It is one of those perfect California afternoons of late summer. Heat rises from Sunset Boulevard in a shimmering haze as Prudhomme eases his $20,000 Ferrari past a tourist bus. He has been cruising, just like this, since 1958, when he dropped out of high school to paint cars in his father's body shop. In the '50s, cruising usually led to street racing, and that sometimes led to trouble with the law.
When he was 17 Prudhomme joined the Road Kings, a car club that included such future luminaries as Ivo and Ken Safford. It was then that he bought a 1950 Oldsmobile and began racing it at the abandoned airport runways that at that time passed for drag strips. "When I started racing," Prudhomme says, "I was always the first one in line outside the gates at the track. The muffler was the first thing to come off, and I'd just sit there gunning the engine, waiting for them to let me in. I loved it so much."
Two years later Ivo invited Prudhomme along on what proved to be a watershed tour of the East. It was the first time that a drag racer had campaigned his car professionally nationwide, and Ivo—who knows something about show biz—towed his candy-apple-red racer from town to town behind a candy-apple-red Cadillac limousine. Prudhomme was Ivo's young subaltern, inexperienced but eager to help and to learn.
When Prudhomme returned from barnstorming with Ivo, he continued to paint cars for his father until 1965, when he turned professional. His first year as a pro, Prudhomme drove a long-wheelbase fuel dragster, and received almost weekly beatings from Ivo.
Their most memorable confrontation was at the speedway in Islip, N.Y., an eighth-of-a-mile track. In addition to being half the length of a normal drag strip, it had a shutdown area that was a holy mess. Ivo and Prudhomme agreed before the first of their three match races that they would ease off the throttle early and not risk crashing. Moreover, Ivo insisted that since he had arranged the booking and had the larger following, he should be allowed to win the races. Prudhomme agreed, reluctantly, but when the moment came for him to let Ivo beat him, he couldn't do it.
Between runs Ivo reminded Prudhomme of their bargain, and the Snake dutifully promised to throw the next two races. But when Ivo won the second heat, one of Prudhomme's crewmen couldn't resist putting the needle in. "See, Prudhomme, Ivo can beat you any time he wants to," he said. What Prudhomme said is not a matter for the record, but it is safe to say that he came to the starting line for the third race with a flinty look in his eyes and a firm resolve to win.
Ivo, however, came to the line with something even better—the sure and certain knowledge that the starter was going to hit the green light the instant the front wheels of both cars had broken the electric eye's beam of light, rather than holding them for an instant, as is customary. Ivo, as it happened, had spoken to the starter, and assured him that this was just as Prudhomme wanted it. By the time Prudhomme realized what was happening, Ivo was long gone. Extremely long, as it turned out. Ivo's braking parachute failed to open, so when Prudhomme finally caught up with him, they were past the end of the track and in the parking lot. Prudhomme was so moved by Ivo's perfidy that it took several crewmen to prevent him from decking TV Tommy.
At the 1965 U.S. Nationals, Prudhomme drove Roland Leong's "Hawaiian" car to his first NHRA title at Indy, beating Ivo in the final round of eliminations. Stung by the loss, Ivo began telling people that Prudhomme was only as good as the car he was driving, a lousy mechanic who wouldn't know a socket wrench if he saw one. The following year, the "Hawaiian" won both the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. and the U.S. Nationals at Indy, but with Mike Snively—not Prudhomme—driving. Over the winter Prudhomme went back to California and had begun to tear engines apart and put them together again. Still, it was not until 1973, when Prudhomme switched from driving dragsters to driving his own Funny Car, that he was accepted as both a gifted mechanic and driver.
"It wasn't easy for me to admit to myself that Ivo was right, but when I did, it paid off," Prudhomme confesses, glancing at a speck in the side mirror of his Ferrari. As the car comes out of a sweeping turn and into a sharp downhill near Bel Air, the speck grows larger until it becomes, finally, a silver Porsche Carrera, knifing through traffic and past the Ferrari. For a mile, then two, the Porsche maintains its lead. Prudhomme's mind wanders from his story; sentences are left dangling. As the cars approach a traffic light, Prudhomme downshifts suddenly and the Ferrari bursts through a hole in traffic. The Porsche is trapped as the Ferrari flashes by. The sun explodes on the front windshield, the tachometer needle flutters wildly and the speedometer climbs steadily past 70 as Don Prudhomme turns to look at the silver Porsche. And smiles. So fast.
The pickup truck and its long trailer nose through the gate of the dragway at Martin, Mich., past an unpaved parking area and into the pits. Bob Brandt, Prudhomme's 30-year-old chief mechanic, motions to the spectators to move out of the truck's path so he can park it and get the race car out of the long, coffinlike trailer.