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.”
“McCourry was 16 and I was 15 when he had a ’36 Ford that was a beater. It had primer spots on it and that was cool. We waxed the primer,” Don laughs, “before we went to Bob’s Big Boy Drive-In.”
The San Fernando Valley income level in the ’50s was above the national average. Don’s friends, at the time, either had money like Tommy Ivo, or their parents had money, like Kent Fuller and Tom McCourry. That never bothered Don or his friends. “My best friend until the day that he died was Tom McCourry. His dad owned a motel called the San Fernando Valley Motel. Broderick Crawford stayed at the motel and we got to watch them filming Highway Patrol.
“It was all about cars: The cool thing was, Tom’s dad would get some old cars ready for the junkyard and park them in the back of the motel property. Tom and I would race them around the motel parking lot. Later Tom and I would go to the Rainbow Roller Rink then he’d drop me off at my house.
“We got jobs together, like mowing lawns, delivering newspapers. The Valley had a lot of chicken farms and we’d get jobs picking the eggs and feeding the chickens. We were like a couple of day laborers that you’d find at Home Depot; we’d look for any kind of job. There was this old guy, Mr. Brooks. He had like a gardening business. He didn’t have a pickup truck like landscapers have today, he had an old LaSalle. Tom and I would mow lawns for him. He’d strap the lawn mowers on his running boards and he’d drop us off on the jobs. We had to sit in the back seat. Tom and I were at the age where we didn’t want our buddies to see us because he’d take us right down Van Nuys Boulevard so we slouched way down in the seat.”
Who said when Ivo and Don went on tour they had to have their noses to the header stacks a
“I worked at General Motors and so did McCourry. I worked there part time while I was painting cars. I painted cars during the day and worked at GM at night. I was a line-guy … a laborer. I worked a gun that squirted dum-dum (a non-hardening rope caulking used by GM in the ’50s to fill seams) into the cars as they went by.”
Don’s dragstrip seat time borders on the immeasurable, but keeping up with the assembly line as the cars rolled by was his immediate concern at the plant. “I started putting seats in the cars as they went by. I lied about my age to get the job. I was probably 17.”
“Tom and I were 14 or 15 when we started going to the Rainbow Roller Rink in Van Nuys. The Burbank guys didn’t go to the Rainbow, just us Valley guys. That’s where I got the passion for speed. We got into Push Races. McCourry was a bigger, stronger guy than me so Tom would push me. There’d be like 10 of us lined up and they’d blow the whistle. I’d be crouched down sitting on my skates, he was behind me on his toe stops and we’d go into the first corner and I’d lean and he pushed me into the corner. He pushed me the whole race. We didn’t have polyurethane wheels like today, we had wooden wheels. I had little bitty wheels in the front and big wheels on the back. So I had racked skates that were cool. They were detachables; you’d take the wheels off, or trucks they were called. They were at a 45-degree angle. We called them ‘45 trucks’. A lot of times I’d slide and hit the wall and the wheels would explode. The smoother the wheels, the faster you’d go. We were serious about skating. We didn’t go there just to pick up girls, we were serious racers.”
Double-Deck Cheeseburger Place
Rainbow Roller Rink = Bob’s Big Boy = Road Kings = drag racing. It was that combination that landed Don behind the wheel of a dragster. Most, if not all, of the Road Kings hung out at the Toluca Lake Bob’s, not the Van Nuys Bob’s where Don and McCourry practically lived. They made the mistake of going to the Toluca Lake Bob’s once. “Did you ever hear of a guy named Fat Jack Bynum?” Don asked. “He was a badass who would stand there at Bob’s and pick fights all the time. We were scared to death of him. We were like nobody. He stuck his head in the car and said, “What are you tamale gobblers doing here?” He felt we were in the wrong neighborhood. We weren’t part of that rivalry. We weren’t punks … but close. (Get the picture that this was more than a burger/fry joint?)
“We’d go from Carl’s Drive-In on one end of Van Nuys to Bob’s Big Boy on the other end of Van Nuys, then back and forth pretty much the entire night till we’d go off and street race. We weren’t worried about getting robbed or beat up. That era was the best time of our lives.”
This is what dreams are made of: A car club that has a race car (you fill in what it is) that every club member gets to race at the track in competition. If you were a member of the Road Kings that’s exactly what happened. The Road Kings was a drag racing club that at one point had 36 members actively racing during the ’50s.
“Tom and I were in a car club in Van Nuys called the Chancellors. They were more of a cruising car club. We got to know this guy in town who was real popular, Skip Togerson, who was a part-time actor. (Ivo and Togerson met on the set of a movie called A Boy with a Knife. Togerson got Ivo into the Road Kings.) He had a motorcycle called a Mustang and I had a Mustang. That bike was the first thing I had that had a motor in it. His bike was really cool, it was black and had flames on it. We rode around Van Nuys together a lot. Skip was in the Road Kings. He said, ‘Why don’t you and Tom come to a meeting? I think I can get you into the Road Kings.’ Skip said, ‘We got this guy Tom Ivo and he’s got a dragster and we go to drag races at San Fernando.’ I didn’t know diddly about drag racing. They’d go out to the San Fernando Drag Strip with a club car they raced. They were the Burbank Bob’s; guys like Kenny Safford were in the club.”
Bob Muravez of Burbank and Don came into the Road Kings at the same time. Muravez later became known as the engineer (get it?) of the Freight Train, a twin-engine Chevy dragster that became the number one Top Gas dragster in the country and the first to go over 200 in the quarter at Lions in 1967. You might know Muravez by his code name, Floyd Lippencott Jr., because he didn’t want his dad to know he continued drag racing after he was told to quit.
First Muravez and Don had to pass the Road Kings initiation, which took place (where else?) at Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. “Prudhomme was in diapers and I was dressed as a woman,” Muravez laughs. One of the members of the club, Tom Jandt’s father, was in Japan during the war and brought home a rickshaw. Prudhomme pulled the rickshaw through Bob’s with me riding in the rickshaw. Prudhomme didn’t think anything about it because he was a Van Nuys guy … nobody knew him at that Bob’s,” Muravez says. (But he wasn’t off the hook because Don had to do the same thing at the Van Nuys Bob’s.) “Ivo met us there and had a baby bottle that he tied around Prudhomme’s neck.”
Once in the club, drag racing became a way of life: “We used to get off work Friday night,” Muravez continues, “and drive from Burbank to Taft (southwest of Bakersfield), which had a landing strip … Famoso (Bakersfield) never ran Friday nights. The only light at the strip was a World War II searchlight on the start line facing down the track that lit up the strip. The car cast a shadow, so the further down the strip away from the light you went, the longer the shadow. It was like driving into this big black hole. We’d race until 1 in the morning, then head to Half Moon Bay Drag Strip, which was another airport strip, and race there the next night till 1 in the morning (20 miles from San Francisco). Then we’d head home and race San Fernando Sunday.” (Calling in sick Monday morning was not an option.)
Ivo and Don standing with the girls who worked at the dragstrip at Great Lakes Dragaway th
“That’s Dave Zeuschel, Don, and me at Bakersfield just before Don won the Smokers March Me
Chassis builder Kent Fuller, who Don drove for, knew it; Tom Greer and Keith Black knew it
“When I got into the Road Kings I wanted to have a roadster,” Don adds. “Skip Togerson told me about a roadster for sale and I bought a ’32 Ford roadster body and chassis. It was a roller; it didn’t have an engine in it. It took every dime I had to get it. I got a Buick engine from Ivo and put it in the roadster. I put portawalls (fake whitewalls) on it. I later took the Buick out of the roadster and put it into the club dragster, which was a B/Gas dragster (so much for cruising).”
Determination to go racing took precedence over having the hot rod of his dreams on the road. “There was no turning back! I sold my Deuce roadster before it was even done and bought the dragster from Ivo.”
Tom McCourry was a cruiser, like Don, when he joined the Road Kings but he too became a professional drag racer with a following. McCourry took Ivo’s four-engine monster after Ivo parked it and turned it into a graduated Buick Riviera station wagon called the “Wagon Master”, complete with a stock roof rack to boot, and went on tour.
Harry Hibler not only managed the San Fernando Drag Strip, more importantly, Hibler drove Fuel Cars, so he knew the drill, especially when it came to young, inexperienced drivers. Hibler knew how to keep drivers safe while in a learning curve and remembers Don at the strip: “Don was 16 or 17 years old when I first met him. Don was just wiping tires for Ivo then. San Fernando, aka ‘the Pond’, was the first place Prudhomme drove a dragster. Between Ivo and me, we suggested to Don what to do and how to do it but Don was good at it.
“From the very beginning I was impressed with Don. He listened, he observed, and he studied. When Don drove the club dragster he handled it very well. I observed that guys with good-looking cars wouldn’t run as hard as necessary to win. When Don drove a dragster as beautiful as, say, the Greer-Black car he drove it as hard as necessary to win.”
Drag Racing University
Let’s say, you, an aspiring racer, were friends with Jimmy Johnson or Dario Franchitti when they were just starting out and they asked you to be part of their pit crew, except it was just the two of you.
Don and Ivo were friends but when Don was asked to go on tour by Ivo, he didn’t mean going to Lions Drag Strip or Irwindale and then going home. He meant going full-blast drag racing all the way to the East Coast and back.
“The track promoters back East got together and said, let’s contact some guys on the West Coast who are in all the magazines and have them come back here and we’ll give them $500 at each stop to do it. Gas was 28 cents a gallon and Motel 6 was $6. They contacted Jack Chrisman and some other racers but they couldn’t get away because they had jobs. I jumped at the chance. They lined up 10 races. I stuck in some of my own tracks as we went along. It only took me until the second stop when I saw all those crowds to realize … there’s something big happening here because they packed them places.”
“That’s Dave Zeuschel, Don, and me at Bakersfield just before Don won the Smokers March Me
“When I started drag racing I was good at it but I didn’t walk around acting like I was go
Ivo and Don: They started out as club members, close friends, and then competitors. While
When Ivo and Don left on tour it was the first time anyone ever toured the country all season long. “We looked like a scene out of Grapes of Wrath,” Ivo laughs. “We had our shop in the trunk. I had two short-blocks mounted underneath the trailer. We had a spare head, a sizeable toolbox, gaskets, and rods in the truck. We had our suitcases in the back seat. We ran the last week of March in Denver, until the second weekend in August in Biloxi, Mississippi. This included winning the NASCAR (yes NASCAR) Summer Nationals in Montgomery, New York. A lot of time it was once a week that we raced. But we did some doubles and one triple—the weekend we won the NASCAR Nationals. We ran qualifying on Friday and Saturday in Ohio, then back to the NASCAR National to win on Sunday in Montgomery, New York.”
“We were, no doubt, discussing my new rear-engine Swamp Rat 16 that we were standing by, w
“All the Road Kings were at the March Meet in 1962,” Muravez continues. “We were a racing club not a hot rod club. There were 28 actual race cars, not street cars, there, from Fuel Roadsters to dragsters. I won the Top Gas part of the March Meet in the Freight Train and Prudhomme the Top Fuel at the meet in the Fuller/Zeuschel car.
“Our club was rich enough in spare parts so if you didn’t have a car to race there was a car you could take to the races with a couple of other club members and race it. Drag racing was a way of life to us. Prudhomme quit his job when he went on tour with Ivo and we had a big send-off for them. It is really nice to know that we were part of the Golden Age of Drag Racing.
“The only other club I can think of that was as dedicated to drag racing was the Smokers out of Bakersfield because they took it one step further than anyone with the dragstrip at Famoso.”
Don absorbed more in the months he and Ivo were on tour than he would ever experience racing at home; it was a learning experience for both of them. After his return Don’s drag racing career became a blur. I will end it there.
What a Career
Now you can put a face to his oh-so famous name: That’s Tom Greer of the Greer-Black-Prudh
Don, an open-wheel racing fan most of his life, once asked Dan Gurney about driving a Championship Car. Gurney’s reply, “You’ll find a way.” It was a blessing he didn’t because Don not only found a way into Top Fuel drag racing, but he dominated the sport for almost a half century. Had Don had the resources to drive a Champ car or a Formula 1 car at the age he started as a Top Fuel drag racer he would certainly be in Gurney’s league today.
Don took himself from behind the wheel in 1994, taking on the heavy responsibility of team ownership, making driving champions of Larry Dixon and Ron Capps along the way. Don retired from drag racing in 2009 and during his nearly half century of competition he cleaned a lot of clocks. Don’s no longer watching the clock or fretting the e.t. clock. He’s retired.
Don was inducted in the SEMA Hall of Fame, the Hot Rod Magazine Hall of Fame, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Because of Don’s level of knowledge he’s been named one of the 100 Most Influential people in the high-performance industry. That shows how much a young man can accomplish in life who wasn’t too proud to take on a job riding in the back seat of a LaSalle with lawn mowers strapped to the running boards.
This final chapter brings R&C readers full circle as far the “Valley Guys” who made drag racing history: Ed “The Old Master” Pink, “TV” Tommy Ivo, “Hand Grenade” Harry Hibler, and finally Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Sadly, Road Kings member Tony Nancy is gone to fill the last part of the jigsaw. It was an honor to write their stories.
Seemingly a century ago, Don Prudhomme joined a gang of teenagers where the drug of choice was racing. Thank God for the ’50s. Need I say more?