past the end of the quarter-mile.”
NHRA President Glen Cromwell released this statement on McEwen’s passing: “We are all saddened to learn the news of Mongoose’s passing. He was truly one of the most brilliant pioneers of NHRA Championship Drag Racing and continued to support the sport through a number of initiatives including our current NHRA Legends Tour in which he played an instrumental role. Everyone at NHRA will miss him deeply. Our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences are with the McEwen family at this difficult time.”
The longtime but good-natured McEwen-Prudhomme rivalry was made into a successful movie, aptly named “Snake and Mongoose” that was released in 2013.
NBC Sports has reached out to Prudhomme for comment.
This is a developing story. We’ll have more information as it becomes available, as well as a column about McEwen’s life later this afternoon.