Be­hind the Scenes

Drag Racer - - Contents -

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.

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