At 80, NHRA Great Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme Still Outracing the Youngsters

·3 min read
Photo credit: Richard H Shute
Photo credit: Richard H Shute

Why are we not surprised that Don "The Snake" Prudhomme is still trying to find ways to go faster?

Prudhomme, who turned 80 on April 6, is gearing up for another run at the Yokohama NORRA Mexican 1000, April 23-30, in the Baja Penninsula from California to Mexico. It will be Prudhomme's third Baja race in four years. Prudhomme passed on last year's event due to the pandemic.

This year, Prudhomme will be teaming with navigator and co-driver Rich Minga, with veteran racer P.J. Jones assisting with equipment and technical support. Prudhomme, a four-time NHRA Funny Car champion from 1975 through 1978, just can't get enough of his newest racing love, or of a racing venue about as far removed from the confines of a quarter-mile drag strip as a racer can get.

"I think it's the open space," Prudhomme told Autoweek. "When you go to Baja, it's just like going to a different world. You're able to run down the road, the farmland, it's just wide-open space. It takes you back years. You can't do that kind of stuff in California anymore.

"And, of course, the competition of running the cars is a big deal, too."

Photo credit: Alvis Upitis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alvis Upitis - Getty Images

The Baja race is a five-day test of man and machine. Drivers get five days to reach the 1,000-mile goal and five good nights sleep during the event—if they're not up all night putting the car back together from something that happened out on the course during the day. Prudhomme is proud of the fact that he finished 16th at the Baja event two years ago.

"That may not sound good, but when you've got more than 100 cars running, that's pretty good. This year we plan to do better. We've got the car, it's a Can Am sponsored by MAVTV with a hopped up, turbocharged engine in it. It's not something you buy off the showroom floor. It's a serious race car.

"We look to do pretty good."

Prudhomme said that even at 80, he's not too old to learn a few new tricks and tips when it comes to racing. And when it comes to Baja, Prudhomme says he's learned one thing at previous Bajas that he's taking with him to this year's run.

"Not crash," Prudhomme said. "Don't get off the road. Do not crash. We're running and we've got radios, me and my navigator, and we're always saying to ourselves, 'Don't crash, easy on this corner.'

"If you break down out there, it's really a problem because there's just no one there. One year, we broke down and we had these Mexican kids help us fix the car. It was really something for us, a lot of fun."

Prudhomme says he's gotten pretty good about the slowing down part of the retirement game, and he does admit that the most fun he gets out the Gator he drives on his three-and-a-half acres in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, is not about seeing how fast he can get from one corner of the property to the other, it's about "driving the dogs around the neighborhood." He als0 gets a kick out of taking BMW motorcycle out for a spin in Mexico.

"I just turned 80, and believe it or not, I'm a homebody now," Prudhomme said. "I've had so many of my buddies say, 'When you turn 80, you're not going to be worth a shit, you'll go right down hill.' Well, I'm 80 and I feel pretty damn good, and I'm ready to tackle Mexico.

"I'm not a young guy anymore, but when you get that helmet on and get behind the wheel, it just makes you feel good."

Photo credit: Richard H Shute
Photo credit: Richard H Shute
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