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.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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