Legendary Drag Racer Tom McEwen, 81

The rivalry between Don Prudhomme (left) and Tom McEwen made both men household names in the world of drag racing.

POMONA, Calif. — Legendary drag racer Tom McEwen, known by his nickname “Mongoose,” died Sunday, June 10. He was 81 years old.

A winner of only five NHRA national events, McEwen was best known for his legendary match races with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

The legendary rivalry between McEwen and Prudhomme brought drag racing into the national spotlight. The pair acquired sponsorship from Mattel, which led to “Snake” and “Mongoose” Hot Wheels toys being produced, which helped promote the sport of drag racing even more.

McEwen began his racing career in 1953, competing at Santa Ana Dragstrip in Irvine, Calif. He slowly worked up the ranks over the next 10 years, driving a number of different cars before he first crossed paths with Prudhomme in 1964.

In their first match race, McEwen downed Prudhomme in two straight sets. With their first pairing drawing great interest, the duo set up more races over the next few years, having their last match race in 1966. They wouldn’t race each other again for the rest of the decade.

Finally, in mid-1969, a national touring team sponsored by Mattel was formed by McEwen and Prudhomme known as Wildlife Racing. The Wildlife Racing team competed for four years, including in 1973 when the team was sponsored by Carefree sugarless gum.

Tom McEwen in 2014. (Kent Steele Photo)

McEwen and Prudhomme ended their corporate partnership after 1973, but the partnership had done a great deal to promote the sport of drag racing as well as both competitors. Despite the show put on by McEwen and Prudhomme that sometimes portrayed them as bitter rivals, the pairing remained great friends throughout the years.

During his time with Wildlife Racing McEwen earned his first NHRA national victory, winning the Funny Car portion of the SuperNationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in California in 1972. He’d win four more NHRA events during his career, including the 1978 U.S. Nationals when McEwen defeated Prudhomme in the final round only days after the death of McEwen’s son Jaime.

“It was a sad situation,” McEwen said in 2014. “I was really bummed, but one of the last things (Jamie) told me was that he wanted me to go to Indy and beat Prudhomme. He and Prudhomme were buddies.”

McEwen added a Top Fuel victory to his resume in 1991.

In recent years, McEwen and Prudhomme appeared together at various types of drag racing events, and their rivalry was celebrated in the 2013 film Snake & Mongoose.

“We are all saddened to learn the news of Mongoose’s passing,” said Glen Cromwell, president of NHRA. “He was truly one of the most brilliant pioneers of NHRA Championship Drag Racing and continued to support the sport through a number of initiatives including our current NHRA Legends Tour in which he played an instrumental role. Everyone at NHRA will miss him deeply. Our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences are with the McEwen family at this difficult time.”