By V. Moore:
Tom McEwen was a rare bird: he had an intelligent, productive mind, a gambler’s nerve, and a dependable nature. Remembered for his lack of envy and guile, he was one of the most popular and charismatic personalities in US drag racing. More importantly, his horizon extended beyond the dollar bill. He kept racehorses, as many as twenty, and though some were uncompetitive he cherished them anyway.
During his heyday with Coors sponsorship, he had earned between three and four million dollars a year. Yet, on the topic of finances he described himself as “not too reliable”. On matrimony: “not easy to live with day in and day out.” On diet constraints, where his compulsive nature was well known, he regarded himself as, “on the goofy side—impossible to control.” On the topic of Prudhomme and others, he would warn: “By nature, racers are self-centered and often ruthless, at least most of the successful ones. To sustain relationships in professional racing, you have to bite your lip often.” And, on plotting a successful career, he reiterated Sam Clemens: “The trick in getting ahead is getting started.”
His darkest hours came with the appalling tragedies of his two sons; Jamie died at the age of 13 of leukemia and Joey at 35 as a result of a car collision. No miracle of thrift was McEwen, and he consequently toiled with financial burdens and also with family troubles during his final years. Though, occasional mutterings would escape from his gloomy heart, he tried valiantly to ease his life’s increasingly complicated circumstances.
Born in Florida in 1937, he moved with his mother and younger brother, Richard, to California, following the premature death of his father. Growing up in Long Beach, his ambitions from the beginning lay with the allure of drag racing. It was a passion he never relinquished. An endearing man, he had personal qualities few others could match. Using self-deprecation and frankness, he was exhilarating and brilliantly amusing and wouldn’t think twice of inserting unsparing descriptions of his own behavior.
As a debater he was a formidable opponent. In argument, you might have thought truth-versus-falsehood, or right-versus-wrong, would have been his customary construct. It was no such thing. Oh no, nothing so predictable—nothing so monotonous. On one occasion, he would mount an entirely convincing context on truth, yet on the next he would argue with equal relish the opposite cause. It was this love of rhetoric he so enjoyed.
Predictably, his achievements assured his position as one of America’s greatest contributors to drag racing. From the mid-nineteen-fifties to the late eighties, an immensely hazardous time in the sport, he remained at the forefront, winning three American Hot Rod Association national Funny Car championships: 1976, ’78 and ’83. In those days, the AHRA was an attractive proposition for professional drag racers because they paid appearance money as well as a generous winning purse.
But it wasn’t only in competition where he excelled. He was acutely perceptive in race car preparation and uncommonly innovative. Best known for his pioneering of commercial sponsorship in auto racing, the 2013 movie “Snake and Mongoose” paid tribute to this and to his memorable victory over Don Prudhomme during the 1988 NHRA Funny Car US Nationals at Indianapolis, ten days after the tragic death of his youngest son.
For the Goodyear Tire Company in particular and drag racing in general, McEwen’s insight into rear tire construction profoundly shaped the evolution of the racing slick. He had noticed the truck-like racing tires of the time introduced two black lines of contact to the track surface (from the inner and outer edges of the tread) and deduced the center area of the tire wasn’t working. His collaboration with Goodyear development engineers continued for years.
In 1976, five of six competing Corvettes crashed as a result of rear end instability; only McEwen’s survived. To find a solution, he had contracted with an Indy 500 engineer, who introduced the use of long side plates, joining the rear bodywork to the rear spoiler. In so doing the side plates formed an air dam that generated down force over the rear wheels – a crucial design solution that continues today.
Until the mid-sixties, abnormally high ride heights were employed universally in Funny Car construction to improve weight transfer under acceleration—leaf springs rested on top of a front beam axle. Following the bizarre flight of McEwen’s Barracuda at Lion’s drag strip in 1965, however, this tradition ended forthwith. The side view of the modern car had begun to resemble that of a wing profile and when the high-speed low-pressure air flowing over the car combined with excessive underbody air flow, it took flight! As a result, McEwen’s skyward aspirations and the disintegration of the race car triggered a universal desire to restrict air flow under the car.
Bill Simpson, a pioneer of racing safety equipment, marveled at the vividness of McEwen’s imagination. One day in the late nineteen-fifties, “Mongoose” arrived at Simpson’s tiny shop with a painter’s respirator, requesting it to made of fire-retardant materials and modified for racing use. Weeks earlier, an engineer from Rocketdyne, a California rocket engine design company, had mentioned the inefficiencies of drag racing exhaust pipes; “If you curl those pipes upwards and rearwards,” he advised, “you’ll gain downforce.” But curling exhaust gases upwards and rearwards on a front-engine dragster partially suffocated the driver. Simpson sold McEwen’s respirators by the hundreds.
An unusually lucid man, he would quickly arrange his thoughts in a reasoned, logical order and express them with stirring clarity. And when conveying the decisive particulars of past events, he steered clear of false sentiment; his memory was sharp, his accounts compelling, and his delivery factual. To apparently intractable problems, he had a knack for conceiving wonderfully improvised solutions–shaping ideas of seemingly limitless potential. And to those who knew him, Thomas “Mongoose” McEwen was an exceptionally lovely man, excellent company, and uncommonly selfless; in fact, he was probably the most generous man they have known.
McEwen, who arguably achieved more for modern drag racing than any other, died in his sleep sometime on Sunday night or Monday morning 10-11 June 2018 at the age of 81. He was survived by his son, Tom, and his daughter Katie.