Behind the Scenes
MANY DRAG RACING FANS HAVE HEARD THE TALE OF THE YOUNG MAN WHO CAME TO THE MAINLAND FROM HIS NATIVE HAWAII, WENT FUEL RACING, HAD AN INAUSPICIOUS DEBUT AS A DRIVER, HITCHED HIS WAGON TO THE STAR THAT WAS LEGENDARY ENGINE BUILDER KEITH BLACK, AND PUT A YOUNG HOT SHOE NAMED DON PRUDHOMME BEHIND THE WHEEL. But, there’s still more to his story.
Today, more than 50 years have passed since Roland Leong and his fabled Hawaiian fuel dragster took the sport by storm, winning both the 1965 NHRA Winternationals and Nationals with “The Snake,” and repeating the feat the following year with Mike Snively driving.
Preceding his move into the nitro ranks, Leong had a gas dragster. With fellow Hawaiian Danny Ongais driving, the Dragmaster Hawaii car won Top Gas Eliminator at the 1964 Big Go West.
Bolstered by his 1964-6566 Winternationals threepeat, Leong made a solid living on the match race circuit.
But by 1968 bookings were drying up for dragsters in favor of their fiberglass-bodied brethren. Being an astute businessman, Leong became one of the first dragster guys to make the move to floppers. Thanks to his association with Chrysler Corp. he chose a Dodge Charger body atop a Logghe chassis.
With Larry Reyes driving, the new car made a highlight reel-worthy debut at the 1969 Winternationals, taking flight in the lights.
Leong returned the following year with a sleek mini-Charger-bodied Hawaiian and shared the Pomona winner’s circle with Reyes. Leong was in the Winternationals winner’s circle again in 1971, this time with the late Butch Maas.
For the next two decades, Leong was one of drag racing’s best-known car owners, highlighted with an impressive performance at the U.S. Nationals in 1991, setting Low ET, winning Funny Car Eliminator with Jim White driving, and also capturing the Big Bud Shootout. Leong’s stint as a Big Show car owner culminated in 1993, with his last hurrah being a win at the 1993 Springnationals, with Gordie Bonin making a rare return engagement behind the wheel.
Keeping track of Leong’s drivers was a Trivial Pursuit game in its own right, with
(in alphabetical order) Leroy Chadderton, Ron Colson, Mike Dunn, Pat Forster, Rick Johnson, Bobby Rowe, Mike Van Sant and Johnny West joining the aforementioned Ongais, Prudhomme, Snively, Reyes, Maas, White and
Bonin in the cockpit of various iterations of the Hawaiian.
During that first quartercentury, Leong amassed a wealth of knowledge and developed into a first-rate crew chief and tuner. When asked what the key to his success was throughout the years, the quiet-spoken Oahu native said, “Information.” He added, “Back then, and even more so today, keeping accurate records of everything lets you make logical tuning decisions.
You can’t take anything for granted.”
After selling his operation and sitting out for a few years, Leong got bored and opted to help privateer Ray Higley— who had befriended a 20-year-old Leong when he was first learning the ropes at Jim Nelson and Dode Martin’s Dragmaster emporium in Carlsbad, California—to personal bests.
In a memorable twist of fate, it was Leong’s former driver, Prudhomme, who came calling. The Snake, now a team owner, had expanded his operation to include a Funny Car driven by rookie Ron Capps. The collaboration worked well, and Capps became a force to contend with, winning numerous events with Leong calling the shots. Leong is rightfully proud of his mentorship, a successful collaboration that’s lasted more than two years.
As the new millennium unfolded, a considerable amount of interest began to focus on a new breed, Nostalgia Funny Cars. With bodies mimicking ’70s offerings and engine restrictions that made for affordable racing, the genre expanded rapidly.
One of the early standouts in the
N/FC wars was Canadian Rod Hodgson, whose Pacemaker/Bubble-Up entries with “240 Gordie” Bonin driving, were a powerful duo in the day. After a stint with Terry Capps, Hodgson fielded the Troy
Lee Designs Firebird and the Canadian/ Hawaiian team of Hodgson, driver Tim Boychuk and crew chief/tuner Leong made their presence strongly known in NHRA’s Heritage Series.
In 2015 Leong joined forces with veteran racer Jim Murphy, returning to the long, skinny cars that started his career, tuning Murphy’s popular WWII nostalgia fueler.
So here we are more than a half-century after Leong first decided to become a professional drag racer. He’s most certainly compiled an enviable record as a car owner/ crew chief/tuner, one of the best in the business. His hair may be gray now, but his competitive spirit still burns fiercely. He just tuned Jim Murphy to the NHRA Heritage Series championship!
LEFT. Leong has long been associated with his native state, and for years raced in the livery of Hawaiian Punch. Many drivers have been employed during Leong’s three decades as a car owner. Johnny West, shown here, was one out of nearly two dozen.
BELOW. 1965 NHRA Winternationals found the Top Fuel Eliminator trophy in the hands of Leong and The Snake, with Keith Black also sporting a Hawaiian lei. Leong’s biggest fan, his mom Teddy, is second from the left.
Always looking for an edge, Leong was said to be the first drag racer to take advantage of a wind tunnel. Here he is at the Lockheed facility in Marietta, GA.
Leong was one of the first Top Fuel heavies to switch to Funny Car.