Remembering Tom Mcewen.
Legendary drag racer Tom “the Mongoose” Mcewen, the man who helped make drag racing a household word when he partnered with Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Mattel Toys to produce the “Snake & Mongoose” Hot Wheels toy line, died June 10, 2018, from complications stemming from colon cancer.
Rated Number 16 on NHRA’S Top 50 Driver’s List, Thomas Holland Mcewen was born January 14, 1937, in Pensacola, Florida, to parents Sybil and Thomas Mcewen. Tom’s father Tom Sr. was a Navy test pilot, which is probably where Tom got much of his daring-do. Mcewen graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School and attended Long Beach City College, but by then the lore of drag racing had firmly caught Tom’s attention. As a member of the Marron Avenue Marauders Auto Club, Tom started humbly enough, driving his mother’s ’53 Oldsmobile at the Santa Ana Drags. The road to becoming a drag racing legend also included driving Tim Woods’ 1950 Olds along with a pretty hot ’57 Chevy, a ’40 Ford coupe, and a K88 chassis dragster of his own.
As Mcewen’s reputation as a hot car handler grew, driving assignments included the Bader and Ferrara Cadillac-powered Crosley, the Budd and Gary Fiat altered, Art Chrisman’s Hustler II, the Rasner & Slusser coupe, and Dick Rea’s Chrysler-powered gas dragster. In 1961, Gene Adams gave Tom got his first pro ride in the Albertson Olds dragster, followed by Adams’ famed Oldsmobile-powered Shark Car.
In 1963, Ed Donovan screwed Mcewen behind the wheel of the Donovan Engineering Special, and it was during this time frame when Mcewen officially became known as the Mongoose. In September 1964, he soundly defeated Prudhomme in the Greer, Black & Prudhomme fueler in a two-out-of-three match race at Lions.
As successful as Mcewen was behind the wheel, it’s said his greatest legacy was the deal he set up with Mattel Toys. Using contacts at the company (his mother worked there), Mcewen and Wild Life Racing partner Prudhomme inked a three-year deal to be sponsored by the Hot Wheels brand. While the Snake and Mongoose were out making clinic appearances and racing their Plymouth-powered Duster and ’Cuda floppers all across the nation, Hot Wheels became second only in toy sales to Mattel’s famed Barbie. As the Hot Wheels deal moved into its second season, the Funny Cars were replaced with newer and faster models, and a pair of front engine dragsters was added. The third and final year of the Hot Wheels deal saw the Mongoose campaigning a newer and lighter Duster AA/FC along with a new Garlits mid-engine chassis AA/FD, which annexed the Top Fuel Eliminator title at the 1972 March Meet.
The Mattel deal paved the way for other non-racing-affiliated companies to sponsor not only Mcewen and Prudhomme but
other racers as well. After the Mattel deal had run its course, Mcewen and Prudhomme scored Trident Sugarless Gum sponsorships, and after that the U.S. Navy and English Leather, respectively, came on board.
In 1978, Mcewen switched to the Corvette body style with Coors sponsorship. Just one week after the loss of his youngest son, Jaime, to leukemia, the Goose triumphed over archrival Prudhomme in a highly emotional finish to win Funny Car Eliminator at the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
The Mongoose would continue to race for Coors throughout the 1980s with one of his biggest wins coming at the 1984 U.S. Nationals’ “Big Bud Shootout.” When the Coors deal ended, the Goose re-invented himself with the debut of his Danchuk Industries-sponsored 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Nostalgia Funny Car, which set the industry on its ear. Proving that he still had what it takes to win, Mcewen’s last competitive ride was driving the Jack Clarkowned Mobil 1 AA/FD, which captured the Top Fuel Eliminator title at the 1991 NHRA Summernationals.
SLICK SLICK: PPC’S Bob D’olivo mounted a motorized camera on Tom Mcewen’s Yeakel Plymouth fuel dragster to record how the slick changes shape under load for a January 1966 Car Craft story.
CRASH TEST: While under contract to Lou Baney in 1964, Mcewen “crash tested” the Southern California Plymouth Dealers Association-sponsored Hemi Cuda at Lions at 168 mph. It would be the only known crash the Mongoose ever experienced.HRM ELIMINATOR: Mcewen won Top Eliminator at the 1966 HOT ROD Magazine National Drags and accepts the plaque from HRM’S Ray Brock. GAME CHANGER GAME CHANGER: Mcewen’s marketing master stroke of getting Mattel to sponsor him and Prudhomme changed the face of drag racing.
SECONDSSECONDS: In late 1968 Mcewen showed off his marketing chops by scoring a sponsorship deal for his new Woody Gilmore chassis. The Tirend Activity Booster & Gold Spot Breath Freshener AA/FD not only set secondquickest elapsed time at OCIR’S Professional Dragster Association Championships at 6.68 seconds, it was also runner-up to Bennie “Wizard” Osborn at OCIR’S First Anniversary $14,000 Winner Take All Drag Race.ICONS: Mcewen and Linda Vaughn share a moment at the 1966 HRM Drags in Riverside.