Tocher talks again w/Ian Tocher

Tom McEwen Memories

McEwen and Tocher at the 2014 PRI Show.


Known to legions of drag racing fans as “Mongoose,” formidable nemesis to Don Prudhomme’s “Snake,” Tom McEwen recently made his inevitable shuffle off this mortal coil. McEwen died in his sleep June 10, providing a peaceful exit from a life filled with bold ambition, innovation, fierce competition, risk taking, and drama, though tempered by profound sadness.


I have to admit Tom’s death hit me a little harder than expected. (I called him “Tom,” unlike closer friends who were comfortable with the much cooler “Goose,” a nickname that to me always felt presumptuous to adopt without invitation.) Regardless, though saddened I can’t really say I was surprised at the news. After all, McEwen died at 81 years old and I knew his health had been on the downside for quite some time. But like millions of motorsports-addled kids who came of age in the ‘70s, for me, Tom McEwen—along with Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney, and Don Garlits—represented drag racing in the flesh.


I grew up in rural southern Ontario, far, far away from the hotbed of SoCal cool from which McEwen’s career sprang forth. I didn’t have a clue as to where the nearest drag strip was, but I knew of McEwen and his exploits through the pages of HOT ROD Magazine and perhaps the odd appearance on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Truth be told, I favored the Mongoose over the Snake simply because I liked his little cartoon character just a little more. Still, it was a sincere admiration, fueled no doubt by the ground-breaking Hot Wheels connection that in 1969 McEwen engineered with Mattel Toys for himself and Prudhomme.


I even dressed up as “The Mongoose” for Halloween 1972, donning a jean-jacket-turned-firesuit with McEwen’s name misspelled in black marker on one chest pocket, the Hot Wheels logo criminally reproduced on the other, a crude headsock fashioned from an old pillowcase, ski goggles, and a plastic Army helmet festooned with STP and Goodyear stickers. No wonder no one knew who or what I was supposed to be! But it didn’t matter, at least not to me; I knew. For one night I was “The Mongoose;” candy be damned.


Tom loved that story the first time we spoke back in the summer of 2011 for an article I wrote in Drag Illustrated. I’ll never forget that conversation, late at night heading south out of Atlanta bound for a south-Florida drag strip, cell phone and recorder propped on my lap, and the excitement of speaking with a genuine idol of my childhood. That he was humble and honest and friendly and so giving of his time—he stayed with me for a good hundred miles—just made me that much more of a fan.


It’s funny the way we portray sports heroes within our minds. We often confer upon them superhuman powers and qualities that defy logic and forge emotional attachments even stronger and longer lasting than those we feel in most of our real, personal relationships. Then all too often meeting those heroes in the flesh brings us—and them—down to Earth. Not that they ever claimed God-like status; it’s us who built them up, only to be disillusioned in the end. That never happened for me with Tom McEwen.


Based upon the sincere outpouring of comments from friends, foes and fans alike in the hours following McEwen’s passing, I suspect it didn’t happen for many others either. To a person, they described lifelong friendships and rivalries, as well as once-in-a-lifetime encounters, with equal fondness and admiration for a man who quite literally changed the face of drag racing.


Name any sport and odds are just a handful of names will be mentioned as truly iconic, people whose skills or influence clearly exceeded the norm and changed the course of history. I honestly believe Tom McEwen met that standard. His contributions included improving safety equipment, tire technology and race car aerodynamics, but his official stats, while decent, were nowhere near legendary. Still, with five NHRA national event wins, including an inspirational Funny Car title over Prudhomme in the 1978 U.S. Nationals, McEwen was good enough to be named 16th of the 50 most significant drivers over NHRA’s first 50 years.


Remarkably, that U.S. Nats win came less than two weeks after the death of his 14-year-old son, Jamie, a victim of leukemia. The pain of that loss remained clearly evident nearly 33 years later as McEwen briefly touched on it during my long drive to the Sunshine State. He politely asked me not to dwell on his son’s death in my article, though never declared anything he said off limits. That was the Tom McEwen I was fortunate enough to interview; honest in his answers, but understandably guarded about an intensely personal history. I was struck in that moment by what a bittersweet memory he must have held for the rest of his life.


Beyond question, McEwen was instrumental in the development of modern drag cars and played a part in many historic on-track moments, but in the end it was his business sense that truly set him apart. I feel like McEwen was well before his time in appreciating the roles of advertising, sponsorship and media. He very much understood the value of a good show, as well as the importance of promoting what was going to happen and then publicizing the results afterwards. He recognized good writing and photography and genuinely valued the contributions of journalists, traits that served him well later in life as the guiding force of Drag Racer magazine.


McEwen’s business acumen, along with his Hot Wheels rivalry with Prudhomme, were featured front and center in the cult-favorite Snake and Mongoose movie that dramatized the dynamic duo’s path to greatness, culminating in that spectacular but conflicted Indy clash. Prior to the movie being made, McEwen was clearly excited about the prospect, eager to have his and Prudhomme’s stories told on the big screen. Not long after its 2013 release he told me he thought it was “about 85 percent dead on” and felt it was as good as could be done in a one-month shooting schedule with $4 million on tap.


Personally, I thought it was great. Tom obviously would know better, but I was just happy to watch a movie that offered a concise, entertaining view into a defining era and described the progression of one of my all-time favorite racers. Highly recommended viewing.


Obituaries for Tom “Mongoose” McEwen will describe his start in drag racing with his mother’s brand-new ’53 Oldsmobile, his eventual graduation through the ranks to Top Fuel, his Hot Wheels history and Funny Car rivalry with “Snake,” the ’78 Indy triumph amidst tragedy, and his return to Top Fuel and a final win in 1991 at Englishtown before officially retiring from the sport just one year later. They also will mention his induction into Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1998 and in 2001 to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.


That’s all well and good, important stuff, too, but my memories will be of the Funny Car driving hero that inspired me to (poorly) mimic him as a 12 year old; of the patient veteran who indulged my telling of stories when I was supposed to be interviewing him; of the famous race driver who geeked me out the first time he actually called me; of the legend who lifted my spirits shortly after I was badly injured at the track; of the man I hardly knew, but still considered a friend, just as I suspect so many others did, too. Race in peace, Goose. 


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