After earning his nickname in 1964, largely as a device to entice Don “the Snake” Prudhomme into a high-exposure match race, McEwen won five NHRA national events during his 35-plus-year career, and his gift for gab and promotional ability made him one of the sport’s most influential and controversial figures.
Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, one of the iconic figures in drag racing history, died June 10 at 81. Voted No. 16 on NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers lists in 2001, McEwen competed in both Funny Car and Top Fuel, and although he wasn’t one of drag racing’s most prolific winners, he certainly was one of its most colorful.
Through his long association with Prudhomme, a friendship that survived their racing careers and sometimes bitter rivalry, McEwen helped pave the way toward the sponsored drag racing team. Their Mattel sponsorship, which gave way to “Snake” and “Mongoose” Hot Wheels toys, and backing from big names like Coca-Cola and Carefree sugarless gum were of major significance, but McEwen was a drag racer first.
“I was the [BSer] and Prudhomme was the racer,” said McEwen. “I’d set up the deals, then we’d go out to the track, and he’d usually beat me. There were times when he was beating me so regularly that the only way I could have beaten him was if he got lost on the way to the track and I got to single.”
McEwen’s wins at national events included his dramatic U.S. Nationals Funny Car victory over Prudhomme in 1978, following the death just a few days earlier of his son, Jaime. He also won the prestigious Big Bud Shootout in 1984 and won Top Fuel at the 1991 Summernationals to become one of a short of drivers to have won in both nitro classes.
A member of the International Drag racing Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, and many more, McEwen remained popular even in retirement, attending car shows and doing promotional work. This year, he helped put together the NHRA Legends Tour and had already made appearances in Las Vegas and Houston as part of the program.