America's first hot rods were conjured from the '32 Ford, which was the preferred getaway car of Bonnie and Clyde, the Little Deuce Coupe of Beach Boys fame and the champion dragster of Maybellene, in which Chuck Berry sang, "A Cadillac a-rollin' on the open road/Nothin' will outrun my V-8 Ford...."
Only love has inspired more hit songs than hot rods, which are--like rock and roll itself--an American art form that came of age in the 1950s and '60s, art that inspired other art from people like Von Dutch, the temperamental painter of cars and bikes whose stylized signature is still seen on the trucker caps worn by Britney Spears. The epicenter of this car culture was mid-century Los Angeles, where a teenage hot-rodder's world really could resemble one of those paintings you sometimes see in diners, crowded with seemingly every celebrity of the 1950s.
"I remember Ricky Nelson drove a '57 Cad Brougham," says 64-year-old Don (the Snake) Prudhomme, who got his driver's license in 1957 in Van Nuys and became the coolest figure in drag racing. "James Coburn had a little Dino Ferrari. He ran around with [Steve] McQueen, who was cool as cool can be. McQueen and James Garner used to hang out at Tony Nancy's shop in the Valley. McQueen had bikes--Triumphs painted by Von Dutch. And he had a Ferrari. And a green Jaguar when no one had Jags. But I loved hot rods. I wouldn't have traded a '32 Ford for a Jaguar any day."
Prudhomme was speaking last weekend at the National Hot Rod Association's SuperNationals at the drag strip in Englishtown, N.J. Jersey, of course, is the other axis of drag-racing culture, from Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me ("New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours ...") to Bruce Springsteen's Racing in the Street ("I got a '69 Chevy with a 396 ..."). "My first time out here was 1959," says Prudhomme, whose deep tan and tangle of hair suggests a man driving through life with the top down. "It was my first time out of California. I didn't even know where the East Coast was at, man. We got here, and the people were like, 'Those guys are from California!' In those days, if you were from California, you were cool as s---."
In the half century since, everything has changed but the quarter mile of the drag strip. The Snake, who drove to 49 victories in 32 NHRA seasons before he retired in 1994, is now a team owner who has seen hot rod building become literally rocket science. "The space shuttle at launch sees four g's," says Snake Racing's funny-car driver Tommy Johnson Jr., 37, referring to the gravitational forces that press upon the shuttle crew. At the funny car's speed of 327 mph, says Johnson, "we see five g's, then five more in the other direction when we throw the [para]chute."
Cars throw chutes. The header pipes on Ron Capps's Brut funny car are splashed with the sponsor's aftershave and the scent briefly overpowers the smell of the nitromethane fuel whose fumes burn nostrils and redden eyes, and whose mix provides the thrust that shakes the ground beneath you. The National Seismology Center has measured an NHRA drag race at 1.5 to 2.0 on the Richter scale, which may explain why so many fans, like so many cars, blow head gaskets.
Every day for 35 years Prudhomme has autographed several Snake die-cast miniature Hot Wheels cars that were huge sellers in the 1970s. "Signed one this morning, and the guy just about pissed all over himself," says the Snake with a sigh. "I sometimes feel like Mr. Spock at a Star Trek convention."
Is it possible to be nostalgic for a time and place in which you never lived? It is when Prudhomme talks about cruising Bob's Drive-In in Van Nuys or Lions drag strip in Long Beach, when "it was the greatest time in the world to live in California."
Now, says the Snake, in his smoky FM-deejay voice, "it's almost uncool to be from California. You can't smoke out there. You can barely drink. If you're not a jogger, then get out of the way, man. Southern California's down to one drag strip, in Pomona, because the land is just too valuable."
Larry Dixon, who went to Van Nuys High just like the Snake, drives Prudhomme's top fuel dragster (he won at Englishtown) and is the two-time NHRA champion. "Today," says the 38-year-old, "if you get caught street racing in Los Angeles, they take your license and crush your car."
Steve McQueen died in 1980 at 50 of lung cancer. "Someone as cool as McQueen should never die," says the Snake. "I miss him. I miss Elvis." After a pause the Snake says, "Well, enough of this."
The son of a body-shop owner, the Snake now has his own Learjet with twin red snakes on the tail. "This is a real American sport," he says in parting. "In what other part of the world would you line up nitro-burning, 6,000-horsepower engines that are this loud, with the big pipes and all the fire? It's everything a kid could want. And what's more American than that?"
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"I loved hot rods," drag-racing icon Don Prudhomme says. "I wouldn't have traded a '32 Ford for a Jaguar any day."