In the Words of FreiburgerÉ
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.