Photo courtesy Mattel Toys

Column: How Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen turned Hot Wheels into sheer genius

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Tom McEwen was both sly and smart as a fox, but it was the Mongoose in him that he’ll always be remembered for.

He not only had a penchant for trash talking in drag racing, he also had the brains to back it up, becoming a hallmark of innovation that helped bring NHRA drag racing into the mainstream of motorsports in the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s.

McEwen may not have always won in head-to-head competition on the 1,320-foot quarter mile – he won only five NHRA national events in his career – but he would leave an indelible mark upon his rivals that they’d never forget.

A self-professed “BS-er,” what McEwen lost on the racetrack he more than made up for with win after win in the corporate board room.

That’s why today’s NHRA drag racers – and by extension, NASCAR and IndyCar drivers – owe McEwen, who died Sunday at the age of 81, a great deal of gratitude.

McEwen was an idea guy, always thinking of ways to not only promote the sport, but also to promote himself. The greatest stroke of genius in his career was teaming with arch-rival – but also close friend – Don “The Snake” Prudhomme to form one of the greatest rivalries the sport has ever seen.

Even to this day, the McEwen-Prudhomme synergy that resulted in a multi-million, multi-year sponsorship from Mattel Toys’ Hot Wheels brand is still talked upon in iconic terms as being “the deal” that really put NHRA and the sport on the motorsports map.

Prior to that, drag racing had been primarily a West Coast-based sport for the most part. It was to California, Arizona and Utah similar to what NASCAR back in the day was to the Southeast states of the U.S.

But with the match race rivalry that McEwen built with Prudhomme in the 1960s, he was confident the sport was prime to take national, and Hot Wheels cars were the vehicle.

I still remember getting my first Hot Wheels cars when I was about 12 years old. I was like millions of other boys – and a few racing-crazy girls – who reveled in each new colorful, four-wheeled piece of metal that we’d get for birthdays, Christmas, or just because our parents wanted to do something nice for us.

But when the Snake vs. Mongoose Hot Wheels cars came out, things were taken to a whole new level. Getting their Funny Cars were like hitting a kids-like Lotto. They were the best, fastest and most bad-ass looking cars we could ever want.

While the Hot Wheels promotion on the dragstrip lasted just four years, it continues to live on today, more than four decades later. Check out Ebay or collector forums, and Snake and Mongoose cars today remain some of the most popular finds there are.

And all that popularity began when McEwen one day had an idea that at the time was so far out of the box that some of his fellow racers thought he was, shall we say, crazy like a fox.

But McEwen had the last laugh. When he and Prudhomme went to Hot Wheels headquarters in Southern California to pitch an idea to use the colorful little cars to boost drag racing prominence, his genius brainstorm of an idea was quickly recognized by company officials – and the rest is drag racing and toy making history.

Oh, and let’s not forget that all those tiny race cars, not to mention the big-dollar sponsorships on the sides of their real-size cars, not only made “The Mongoose” and “The Snake” household names, they also made McEwen and Prudhomme wealthy, successful beyond their wildest dreams both on and off the dragstrip.

Hot Wheels also helped make McEwen and Prudhomme roll models for all those millions of boys and girls, which led to drag racing becoming such a popular sport both at racetracks, as well as influencing those kids-turned-adults to go out and buy their own street cars that continued their long-time emulation of Snake and the ‘Goose.

I first met McEwen in-person in the mid- 1980s at ground zero of the NHRA drag racing world, Pomona Raceway (now AutoClub Raceway) in Pomona, California, about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles.

By then, his drag racing days were all but behind him. But he still proved to be a fascinating interview. I initially told him I wanted maybe 10 minutes of his time to do a story about his career, his famous nickname and, of course, his rivalry with Prudhomme.

Nearly 90 minutes later, he was still talking – as McEwen was noted for doing a lot of in his life. But it also was one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever had in my professional career.

The thing that struck me the most in that interview was how McEwen recalled how he came up with all of his ideas over the years.

I mean, they were fairly simplistic ideas, making him the first guy to typically think them up, and then went on to put them into place.

McEwen could be gruff at times, but he also had an incredible wit and a sense of humor that left you hard-pressed to know where the truth ended and the BS-ing began, as he liked to put it.

Still, McEwen was a true character, one of the larger-than-life personalities that made the sport and the NHRA so successful over the years. While NHRA founder, the late Wally Parks, is credited for making the sanctioning body what it is, the NHRA owes McEwen a lot for all he did to grow the sport and bring more attention to it.

For if it wasn’t for McEwen’s out-of-the-box thinking with Hot Wheels, the NHRA we know today likely would not be anywhere as successful or significant in the motorsports landscape as it has become.

Rest in peace, Mongoose.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne