The day had begun at 7 a.m. with a breakfast of cigarettes and coffee in Cleveland. Cleveland is where the car is based during the summer because it is semi-centrally located. Brandt and the third member of the crew, 19-year-old Mike Peloquin, live there in a motel nearly five months every year. Someone has to stay with the car. Usually it is Brandt and Peloquin, since Prudhomme flies home to California whenever he has more than five days off.
It costs Prudhomme about $200,000 a year to operate his car, when you figure in parts, fuel and travel. Nitro-methane fuel alone costs $8 a gallon, and the car gets about 220 feet to the gallon, or 24 gallons a mile.
To offset the expense, Prudhomme, like all racers, has sponsors who pay for the privilege of having their names on the side of the car. His most lucrative affiliation is with the U.S. Army. Its recruiting division feels it is worth $70,000 in publicity to have a billboard that travels 240 mph.
"We've gotten lots of publicity because of the Army sponsorship," says Prudhomme. "Most of it bad. One promoter whom we won't run for has gotten a lot of other drivers mad at us by telling them that we're beating them with their own tax money."
Prudhomme commands a $2,500 guarantee wherever he appears; at some tracks that is $1,000 more than any other driver. Between his guarantee and his winnings he expects to make about $175,000 this year.
Money is another reason many of the other drivers resent Prudhomme. "A lot of his success is a result of his sponsors," says Ivo. "Unfortunately, drag racing is now at a point where speed costs money. It's just a question of how much you have and how fast you want to go. Prudhomme can afford to run hard and blow a couple of pistons because he's getting more appearance money than anyone else on the track. If I break some parts or burn a piston and it costs me a couple of hundred dollars, that's my profit down the drain."
Another advantage Prudhomme has is that soldiers, with their Today's-Army-Wants-To-Join-You mustaches, show up at most tracks with color pictures of the car to hand out and keep the kids off Prudhomme's back. At the Popular Hot Rodding Meet in Martin, they were there with a tank to make a recruiting pitch.
U.S. 131 Dragway, named for a nearby dual-lane highway, is a licorice-colored scar straddled by wooden bleachers and surrounded by the farmlands of Michigan's lower peninsula. The strip is about half a mile long—the first quarter-mile for the spectators and the second for the drivers, who must stop cars that are inhaling 300 feet of track per second. Around the starting line there is a residue of all that energy, a layer of burned rubber and oil so thick that it can pull the shoes from your feet.
In the staging lanes, Prudhomme's car is open like the jaws of a clam. The 175-pound fiber glass body has been propped up to facilitate working on the engine and to allow its driver to climb in behind the tiny butterfly-style aircraft steering wheel.
In his fireproof suit, air mask, helmet and goggles, Prudhomme looks like one of those grotesque magnifications of a house fly. Between his knees is the steering column and the chrome lever that shifts the motor from low to high gear about 150 feet into a race. Above him is the parachute release.