(ABOVE) Photo courtesy of Roland Leong Collection.
On February 7, 1965, Pomona, California, was the center of the universe for the sport of drag racing. The biggest stars from around the country competed at the National Hot Rod Association's annual Winternationals event. That year a standing-room-only crowd of sixty thousand experienced a day unlike any other in the history of the sport. The event usually takes place over three days, but in 1965 it was compressed into one-an unprecedented ten hours of nonstop racing, broadcast nationally on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
Among those competing in the top fuel category-the sport's fastest-was car owner Roland Leong, originally from Pacific Heights in Honolulu (now based in California). The driver, car painter Don Prudhomme, was looking for his first win. Despite being only 20 years old, Leong had built a car that got attention, both for its speed and beauty. In a crowded field of thirty-two dragsters, The Hawaiian stood out, equipped with a fearsome Chrysler Hemi V-8, built by respected California-based engine whiz Keith Black.
"The car just looked so good," writes Prudhomme in his 2020 autobiography, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme: My Life Beyond the 1320. "We had chrome with candy-apple, metal-flake blue paint. The car alone would blow their minds, just how pretty it was."
In drag racing, two sleek, elongated cars-like rockets on wheels-compete side by side, charging down a straight, usually quarter-mile course from a standing start. The day's compressed schedule left little room for error or delay in a sport where the margins are already tight. One journalist calculated an average of 5.2 cars per minute dueled on the strip that day.
Roland Leong's Hawaiian II (seen above) blasts down a drag strip in Riverside, California, in 1967. The top fuel dragster was one of several Is-land-themed cars that the Hawaii-born Leong would own over his illustrious fifty-plus-year career in drag racing. On the previous page, Leong (seen at far left) with his 1980 Dodge Omni Funny Car sponsored by King's Hawaiian Bread.
For the top fuel final, Don Prudhomme faced veteran driver Wild Bill Alexander. Both had reached the finals by hitting speeds of more than two hundred mph in under eight seconds. (Earlier in the day, Alexander had defeated a car driven by Maui-born Danny Ongais.) In what ABC's sportscaster called "the big race of the day," Alexander revved in lane one, Prudhomme in lane two.
A traffic light counted down to the start-red, yellow, green. At green the cars flew down the track, with Alexander blasting to an early lead. (Decades later a reporter analyzing the film noted that Prudhomme never saw the yellow light-the bulb had burned out). In a thrilling turn, Prudhomme blew past Alexander to snatch the first of his career forty-nine NHRA wins. The Hawaiian finished in 7.76 seconds with a top speed of 201.34 mph.
As they raised their trophy for the team photo, Leong and Prudhomme were draped in fresh lei.
The win was the first for both Prudhomme and Leong, who decades later remain close friends. The pair had first met the previous July, when Prudhomme and his Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster-one of the most admired cars in the sport-flew to Honolulu to participate in an NHRA event held on a new drag strip in Campbell Industrial Park. Despite headwinds, Greer-Black-Prudhomme hit 184.80 mph.
"Roland picked me up and showed me around," Prudhomme recalls in his autobiography.
"He was younger than me, maybe 18 years old. The next day, he took me out and we hung out all day," wrote Prudhomme. "There I was in Hawaii, and I didn't learn to surf or anything but Roland was like that, too. We were total gearheads. All we talked about was drag racing."
Leong was one of the few Asian Americans and perhaps the only Native Hawaiian during his heyday in drag racing. But more than anything it was his winning record and memorable cars that made him a celebrity in the sport. Above, a reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper interviews Leong at Pomona Raceway in 1977.
Shortly afterward, Leong moved to California to pursue his dream of becoming a serious drag racer. He initially had wanted to drive his own cars, as he had done in Hawaii, but "I had never run a fuel dragster before," Leong says. "I had built and run my own gas dragsters in Hawaii and had built my own engines but not a top fuel car. I didn't even know where to start." His first foray ended in disaster: Leong crashed the first top fuel car he'd built in its trial run.
"After I crashed the car, Keith Black told me, 'I don't know if I can go racing with you anymore. If you got hurt or something [worse] happened to you, I don't know how I could deal with it. I'm going to give up running the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car. Why don't you just hire Prudhomme to drive, and you go run the car?' And that's exactly how it happened," says Leong. "There was no planning. It was more, I guess you might say, being in the right place at the right time."
Their victory at Winternationals launched Leong and Prudhomme into the sport's spotlight, and promoters across the country sought to get The Hawaiian on their tracks. "The Hawaiian was just a real snappy name. People paid attention to it," Prudhomme says. "Mind you, it had a Keith Black engine. It was the hottest car at the drag strip at the time. So the pair barnstormed across the country, racing on the nation's premier drag strips, but there weren't yet enough top-tier events on the calendar to make a living. So Leong and Prudhomme traveled from town to town, challenging the top local racers-and winning. "It wasn't too long before people started to realize who Roland is, this young Hawaiian kid," remembers Prudhomme. "They looked at him a little bit different when he was kicking everybody's butt. He proved himself big time! He kind of had to, to come up the way we did. To run with the group we did, you had to prove yourself. Roland did that many times over." It helped that wherever they went, Prudhomme did the talking-Leong wasn't always understood. "Nowadays it isn't bad," Leong says, "But in the 1960s ... can you imagine? The Hawaiian pidgin-English that we spoke? People responded faster if Don just spoke." Not to mention that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were rare in the sport at the time.
On Labor Day weekend 1965, Leong, Prudhomme and The Hawaiian continued their winning season, taking the top prize at the NHRA's US Nationals in Indianapolis, once again wearing lei to celebrate. "Roland's mother, Teddy, was a big part of our team," Prudhomme writes. "Not only with money, she really supported us in every way. Like at the Winternationals, she had Hawaiian leis already made up. For some reason or another, she knew that we were going to win the race. In the winner's circle she started putting them on all of us." Prudhomme adds that Teddy, who was Native Hawaiian and Chinese, told him she knew they would win because his nickname is "the Snake," and according to the Chinese calendar, 1965 was the Year of the Snake.
Leong's Hawaiian Vacation Funny Car (seen above), sponsored by the Hawaii Tourism Board, could reach speeds of 290 mph and won the National Hot Rod Association's Oldsmobile Springations in Columbus, Ohio, in 1993. It would be the last car Leong owned; when HTB cut the funding, Leong retired from owning cars but continues to be influential in the sport to this day.
Leong's parents owned an insurance business with an office located where the Ilikai Hotel stands today. His parents had both been to college and stressed the importance of education. "My father had a master's degree, and my mother had graduated from the University of Hawaii," Leong says. "They were successful business people. They served mostly Chinese-speaking customers." Leong attended Iolani School but dropped out in his junior year of high school, much to the dismay of his Harvard-educated father. "I'd spent twelve years at that school and had enough. Racing had my attention," says Leong.
It might have had his attention, but it couldn't offer much in return. There was a drag strip on Oahu, but it operated only once a month, limiting Leong's opportunities to win races and earn prize money, which didn't earn him much credibility with his parents. "Drag racing wasn't a good subject to bring up with my father," says Leong, but his mother was a different story. "His mother had a good feeling towards racing," says Prudhomme. "We didn't hear much from his dad at all, but his mother was really on top of it. She helped him so he could make it to where he was able to make it on his own. He was able to make a living off it and to raise his two daughters."
In high school Leong spent increasingly more time at a service station on his route home. His parents knew the station's owners, and the mechanics shared what they knew about cars and their engines. Despite his father's misgivings, Leong's mother saw that her son was serious about drag racing. She arranged for him to work at Dragmaster, a racing shop operated by Dode Martin and Jim Nelson in Carlsbad, California. While there, Leong became well acquainted with many of the West Coast's elite builders and drivers.
A collection of memorabilia in Leong's home in Los Angeles-including, in the foreground, a model of his first championship car, top fuel drag-ster The Hawaiian, which won the NHRA Winternationals in 1965 and thrust Leong into the national spotlight.
After Leong and Prudhomme's highly successful season, Prudhomme was asked to drive for another car owner. While the pair had an amicable split and remain friendly to this day-"We're like brothers," Prudhomme says-Black angrily told Prudhomme that race drivers are like an engine's spark plugs: "You can screw one in and screw one out," recalls Prudhomme.
In 1966, with driver Mike Snively at the wheel, Leong and The Hawaiian again took top honors at both the Winternationals and the US Nationals. With his back-to-back successes, Leong maintained his desire to keep winning and earned a reputation as an innovator. "When you're successful, you're not apt to be changing things because you're already building on what has been, right? Eventually the others do catch up, and then you have to change," says Leong. "You can't let them get ahead of you."
In 1969, Leong switched to racing Funny Cars, another type of drag racer. As their popularity grew, Leong calculated a winning Funny Car would be more lucrative, with more opportunities for match races. Like Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Cars are hand-built, but they look more like a passenger sedan than a ballistic missile. Leong's Funny Car-a souped-up Dodge Charger-kept the name and, originally, the same paint job. To drive the latest version of The Hawaiian, Leong hired Larry Reyes, who had earned a solid reputation racing a pair of Plymouth Barracuda Funny Cars, following an impromptu meeting at Black's shop.
"He came out of the store and reached out his hand to me to introduce himself. He said, 'Hey, I'm Roland.' Of course, I told him I knew who he was," recalls Reyes. "We shook hands and had a short conversation. Then, he asked me if I'd be interested in driving his car. Can you believe I told him I would think about it? A few days [later], I told him that I would."
It wouldn't be smooth sailing, but there would be sailing, in a manner of speaking. First, Leong's Dodge Charger was larger than the Barracudas Reyes had raced. And after its completion, there wasn't time for more than a brief test ahead of the 1969 Winternationals, where the car's aerodynamics proved troublesome. Racing down the quarter-mile track, The Hawaiian went completely airborne-a photograph that was widely reproduced in newspapers and television broadcasts.
"I hit the parachute but it didn't pop out," Reyes says of trying to deploy the canopy to act as a brake. "The car got away from me, and we wrecked it. Then they built the new car, also a Dodge Charger, but it was so much different. We ran hard the first night with that car. We won three races in a row on three different racetracks. That's how I got started with Roland. It was good experience for me, and we're still friends."
For more than twenty years, Leong's The Hawaiian Funny Cars were among the most recognizable in the sport. Leong was also among the first to recognize the sport's appeal to non-automotive sponsors and would paint his car to match the sponsor. In 1980 the cars were painted bright orange for King's Hawaiian Bread. A few years later Hawaiian Punch became his primary sponsor, and Leong painted the cars blue and red. In 1991, Leong's Hawaiian Punch Funny Car broke the 290-mph class speed record at the US Nationals in Indianapolis. Leong skipped a year and returned in 1993 to compete one last season as team owner of The Hawaiian Vacation Dodge Daytona.
Leong ran an abbreviated season in 1993 with the Hawaiian Vacation Funny Car. Afterward, Leong lent his expertise to various teams. In 1997 he again teamed up with Prudhomme-retired as a driver and now an owner-to tune his team's Copenhagen Funny Car. In 1998 the Copenhagen team won more national events than anyone in their class but finished second overall. Leong took some time off from the sport, returning in 2009 to work with vintage nitro fuel-burning Funny Cars. In addition to his many victories at drag strips all over the country, Leong has won fifteen NHRA events as an owner/tuner throughout his career, including three US Nationals wins.
Leong, seen at left in his home today, is still deeply involved racing. "No one loves the sport more than Roland," says Don Prudhomme (pictured above top), who drove The Hawaiian to its 1965 win. "He's on an entirely different level than anyone else I've known." Above bottom: Leong and Prudhomme, bedecked in lei, hold the trophy after winning the 1965 Winternationals. Engine builder Keith Black, also wearing a lei, stands at Leong's right. Leong's mother, Teddy, who supported Roland's passion for racing, stands second from the left.
Leong has remained engaged to this day. In 2019 he flew to England to consult with racers, and whenever he attends vintage drag racing events in California, Reyes says, he attracts a crowd. "No one loves the sport more than Roland," says Prudhomme. "He's on an entirely different level than anyone else I've known." And that's coming from one of the sport's greatest drivers.
At a ceremony held at the Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu last August, Leong was officially inducted into the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame. Nominated in 2020, his induction had been postponed due to COVID-19. Inducted alongside Leong were University of Hawai'i football coach Larry Price, world racquetball champion Egan Inoue, national volleyball champion Tita Ahuna and the late Hawai'i surf legend Ben Aipa.
Prudhomme says being at the induction ceremony fifty-nine years after he first met Leong was poignant: They had never since been to Hawaii together. "I had a great time," says Prudhomme. "The ceremony was so different than on the Mainland. It was a typical Hawaiian function. I go to plenty out in California, and I really like the way they do them in Hawaii. Real casual. I didn't have to wear black tie."
For Leong, being inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame after more than a half-century of drag racing was a "surreal" experience, he says. "In those early days it was more about making a living. Because, who knew what we could do? It was all new. All we knew at the time was that we had to try it. Then, we did it. We did whatever it took that was in our line of work. Fifty years later, to be honored by my home state, it is really just a dream."