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.

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”