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Mongoose in his prime: Tom McEwen’s ’68 Top Fuel dragster heads to auction

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Tom McEwen’s 1968-’69 Top Fuel slingshot dragster. Photos by Dan Duckworth, courtesy Mecum Auctions.

By the mid-1960s, Tom McEwen had earned a reputation as a winning drag racer (and the nickname “The Mongoose,” the natural enemy of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme), but typically piloted dragsters owned by someone else. For the 1968 season, he built a front-engine Top Fuel dragster of his own, starting with a 186-inch Woody Gilmore chassis and a Tom Hanna body, and the Mongoose proceeded to campaign it nationally through the ’69 season. Now restored in its original livery, McEwen’s Tirend Activity Booster-sponsored top fueler will cross the block at Mecum’s Phoenix, Arizona, sale on March 15.

As good as he was behind the wheel, McEwen was equally adept at promoting his endeavors. Below his name on this particular slingshot dragster, one can see “Tirend Activity Booster,” an early energy drink and one of the first non-automotive companies to take a chance on racing sponsorship. Other paint schemes worn by this dragster under McEwen’s ownership also include another of the company’s products, Gold Spot Breath Freshener. Then there were the deals McEwen signed with companies — like M&H Tires — to test and help develop their products.

As originally built, the car was powered by a nitromethane-fueled, supercharged 392-cu.in. Chrysler Hemi V-8, which sent torque to the rear slicks via a Chrysler 8.75-inch full-floater rear end. Though McEwen won multiple races in the car over two seasons (and set lowest ETs at Orange County International Raceway, Indianapolis, and Lions meets), it may be best known for one single match race in 1968.

As Drag Racer magazine explained, Orange County International Raceway was eager to promote its one-year anniversary in 1968. With the help of sponsor The Los Angeles Times, the winner-take-all payout for the “richest match race ever held” would be $14,000, at a time when most big tracks were paying half that (or less) for a major-event class win. Only the two cars with the lowest ETs in track’s first season would qualify to run in “The Richest Race Per Second in the World,” and atop that list was McEwen, with a pass of 6.64 seconds in the Tirend car. His opponent was Benny Osborne, whose pass of 6.72 seconds was good enough to get him into the race.

There are no podium finishes in drag racing, only winners and losers. That night, the win — and with it, the $14,000 in silver dollars — went to Osborne, but McEwen was already moving on to bigger things. His match races with Don Prudhomme were drawing more attention from fans and the media alike, and soon McEwan and Prudhomme — as Wildlife Racing — would pitch a deal to Mattel Toys that would rewrite the rulebook on the business of motorsports by introducing big-dollar corporate sponsorships.

McEwen raced the slingshot into the 1969 season, selling it to Glen O’Neill after a race in Texas. It was campaigned in the Lone Star State for a bit before O’Neill pulled up stakes and moved to California, giving up the slingshot’s engine in the process. Once settled, O’Neill made friends with drag racer Kenny Logan, who happened to own a new Keith Black racing engine, but no suitable car to run it in.

The pair’s racing debut with the car came at Irwindale in 1971, and after completing a pass of 6.74 seconds, Logan found himself staged against Chuck Flores. Flores red-lighted the run, and mid-track grenaded the engine in his car. Logan completed the pass, but was struck in the shut down by Flores, his car aflame and his visor obscured by oil. Neither driver was hurt, but O’Neill’s slingshot sustained front-end damage in the accident.

Feeling responsible, Logan offered to get the car repaired, but O’Neill already had other ideas. Seeing that many Top Fuel competitors were migrating to rear-engine cars, he saw no sense in rebuilding what would soon be obsolete technology, and instead ordered a new rear-engine chassis to race. McEwen’s old front-engine slingshot was sold to a young Ron Kolb, who repaired the front-end, dropped in a small block Chevy V-8, and campaigned the car for several years in this configuration before outgrowing it. It would sit in his garage — saved for his own son, who never raced it — for over two decades.

Circa 2005, NHRA Hall-of-Famer Mike Kuhl ran into Kolb, and the conversation soon turned to McEwen’s old slingshot. Yes, Kolb still owned the car, and yes, it was potentially for sale, but with one complication: Former driver Kenny Logan had once expressed interest in the slingshot, and Kolb had already given him first right of refusal.

It turned out that Logan did indeed want the car, but the drag racing fraternity is a small one, and Logan called Kuhl to apologize for buying the car out from under him. In exchange, Kuhl was granted the same deal by Logan, and two years later, circa 2007, the dragster was purchased by Kuhl.

A slow restoration began, returning the car to its as-debuted livery. Kuhl tacked the engine work in his own shop, installing a blown 398-cu.in. Hemi V-8, while the chassis, body, and paint work was farmed out to others. The car debuted at an NHRA Museum function in 2011, and today makes the occasional appearance at cackle fest events in Southern California. To be offered as a separate lot is the dragster’s original Bowlus trailer, also restored, and one of just 22 constructed.

For additional information on the Phoenix sale, visit Mecum.com.