In the Words of Freiburg­erÉ

Hot Rod - - Everyday -

Ugh. Tom “The Mon­goo$e” McEwen died on June 10 this year, and I can’t get it out of my head. Weird, be­cause I only barely knew McEwen per­son­ally. Just when I thought I was a cal­loused jour­nal­ist who was get­ting ac­cus­tomed to the le­gends of our sport fall­ing down with reg­u­lar­ity, I re­al­ized I’m ac­tu­ally just a bone-deep car guy who be­came that way thanks to in­spi­ra­tions from those folks who came be­fore us. It’s not the HOT ROD mag­a­zine Freiburger who re­ally misses the guy. It’s the 10-year-old Freiburger stand­ing at the fence at Pomona, push­ing as close to the start­ing line as pos­si­ble be­cause burnouts are best, and be­cause Steve Evans just an­nounced that ’Goose is com­ing to the line in that Corvette Funny Car!

You most likely know of McEwen be­cause of the vaunted, Hot Wheels–spon­sored match races be­tween him and Don “The Snake” Prud­homme, circa 1970–1972. That ri­valry car­ried well past my child­hood, too, though my per­sonal aware­ness of McEwen is from when he was al­ready 12 years deep into drag rac­ing and was run­ning the B&M-built 1965 Hemi-’Cuda (long be­fore the fac­tory made such a thing), spon­sored by South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Ply­mouth Deal­ers. This was a mid-en­gined, steel-bod­ied Funny Car that had the driver seat pushed scary-close to the steer­ing wheel to make room for the in­jected 426. The car even­tu­ally took flight at Li­ons in one of McEwen’s most flam­boy­ant crashes. It was about 10 years later when I, as a kid, was buy­ing vin­tage car mags at a used book­store and be­came hooked on the look of that ’Cuda. It’s one of those cars I’ll never for­get be­cause of the way it cap­ti­vated me and sparked my en­thu­si­asm. It was a blip in McEwen’s larger ca­reer, but it was the one that helped hook me. And I guess that’s why we look up to the peo­ple who in­spire us.

Tom McEwen’s last big flash in the mag­a­zines was when he built a 1957 Chevy Funny Car that was in the Jan. 1989 is­sue of HRM. He won Top Fuel at the Sum­mer­na­tion­als in 1991 and was in the process of re­tir­ing from driv­ing right at the time I got hired as a HOT ROD staffer. I was first in­tro­duced to the Goose by Gray Baskerville, and I grad­u­ally be­came ac­cus­tomed to spot­ting McEwen at all sorts of in­dus­try func­tions, as he later worked as the Mo­tor­sports Di­rec­tor of Drag Racer mag­a­zine. As it turns out, mar­ket­ing and sales were his gen­uine skills; it was he who nailed that fa­mous Hot Wheels deal, and he also had long­stand­ing deals with Coors and English Leather. His acu­men in the pitch room put the $ in Mon­goo$e.

It was at a sales meet­ing about a year ago where I last saw McEwen, and where we ended up spend­ing an hour and a half just talk­ing about stuff. It was the first time we’d shared more than a hand­shake and a nod. He was re­ally in­ter­ested in the video part of my job and was cu­ri­ous about the spon­sor­ships and au­di­ence of our shows and our so­cial me­dia. I, of course, had to hear the story of fly­ing that Hemi-’Cuda. He gra­ciously de­liv­ered, al­ways will­ing to per­pet­u­ate the im­agery of the past as he had done so many times.

In truth, Tom McEwen was not a stand­out win­ner at the fin­ish line of the dragstrips, but his name will re­main among the most well known in all of drag rac­ing. Per­haps it’s not the win­ning that mat­ters as much as how mem­o­rably you race.

[ I must have picked up this Mon­goose “On the Go Set” from English Leather around 1975 at Pomona or On­tario. You know that drag-race mar­ket­ing has im­pact when you hang onto hair dress­ing for 43years.

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