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Don Prudhomme has always been good with speed in the same way that some men are good with elegant women and others have a command of languages. There are drivers who believe speed is nothing more than a kind of commodity to barter with to get more money, greater fame; as if it were something you could hold in the palm of your hand examine under a jeweler's loupe and place in a vault until it is needed. To Prudhomme, speed has a worth of its own; it intrigues, almost entrances him, perhaps because its attainment is never absolute. There is always one mph more, one hundredth of a second less.
And this is the problem, for at just this moment he feels as if he is moving under water. He is in the pit area at the U.S. National Drag Races in Indianapolis, working on his car. It is a Funny Car: loathsome name; he hates it. What is funny about driving at 240 mph down a stretch of pavement lined with people right next to another car? Prudhomme is feeling the pressure. "A wrench. I need a wrench."
He is not fond of the spectators, because, after all, what do they know? He has seen them before. Two long hedgerows of blurred faces as he hurtles down the drag strip. The odd thing is that the speeds at which he drives, even if only in bursts of six seconds or less, seem somehow to have altered his body's metronome, so that now, needing a wrench, he feels as if he has been jellied in aspic. All these excited people crowding in on him, talking so fast, too fast, their words seeming to run together. Too fast.
Prudhomme is in Indianapolis seeking his sixth Nationals title, drag racing's $20,000 golden fleece. In 12 years on the pro circuit he has won 21 national events—five in a rail-bodied fuel dragster and 16 in a Funny Car, which is similar to the old-style, front-engine "rails" except that its mechanical innards are hidden under a lightweight one-piece fiber glass body so it looks something like a streetcar, a Chevrolet Monza in Prudhomme's case. That is five more Nationals than have been won by 44-year-old Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, the sport's most famous fossil, now semi-retired in Tampa, Fla. Last year Prudhomme won a record six of eight National Hot Rod Association Nationals (in the NHRA's scheme of things, every drag race worth more than $5,000 to the winner is a "National"). This year he improved his own record, winning seven out of eight.
The drama of two drivers each trying to get to the end of a quarter-mile straightaway first—with the winner going on to the next round and the loser putting his car on the trailer—tends to obscure the fact that drag racing, more than any other form of motor sports, has become an exercise in motor maintenance. The 2,000-horsepower supercharged engines, like those Prudhomme uses, have pushed automotive technology to its outermost edge. But machines are only as good as their parts, and at 240 mph the parts often snap like dry branches in a strong wind. Despite which, in 1975-76 over a period of 11 months Prudhomme won 30 consecutive elimination rounds in eight Nationals.
Prudhomme has been a dominant force in drag racing during the past decade, but his rewards have fallen far short of legend-in-his-own-time dimensions. Put simply, away from the track Prudhomme is unknown, a name to mispronounce.
The NHRA claims that drag racing drew 5,300,000 fans in 1975, the most since the sport's inception after World War II. The press, however, has chosen to treat it as a cult sport or to treat it not at all. And perhaps that is only fair; for after listening to all those hyperthyroid radio commercials—a gravel-voiced announcer screaming Sunnnnndaaaay to the fevered beat of Sandy Nelson—what must the uninitiated think? Despite 25 years of trying to shed its early hooligan image, drag racing is still an other-side-of-the-tracks sport.
At the U.S. Nationals, however, no image crisis is in evidence. All of the niggling self-doubts are disremembered in the welter of six days of vibrating activity, with 1,100 racing cars and drivers stuffed into the 200-acre Indianapolis Raceway Park and 118,000 spectators milling and shuffling between grandstands and pits. For most of the racers, Indy is the end of a murderous tour, the last stop before heading home. At the other tracks they have run hard, but not flat out. Nothing is held back at Indy. For Don Prudhomme, winning here means everything.
Prudhomme (the name, pronounced Pru Dome, is French and means "proud man") is nicknamed the Snake because of the way he makes his car seem to coil at the starting line, then leap ahead the split second the green starting light flashes on. The name is apt in another way, for Prudhomme is long and lean and virtually without hips. He does not walk so much as he performs a gavotte, with his hands dangling nearly to his knees and his palms turned around like rear-view mirrors. His hair is a hobnailed helmet of tight brown curls. His skin is the color of toast. His irises are green and suspended in large, brilliant whites.
At the age of 35 Prudhomme is more handsome and more sure of himself than ever. His face, which is slender, with a peninsular jaw that has begun to show traces of jowl, is most often in repose, as if to say, "I have seen all this before. Now what can you show me that is new?"