I left those NHRA Winter Meetings trying to come up with a special idea to present to Prudhomme when the tour came through the Northwest in early August of 1994. That year was to be his last year driving race cars as the "Last Strike Tour" traveled the country.
Race tracks on the tour were planning a celebration for him at each stop. A wall plaque or a rocking chair, or maybe even a motorcycle – none of those items were appropriate to me as Prudhomme had made such a huge impact on the sport all of those years. For over 20 years he had raced here in the Northwest and certainly was a fan favorite.
It was time to get back to Seattle and start working on events for 1994, but I just couldn't keep from thinking about this gift I need to come up with. What could it be?
I certainly wasn't thinking about an extravagant or exotic gift, just something that would have lots of meaning and would be a complete surprise. Other than that I had no idea.
The original photograph.
In 1971 Don Prudhomme arrived at Seattle International Raceway with this Hot Wheels funny car. In the final against Gene Beaver the motor exploded and just about completely destroyed this car. (Photo: Don Ewald)
After the NHRA Winter Meetings ended I returned to Seattle International Raceway with lots of ideas and plans for events in 1994 and even some new ones that I learned about from those fellow track operators. Starting new events takes a lot of planning, so I immediately started to work laying out my direction for summer. There just never seemed to be any off time in the track operators' world. Year-round work was always a must.
Ironically, months later, in early 1994, I had a guy walk into my office at SIR to give me something. He was at an early 1970s event at SIR as a young boy with his father. They had heard about the Northwest Open on the radio with all the big-time racers and decided to check it out. The father and son duo had spent the whole day at SIR, taking in the sights and sounds of the drags and just having a great time.
The pits were socked full of Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars as they were readying their machines for the finals. It just had to be a real delight for this father and son, together, enjoying the drag races at SIR.
When the pair were ready to leave, this young boy had asked his father to back down the convertible near the finish line so he could see Prudhomme, who was getting ready to run against Gene Beaver and the Condit Brothers in the L.A Hooker for the final. This young boy was in the back seat of his father's convertible, and as the two Funny Cars roared down the track, he took his little camera and snapped one final picture, the only one he had left.
That photograph was of Prudhomme's Funny Car exploding, and on fire, with the front wheels all off the ground. One little click by this young boy and an amazing photo had taken place. What incredible timing!
Prudhomme ended up in the hospital after that amazing evening. As you can see in the photo it was a frightening moment in the career of Don Prudhomme. Fortunately he didn't get hurt too bad back in 1971. It was just another example of the Snake giving his all for Northwest race fan – and yes, he did win that race.
After all these years, this guy had kept this photograph, not knowing what he wanted to do with it. So during one of the races at SIR, some 20-plus years later, he brought that picture and gave it to me. I was awestruck when he showed it to me.
It was just a little 4-by-4 color shot, probably from a Brownie camera of those years. But as rough and old as it was, it was really clear enough to see the incident that took place way back when. Immediately, I felt that I needed to enlarge this photo and then present it to Prudhomme when his "Last Strike Tour" arrived in that August.
That would be perfect!! A one-of-a-kind present with a lot of meaning to Snake, I'm sure. Remember Snake had never seen this picture or even knew that it existed. A 20-year old surprise would be perfect for Prudhomme.
Once I had the photograph, I thought maybe I could go one step further by producing a poster, even if it might not reproduce very well, as it is so very old. Even so, reproducing the photo into a poster might just be a little too cheap for what was taking place here. There has to be somew ay to make this one of the most special gifts that he had ever seen, something that he could hang up and really be proud of it. Another poster hanging in his shop would not do the job. How about reproducing this photograph into a painting, now that would be classy. But how would I pull all of that together?
I called on my good friend Kenny Youngblood, a well-established drag racing artist in Southern California. Youngblood's artistic work (youngbloodart.com) is the best there is, and he was the perfect guy to paint this photograph. He was the guy who could make this perfect gift for the Last Strike Tour.
Later, Youngblood told me that this project really regenerated his career in drag racing as it was so exciting to do. I'm sure that he felt like I did that this was a special project, one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that just don't take place very often for anybody. This was a rare opportunity that we hardly ever get involved with.
With the painting completed I needed to come up with a special way to present this one-of-a-kind present to him that would really have a lot of meaning to it. This just wasn't one of those times when we would just hand it to him and he rips open the gift back in the pits somewhere. This was a defining moment for him in his career, and it needed to be handled accordingly. His impact on the sport of drag racing has been huge over the years, and now the driving part of the equation is coming to an end. This is big time.
I felt like I was competing against the other race tracks to come up with a meaningful
"retiring from driving" present and this painting was the perfect item. I could remember, over the years, the performance efforts by Prudhomme throughout the Northwest and my hope was that this painting would make a statement of "thanks."
Now, how do we present it?
NEXT MONTH: "Snake" and the rare photo ... final episode