For the third time in his illustrious career, Don “Snake” Prudhomme is expected to retire from racing after completing this week’s NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally off-road race in Baja, Mexico. The five-day event began Sunday and concludes Thursday.
All three of Prudhomme’s retirements have been unique unto and of themselves.
He retired as one of the greatest NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car drag racers in 1994. He then became a full-time NHRA Top Fuel team owner, retiring from that role following the 2009 season.
Now, competing in his third Mexican 1000 off-road race in the last four years – at the age of 81, no less – Prudhomme told AutoRacingDigest.com that this week will likely be his four-wheeled swan song.
“Yeah, this is going to be the last one,” Prudhomme said. “I'm really working myself up to get a good race in. It's 1,000 miles so it’ll wear on you after a while, a couple hundred miles a day in five days to get down there (to the finish). So it's a hell of a drive.”
Prudhomme won the Evolution Stock Turbo UTV Class in last year’s event, a grueling race contested primarily in desert and off-road conditions of nearly 1,200 miles in length.
With sponsorship from MAVTV and Lucas Oil, Prudhomme is driving a CanAm Maverick Turbo – along with navigator and co-driver Nick Firestone – to try and repeat as class champion and potentially retire as a winner one last time.
For more than six decades, Prudhomme has been a racing hero to countless fans both in the U.S. and globally. He laughed when it was mentioned his return to Baja is another example of older drivers teaching younger drivers how it’s done, much like how Helio Castroneves’ earned his fourth win in the Indianapolis 500 last year at the age of 46.
“Number one, it's fun, it's actually fun,” Prudhomme said. “And Baja itself is such a great place. When you get away from Ensenada and the big cities and get down to the countryside, it's gorgeous there.
“You're able to put your helmet on and run down a dirt road at 80 miles an hour. That's all fun, it really is.”
Continuing on a health routine that he’s followed for over 60 years, Prudhomme is still in great physical shape. He easily looks 20 years younger than what he is, and could probably still climb into a dragster or Funny Car if he wanted to and teach some of today’s young drivers a lesson or two.
He even had a unique workout regimen to prepare for the 1000, which began Sunday.
“I’ve been drinking a little wine, that’s about it,” Prudhomme said with a hearty laugh. “Training is for youngsters. Sorry, no, I haven’t done a damn thing. But I feel good.”
Prudhomme is once again aligned with noted racer P.J. Jones, who is overseeing the team’s three-car entry, including the Turbo that Prudhomme is driving.
Jones isn’t messing around. He wants to help guide Prudhomme to another win, bringing with him a 15-man crew to service each of the three vehicles after each day’s worth of racing.
“You have to service these cars at night,” Prudhomme said. “You run 150 to 200 miles a day, then at night you take them apart and go through it, the lights are on late at night as the crews do their thing.”
When asked whether there’s some sadness associated with this being not only his last Mexican 1000, but also his last active competitive effort in any form of motorsport, Prudhomme was philosophical.
“After last year and we won, I said, ‘Man, that’s it, it’s all over with,’” he said. “But there were 10 cars in our class last year because it was a Covid year. Now, there’s 24 cars in our class alone, so I’m very interested in how we're going to fare with these 24 other cars, and I'm sure there's a few factory cars thrown in there, too.”
The overall NORRA Mexican 1000 is a mini-version of the more famous Baja 1000, but is still a very competitive race in its own right, with separate classes for motorcycles, quads, UTV’s, and 4-wheel classes for everything from vintage vehicles to state-of-the-art race cars.
Racing the 1000 has given Prudhomme motivation and purpose of sorts. When asked if anything still remains on his racing bucket list, he started out with a laugh before once again becoming philosophical.
“I’d love to do the Indy 500. That's a hell of a good idea,” he said before turning serious. “I mean, I’m 81, but I don't feel like it. I’ve lost a lot of friends unfortunately that were younger than I am, and Mongoose (Tom ‘Mongoose’ McEwen, Prudhomme’s best friend and business partner as well as racing rival) was one of them.
“But I get up in the morning and feel great and say, ‘Why not, man?’ I just don't want to sit around. There's too much to do out there in this world.
“Yeah, I'm in pretty good shape because I work every day. I'm down at the shop doing stuff or working around my place here. We got kind of a little ranch here in San Diego and I really love it here. I do stuff, I fix things. If there's a pipe broken in the yard, I'm out there fixing it, you know?”
Prudhomme has always been a deep-thinking competitor, letting his talent and achievements do his talking for him. But he grows introspective when asked how proud he is of himself for being in the NORRA 1000 for the third time in four years (2019, 2021 and 2022 – there was no event in 2020 due to Covid). Which, by the way, there is no prize money for winning the 1000, just trophies and medals, much like the prizes Prudhomme used to get when he first broke into drag racing nearly 70 years ago.
“That’s a damn good question because I’m pretty proud of myself, I really am, to get up and go do that sort of thing, to put a helmet on and your fire suit, your gloves, and you're making it down through the cactus and stuff out in Baja,” Prudhomme said. “Yeah, it's quite fulfilling, because at the end of the day, when you pull in at night, you're done, you have a barbecue or you're with your buddies drinking a cold beer. It's kind of cool thing.”
Prudhomme was in decent shape after the first three days of racing, ranking fifth in the 24-vehicle class after Thursday's penultimate day of the five-day event. He's just over four minutes behind the class leader, having cut over five minutes off the pace set by the leader during Monday's second round.
While he’s not putting the cart before the horse, knowing he still has several hundred more miles to cover before reaching the finish line, Prudhomme is cautious but still likes his overall chances.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said. “It’s not a turkey shoot. It’s a big deal.”
What would it mean to him if he comes back a NORRO winner for the second – and likely – last time?
“If we win it this time, then it'll rank right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve ever done,” Prudhomme said. “And we’ve got a really bad-ass car. I think we can do it, or else I wouldn’t be out there.”
He then paused for a couple seconds and kind of thought out loud to himself, “If we win again, maybe I just might do it again after all, I don’t know.”
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski