More on Six Seconds to GloryFriday, November 01, 2013

Well, I devoured my new Six Seconds to Glory book during the race weekend in Las Vegas and found it to be every bit as tasty as I had imagined. It was packed with enough mouthwatering morsels to satisfy any Don Prudhomme fan, was filled with the kind of essential nutrients necessary for any good story, and left a good taste in my mouth about my decision to buy it.

OK, so I didn’t actually eat the book (how gullible are you?), but everything else is true. I’m a quick reader and finished it in the span of two one-hour plane rides (plus runway taxi time) and even took notes along the way to share. The tasty morsels for me were not so much in the telling of the story – although I do admit it was a masterful way to spread two hours of real time, from Prudhomme’s semifinal win against Leroy Goldstein to his final-round encounter with Ed McCulloch, over 130-something pages – but in the minute details that author Hal Higdon captured and the Prudhomme quotes from 40-plus years ago.

A whole chapter is devoted to his early years and his first cars and racing experiences with Keith Black, Tommy Ivo, Tom McCourry, Dave Zeuschel, and others. Prudhomme’s first “wheels” were a Mustang motorcycle, purchased with money he earned on his newspaper route. He also worked as a gardener and collected eggs and fed chickens at a farm before settling into painting cars for a living.

Just a few of the many other interesting things I learned:

Although it was common practice for the Funny Cars to parade back up the return road with their bodies open, Prudhomme had his body down – and he “drove” -- to make getting back to the pits faster and to prevent the body from being dislodged if they hit a bump.

Before eliminations began that Monday, McCulloch looked at the ladder and predicted that he and Prudhomme would meet in the final.

McCulloch was using a foot-activated “kick shifter.”

The final round – all 6.38 seconds of it – is detailed in nine pages: Every move that either driver made is analyzed, such as how McCulloch had the early lead, but the car started drifting to the centerline, and because he had been running the car all event with the front end light to plant all of the weight on the back tires, he was forced to lightly lift to get the front wheels down, which may have led to the defeat. Cool stuff.

There are also interesting sections about Prudhomme’s physical and verbal altercations with guys like John “Tarzan” Austin, Billy Meyer, and Dale Pulde and with a group of parts thieves, with Prudhomme menacingly wielding a baseball bat to get his stuff back.

I also thought that Higdon did an excellent job of catching Prudhomme’s way of talking. I’ve spoken to ‘the Snake” so many times – and you’ve probably picked it up too from interviews you’ve seen – and he sometimes has a very interesting way of expressing himself. When Prudhomme answers Higdon’s question about whether needling goes on between drivers, “the Snake” says, “Constantly,” but Higdon beautifully added this: “He replied, slowly, as though to emphasize the word.” I instantly could hear Prudhomme’s voice in my head saying that, a bit exasperated.

Here are two other great snippets, along with my reaction:

At the time the race was under way, Prudhomme had never held a national record. “Records are kind of an ego thing,” he said dismissively. “They don’t really mean much; it’s nice when you have them, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get one. I wouldn’t put my car through the strains of trying to get a record and possibly sacrifice a motor. I don’t need that.” Yeah, right … this is the same guy who later relished – in his own words – “ripping their throats out” with killer runs, recorded the first five and 240- and 250-mph passes, and blew up his engine going 5.63 at the 1982 Nationals.

Prudhomme is famous for his single-minded pursuit of victory at the expense of almost all else, including making nice with just about anyone (“Yeah, I was a bit of an asshole,” he concedes now), and he laid it out for Higdon. “I like the fellows,” Prudhomme said of his competitors. “I don’t have anything against them, but I don’t make a point of sitting around with them. A lot of guys think you should be over shucking and jiving all the time. I like to be alone at the races. ... I don’t want to talk to people. If I’m beat, I’d just as soon leave the track. The other drivers don’t like that because they want you to sit around and face the music, so they can look at you and grin. My attitude is that if I don’t win, I don’t want to see anybody. I hope it rains and the race is over and nobody wins.”

Higdon asked Prudhomme, who as we know would go on to win four championships and 43 more national events, what lay in his future.

“I don’t feel I’ve accomplished enough. Someday I want to really be ahead of the pack. I want to win even more. I guess Don Garlits is one of the guys who keeps me going because I want to someday win more events than he has won and surpass what he’s done, and that’s going to be a tough job.”

At the time, Garlits had nine wins to Prudhomme’s six (although three of Prudhomme’s wins had come in Indy, one more than Garlits at the time), and it didn’t take him but a couple of years to pass Garlits. (At the time, Ronnie Sox was the all-time leader at 15.) Garlits and Prudhomme entered the1975 season with 11 and eight wins, respectively. Garlits won four times (including Indy), tying him with Sox at 15, and Prudhomme six times in his first championship season, bringing him to 14. They shared the winner’s circle in Pomona and Montreal and at the unforgettable event at Ontario. Prudhomme tied Garlits and Sox when he won the 1976 Winternationals and became the all-time wins leader when he won the Gatornationals a month later. He remained No. 1 until Bob Glidden’s 31st win (1980 World Finals) passed him. “Snake” would win 19 more races to finish with 49 but never regained the top spot, now held by John Force. Today, Prudhomme sits 15th on the overall wins list.

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I got a lot of nice feedback from readers about the book, including Scott Herrier, son of Jerry Herrier, who is mentioned throughout the book as the capable crewmember beside crew chief Bob Brandt.

“I am lucky enough to have an original copy of the book,” he said. “It was given to my father. Mr. Higdon was nice enough to sign it for my dad when he gave it to him. My dad’s picture is in the book a number of times. My favorite is of him running after ‘Snake’s’ car at Indy in 1973.” He also sent a couple of photos of his dad working on “the Snake’s” Barracuda.

“In the first one, he is reaching into the back of the duallie with ‘Weasel’ [Brandt] with his hands on the motor. The second one is of the first Army car (the Barracuda). ‘Snake’ was cool enough to put my dad’s name on the Vega he redid. My dad was very appreciative. I love listening to all the road stories he has told me over the years. He worked for ‘Snake’ all of 1973 into early ‘74. His last race with him was the Gatornationals in '74, which he won.”

I also heard from some runners who had no idea that Higdon had written about their other favorite sport.

“I ran marathons and triathlons for many years until lumbar surgery ended that,” wrote Luther Hopp. "When I saw the name Hal Higdon, I wondered what he could possibly have to do with the NHRA as I have read many of his books on running, and his contributions to Runner’s World magazine were often the gospel for endurance athletes.”

Mark "Hog Wild" Elms, whom I met in St. Louis after he was selected for National Dragster’s Backstage Pass perk for NHRA Members, is a big “Snake” fan (with the tattoos to prove it) who read the book when it was serialized in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated from February 1977 to February 1978. “But you ain't gonna believe this,” he added. “I never realized just who Hal Higdon was. I read his books in the ‘90s about running. I ran four marathons in the late ‘90s and real early 2000s. I would train at between 60 and 72 miles a week. I never ran to win; I was not that fast. I ran for peace of mind. I loved it and always finished in the top 25 percent; three hours and 39 minutes was my best time.”

Don Thomas and Al Kean also wrote to verify that the entire book had been published in the magazine.

Bill Anderson is one of the lucky owners of an original copy of Six Seconds to Glory, having special-ordered it through a local bookstore when it was first published, and added the ultimate accessory, a personalized Prudhomme autograph; he also had “the Snake” sign an interior page – right under a photo of Prudhomme signing autographs!

“I’ll never part with the book,” he wrote. “When I’m gone, my kids will probably dump it as one of Dad’s silly treasures!”

I heard – as expected – from my ol’ pal Todd Veney, who shares with me an almost cult-like fandom of “the Snake.” He remembers checking the book out of the Wadsworth, Ohio, library as a youngster in the summer of 1975. “My absolute favorite book ever, ever, ever,” he added. “There are so many great bits, like how McCulloch left on him big time but had to lift to set the front end down. If there’d been reaction times, I would have loved to know what the true MOV [margin of victory] was."

Todd also asked if I thought that they’d actually do a reprint if they were able to find the original photos (as mentioned by Octane Press rep Tobi Gros), but almost before I could answer him, Tobi wrote me back to say that even if they don’t ever do a reprint, they’re thinking of at least scanning the images from the original book and posting them on their website. I’ll let you know if that happens.

That’s it for this week. Thanks again for your faithful reading and constant correspondence. I’m looking forward to next week and the conclusion of the 2013 season in Pomona. Las Vegas solved half of the championship equation in the Pro classes, but we’ll have to head out to the track next weekend to see if Shawn Langdon can add his name to the historic list of NHRA Top Fuel champions and which of the six Pro Stock drivers still mathematically in contention will walk away with that title.