Photos courtesy of the Don Prudhomme, Tommy Ivo, Bob Muravez, Mike Gallucci, and Road Kings Collections
Two young Southern California hot rodders took on the very best seasoned teams and drivers and beat them. One was California Roadster Association driver Troy Ruttman, who at 22 became the youngest driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1952. The team won $61,743. (According to J.C. Agajanian Jr., Ruttman got 40 percent of that.) Ruttman’s fortunes turned sour after his win at the Brickyard and he was never able continue his winning Championship Car ways.
Ten years later, Don Prudhomme won Top Fuel at the Smokers March Meet (considered by drag racers as epic as the Indy 500) at Famoso Drag Strip in Bakersfield, at age 20. Don’s recognition, at that time, was centered within a tight group of drag racing fans and racers. Kent Fuller, who Don drove for, said the team—which consisted of Don the driver, Dave Zeuschel the mechanic, and Fuller the car owner/chassis builder—won $3,300. It was split three ways; Prudhomme still has the trophy.
Greg Sharp, Curator at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, researched this headline in Drag News, March 10, 1962. “Prudhomme Top Fuel, 35 Fuel Dragsters qualified for Top Fuel Eliminator on Saturday by running under 9-second e.t. Don Garlits (with Connie Swingle driving) lost to Tom McEwen, Prudhomme set low e.t. of the meet at 8.21 when he beat Hampshire and Steen. Prudhomme beat Gotelli and Leasher in the final round and set Top Speed of the meet at 185.36 mph.” The likes of Art Chrisman, Connie Kalitta, Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines, and Art Malone went home empty-handed.
Don was still finding his way when he was hired to drive in Top Fuel. The Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster from June 1962 to May 1963 won 236 drag races and lost just seven, a record that still stands today. The funding didn’t come from corporate money but a machine shop owner named Tom Greer. Had Don retired from driving in May 1963 that record alone would have cemented Don’s place in history. This story will shed some insight on how this championship race car driver/owner got his start.
Don Prudhomme of Santa Fe, California, was born in L.A. in 1941. “Back then, L.A. was a pretty nice place,” Don begins. “My dad, Newman, and my mom, Ida, moved from Louisiana in 1938 to California. My dad and his three brothers all came out about the same time. My dad worked in body shops. The one I remember most was Ray Brooks on Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys, that was right near a grammar school I went to, Saint Elizabeth School.
“I used to walk from school to the body shop where my dad was working and just look at the cars. My dad had some cars at our house that he was fixing to resell and I got into helping him work on putting front ends on and learned how to work on them. I loved being around the cars.
“What really got me going as far as being hooked on cars was visiting my uncle and my cousin who lived in Gardena. We’d travel over the hill through the old tunnel on Sepulveda Boulevard, which was back in the days before the freeway was built, called the Sepulveda Pass. That was the only way to get out of San Fernando if you wanted to go to Gardena. I remember that trip as a little kid because it was a treacherous road. Cars would go over the side and that scared the stuffin’ out of me.
“My cousin, who was a lot older than me, he was a teenager, had a ’29 Ford roadster. He had a Dodge Red Ram engine in it. To me it was like second to none. He was my hero. He would come out to San Fernando and stay at our house and he’d go street racing. I wasn’t cool enough or old enough to go with him. I was just in awe of that. I would say more than anything that really got me hooked on hot rods.
“I walked into my seventh grade art class and I saw this good-looking blonde named Lynn cleaning her brushes at the sink. Much later, I kept running into Lynn at the skating rink I was hanging out at. I didn’t think I could get anyone like Lynn. My best friend (since we were 12), Tom McCourry, ran into Lynn and her girlfriend at a dance one night and we took them both home, dropped them to their houses, and that was pretty much it. We’ve been married 50 years.
“I went to Van Nuys Jr. High School but I never finished. I got so involved with cars … how ’bout I wasn’t a good student! I didn’t realize the value of a good education at the time.
“I didn’t really have a car in school. I walked and got rides to school. Later I got my mom’s ’48 Merc four-door, which was a family type car, not a hot rod type. When I started working at different body shops painting cars around town, I got a ’50 Olds fastback, which was a total. The front end was totaled bad. I took it off and found another front end, which was almost as bad. My dad and I beat it out and straightened the frame.
“The cool part was that was about the time Dick Harriman was it when it came to running San Fernando.” (Harriman ran a ’50 Olds Gasser at San Fernando Drag Strip. Harriman was the guy who named San Fernando “the Pond” by saying, “Rather than run other big dragstrips he’d prefer to be a big fish in a small pond,” and Pond stuck.) “He ran a B&M Hydro in his ’50 Gasser Olds. We’d sit on the dirt mound and watch him race. Harriman never had a front bumper on his Olds, for the weight I guess. I left mine off on purpose.”