The sport of drag racing lost one of its most legendary figures on Sunday when Tom “Mongoose” McEwen passed away. The five-time NHRA event winner and foil for Don “The Snake” Prudhomme was 81 years old.
In the modern era, many of the world’s top drag racers are just as comfortable behind the microphone as they are strapped into the machinery that hurtles them down the track at speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour. To the current generation, John Force is in many ways the archetype, as the dominant force in Funny Car for the past three decades is never shy from providing a quote that might make the news.
But in his own era, McEwen was the epitome of the racer with a keen eye for generating media attention, and his clever gimmickry left a mark on the sport that remains today.
Given his nickname by engine builder Ed Donovan, the goal was to entice Prudhomme into a head-to-head battle. After all, Prudhomme’s Geer-Black-Prudhomme machine had earned the best win-loss record in NHRA history in 1962. But when the two faced off at Lions Drag Strip on September 12, 1964, it was McEwen’s Donovan Engineering Special that would come out on top.
A rivalry—and later, a partnership—was born.
At the Hot Rod Magazine Championship Drag Races in 1965, both drivers made quarter-mile passes of seven seconds. When they faced off at Lions again that year, they split the two heats, the first going 2-1 to McEwen and the second 2-0 to Prudhomme. But despite McEwen’s win at the 1966 edition of the Hot Rod championships, he’d fall to Prudhomme in their final meeting of the decade at the 1966 Winternationals.
Two years later, Mattel would launch a new brand of toy cars named Hot Wheels. McEwen was already a skilled promoter, having unveiled the 1965 Plymouth Hemi Cuda and shown it up and down the west coast where he raced. He saw the opportunity to take his rivalry with Prudhomme to the next level: put together a deal with the fledgling brand, and form a team that would tour the nation.
In 1970, Wildlife Racing was born, with a full line of toys released to push the partnership. Children across America could choose for themselves between Snake and Mongoose as they sent the two cars down a 1:64 scale drag strip. The Hot Wheels deal would last three years, with a fourth tacked on with another sponsor for good measure before the partnership dissolved, and the models are still coveted today by collectors.
Of course, that’s when the wins just started to come for McEwen. It was 1973 when he won his first NHRA event, staring down the fastest field in Funny Car history at the time when he won the SuperNationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. Five years later, he topped Prudhomme at the US Nationals just days after his son Jamie passed away after battling leukemia.
McEwen would retire from racing in 1992, but he wouldn’t stray far from the public eye. Instead, he’d move on to a stint as publisher of Drag Racing Magazine, a perfect move for one of the sport’s most adept promoters and a man never inclined to turn down a good conversation. Two decades later, his rivalry and partnership with Prudhomme was profiled in the film Snake and Mongoose.
The world of motorsport has seen plenty of talented drivers who kept their mouth shut, and plenty of talented pitchmen who struggled for success in the track. McEwen was the rare breed who could excel at both. And if not for his forward thinking 50 years ago, the racing landscape just might have looked dramatically different than it does today.