FIR­ING UP

Chevy High Performance - - Con­tents -

Remembering the great NHRA Funny Car driver Tom “Mon­goose” McEwen

of you that grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, my first con­tact with cool cars was Hot Wheels—the lit­tle die-cast cars that looked like some of the bad­dest mus­cle cars on the streets, only smaller. I re­mem­ber th­ese lit­tle metal cars ap­pear­ing on the shelves of toy stores in 1968. It was a huge game changer. Un­like the toy cars pre­vi­ously of­fered for kids, Hot Wheels cars ac­tu­ally looked cool, and the use of shock-ab­sorb­ing pi­ano wire axles along with big, fat wheels made them roll faster and smoother than any other toy cars avail­able. The one-of-a-kind bright-or­ange track held to­gether with pur­ple track con­nec­tors upped the fun fac­tor ten­fold. My friends and I would spend hours upon hours rac­ing th­ese cars to see whose was the quick­est. For­tu­nately, I knew get­ting dirt in the wheels would slow them down, so th­ese cars were des­ig­nated as in­door-only, which ex­plains why I still have quite a few sur­vivors in great con­di­tion.

In 1970, Hot Wheels in­tro­duced the Mon­goose and Snake Drag Race Set. It was then that Tom “Mon­goose” McEwen and Don “The Snake” Prud­homme went from ob­scure West Coast drag rac­ers to in­stant celebri­ties to just about ev­ery kid in Amer­ica. The Hot Wheels Mon­goose and Snake tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial shown dur­ing Satur­day morn­ing car­toons raised them to su­per­star sta­tus. Even par­ents knew of Mon­goose and Snake, as th­ese drag rac­ing sets were on just about ev­ery kid’s Christ­mas list. Not only did the two drag rac­ers gain na­tional at­ten­tion, but the deal with Hot Wheels also gave the sport of drag rac­ing a ma­jor boost.

Although the Mat­tel spon­sor­ship only ran from 1970-’72, they se­cured Care­free sug­ar­less gum as a spon­sor for 1973. At the end of that sea­son, the Snake and Mon­goose’s rac­ing cor­po­ra­tion—Wildlife Rac­ing—dis­solved, but their ri­valry lived on as strong as ever.

Through­out their rac­ing ca­reers, when­ever the two staged up against each other on the dragstrip, even for just a qual­i­fy­ing run, it was spe­cial. This was a race ev­ery­one wanted to see. Ev­ery fan would be on their feet to wit­ness the big­gest ri­valry in drag rac­ing: Snake vs. Mon­goose.

Although Tom McEwen stopped rac­ing com­pet­i­tively in 1992, he was still in­volved in the sport as a color com­men­ta­tor at var­i­ous races and later as As­so­ciate Pub­lisher and Mar­ket­ing Di­rec­tor for Drag Racer mag­a­zine.

In most peo­ple’s eyes he was a drag rac­ing leg­end, but he didn’t see him­self as such. He ad­mits to not hav­ing that “killer in­stinct” in ev­ery round of rac­ing like Prud­homme, Don Gar­l­its, and oth­ers had. Hav­ing fun in life was im­por­tant to McEwen, so he didn’t take drag rac­ing quite as se­ri­ous as some of his com­peti­tors.

Com­ing in at num­ber 16 on NHRA’s Top 50 driv­ers of all time, McEwen won only five na­tional events in his 35-year rac­ing ca­reer. In com­par­i­son, Prud­homme—listed at Num­ber 3 in NHRA’s Top 50—has 49 event wins to his credit (14 in Top Fuel and 35 in Funny Car.)

I met Mon­goose through some friends, be­ing at some nos­tal­gia drag races, and be­cause we worked in the same in­dus­try. Although he was a child­hood hero to me, as I got to know him over the years I saw a per­son who truly cared about friend­ships and the peo­ple around him. When we spoke he would usu­ally ask about how I was do­ing, how work was go­ing, and life in gen­eral. His sense of hu­mor was quick and dry, so you had to be on your toes to keep up. Our phone con­ver­sa­tions were usu­ally short, but the fact that he took the time to call ev­ery cou­ple of months and chat for just a few min­utes meant a lot to me. To call Tom “Mon­goose” McEwen a friend was an honor, and yes, to me he was a leg­end—a leg­end that I ad­mired and looked up to from a very young age. As an adult, I still looked up to him but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. If I said I wasn’t even a lit­tle bit star-struck, that would be a lie. After all, he was the freak­ing Mon­goose!

NHRA’s Phil Burgess in­ter­viewed McEwen a few years ago and asked him how he’d like to be re­mem­bered. “As a good guy, kind of a smart aleck guy who liked peo­ple and en­joyed what he did,” said Mon­goose. “I was se­ri­ous at the track but had fun away from it.”

Tom “Mon­goose” McEwen passed away on June 10, 2018, at the age of 81. He was a drag rac­ing pi­o­neer whose con­tri­bu­tions helped cat­a­pult drag rac­ing to a higher level of suc­cess.

A leg­end like him will be missed by many and I’m sure we can come up with all the clever clichés about how “he’s gone to the dragstrip in the sky with all the great ones,” but the Tom McEwen I’ll miss is the one who liked to eat lunch at the same place on cer­tain days of the week and the one who com­plained about his doc­tor telling him to cut back on this or that and how he needed to watch his weight. He was truly one of a kind.

Wher­ever you are, I know they’ll ap­pre­ci­ate a guy like you; a lit­tle bit of a smart aleck who likes to have a good time. God­speed, Mon­goose.

You in?

■ Mon­goose and Snake ap­peared on the May 1970 cover of Su­per Stock & Drag Il­lus­trated with the head­line “Hot Wheels $250,000 Bonus Ba­bies; Will They Rev­o­lu­tion­ize Funny Car Rac­ing?” Yes, they did.

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