THIS SNAKE DOESN'T RATTLE, HE ROLLS

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. As you counted, Don (the Snake) Prudhomme, drag racing's top driver, could have won another
December 06, 1976

Don Prudhomme has always been good with speed in the same way that some men are good with elegant women and others have a command of languages. There are drivers who believe speed is nothing more than a kind of commodity to barter with to get more money, greater fame; as if it were something you could hold in the palm of your hand examine under a jeweler's loupe and place in a vault until it is needed. To Prudhomme, speed has a worth of its own; it intrigues, almost entrances him, perhaps because its attainment is never absolute. There is always one mph more, one hundredth of a second less.

And this is the problem, for at just this moment he feels as if he is moving under water. He is in the pit area at the U.S. National Drag Races in Indianapolis, working on his car. It is a Funny Car: loathsome name; he hates it. What is funny about driving at 240 mph down a stretch of pavement lined with people right next to another car? Prudhomme is feeling the pressure. "A wrench. I need a wrench."

He is not fond of the spectators, because, after all, what do they know? He has seen them before. Two long hedgerows of blurred faces as he hurtles down the drag strip. The odd thing is that the speeds at which he drives, even if only in bursts of six seconds or less, seem somehow to have altered his body's metronome, so that now, needing a wrench, he feels as if he has been jellied in aspic. All these excited people crowding in on him, talking so fast, too fast, their words seeming to run together. Too fast.

Prudhomme is in Indianapolis seeking his sixth Nationals title, drag racing's $20,000 golden fleece. In 12 years on the pro circuit he has won 21 national events—five in a rail-bodied fuel dragster and 16 in a Funny Car, which is similar to the old-style, front-engine "rails" except that its mechanical innards are hidden under a lightweight one-piece fiber glass body so it looks something like a streetcar, a Chevrolet Monza in Prudhomme's case. That is five more Nationals than have been won by 44-year-old Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, the sport's most famous fossil, now semi-retired in Tampa, Fla. Last year Prudhomme won a record six of eight National Hot Rod Association Nationals (in the NHRA's scheme of things, every drag race worth more than $5,000 to the winner is a "National"). This year he improved his own record, winning seven out of eight.

The drama of two drivers each trying to get to the end of a quarter-mile straightaway first—with the winner going on to the next round and the loser putting his car on the trailer—tends to obscure the fact that drag racing, more than any other form of motor sports, has become an exercise in motor maintenance. The 2,000-horsepower supercharged engines, like those Prudhomme uses, have pushed automotive technology to its outermost edge. But machines are only as good as their parts, and at 240 mph the parts often snap like dry branches in a strong wind. Despite which, in 1975-76 over a period of 11 months Prudhomme won 30 consecutive elimination rounds in eight Nationals.

Prudhomme has been a dominant force in drag racing during the past decade, but his rewards have fallen far short of legend-in-his-own-time dimensions. Put simply, away from the track Prudhomme is unknown, a name to mispronounce.

The NHRA claims that drag racing drew 5,300,000 fans in 1975, the most since the sport's inception after World War II. The press, however, has chosen to treat it as a cult sport or to treat it not at all. And perhaps that is only fair; for after listening to all those hyperthyroid radio commercials—a gravel-voiced announcer screaming Sunnnnndaaaay to the fevered beat of Sandy Nelson—what must the uninitiated think? Despite 25 years of trying to shed its early hooligan image, drag racing is still an other-side-of-the-tracks sport.

At the U.S. Nationals, however, no image crisis is in evidence. All of the niggling self-doubts are disremembered in the welter of six days of vibrating activity, with 1,100 racing cars and drivers stuffed into the 200-acre Indianapolis Raceway Park and 118,000 spectators milling and shuffling between grandstands and pits. For most of the racers, Indy is the end of a murderous tour, the last stop before heading home. At the other tracks they have run hard, but not flat out. Nothing is held back at Indy. For Don Prudhomme, winning here means everything.

Prudhomme (the name, pronounced Pru Dome, is French and means "proud man") is nicknamed the Snake because of the way he makes his car seem to coil at the starting line, then leap ahead the split second the green starting light flashes on. The name is apt in another way, for Prudhomme is long and lean and virtually without hips. He does not walk so much as he performs a gavotte, with his hands dangling nearly to his knees and his palms turned around like rear-view mirrors. His hair is a hobnailed helmet of tight brown curls. His skin is the color of toast. His irises are green and suspended in large, brilliant whites.

At the age of 35 Prudhomme is more handsome and more sure of himself than ever. His face, which is slender, with a peninsular jaw that has begun to show traces of jowl, is most often in repose, as if to say, "I have seen all this before. Now what can you show me that is new?"

Still, Prudhomme is relentlessly inquisitive, constantly probing for answers, then turning answers into new questions. Often this Socratic game becomes tiresome, but the hunt proceeds. When a nugget of truth is mined, Prudhomme is well pleased and considers his effort to have been worthwhile.

Prudhomme is slow to anger, but when he's mad, rage lurks down every verbal alleyway. His explosive temper is the product of a compulsive need to win, and it is that obsessiveness that has alienated the more easygoing drivers. "I'm the last person to go looking for a fight," he says, "but when you've got a choice between having to argue with some idiot for an hour or busting him in the mouth, what else can you do?"

Tommy Ivo, who was once a Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer and is now known as "TV Tommy," got involved in drag racing when he was still playing kids' parts on programs like My Little Margie and the Donna Reed Show. He is now 40, but from 50 feet away still looks like a kid. TV Tommy and the Snake know each other about as well as two people who don't like one another can. Ivo says Prudhomme has only recently begun to shed his temperamental baby fat. "It's always been a big joke with the other guys to beat Prudhomme," Ivo says, "because he'd do everything but throw himself down and beat his hands and feet on the ground when he lost.

"I beat him once in Kalamazoo because his tires began to shake and his parachute fell open early. He was ahead of me when it happened, but you're not going to beat anybody with your chute hanging out. So when we had both shut down, Prudhomme leans out of his car and starts yelling, 'Ivo, you're the greatest! I'll never beat you!' He was almost hysterical."

The people who know Prudhomme best say that he began to change when his brother Monette died of a heart attack last spring at the age of 37. "I think Don realized that life can stop," says Ivo.

After his brother's death, Prudhomme underwent a battery of heart tests. During heart catheterization, he suffered an allergic reaction to the liquid dye and his own heart stopped beating. Doctors temporarily implanted a pacemaker to get it started again, but the experience certainly was enough to give Prudhomme a taste of his own mortality.

Like many introspective men, Prudhomme is intermittently troubled by his occasional lapses in deportment, but he is unwilling to melt the emotional permafrost that he believes is the basis of his success. Still, removed from the steamy pressure of the track, the Snake is a charmer.

Prudhomme lives with his wife Lynn and their three-year-old daughter Donna in the subdivided sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. Their house sits on the side of a sun-burnished hill, and butter-colored air eddies in and out of the sliding terrace doors. Behind the house is the requisite Southern California swimming pool and whirlpool bath.

A friend once gave Prudhomme the shell of a racing engine—mounted on a pole and sunk in cement—to use as a mailbox. The mail fit neatly in the chrome supercharger on top; fit neatly, that is, until the whole thing was uprooted and spirited off by thieves in the night. The police labeled it a routine "Grand Theft—Mailbox."

A red Ferrari and a Lincoln Continental Mark IV sit in Prudhomme's driveway and in his garage is a growing stable of motorcycles. While these do not constitute excessive opulence, they do not exactly jibe with the notion that drag racers are young grease spots who would sell their mother for a new set of valves. The top men in the sport today are over 30, moderately well groomed and financially solvent. True, many of them wear denim and leather jackets, but the jeans are usually French-cut and pressed, and the leathers fawn-colored and purchased in boutiques. Prudhomme, who carries an attaché case, is of this breed.

It is one of those perfect California afternoons of late summer. Heat rises from Sunset Boulevard in a shimmering haze as Prudhomme eases his $20,000 Ferrari past a tourist bus. He has been cruising, just like this, since 1958, when he dropped out of high school to paint cars in his father's body shop. In the '50s, cruising usually led to street racing, and that sometimes led to trouble with the law.

When he was 17 Prudhomme joined the Road Kings, a car club that included such future luminaries as Ivo and Ken Safford. It was then that he bought a 1950 Oldsmobile and began racing it at the abandoned airport runways that at that time passed for drag strips. "When I started racing," Prudhomme says, "I was always the first one in line outside the gates at the track. The muffler was the first thing to come off, and I'd just sit there gunning the engine, waiting for them to let me in. I loved it so much."

Two years later Ivo invited Prudhomme along on what proved to be a watershed tour of the East. It was the first time that a drag racer had campaigned his car professionally nationwide, and Ivo—who knows something about show biz—towed his candy-apple-red racer from town to town behind a candy-apple-red Cadillac limousine. Prudhomme was Ivo's young subaltern, inexperienced but eager to help and to learn.

When Prudhomme returned from barnstorming with Ivo, he continued to paint cars for his father until 1965, when he turned professional. His first year as a pro, Prudhomme drove a long-wheelbase fuel dragster, and received almost weekly beatings from Ivo.

Their most memorable confrontation was at the speedway in Islip, N.Y., an eighth-of-a-mile track. In addition to being half the length of a normal drag strip, it had a shutdown area that was a holy mess. Ivo and Prudhomme agreed before the first of their three match races that they would ease off the throttle early and not risk crashing. Moreover, Ivo insisted that since he had arranged the booking and had the larger following, he should be allowed to win the races. Prudhomme agreed, reluctantly, but when the moment came for him to let Ivo beat him, he couldn't do it.

Between runs Ivo reminded Prudhomme of their bargain, and the Snake dutifully promised to throw the next two races. But when Ivo won the second heat, one of Prudhomme's crewmen couldn't resist putting the needle in. "See, Prudhomme, Ivo can beat you any time he wants to," he said. What Prudhomme said is not a matter for the record, but it is safe to say that he came to the starting line for the third race with a flinty look in his eyes and a firm resolve to win.

Ivo, however, came to the line with something even better—the sure and certain knowledge that the starter was going to hit the green light the instant the front wheels of both cars had broken the electric eye's beam of light, rather than holding them for an instant, as is customary. Ivo, as it happened, had spoken to the starter, and assured him that this was just as Prudhomme wanted it. By the time Prudhomme realized what was happening, Ivo was long gone. Extremely long, as it turned out. Ivo's braking parachute failed to open, so when Prudhomme finally caught up with him, they were past the end of the track and in the parking lot. Prudhomme was so moved by Ivo's perfidy that it took several crewmen to prevent him from decking TV Tommy.

At the 1965 U.S. Nationals, Prudhomme drove Roland Leong's "Hawaiian" car to his first NHRA title at Indy, beating Ivo in the final round of eliminations. Stung by the loss, Ivo began telling people that Prudhomme was only as good as the car he was driving, a lousy mechanic who wouldn't know a socket wrench if he saw one. The following year, the "Hawaiian" won both the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. and the U.S. Nationals at Indy, but with Mike Snively—not Prudhomme—driving. Over the winter Prudhomme went back to California and had begun to tear engines apart and put them together again. Still, it was not until 1973, when Prudhomme switched from driving dragsters to driving his own Funny Car, that he was accepted as both a gifted mechanic and driver.

"It wasn't easy for me to admit to myself that Ivo was right, but when I did, it paid off," Prudhomme confesses, glancing at a speck in the side mirror of his Ferrari. As the car comes out of a sweeping turn and into a sharp downhill near Bel Air, the speck grows larger until it becomes, finally, a silver Porsche Carrera, knifing through traffic and past the Ferrari. For a mile, then two, the Porsche maintains its lead. Prudhomme's mind wanders from his story; sentences are left dangling. As the cars approach a traffic light, Prudhomme downshifts suddenly and the Ferrari bursts through a hole in traffic. The Porsche is trapped as the Ferrari flashes by. The sun explodes on the front windshield, the tachometer needle flutters wildly and the speedometer climbs steadily past 70 as Don Prudhomme turns to look at the silver Porsche. And smiles. So fast.

The pickup truck and its long trailer nose through the gate of the dragway at Martin, Mich., past an unpaved parking area and into the pits. Bob Brandt, Prudhomme's 30-year-old chief mechanic, motions to the spectators to move out of the truck's path so he can park it and get the race car out of the long, coffinlike trailer.

The day had begun at 7 a.m. with a breakfast of cigarettes and coffee in Cleveland. Cleveland is where the car is based during the summer because it is semi-centrally located. Brandt and the third member of the crew, 19-year-old Mike Peloquin, live there in a motel nearly five months every year. Someone has to stay with the car. Usually it is Brandt and Peloquin, since Prudhomme flies home to California whenever he has more than five days off.

It costs Prudhomme about $200,000 a year to operate his car, when you figure in parts, fuel and travel. Nitro-methane fuel alone costs $8 a gallon, and the car gets about 220 feet to the gallon, or 24 gallons a mile.

To offset the expense, Prudhomme, like all racers, has sponsors who pay for the privilege of having their names on the side of the car. His most lucrative affiliation is with the U.S. Army. Its recruiting division feels it is worth $70,000 in publicity to have a billboard that travels 240 mph.

"We've gotten lots of publicity because of the Army sponsorship," says Prudhomme. "Most of it bad. One promoter whom we won't run for has gotten a lot of other drivers mad at us by telling them that we're beating them with their own tax money."

Prudhomme commands a $2,500 guarantee wherever he appears; at some tracks that is $1,000 more than any other driver. Between his guarantee and his winnings he expects to make about $175,000 this year.

Money is another reason many of the other drivers resent Prudhomme. "A lot of his success is a result of his sponsors," says Ivo. "Unfortunately, drag racing is now at a point where speed costs money. It's just a question of how much you have and how fast you want to go. Prudhomme can afford to run hard and blow a couple of pistons because he's getting more appearance money than anyone else on the track. If I break some parts or burn a piston and it costs me a couple of hundred dollars, that's my profit down the drain."

Another advantage Prudhomme has is that soldiers, with their Today's-Army-Wants-To-Join-You mustaches, show up at most tracks with color pictures of the car to hand out and keep the kids off Prudhomme's back. At the Popular Hot Rodding Meet in Martin, they were there with a tank to make a recruiting pitch.

U.S. 131 Dragway, named for a nearby dual-lane highway, is a licorice-colored scar straddled by wooden bleachers and surrounded by the farmlands of Michigan's lower peninsula. The strip is about half a mile long—the first quarter-mile for the spectators and the second for the drivers, who must stop cars that are inhaling 300 feet of track per second. Around the starting line there is a residue of all that energy, a layer of burned rubber and oil so thick that it can pull the shoes from your feet.

In the staging lanes, Prudhomme's car is open like the jaws of a clam. The 175-pound fiber glass body has been propped up to facilitate working on the engine and to allow its driver to climb in behind the tiny butterfly-style aircraft steering wheel.

In his fireproof suit, air mask, helmet and goggles, Prudhomme looks like one of those grotesque magnifications of a house fly. Between his knees is the steering column and the chrome lever that shifts the motor from low to high gear about 150 feet into a race. Above him is the parachute release.

When the motor is started and the body is lowered into place, crew members hustle out of harm's way. Funny Car motors are the jungle drums of the drag strip, filling the air with pulsebeats that wash across the grandstands in great waves. Each stroke of the car's pistons gives you a sonic wallop at 50 feet.

From the exhaust pipes—four on each side of the chassis—spent fuel rushes out in sheets of blue fire, a sweet-acrid mixture of nitromethane and alcohol fumes that burns the eyes and stings the lungs.

As the cars move toward the starting lights, water is splashed under the treadless rear tires. These slicks are 36" high and 17" wide, and there is so little air in them that their skin is wrinkled like an elephant's. Suddenly the throttle is kicked open and as the wheel-wells begin to bloom with smoke, the centrifugal force of the torque makes the tires rise like baker's bread. As the keening of the engine reaches an almost intolerable volume, the car gets traction and vaults 25 yards down the track, leaving a billowing wall of white smoke as it goes. "Smoke burnouts" are not just saber rattling, though their effect on the crowd is momentary transfiguration. Without first heating up the tires, the cars would lose traction at the start of the race.

After the burnout, Prudhomme's car backs up past the starting line and spins its tires in a sticky liquid traction compound before it creeps into the starting lights. Already "staged," with its front wheels breaking the electric-eye beam, is another Funny Car. In professional racing, an amber staging light is followed by a green, with only four-tenths of a second delay. "If you wait for the green to come on," Prudhomme says, "you're history. The car has to be moving by the time the green flashes. But if your front wheels break the second light beam before the green goes on, you red-light." A red light means disqualification. There are no second chances.

When Prudhomme punches the accelerator, his body is immediately pinioned to the back of his seat, his spine tattooed to the roll cage. The first moment of thrust is all out, but then the throttle is eased back some to let the car catch up with the power its engine is putting out. Even Prudhomme seldom races his car as fast as it is capable of going. Before each race he calculates his opponent's limitations, then tunes his engine and mixes his fuel to run about a tenth of a second faster. "The trick is in not guessing wrong," he says. "If a guy beats me by running faster than I figured he would, I'm always very surprised."

If a driver wants to win a race badly enough, he can fine-tune his engine or put such a "pop" of nitro in the fuel mix that it will either make a great deal of speed or a very loud explosion. This technique is called "hand grenading," and its effects can be devastating. Last September the engine in Clayton Harris' fuel dragster exploded halfway through a race at Atlanta International Dragway, sending shrapnel flying into the grandstands 50 feet away, injuring 10 people.

In his first elimination pass at U.S. 131 Dragway, Prudhomme covers the quarter-mile in 6.13 seconds, a good time. Speed is not considered as important as elapsed time. "You wouldn't say that Jim Ryun ran a mile at 15 mph," says one driver. "It's about the same in drag racing."

After the first race Prudhomme's car is towed back to the pits, and two of the eight pistons are pulled out for examination. Both are fine and are dropped back in their chambers, nearly an hour of work for nothing. Most racers would have figured the pistons were fine and hoped for the best. "Prudhomme's a tyrant with his crew and with himself," says a friend, "but he gets results."

In the second round the Snake runs a commendable 6.17 seconds, again winning without trouble. Even after a routine race like this one, Prudhomme bounces out of the car, the adrenaline still bubbling in his blood.

"People go crazy in these cars sometimes, just to win a race," he says. "They'll blow the body off the car, or blow an engine right out of the chassis. Sometimes you get so involved in winning that you could drive the car down through there naked without giving it a thought. When I come up to that line with the motor popping and just nail one, it's the greatest feeling in the world."

By the semifinal round, darkness has completely enveloped the track, and mosquitoes are hovering under the lights. Prudhomme's elapsed time is 6.24, just good enough to beat Tom Hoover's 6.26.

The final round proves to be the most eventful, though it is played out at 1 a.m. in front of only a few hundred chilled spectators. The cool air has altered the condition of the track, made it slicker, and Prudhomme considers himself fortunate to have lane choice. The other driver, Bill Schifsky, is good, but Prudhomme gets away quickly from the lights. Halfway down the track, however, he begins to drift near the center line, performing a perilous pas de deux with disaster. But the car straightens out and Prudhomme's win light flashes on at the end of the strip.

"I just touched the throttle coming off the line," Prudhomme says later. "When I saw him coming I hammered it, and that's when the car began to float."

The Monza is cleaned up and loaded on the trailer, and Prudhomme and his crew begin an hour-long drive to the nearest motel. As the truck leaves the track, a speeding car sideswipes it, then disappears into the night. Nothing is said, but there is something diminishing about the thought of the king of the speed demons exiting as a routine traffic fatality. Prudhomme falls asleep.

Sunnnnnddddaaaayyyy the trailer is hitched to the truck, and the five-hour drive back to Cleveland begins. Drag racing's all-conquering hero has to toss a coin with Peloquin for first crack at the cramped sleeper compartment while Brandt drives. Prudhomme wins and from his perch over the back seat launches into a sermon about the mountebankery of the men who run drag racing.

The alienation of affections between owners and the hired help is as old as capitalism, and though Prudhomme is making good money now he remembers what it was like to struggle. "All these racers are out there starving," he says, "so they call up a track operator and beg him for a booking. The owner asks the driver how much money he wants, and whatever figure the driver gives him, the man says 'too much.' The racer is at the track operator's mercy because if he doesn't take what's being offered, the man has about 50 other guys he can call. If the driver doesn't want to go hungry, he'll take whatever bone they throw him.

"The bottom line as far as most of these guys are concerned is their balance sheet. I've seen drivers get totaled at a track, then heard some moron of an owner moaning about how his insurance rates are going to go up. The guy who has knocked over one of his lousy light poles isn't even stiff yet, and the owner is worried about insurance premiums. I guess it wouldn't be fair to say all of them are that way. Just most of them."

Prudhomme's discourse is interrupted by a passing trucker, who has seen the name painted on the trailer and wants to talk on the CB. What follows, less the mandatory references to bears, is a transcript of that conversation.

"You fellows headed for Idaho?" asks the trucker.

"Cleveland. Why do you ask?"

"I just came from Idaho, and there was an advertisement on the radio that said you're racing there this week."

Prudhomme could not have been more pleased to learn of this: it seemed to prove everything that he had just said about drag-strip owners. "A lot of small tracks use our name in their advertising to draw good crowds," he tells the trucker. "Then when we don't show up, they tell the people that the car broke down and we canceled. They know nobody is going to check up on a thing like that, and it's money in the bank for them." Satisfied, the trucker rolls off.

After a one-day layover in Cleveland, there is a 10-hour drive to Lebanon Valley, N.Y. More boredom. Fitful sleep. Truck-stop food. A companion tells Prudhomme that he would have to look as low as Class A baseball to find such miserable traveling conditions. And there are very few $175,000-a-year men in Class A baseball.

The pits at Lebanon Valley are another depressing hodgepodge of noise and confusion. There is no asphalt to work on and the local run-whatcha-brung racers with their rasping engines have churned the dust up into a fine mist that envelops Prudhomme's car. There is something very Third World about the top name in drag racing having to pull apart a $20,000 motor in the dirt. "This is what turns me off about drag racing," says Prudhomme. "It's like working in the desert."

During a routine drop of the oil pan, Peloquin discovers a burned bearing. Judging by Prudhomme's reaction, a bearing is a pretty grim thing to have burned. "There's no excuse for this," he says, angry. "It should have been checked in Cleveland."

The car is repaired and towed to the lanes in time for the first race, but a fiasco, once started, generates a momentum of its own. Matched against an unknown (so unknown he doesn't even have his name painted on the door panels of his car, an omission of such consequence in drag-racing society that the car is actually booed), Prudhomme. distracted by the burned bearing, red-lights, spins his tires, and drives himself right out of the money.

Back in the pits. Prudhomme and Brandt disembowel the motor once again. Spectators peer into the operating theater expectantly, whispering among themselves, trying to solve the riddle of the great man's loss. Total access to its backstage arena is part of drag racing's special appeal; for a modest fee a fan can buy a pass that gives him the run of the track.

Many of the drivers accept this intrusion into their working domain gracefully. Some even sell T shirts out of the back of their trailers. But Prudhomme resents the interlopers, and though he seldom refuses an autograph or a handshake, his hostility is ill-disguised. It is difficult to imagine Sparky Anderson conducting a conference on the mound with 50 or so fans huddled around, each loudly offering opinions on the relative merits of Rawly Eastwick vs. Will McEnaney.

It is 2 a.m. before Prudhomme leaves Lebanon Valley with his $2,500 guarantee. He must wake up the deskman to register at a motor court nearby. The next day there is a six-hour drive to a strip in Epping, N.H., then a 10-hour trip back to another track at York. Pa. And on and on. After a while the towns become just a blur.

Labor Day dawns clear on Indianapolis. Prudhomme is quiet, smoking cigarettes and refusing food. He has come here as a heavy favorite, but all he can think about is all the things that could go wrong. Last year he had come to Indianapolis expecting to win his third straight Funny Car title and had somehow lost to Raymond Beadle's Blue Max in the finals.

Because the field is enormous, qualifying runs are held before eliminations at Indy. Prudhomme stuns everyone with a 5.97 elapsed time. Officially, it is the first time a Funny Car has ever gone under six seconds, a barrier as significant to drag racers as the four-minute mark once was to milers.

Prudhomme wins his first race, defeating Tom Hoover with a 6.05/234 mph clocking. In the second round he dusts Gordie Bonin. Ron O'Donnell goes down in the third. Gary Burgin, driving a Mustang II, has advanced through the other bracket to the finals, but Prudhomme has lane choice because of his exceptional elapsed times.

Prudhomme frets about the way his wheels were shaking in the semis as his motor is groomed for the last race. He wonders aloud if the left lane—his lane all day—has caused the vibration. The track by now is heavy with burned rubber and oil and traction is hard to come by. Should Prudhomme switch from what has been good for him so far to another lane he knows nothing about? He consults Brandt, probing for an answer. When the signal is given to move the car into the staging lanes, Prudhomme is still undecided.

Months of preparation and thousands of dollars worth of parts have gone into preparing for this race, and now it has come down to a choice of lanes. Just before he fires up his engine, Prudhomme at last makes up his mind. He points to the right-hand lane.

Later Prudhomme was not sure if it had been a patch of oil residue or simply the grain of the track. Burgin's winning time of 6.25 was hundredths of a second slower than the worst time Prudhomme had recorded all week, but Burgin won. That is all that matters.

Sitting at the end of a different kind of asphalt strip the next day, strapped into the seat of a commercial jet, Prudhomme tries to justify the choice that ended his winning streak. Nothing helps. "I blew the lane choice," he says. "I just flat screwed up." Then the engines begin to throb and he is pressed hard against the back of his seat. As the plane's wheels leave the ground, he is free again. So fast.

TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIER PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERShielded from flames and fumes, the Snake settles into his car. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERAfter the fury of a run, a parachute silently salutes another win. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWith his car's flip-top body propped out of the way, Prudhomme figures how hard he must push the engine in the coming round. EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)