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Still, Prudhomme is relentlessly inquisitive, constantly probing for answers, then turning answers into new questions. Often this Socratic game becomes tiresome, but the hunt proceeds. When a nugget of truth is mined, Prudhomme is well pleased and considers his effort to have been worthwhile.
Prudhomme is slow to anger, but when he's mad, rage lurks down every verbal alleyway. His explosive temper is the product of a compulsive need to win, and it is that obsessiveness that has alienated the more easygoing drivers. "I'm the last person to go looking for a fight," he says, "but when you've got a choice between having to argue with some idiot for an hour or busting him in the mouth, what else can you do?"
Tommy Ivo, who was once a Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer and is now known as "TV Tommy," got involved in drag racing when he was still playing kids' parts on programs like My Little Margie and the Donna Reed Show. He is now 40, but from 50 feet away still looks like a kid. TV Tommy and the Snake know each other about as well as two people who don't like one another can. Ivo says Prudhomme has only recently begun to shed his temperamental baby fat. "It's always been a big joke with the other guys to beat Prudhomme," Ivo says, "because he'd do everything but throw himself down and beat his hands and feet on the ground when he lost.
"I beat him once in Kalamazoo because his tires began to shake and his parachute fell open early. He was ahead of me when it happened, but you're not going to beat anybody with your chute hanging out. So when we had both shut down, Prudhomme leans out of his car and starts yelling, 'Ivo, you're the greatest! I'll never beat you!' He was almost hysterical."
The people who know Prudhomme best say that he began to change when his brother Monette died of a heart attack last spring at the age of 37. "I think Don realized that life can stop," says Ivo.
After his brother's death, Prudhomme underwent a battery of heart tests. During heart catheterization, he suffered an allergic reaction to the liquid dye and his own heart stopped beating. Doctors temporarily implanted a pacemaker to get it started again, but the experience certainly was enough to give Prudhomme a taste of his own mortality.
Like many introspective men, Prudhomme is intermittently troubled by his occasional lapses in deportment, but he is unwilling to melt the emotional permafrost that he believes is the basis of his success. Still, removed from the steamy pressure of the track, the Snake is a charmer.
Prudhomme lives with his wife Lynn and their three-year-old daughter Donna in the subdivided sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. Their house sits on the side of a sun-burnished hill, and butter-colored air eddies in and out of the sliding terrace doors. Behind the house is the requisite Southern California swimming pool and whirlpool bath.
A friend once gave Prudhomme the shell of a racing engine—mounted on a pole and sunk in cement—to use as a mailbox. The mail fit neatly in the chrome supercharger on top; fit neatly, that is, until the whole thing was uprooted and spirited off by thieves in the night. The police labeled it a routine "Grand Theft—Mailbox."
A red Ferrari and a Lincoln Continental Mark IV sit in Prudhomme's driveway and in his garage is a growing stable of motorcycles. While these do not constitute excessive opulence, they do not exactly jibe with the notion that drag racers are young grease spots who would sell their mother for a new set of valves. The top men in the sport today are over 30, moderately well groomed and financially solvent. True, many of them wear denim and leather jackets, but the jeans are usually French-cut and pressed, and the leathers fawn-colored and purchased in boutiques. Prudhomme, who carries an attach� case, is of this breed.