In 41 straight years of attending the NHRA U.S. Nationals, I’ve stockpiled a ton of memories from the Big Go, far too many to detail here, but Ron Capps’ win in his Don Prudhomme/Hot Wheels tribute car at this year’s event probably easily cracks my Top 10.
That statement shouldn’t surprise too many of you who’ve been around this column for a while as over the 16-plus years I’ve not been shy about my fanboy appreciation for a) 1970s Funny Cars and b) Don Prudhomme. If you just look at the voluminous Dragster Insider Archive page, you’ll find more than 60 columns that include him, from recapping his greatest races and cars to book reviews, appearances, ramp trucks, wedge dragsters, “the Mongoose,” and so much more.
So, when Capps called me a few months ago to let me in on the ground floor of his plan to salute “the Snake” in Indy, I was, to put it mildly, excited. After all, this was a yellow Hot Wheels car that was one I’d never seen run in person, and to get a chance to see something that looks like it going down the track, in Indy of all places, pushed every “Snake” nerd button in my brain.
There’s very little doubt that Capps owes his career to Prudhomme, who plucked him out of relative obscurity to drive his Funny Car in 1997. Capps had already won in Top Fuel but had never driven a Funny Car, but “the Snake” liked what he saw in the kid, and his life has never been the same.
“You have to remember I got a phone call from him to go drive for him, and here I was, a kid that played with Hot Wheels and built his models and someone who was probably my biggest idol growing up, so to get a phone call to go drive for somebody that's that big an idol, it doesn't get any better,” said Capps. “I've been wanting to do a real throwback, and thankfully, the people that make decisions at NAPA Auto Parts for the motorsports teams understood the legacy and understood how cool this thing was, and they stepped off the car and made sure that we did it the right way, and with Toyota, the same thing, they wanted to be a part of it, and then I called 'Snake,' and you know that was cool to send them the picture and just talking on the phone and how cool he thought it was.”
As many of you have pointed out, the livery in question is the 1970 version of the car not the 1973 Carefree Cuda version (below) that won Indy 50 years ago, even though that’s the win that Capps was celebrating. I think a lot of people got tripped up on that fact, but the car was intended from the start to look like the immortal 1970 car and to use the 50th anniversary of his first Funny Car win as a reference point of celebration.
I asked talented motorsports artist James Ibusuki, who along with superfan “Chicago Jon” Hoffman provided me with the info about the many versions of “the Snake’s” yellow Cuda for a 2017 column titled “The many faces of 'Snake's Cuda,” to weigh in on the new design and compare it to that famous predecessor.
“The obvious similarities are the white Hot Wheels door panels and the top surface stripe. Due to Capps' sponsor commitments, the rest of the Supra is filled with their logos. However, there are two product sponsors that were on both the original and tribute car, Goodyear and Champion, and thankfully, Capps had them lettered in the same size and location as the original.
“Don appears to have campaigned two Cudas in '70,” he added. “The first raced most of the year, up to the November Manufacturers Meet, then a slimmer, much more modern yellow Cuda raced until the end of the season, but, given all of the above, I'm voting for the first Cuda. I'm going to disregard the original red circle Mattel logo [that ran in January only at Beeline Dragway] and just go with the black one [which Capps used] because it lasted the longest. In a sense, the late '70 Cuda itself was sort of a ‘tribute car’ in that it was intended to look like the original as much as possible. Additionally, because of the timeline, the early Cuda was photographed much more than the later one.”
It's also worth noting that until he won Indy in the 1973 car, Prudhomme’s Indy Funny Car experience consisted of exactly zero runs there. Chassis builder Jay Howell drove the car at the 1970 U.S. Nationals, which Prudhomme won in the infamous final round with Jim Nicoll. Howell qualified fifth and beat Cliff Zink in round one before falling to eventual winner Don Schumacher in the second frame, but Prudhomme ran only the dragster at the 1971 and ‘72 events. (As I cited in my recent column about drivers who have won in Top Fuel and Funny Car, Prudhomme only ran his Funny Car at five of the 26 NHRA national events from 1970-72, preferring to run his favored slingshots there and match race the Funny Car.)
When Prudhomme did run the Funny Car for the first time in Indy, he won the 1973 race over Ed "the Ace" McCulloch to become the first driver to win in both nitro classes regardless of event, and that was the tie-in that Capps used to run the car at this race. It also is the 10-year anniversary of the Snake & Mongoose movie whose plot centered around Tom McEwen’s unforgettable final-round victory over Prudhomme at the 1978 race (leading to one of my favorite Prudhomme quotes: “How good was I? I lost a final round once and they made a whole movie about it.”).
Prudhomme’s final-round record in Indy is highlighted by seven victories and maybe even better remembered for the three final-round Funny Car losses — to Raymond Beadle in 1975, to Gary Burgin in 1976 (which put the only blemish on Prudhomme’s otherwise perfect national event season), and, of course, to McEwen in 1978 — but this Indy was way different than any other, for both Prudhomme and Capps.
Capps came to Indy with three chances to win for Prudhomme, taking part in Saturday’s Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge after his milestone 75th career win in Brainerd, Sunday’s Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Funny Car Callout, and, of course, Monday’s U.S. Nationals eliminations. The hopes were he’d win one of them, maybe all three.
Hey, after all, “the Snake” swept Indy in 1989 when he won the Big Bud Shootout and his seventh and final U.S. Nationals.
The fun started Friday when “Snake” got to warm up Capps’ car in the pits, but things have changed since Prudhomme last sat behind the engine in a Funny Car in Indy in 1989, and, as much I hate to write (but he wasn’t afraid to admit), Prudhomme didn’t dig it. His first off-the-cuff comment was, “Man, that was like getting a root canal,” and later explained, “Man, it pounds you in the cockpit. It was almost painful. I don’t know how these guys do it. I decided right then I don't want any part of this.”
Thus removing any question anyone might have had about “the Snake” and maybe saddling up again for even a fun run.
With Prudhomme looking on and driving Capps’ performance anxiety to new levels, Capps nearly won the Mission Challenge, runner-upping to John Force, then got unceremoniously bounced in round one of the Callout after eventual winner Robert Hight tactically called Capps out for the first round, knowing it might be the only chance he got at Capps with lane choice.
So, he was down to one shot Monday, but hey, if you’re going to win any of those three days, Monday is definitely the day to do it, right?
Capps took down Dale Creasy Jr., Matt Hagan — a win that guaranteed he'd be the points leader at the end of the regular season — and low qualifier Hight, then easily dispatched J.R. Todd in the final, 3.98 to 4.13. The relief was palpable.
“I did a poor job all weekend trying to contain my emotions,” Capps admitted. “I was hoping I wouldn't see the outside of the car, but every time I got in it, I could see a tinge of yellow on the hood, which I never see in my normal car. And I was trying to separate myself a little more, you know, and not get emotional about trying to do better, because ‘Snake’ was here.
“In the final round, we were rushed so much to get up here. I didn't have time to get really super nervous for the final, which is good. Then they dropped the body, and I could see that yellow, and I said to myself, ‘Don't look at the big screen,' but I did, and there was 'Snake' standing there on the big screen. It was a quick Tree for both J.R. and I, and we just took off, so I didn't have time to get a little more emotional, thank God."
Capps’ win was his second straight in Indy after going so many years without winning the big one despite Indy successes in the Skoal Showdown bonus event. He could just never get the job done on Monday. Until now.
When he first walked into the media center after the win, his throwback firesuit reeking of celebratory champagne, and before being led in for his official interview, as we stood there together soaking in the glow, the first thing he said to me was, “Thank God we did it, because I’d have hated for ‘Snake’ to fly out here to watch and not win for him.”
It wasn’t about him being a two-time Indy winner or riding a pair of wins and a points lead into the upcoming Countdown to the Championship, it was about doing this for his hero — our hero — and I knew what he meant.
"You can't dream this big. I mean, you could hope and put all this stuff together, and we did it to have some fun, to do something cool for Indy," he said. "This [winning] just doesn't happen. You just put this together and hope that it's going to have some success, and you end up winning."
"It's just amazing,” Prudhomme agreed. “When he first sent me the paint scheme, it brought a tear to my eye. I thought, 'This thing's beautiful.' It's just, this is something I'm gonna remember for a long time.”
The shot of Prudhomme, back in the Indy winner’s circle — even if it’s no longer staged in front of the Parks Tower — is priceless.
So, I went to bed that night, exhausted after five days of U.S. Nationals madness, slept well, and got up at o’dark-thirty to catch my early flight home out of Indy, and who should I see as I strolled up to Gate B13? Why, it’s “the Snake” hiss-self.
And, for once, he’s not surrounded by scores of fans, friends, or fellow worshippers at the altar of awesomeness. Of all the times I’ve been around him — at the races, at press affairs, even at his home for one of the memorable parties that he and his wife Lynn throw — I don’t remember there not always being someone else there looking for their moment with the man.
I plopped down into the empty seat next to him, confident that our friendship would survive the intrusion. He glances over, and in typical "Snake” fashion, cooly smirks, “Hey man. Good to see ya. Some weekend, eh?”
He asks about my family, and me about his, and we relive the magic of the weekend, just a couple of U.S. Nationals veteranos shooting the bull, and I caught him in a reflective, nostalgic mood.
He’s 82 now but doesn’t act or much look like it. He’s outlived many of his peers, and we walked together down that Memory Lane as he talked about losing Tom McEwen and Keith Black, about the old-age medical woes of others who walked the early path with him — most notably Roland Leong and Tommy Ivo — and about life itself.
He vividly remembers for me meeting his wife Lynn in a junior high school art class and how he was captivated (and remains so) by this beautiful blond who has now been at his side for nearly 70 years, and reminisces about his first meeting with Leong, and how, despite being worlds apart in experience and geography, instantly bonded and remain tightly bonded, and how he and longtime pals Donnie Couch and Pat Galvin visit Leong often and take him to lunch. The old gang still rides together.
He marvels that he’s lived this long — "Hell, we never thought about getting old back then; we were always going to be young” — and at how people still ask for his autograph nearly 30 years after he stopped driving race cars, and when I press him on this emotion, considering all that he’s done, he relents a little, perhaps too humbly.
As we speak, a few people walk by and congratulate him on winning the race, and I wonder if they think he was the one driving or if they know that it was just his spirit riding with Capps. And I wonder if that matters to him.
They call for us to board, but I cling to his coattails once again to board with him — he’s in First Class, of course; me, back in Row 11 — and we bump into Pro Stock winner Matt Hartford, who’s also on the leg of this trip that stops first in his Phoenix hometown. He congratulates “Snake,” too — of course, he knows who was driving — and Prudhomme reciprocates. It’s Hartford’s first Indy win, and Prudhomme knows what that means, having been the car owner when Larry Dixon won for “the Snake” in his first try in Indy in 1995, much as Prudhomme himself had done 30 years earlier with Leong at the 1965 Nationals.
I settle back into my seat as the plane takes off and crank up some Eagles tunes on the iPad, and it’s another Don — Don Henley — on “Sad Café,” singing about fame and fortune and how fleeting it can be.
Now I look at the years gone by
And wonder at the powers that be
I don't know why fortune smiles on some
And lets the rest go free
And I think about all of the thousands of racers who have come to Indy over the years and, in general, racers everywhere, many of whom maybe could have become a Don Prudhomme, who came from the same humble beginning as our young car painter but never had enough of the intangibles that make a Don Prudhomme or a Don Garlits or a Shirley Muldowney.
And I think of Ron Capps, who bootstrapped his way into a career, who, like Prudhomme had a Roger Primm instead of a Tommy Ivo help him get started before he had the real deal in Prudhomme. I think of the long road that Capps has traveled, from crewmember on an Alcohol Dragster to three-time world champ and now two-time U.S. Nationals winner. I’ve had the pleasure and honor to watch that all happen for Capps, much the same way I watched Prudhomme’s glory days from further away and from the opposite side of the magazine page.
And I’m thrilled that they got together, and remain together, and now are firmly cemented together in U.S. Nationals lore.
Yeah, it was a some weekend.
Phil Burgess can be reached at email@example.com
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