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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Interview with the Pros: Don Prudhomme

By NHRA Communications

Don Prudhomme during the Skoal Bandit years. Photo thanks to Ed Nachman
Don Prudhomme during the Skoal Bandit years. Photo thanks to Ed Nachman

Try and define the word "cool" without talking about Don Prudhomme. Go ahead. Just try it. Don "The Snake" Prudhomme was cool when he first got involved with drag racing 40 years ago and little has changed - except for the fact that he no longer drives in the nitro categories. Now Prudhomme is the team owner for three cars. He took Larry Dixon, a guy without any driving experience, and has turned the Miller Lite Dragster team into the current points leader. In fact, they have led the way all season. How cool is that?  In this Q&A session, Prudhomme talks about what it is like to still be involved in drag racing. He talks about whether he misses driving, and he mentions some small differences between racing now, and then.

Q: You have been able to maintain successful sponsorship deals throughout your career as a driver and an owner. What is your winning philosophy on dealing with sponsors?

PRUDHOMME: When they give you a buck, you try to give them two bucks back. You need to give them their money's worth. We work real hard at that. The first person I try to please is myself. The second person I try to please is the sponsor. I know if I am happy, they are going to be thrilled. I think I have been fortunate, more than anything, by having sponsors that I have good relationships with. I have had a couple that I have not had good relationships with. But U.S. Tobacco, for example, they are just really good people. That makes it fun racing for them. Miller is the same way. The president of U.S.T. is personally involved, and the people of the company follow it. It's a big deal to them, and so it's fun racing for them. There is nothing worse than having a sponsor that doesn't give a damn, they are not involved, they have 15 different programs and drag racing is at the bottom of the list. That happens a lot. I am fortunate with two companies. Miller races with us and Rusty (Wallace of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series) and they are very involved with racing. Having the year we are having, they appreciate that. They recognize the job we are doing. People drop me a line to congratulate what we have been able to accomplish. In saying that, it is all about building relationships. You try to give them their money's worth. They certainly aren't here because of my wonderful personality.

Q: You have several people working on the three-car operation which allows you to oversee the entire operation, but not hands on to every project. Was it tough getting to the point where you are now?

PRUDHOMME: Yeah, it was very tough. It was tough letting go and not being a (Kenny) Bernstein who has his thumb on everything. I'm not like that. It's true. I am the kind of guy who hires good people to do their job and I try to get the best people I can. When they are not doing their job, then we have to sit and talk about it. Outside of that, I certainly don't tell them what blower they have to run or all that other stuff. No. 1, I don't want to be blamed for the tune-up and No. 2, they know more about that than I do. If I was so damn smart, I would be doing it myself. I have my thoughts and ideas sometimes, but usually I keep my finger on the overall situation. The team, the concept, the people, stuff like that. But I like having people like Skip Allum, who is the team manager, to get involved. He has been a big help with all of the incidentals. We have a lot of people who work on this program. My wife Lynn is very involved with the sponsors and insurance, those kinds of things. My daughter Donna is involved and we have a lot of people back at the shop to make this program run.

Q: For most of your career, you have had the nickname "The Snake" and all of the image expectations that come with it. Is it difficult keeping up with that image?

PRUDHOMME: It is tough winning races, I don't care who you are or whatever you think you are. The trick is winning races, that's all. But that is a tough thing to do. No, it's not any tougher because of who I am. I don't care who I am. I am the same as all the rest of the guys. I don't have any special ego that needs to be maintained.

Q: You were voted No. 3 on the Top 50 Greatest Drivers list last season. If you had to, could you make your own top 5 list?

PRUDHOMME: I don't know. If you had to choose between drivers of today versus drivers of the past, it would be difficult. It could change all the time. I think the drivers today are better than the drivers of yesterday. But I think the equipment is better today too. You have trained professional people that drive now. When I started, we towed the rigs, worked on the cars, pushed the pistons in and out, we did it all. Then you drove the car. Now, you have people that run, exercise, they work on reaction times and they eat right. Every time I call (Funny Car driver Ron) Capps and I ask what he is doing, he is always at the gym. Then he is going out to lunch. He's just a driver. He is cool, he's got a good style. I like him.

Q: What do you think about your three drivers, Larry Dixon, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr.

PRUDHOMME: My drivers are great. Dixon, obviously, came up through the program. He had driven some stuff, but more than anything, he deserved the chance. I was retiring. I wanted to see him get his license. I didn't realize he was going to be as good as he is. He wasn't as good then as he is now. He was OK, but I think now he is great. I am very pleased with him. Tommy has always been good. He is one of those guys you can count on to get the car down the track. Capps is a natural. I just wish with the two Funny Car drivers, we could give them a ride as good as they are. We're working on that.

Q: What does it take to put all the pieces of a three-car team together and compete week in and week out?

PRUDHOMME: It ain't easy. It's very hard working with all kinds of people. With crew chiefs, some can tune dragsters and do a good job and they ain't that good on Funny Cars, and vice versa. You see a lot of guys like that. I have had guys who couldn't get arrested working on a Funny Car and they go to a Top Fuel car and bingo, it all comes together. Funny Cars are like taking a 6,000 horsepower engine and putting it into a Jeep. It's only a 125-inch wheelbase, no suspension, nothing. You might as well put it in a Jeep. A pre-war Jeep, a way-back kind of Jeep. I don't mean a current Jeep. Funny Cars are very difficult cars to tune and very hard to run. Not that a dragster isn't, but the Funny Cars are tough.

Q: Are you more patient now as a team owner than you were as a driver?

PRUDHOMME: Oh yeah. I have mellowed with age, I think. I certainly think I have. When I started out, you were fighting for survival. We weren't sitting in these nice trailers eating cherries.

Q: Why did you get involved with drag racing?

PRUDHOMME: Oh come on. All you have to do is race once as a kid and you're hooked. I drove a car one time in a car club, in the club dragster. I was hooked big time. This guy, Tom Ivo was in the car club with me and he was a good race car driver. He was real good and when I got involved, he was a big influence. I had a lot of heroes, like Chris Karamesines. People like that.

Q: Did you ever think drag racing would turn into the sport it has become?

PRUDHOMME: Well, let's put it like this. I always hoped it would. I always aimed for that. We always tried to have our equipment looking good. A lot of times it was all smoke and mirrors to keep it all looking good. I am very proud of what the sport has turned into. I am really proud of the fact that I have been able to take some young drivers, bring them into the sport, allow them to make a good living and see them have families. It's great.

Q: What makes the U.S. Nationals so special?

PRUDHOMME: You have to understand that years ago, the U.S. Nationals was the center of the United States and people would come from California, New York, Florida, Maine and from South Carolina and from everywhere else in-between. They all came to race at that one spot. It was THE race. Through the years, there have been a lot of other special races. But it is special for a lot of reasons. What makes the Daytona 500 special? What makes the Indy 500 special? It is the mystique of it.

Q: Are you amazed by how well Larry Dixon has performed at the U.S. Nationals? Not many people can say they won Indy, nonetheless more than once.

PRUDHOMME: I am amazed and very happy about the job he is doing, but it is car and the overall team with (crew chief) Dick LaHaie and all the guys, not just Larry, that makes those wins happen. When I look at how well it is going, yes, I am happy for Larry because he is the driver. So yeah, winning Indy is cool for him.

Q: What do you miss about being a driver?

PRUDHOMME: Nothing.

Q: Are you considering adding another Top Fuel car to the team?

PRUDHOMME: No. Three cars are plenty for me. I am more interested in making the three cars win all of the time, especially the two Funny Cars. We need to get them running better. I can't add another car. If somebody held a gun to my head, then maybe I would. I think we have a lot of work to do. I would have a hard time going to Miller Brewing Company, and saying 'Hey guess what? We are going to add another Top Fuel car that has a good chance of beating your Miller car.' In oval racing it's one thing, it is just accepted. But in drag racing, you go line up two cars, side-by-side. I wouldn't want to do that to Skoal, nor would I want to do that to Miller. We have two Skoal cars, but that is what the company wanted and they really can't lose. If one of those cars had something other than Skoal on the side of the car, and they beat Ron, that's a different story. That is one of the reasons, but the other reason is that I really don't think we are in the position to take on another team. There is a lot involved. Shop space, crew chief, team members, and a lot of other things. You say you want another car, well, who is going to tune it? Putting something like that together is a big deal. I am not out looking for another sponsor.

Q: POWERade got involved as the series sponsor in December. What do you think about the first six months or so of their partnership?

PRUDHOMME: I love that they are here. We had a meeting with the POWERade people and they explained what they are doing. I think it is going to be nice to see our series in commercials. I think it would be nice to see them work with our drivers the way Coca-Cola does with the Winston Cup drivers. I think it is great that they are here, POWERade is great for the sport and I am looking forward to seeing what they can bring to our sport.

Q: What do you think about Toyota getting involved with Funny Car racing?

PRUDHOMME: I think it is great to see Toyota over here. GM still has some involvement, Ford, of course, is very strong in Funny Car racing. Mopar is competitive too. I think the manufacturer involvement of the sport looks good for the future. This is a great place to showcase cars between the guys that run them and the audience that watches them. Obviously with the Firebirds and Camaros going away, we have to look for a new body, and word on the street is that the Pontiac GTO is next in line.

Q: How special would it be for you and all of Snake Racing if the Miller Lite team can win the Top Fuel title?

PRUDHOMME: We are a long way away from that happening and we still have a lot of work to do. I can't think in terms of how special it would be. I am thinking in terms of working toward getting the job done. We're working toward that. In this game, you can't build your hopes up that high because it could slap you right in the face and let you down. We went from just killing everybody to all of the sudden not even qualifying. Then some other things happened. But I went home with the same attitude I had when we won a race. I feel like we give it our all, and there you are. We are a long way from (a championship) and I don't even think in those terms.

Q: There are team owners who use you as a model for what they are trying to accomplish as far as putting teams together and being successful with sponsorships. Do you ever give yourself any credit for what you have done in drag racing as a team owner?

PRUDHOMME: I don't know how to answer that. I am quite proud of what we have accomplished from where we started. I am very proud of that and the people that we have involved. I am having a lot of fun.

Q: You saw John Force back in the days when he was struggling with a leaker car. Did you ever think he would become the John Force he is today?

PRUDHOMME: When I met John Force, we were all struggling, but I must admit it doesn't surprise me that he has been able to accomplish what he has. It doesn't surprise me to see him do all of this. He was a very dedicated guy. He worked real hard and he was very determined. Why should we be surprised by his success? He has always worked really hard. He's just absolutely stuck with drag racing. He has put his money back into the sport. A lot of people have come along, they made their money and they are gone. He puts it back in, and I admire that because that is what I do too.

Q: What is the best thing about being a team owner?

PRUDHOMME: The best thing about being a team owner is that you are not responsible for tuning the cars. I think that is the best thing. The bottom line is that you are responsible because the buck stops with you, but I don't have to worry at nights about how to set the clutch. That used to eat me up, all the tuning decisions. That's a cool part. I just like watching the program grow.

NHRA Communications

 

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