The story behind why we’re writing this story is almost as good as the story—sorry, still with us? We were researching Baja racing for something, a Meyers Manx story maybe and noticed Don Prudhomme’s name on an entrants’ list from the 1968 running of the Mexican 1000 (what the Baja 1000 was called in the early days). Since we’re HOT ROD, we can do insane things like call up “The Snake” and ask him, “Hey, did you ever race Baja?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Long time ago, with Tony Nancy, because Steve McQueen couldn’t. I still have my stuff, my uniform, the stuff I wore.” And then he sent us this picture.
Wait, what? Back up a second, we get how Prudhomme would know Tony Nancy, what with them both being dragster drivers in the San Fernando Valley, but how did two drag racers end up off-roading bedecked in Steve McQueen’s Solar Plastics film company logo? We found photos from the race in the HOT ROD Archives, printed them up, and tossed them on a table in front of Snake. We’ll just let him take it from here.
“I Still Have That Watch. It’s A Rolex. God, Look At That. It Was The First Thing As I Recall That I Ever Bought Myself. ‘Mongoose’ [Tom McEwen] Bought One, Too, When We Both Started Making A Little Money Drag Racing. The Ultimate Was Rolex Watches And The Shoes Were Alligator. Loafers, Alligator, Was It Alligator? Let Me Call Tom.”
[He calls Tom McEwen]
DP: Hey, it’s Snake. We bought Rolex watches and alligator shoes? Wasn’t that the deal? What was it?
TM: Well, I do remember after we got our Mattel thing, we went and bought those Rolex Daytonas.
DP: You know, I still have mine.
TM: Yeah, me too.
DP: Right, right. Hey what about the shoes. What was the ‘in’ shoe at the time, alligators?
TM: Alligators—different colors, I think.
DP: Damn, man, we were s***tin’ in tall cotton.
TM: Yeah, I ended up eating mine.
DP: You what?
TM: I got broke, I had to eat mine. I boiled it up.
They talk about rain for a bit and then Prudhomme refocuses on the photos.
“Look Here, There’s No Support, Nothing, You’d Just Fall Right Out On The Ground, Right? No Protection At All. The Thing Probably Weighed 800 Pounds Or Something.”
“I Remember The Tire On The Roof. They Aren’t Bad Tires, Those Are Pretty Badass.”
“Look At The Shocks Here, There’s Like, No Travel. See The Springs Here? Probably Had 2 Inches Of Travel. Good Thing We Didn’t Make It, We’d Probably Have Killed Ourselves.”
“What Does That Say, ‘Mike Jones?’ Mike Jones. He Ran Orange County Dragstrip [OCIR]. That’s Totally Him, He Hasn’t Changed.”
“Probably Our Entry Stuff In That Envelope.”
“I Smoked All The Time.”
“Look, Spark Plugs, Someone Was Working On It. Wasn’t Me.”
“This Is The Staging Area Where The Guys Are Getting All Their Stuff Ready, And This Is In Ensenada.”
“This Is Ensenada For Sure. Yeah, There Was A Big Staging Area As You Could See, And Everybody Unloaded Their Stuff. There Should Be Some Of [James] Garner In Here. He Was Always Around.”
“Look At These Shocks! Do You Know How Much Travel This Is? I Mean, We Had No Idea What We Were Doing.”
“I Had A Map. There Was A Map In Here Some Place, And Directions On The Track And There Were Markers. We Didn’t Know Much About That. You Just Follow The Guy In Front Of You. Follow The Dust. Wherever The Dust Is At, That’s Where We’re Pointing. That’s What You Do, Pretty Much.”
“See This? This Is The Airbox, And The Big Problem Was That There Wasn’t Nearly Enough Air Coming Into It, Because It Sealed It Off In The Back Here And That Was Our Downfall—it Burnt The Engine Up. It Didn’t Have Enough Air. The Thing Got Done Like Most Racers Do Going To Baja, A Day And The Night Before The Race Started.”
“Tony Was Putting A Car Together For Steve McQueen. Remember That Movie Called The Thomas Crown Affair? All That Stuff Off Road Was In. So Tony Was Putting This Car Together For McQueen And Shortly Before The Race, McQueen Couldn’t Make It, A Movie, Bullitt, Or Something He Was Doing, So Tony Asked Me To Go With Him, As The Co Driver And Some Of Steve’s People Were Down There, But Steve Wasn’t.”
“Steve’s Company Was Solar Plastics Engineering, See That On The Shirts? Tony Was Doing Work For Him, Like These Seats; Tony Made These Seats, And McQueen Was Involved In That, Too, And That’s One Of The Reasons He Was Doing This, He Was Going Into Business, Selling This Stuff, Aftermarket Stuff.”
“We Had Driving Suits And Jackets. We Looked Good At The Starting Line. I Didn’t Have My Team That Dressed Up For Drag Racing, Couldn’t Afford It. I Don’t Think I Was Into The Hot Wheels Deal Yet. That Was The Way McQueen Would Roll, Though—the Best Of Everything.”
“I Forget Who Built The Chassis, I Don’t Think It Was Kent Fuller, But Tony Put It All Together With The Porsche Engine And Stuff. Tony Was An Upholstery Guy, And He Did Work For McQueen, Like His Ferraris And Stuff, Some Of His Work You Can Still See At The Petersen Museum, In That XKSS Green Jaguar—that Interior Was Done By Tony. Tony Fitted Him For The Seats. Most Of Us Couldn’t Even Get A Car Like That, Let Alone Get A Car Like That And Tear The Seats Out. Genuine Leather Seats, McQueen, That’s How He Would Do Things.”
“How I Met Tony Was Through Drag Racing; He Would Do Seats For You If He Liked You, In Your Drag Car. You’d Take It Over There And He Would Build A Seat For It. He Had A Seahorse, A Little Seahorse Logo. If He Liked You, He Would Do It. If He Didn’t Like You, You Wouldn’t Even Get In The Door. But Him And I—nobody Really Knows How Old He Was. He Was Older Than Me, But Nobody Really Knows How Old. He Always Looked Great. He Took Me In, Tony Actually Took Care Of Me, He Looked After Me.”
“This Was In The Early Stages [of Off Road], This Thing Was Very, Very Cool In Its Day, You Know, But Look How Little It Was, Look How Big We Are! Little Bitty Shocks, We Didn’t Know Anything. We Started, We Ran To Outside Ensenada, I’m Thinking, 100 Miles Or So—it Was Still On The Pavement, And It Burned Up. I Said To Him, ‘You Smell Something?’ And He Goes, ‘Yeah.’ And The Thing’s Just ‘errrrrrrrrrrrr’ [he Rolls The R’s Out Slowly To A Stop]. It Ran Out. Never Even Made It Onto The Dirt, Which I’m Embarrassed To Tell You. And Haven’t Been Back Since.”
“After We Burned Up, They Loaded It On A Trailer And Someone Took It Back And We Ended Up Going Down To La Paz, And The Rest Of It Is A Blur. They Ended Up Rebuilding It, And That’s All I Know. I Wasn’t A Part Of It After That. It Wasn’t Drag Racing To Me, That’s What I Was Interested In.”
“So, When We Burned Up, McQueen, His Guys Had A Plane There And So We Got On The Plane, Licking Our Wounds. We Didn’t Even Want To Report Back To McQueen That The Thing Burned Up, So We Went Down To La Paz—that’s Where The Race Ended At That Time—and They Have A Celebration For People Or Whatever. That’s The Days Before I Knew Anything About ‘don’t Drink The Water.’ I Drank The Water. And I Hugged The Commode In This S***ty Mexican Bathroom And Just Died.”
James Garner Was There. He Didn’t Act Like A Big Deal. He Liked Us Because We Were Racers, So He Liked To Hang Around Us As Much As We Liked To Hang Around Him. He Was A Real Deal Guy. When I Was Sick, I Was On My Own, I Remember Garner Came Over To Me, ‘Heeey, Come On,’ Laughing At Me. I Was A Kid, Maybe 23, They Were All Older Than Me. They Were All Goofin’ On Me.”
“Doing It In That Volkswagen Would Have Been Better Than This. What We Learned Through That Whole Experience Is That If We Had To Do It Over Again, You Just Go Get A Volkswagen And Drive That. You Don’t Need All This Other Bulls**t, You Know, Trying To Reinvent The Wheel. If We’d Done It In A Stock Volkswagen, We’d Still Be Running! Who Knew? I Discovered That Real Fast, All This Custom Stuff And The Air Ducts, No Good.”
“He Had A Shop Off Ventura Boulevard, Woodman [Ave] Maybe? And Kent Fuller Had A Shop In The Back Of The Complex, He Was Doing Frames; Tony Was Up Front, And Tony Actually Owned That Building—he Rented To Fuller—and That’s Where We Hung Out. I Mean, You’d Go In There, You’d See James Garner, Steve McQueen, [Tommy] Ivo, Kent Fuller, Whoever, I Mean That Was The Place To Go. If You Were Going Down The Road, You’d Pull Off, Go Into Tony’s Place, And Say, ‘Tony, What’s Going On?’ You Never Knew Who You’re Going To Run Into, But If You Weren’t One Of The Guys, You Didn’t Get Very Far, You Know?” “I’d Been In The Dirt On Dirt Bikes, Tony Rode Too. We Never Did The Off Road Cars, But Didn’t Even Think Anything About It. ‘Oh Man, No Problem, It’s Got A Wheel And Tires, No S**t, No Problem.’ We Didn’t Know.”
“When This Came About, Tony Said, ‘OK, Go With Me, All Right?’ And He Says We Gotta Go Down And Do What They Call, Not A Dry Run—a Prerun. And I’m Like, ‘What’s A Prerun?’ And He Goes, ‘Well, We’re Going To Go Check It Out.’ And I Go, ‘OK, Fine’ And The Only Thing I Knew About Mexico Was Tijuana And Drinking Beer Underage. So He’s All, ‘We’re Gonna Get A Great Mexican Dinner And It’s Gonna Be So Great!’ We Didn’t Even Have A Bottle Of Water When We Went Across The Border, We Didn’t Know! Just Out, Driving For Miles And Finally, Late At Night, I’m Starving And I’m Looking Forward To This Great Mexican Restaurant And We’re Just Surrounded By Dirt And Cactus. There’s A Light Way Off In The Distance And We Ended Up Sleeping In The Truck Until The Next Morning When This Place Opened Up, Little Place, Dirt Floors, And They Made Us Something To Eat. We Had Some Tortillas And Some Beans And That Was It. That Was My Big Dinner. I Had No Idea What I Was Doing.”
Don’t know about you guys, but we think that’s a pretty good story as is. So tuck that one away for bench-racing trivia night, and don’t drink the water.