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Sunday September 23rd, 2018 4:05PM

'The Snake' returns to desert, finishes Baja 50 years later

By The Associated Press
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Don Prudhomme feels like he has driven more miles in the desert than he ever did on the drag strip.

It wouldn't be a shock since the drag-racing legend recently completed the Mexican 1000, a grueling, five-day off-road rally covering 1,300 miles in Baja California. The 77-year-old Prudhomme, a four-time NHRA Funny Car champion nicknamed "The Snake," finished 10th in the Stock Turbo UTV class at the annual National Off Road Racing Association event last weekend.

"It was the wildest, craziest thing I've ever done," Prudhomme told The Associated Press from his home in San Diego. "I said halfway through it I would never do this again. But you keep going and going and it just gets better and better. Pulling in for the end of the race was the most unbelievable experience."

He drove away with more racing stories to add to his vast collection that spans nearly half a century just at the professional level. Among them: He was forced to replace his co-driver and wrecked twice, including once when he drove into a cactus that was "bigger than the Empire State Building."

Still, it was a much more enjoyable venture than his first Baja experience in 1968.

Prudhomme was a last-minute fill-in for actor Steve McQueen, who had to bail out because of filming obligations. Prudhomme teamed with friend and fellow racer Tony Nancy for the 1,000-mile trek across the desert and through tiny towns in Mexico. They drove McQueen's car — a dune buggy Nancy built that had a Porsche engine — and made it about 100 miles before flames started spewing from the tailpipes.

Prudhomme walked away with more regrets than recollections.

He waited 50 years to try again.

"I got a little extra attention," he said of his return. "People wanted their cars signed or sign this and that, but that was cool. I think maybe they thought I was a joke going in. But when I finished the thousand miles, they treated me way different."

He plans to do it again, believing his experience from the first go-around in his Polaris RZR will give him a chance to vie for a class win in 2019.

"It's going to be hard to top this one," he said. "But it's a huge challenge to go back and really get it on."

He'd also like to avoid some of the pitfalls he faced in his first competitive race since retiring from NHRA in 1994.His first co-driver and main navigator decided to try some tacos at one of the early stops and had to withdraw.

"He goes and eats a couple of tacos like he's He-Man and guess what? He got sick and couldn't continue," Prudhomme said.

He pulled crewmember Shane Chatwell into the cockpit for the rest of the trip. They bonded through adverse conditions that included terrible dust, rock quarries and exhaustion. And two accidents. Prudhomme got rear-ended once and drove head-first into a cactus another time.

"The driver's a big deal, but the guy sitting next to you is everything because part of the time you can't see," Prudhomme said. "He says, 'Right, right, right in 200 feet.' You've got to judge the distance and there's dust everywhere. Well, I didn't make the right turn and I hit a cactus that was bigger than the Empire State Building. It didn't move. It was like running into King Kong's foot."

The wreck shredded the front-end suspension. The crew fixed it, and Prudhomme finished the leg — and eventually the entire course.

"The thing is dangerous, but I think that's what makes it so damn thrilling to people," he said, adding that maintaining concentration was like nothing he ever dealt with while covering quarter-mile drags strips in seconds.

"I hate to get dramatic about this (stuff), but this was a mind-boggling deal," he said. "The sense of accomplishment was like nothing I ever felt before. The race is all about is finishing. They don't give a (care) if you finish first or 150th. You couldn't tell any difference between the winner and the rest of the 100 or so on people that finished the thing. It was really cool."

___

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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