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Racing 2004

Century of the Snake

Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's team is four wins away from giving him a milestone: a 100-event-win total as a driver and owner.

By GREG AUMAN
Published February 13, 2004

photo
[Photo: AP]
Legendary driver Don Prudhomme, right, enjoys being a team owner now. “Watching these cars now, I understand why the fans come out the way they do. I get my kicks that way now.’’

It is a milestone more than four decades in the making, but Don Prudhomme is approaching it as you'd expect from an NHRA legend: not looking back, but straight ahead.

After all, what good is a rear-view mirror on a dragster?

Prudhomme enters the season four event wins shy of reaching 100 combined in his career as a driver and team owner, a mark reached only by John Force.

"It sounds like it's within reach, but to be honest, I haven't been thinking about it that much," said Prudhomme, 62, known to fans as "The Snake." "It would be great, but what would be greater would be to get that on the way to winning the championships."

Reaching the century mark seems little but a formality this season, as Don Prudhomme Racing's drivers earned nine wins last year and 10 in each of the previous two seasons. Of those 29 wins, 23 have come from Larry Dixon, 37, who is a two-time defending Top Fuel champion.

As a driver, Prudhomme amassed numerous milestones, becoming the first driver to win four consecutive points titles (from 1974-77) and the first Funny Car driver to reach 250 mph. He has had his own Mattel "Hot Wheels" car and was inducted to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.

But he isn't looking to put the brakes on his racing success at 100 wins, or any other big number.

"As far as 100 goes, we can run right through 100," he said. "This time next year, I hope we're talking about getting to 110."

The sport has sped up since the days when 250 mph was a barrier. Prudhomme was the third driver to reach 300 mph before he retired, and Dixon set a national speed record last year when he was clocked at 332.75 mph in Las Vegas.

Thanks to Dixon, Prudhomme's success as an owner has perhaps eclipsed his dominance as a driver, where he had 49 career victories, winning more than 70 percent of the time he reached an event final. He said it's a different joy to have his team win, but one he has come to enjoy much the same as when he was behind the wheel.

"It's a different sort of thrill than what you had as a driver, with all the acceleration, but I really get a big thrill out of being part of the team," he said. "Watching these cars now, I understand why the fans come out the way they do. I get my kicks that way now."

Seeing the sport from two different perspectives has allowed him to better appreciate how far the NHRA has come in the past decade. What was an eight-man operation when he retired as a driver is now a 50-person company, and the logistics of running a team are as demanding on his schedule as the long hours he remembers as a driver.

"I spend as much time in it as I ever did as a driver, perhaps even more," said Prudhomme, whose operation will take six 18-wheelers across the country for more than 60,000 highway miles in traveling to 23 national events, plus testing.

Dixon's success has been the highlight, but Prudhomme also expects a strong season from Funny Car drivers Tommy Johnson Jr. and Ron Capps. Capps, 38, won at Phoenix last year to give him victories in four consecutive seasons, and Johnson, 35, last won at Las Vegas in 2001.

Dixon could take a large leap toward 100 wins for Prudhomme in the season opener, the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., which start Thursday. Dixon has won the event in consecutive years, becoming the first NHRA driver to do so.

"I went on to be an owner because I wanted to see Larry Dixon do well," Prudhomme said. "That competitive nature hasn't left me yet. I still get excited. It's still burning in my stomach."

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:09:53]


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