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Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, 1937-2018

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Tom McEwen. Photo courtesy NHRA.

Over a drag racing career that spanned nearly four decades, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen won just five NHRA national events, yet still established himself as one of the best-known drivers in the sport’s history. It’s no exaggeration to say that his skill at promotion reshaped drag racing, attracting high-dollar sponsorships and catapulting it from relative obscurity onto television screens across the United States. On Sunday, June 10, McEwen died at age 81.

McEwen’s drag racing career began at age 16, when he first ran a ’53 Oldsmobile at Santa Ana Dragstip in Irvine, California. A steady progression of faster vehicles followed, including gas coupes, altereds, gas and fuel dragsters, and later, Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters. His “Mongoose” nickname came in 1964, initially as a strategy to entice Don “The Snake” Prudhomme into a match race.

The trick worked, and in September 1964 McEwen bested Prudhomme in two straight sets at Lions Dragstrip in Los Angeles, inspiring a rivalry and partnership that would ultimately impact the entire sport. The duo raced just twice more in the 1960s – once in 1965 and again in 1966 – but in 1969 came together to form a corporation, Wildlife Racing, as a Mattel toys sponsored national touring team.

It was McEwen who came up with the idea to approach Mattel, his mother’s employer, for sponsorship. The resulting deal put Snake and Mongoose Hot Wheels sets under Christmas trees from coast to coast, turning kids and pre-teens into fans of the sport. Sponsorship was lucrative enough to give McEwen and Prudhomme the best of equipment, at a time when few drivers earned a solid income from prize money alone.

As McEwen once related to the NHRA,

I was the [BSer] and Prudhomme was the racer. 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. 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.

The Mattel deal lasted from the 1970 season through the 1972 season, but also helped attract other corporate sponsors to the sport. In 1973, Wildlife Racing was sponsored by Carefree Sugarless gum, and when the contract expired at the end of the 1973 season, McEwen and Prudhomme dissolved the corporation.

The pair remained friends and rivals, and in an April 2017 column for Hemmings Muscle Machines, Prudhomme recalled one particular race against McEwen. The week before the 1978 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, McEwen had lost his 14-year old son, Jamie, to cancer. Despite this tragedy, the Mongoose appeared at Indy, ready to race. As fate would have it, the Funny Car finals came down to McEwen in his English Leather sponsored Corvette running against Prudhomme in his U.S. Army sponsored Plymouth Arrow. Staged in the faster lane and convinced he could take the win, Prudhomme smoked his tires off the line, and the victory – perhaps the most important one of his life – went to McEwen.

In 2001, McEwen was voted number 16 on the NHRA’s Top 50 drivers list, and he was ultimately inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He remained active in recent years, helping to organize the 2018 NHRA Legends Tour and making appearances in Las Vegas and Houston earlier this year.