Photo courtesy NHRA

Drag racing legend Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen dies at 81

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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.”

Click here for more about the life of Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen.

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.

View from the pits: Reporters’ picks for the 103rd Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR / Jason Porter
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It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, and for the first time, the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Time will tell what impact Mother Nature has on today’s 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But no matter what, prerace coverage begins today on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET, then transitions over to NBC at 11 a.m. ET.

All month long, the INDYCAR on NBC pit reporters have been bringing you the latest breaking news and stories for the Brickyard. Now, Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast and Marty Snider share their insights from pit road. Read on …

KEVIN LEE

Throughout the last two weeks, one common theme has been, “Don’t crash.” There were five crashes, and four of those teams/drivers ended up in the Last Row Shootout. Two of the three bumped (Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso) were in backup cars following heavy impacts.

Several drivers have consistently been among the strongest. Simon Pagenaud (pictured, left) not only starts on pole but has been strong in race trim as well. All three Ed Carpenter Racing cars are fast and appear good in traffic. Alexander Rossi looks like he can put his car wherever he wants, and Scott Dixon has five championships and 44 IndyCar wins, so he must be watched.

In order, my picks for most likely to drink the milk are Pagenaud, Rossi, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Dixon.

KELLI STAVAST

A week ago, no one could have predicted that two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing would be bumped from the Indy 500 by a single-car, part-time effort of Juncos Racing and its driver, Kyle Kaiser (pictured, right).  But it happened, and Kaiser now occupies the 33rd and final spot in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

So what next?  I spoke with Kyle five days after the dramatic qualifying effort, and he told me he has never been happier to finish last and that he is still “buzzing” from that experience—an energy he hopes to carry straight through to the race.  He also told me that the response from fans has been positive with people stopping him in public (including at Chipotle) to hug him and congratulate him on making the Big Show.

But reality might have set in for the Californian who now lives in Indy.  During Carb Day’s final practice, the team struggled to get a good handling car for Kyle, who described the day as “challenging.”  But Kaiser also acknowledged that the team made some progress throughout the practice and at the very least collected some data that might help for the 500-miler on Sunday.

Whether he finishes 1st or 31st on Sunday, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will have plenty of fond memories to carry with them from the 103rd Indy 500.

MARTY SNIDER

First, we cannot wait to bring you guys the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s an honor for our entire group to broadcast such an amazing event.

So what do we expect? I have no idea, to be honest. The weather will be a huge factor today. It might be a race to halfway if rain is forecast.  If it’s cooler (mid 70’s ambient, which it looks like it’s going to be), Alexander Rossi (pictured, left) was unstoppable in those conditions last Monday.

But Rossi was very unhappy with his car on Carb Day. For that matter, most teams were. But Rob Edwards of Andretti Autosport explained a few things to Rossi about all of the experimenting they were doing in final practice, and I think that team is in a much better frame of mind heading into the race.

I find it interesting that Simon Pagenaud’s team scuffed in literally every set of tires they will use for today’s race. The No. 22 camp is convinced (and they’re not wrong) that one of the keys to Will Power’s 2018 win was his ability to gain time on out laps after pit stops. Scuffing in tires helps that out lap time. It also allows teams to do a balance check on tires. Good thing they did: Kyle Moyer of Team Penske found two sets that had vibrations, which would have been bad in the race.

Bottom line, I haven’t seen anyone really stand out and show me they can beat Alexander Rossi yet. So I’m going with Rossi to win his second Indy 500.

Enjoy the show friends. It’s going to be a fantastic race!