By Drew Hardin
Photo: Eric Rickman, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
The Mongoose Legacy
Petersen Publishing Company photographer Eric Rickman was in the pits at Riverside International Raceway in June 1966 to catch this shot of Lou Baney, owner of the Brand Motors Special Top Fueler, buckling in Tom “Mongoose” McEwen before a pass at the Hot Rod Championships.
It had been an eventful month for the Mongoose. Just a few weeks before, he fought his way through a tough round of Top Fuel eliminations at the AHRA Nationals at Lions Drag Strip, only to lose in the final to John Edmunds. Things would be different at Riverside. Working behind a blown 392 Hemi built by 2018 SEMA Hall of Fame inductee Ed Pink, McEwen again beat all comers until facing Ron Rivero in the final. Rivero had turned in a blistering 7.33/221.66 in the Top Fuel first round, setting the top speed of the meet. But he bobbled the start of the final, and a resulting red light handed the Top Eliminator win to McEwen.
McEwen, who passed away in June at age 81, leaves behind a drag racing legacy unlike any other. During his 35-year racing career, he was always a force to be reckoned with on the track, though his win/loss record in Top Fuel and Funny Car—earning just five NHRA national titles—doesn’t truly reflect the depth of his driving talent.
His knack for promotion, on the other hand, changed the sport forever. McEwen took on the Mongoose nickname in 1964 to pump up interest in a match race against his longtime friend, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. They would race several more times during the mid-’60s, cementing the popularity of the Snake vs. Mongoose rivalry.
In 1969, McEwen and Prudhomme formed Wildlife Racing to tour as a team, and McEwen had the then-unheard-of idea to approach a major corporation outside of racing for sponsorship. That corporation was Mattel, which had just a year before launched its line of Hot Wheels die-cast cars. The idea proved to be a promotional win-win for all parties: McEwen and Prudhomme toured with brand-new Funny Cars painted in Hot Wheels livery; and for years to come, Mattel sold countless scaled-down versions of the red McEwen Duster and the yellow Prudhomme ’Cuda, not to mention variations on Mongoose/Snake race cars.
The sponsorship deal with Mattel ran for just two years, 1970–1972, and the Wildlife Racing team would operate for just one more year. Short-lived as it was, the groundbreaking McEwen/Prudhomme/Hot Wheels relationship would open the doors for other race teams to reach beyond the aftermarket for lucrative sponsorship deals, bringing the sport to a whole new level.