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Tom McEwen has been successful in drag racing both as a sport and as a business. He is a seminal figure in the sport as a racer, having won every major race worth mentioning including the U.S. Nationals. As a driver and team owner he joined with arch-rival Don Prudhomme to get one of the very first big money sponsorships with the Mattel Company. The Snake and Mongoose rivalry sold tickets and models cars for years. He was active as a driver into the late 1990’s and his ’57 Chevy Fuel Funny Car remains one of the most unique racecars in the sport’s history.
When his driving days were done he got involved with the drag racing magazine business as an advertising salesman and advisor for Drag Racer magazine, where he remains to this day. Tom McEwen was there at the beginning of professional touring drag racing and continues to be involved. Few drag racers have seen, done, or accomplished what Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen has in drag racing. DRO is honored that he would sit down with us for a no holds barred interview.
DRO: You’ve been involved in every aspect of drag racing, from being a team owner to being a driver, and now you’re working with a magazine. In your career, have you ever seen the economy quite like this, and how it’s affecting drag racing?
Tom McEwen: No. In my lifetime I’ve never seen the economy like this. I was born in 1937. I think the last time the economy was like this was in 1933, and hopefully we’ll never see anything like it again. It’ll turn around like it always has. It might take one or two more years, but it’s tougher to make a dollar now. You’ve got to make deals and really scratch out there.
DRO: How is the recession affecting the high-performance industry in general?
TM: It’s affected everybody, all types of racing. NASCAR, drag racing, and sprint car racing. It’s affected football, baseball. It’s affected everybody. Too many people laid off, nobody has any money. So you just have to tighten your belt and cut back. They laid off a bunch of people at our place (Beckett Media) and cut the staffers pay back ten percent, and that’s just how it’s going to be. We’re just going to have to get by until things get better.
Smart guys, big teams, have lost their sponsorships, going to have a hard time re-signing them right now when they’re laying people off; they don’t want to spend three million dollars on something. Bernstein was lucky to fall into that Coparts thing he’s got for just one year next year, and I guess Prudhomme was looking for a deal for next year, and a lot of other guys. It’s tough out there right now, but like anything else, everyone will survive. You’ll lose some and you’ll gain some, but that’s just the way it goes.
DRO: What do you see as the biggest problem between owning a team in the 1970s and owning a team today?
TM: Well in the ‘70s there wasn’t very much money in the sport. You know, I went to Mattel in 1969 to set the deal for the Snake and the Mongoose, that was really the first big money to come into the motorsport. That started in 1970 to ’72, ’73 that area. That was the very beginning of money in the sport.
In those days you could build a whole car for $1,000. Now an engine is $50-60,000. Nitromethane back in those days was $100 a drum. Now it’s $1,400. Everything changes as it goes. Back in those days we used to race for nothing but a trophy. Then they started giving us savings bonds at Santa Ana. Where I first started racing in 1953 with C.J. Hart, you’d get your choice of winning a trophy or a $25 bond, which I guess was worth $17.50 or something. Now they’ve got purses of $100,000 at Indy, or whatever it is. The world championship’s worth half a million now.
I bought a brand new ’57 Chevrolet in 1957 for $2,300 that I raced at the track, and now those same cars are probably $15-20,000.