In anticipation of upcoming March Meet, Drag Racing Online reports that: “As SoCal braces itself for what locals call ‘extreme weather event” and what the rest of United States refer to as ‘rain,’ a handful of nitro-burning teams will be making the trek through the San Joaquin Valley en route to Famoso Raceway in preparation for the mother of all Heritage-style drag racers, the 2014 Bakersfield March Meet.”
(Note: This interview originally ran in Drag Racing Monthly in 1998. With Roland Leong having been re-hired this month to tune the Troy Lee Design’s Nitro Funny Car in NHRA Heritage Series competition, I felt this was a good time to republish this piece—Cole Coonce)
ALOHA FROM POMONA!
THE ROLAND LEONG INTERVIEW
Interview by Cole Coonce
At the risk of sounding xenophobic, it is always interesting when somebody from distant shores and who is smitten with Western culture naively tries to tap into Americana. A classic example would be the efforts of a young and green Roland Leong, fresh off the pineapple boat out of Honolulu, Hawaii, who — way back in 1963 — fancied himself as a dragster driver just like his heroes Don Prudhomme, Tommy Ivo and Don Garlits. In order to fulfill his fantasy, Leong came to California. It started out innocuously enough: Doorslammers on the mainland which segued into driving a Dragmaster Top Gas dragster in California. But then the teenager from Polynesia tried to ratchet it up a notch — he wanted to drive a Top Fueler.
This experiment was an unmitigated disaster.
Under the anxious and watchful eye of the late Keith Black, the legendary engine builder whose engineering prowess pretty much established the pushrod hemi as de rigueur in serious drag racing competition, Roland’s discombobulated debut as a nitro dragster driver at Lions Drag Strip culminated with the in-over-his-head Leong on his head. Looking to enjoy a few more 1/4 mile luau’s, the kid who answered to the moniker of the “Hawaiian” knew which side of the steering yoke he preferred. Ergo, Roland adapted to a new career — as the car owner. And he flourished: In 1965 and 1966, Leong’s AA/Fuel Dragsters captured consecutive Top Fuel Eliminator titles at both the NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, as well as the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. Wow.
And although he had cut his teeth with a Top Gas car, Roland took to the applied science of burning nitromethane like an umbrella to a foo-foo drink.
Shrewd, savvy, and understated, Roland created a mystique with a succession of “Hawaiian”-labeled drag racing machines, first with the fuel dragsters and then — as the “Plastic Fantastic” phenomenon seduced race fans across America — with a flurry of popular, highly successful Funny Cars. Even more remarkable was this fact: Roland changed drivers about as often as he changed spark plugs. Indeed, the list of Roland’s employees is as tall as a Kona Island palm tree. A partial litany of his haole hired honchos include Don Prudhomme, Mike Snively, Mike Sorokin, Pat Foster, Bobby Rowe, Butch Maas, Denny Savage, Mike Van Sant, Russel Long, Larry Reyes, Leroy Chadderton, Norm Wilcox, Larry Arnold, Rick Johnson, Ron Colson, Billy Meyer, “240 Gordie” Bonin, Mike Dunn, Johnny West, Jim White, Glenn Mikres, etc., etc.
Regardless of who was pushin’ the pedals, any race car emblazoned with the bamboo-lettered “Hawaiian” logo was sporting a de facto “bleeding edge” tune-up. It commanded respect — ironically, perhaps more than even Leong himself.
But the days of Leong as a business owner are over; he is now an employee. In fact, everything come full circle. Roland Leong is now under the employ of Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, as the crew chief for Prudhomme’s Funny Car. And, strangely enough, now that he is longer signing the payroll checks, Leong is finally gaining respect from his peers as one of the finest theoretical minds in drag racing.
Drag Racing Monthly thought it would be ono to chat up one of the epic figures of drag racing, a man who has witnessed the arc and trajectory of the sport from the days of flag starts to the modern era of five dollar beers. It was kinda’ serendipitous that we rolled tape on Leong in the Year of Our Lord, 1998, at the Pomona Fairplex, sight of many of the Hawaiian’s greatest conquests. As a punctuation mark to our conversation, Leong tuned Prudhomme’s Ron Capps-driven Funny Car to the Winternationals Winner’s Circle.
DRM: You’re a Hawaiian native. Why the move to California?
Leong: As a kid I always wanted to drag race and in the 60s this was the place to be.
DRM: Who were some of your heroes? Who drew you over here?
Leong: Well everyone had heard of Garlits, Prudhomme, guys like that
DRM: So it’s kind of ironic that you and Prudhomme have a history that is still intertwined…
Leong: When I decided to build a fuel car it just so happened that Prudhomme was driving the Greer, Black & Prudhomme car. When the new track in Hawaii opened the guy who owned the track also raced boats — and he had a Keith Black engine in it. That’s kind of how we all met. This was in 1964. ’63 or ’64.
I came over here and worked for Dragmaster (chassis builders) and I lived at Jim Nelson’s — one of the owners of Dragmasters — house. My first job was sweeping the floor — I was probably 16 or 17 years old at the time, but then I’d get homesick and go home; then I’d get tired of Hawaii and come back over here. I went back and forth for a couple of years.
DRM: You got homesick? In California in those days there were two girls for every boy.
Leong: Yeah, but at the time racing was more prioritized than girls were.
DRM: During that time you drove a Top Gas car that was built by the Dragmasters.
Leong: Right. I raced it over here then took it back to Hawaii and sold it. This was still during the period when I was going back and forth. Then I decided to build a fuel car and attempted to drive it at Long Beach — it was my first pass in a fuel car — and ended up crashing it. Keith Black was overseeing the whole project because I knew nothing about running fuel or hemi engines because all I had was a gas car. Anyway, he was a nervous wreck because I was probably 17 years old and he knew my parents. I guess he thought, “Jesus, if I kill this kid how can I explain it to his parents?” He came to me after I crashed the car and said, “because of business reasons I’m going to give up running the Greer, Black & Prudhomme car. Prudhomme is going to need a ride — maybe you two should get together and let him drive it.” That’s kind of how it all began.
We raced around the coast — any place you could race, we raced. Every weekend. If there was a race for Top Fuel, we’d be there. Fontana, Lions, Riverside, Pomona here once a month. Even once we went to San Fernando at the end of ’64. Then in ’65 we came to the Winternationals here and ended up winning. Then we went up to Bakersfield for the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships — whatever was around. I told Prudhomme, “Why don’t we back east like the other guys?” And he said, “Well, how are we going to make a living?” I said, “Well, you book the car and off we go.” He started calling up (promoters) and they wanted us. We went ahead and built a trailer. Like how I put it — how I tell him at times, “You were working in a body shop as a car painter at the time and ever since I talked you into going on the tour you’ve been a professional racer ever since.”
DRM: The ’65 Winternationals we were quite an event. That was the race where they ran the entire event in one day.
Leong: I don’t even remember that; all I know is that we won.
DRM: You won it the next year too.
Leong: Right. In the meantime Prudhomme had gone on tour. He had an opportunity to drive the B&M Torquemaster car which was owned by B&M and Milodon. He took that deal so I had to dig around and look for a new driver; I came up with a guy named Mike Snively. We won the Winternationals and the U.S. Nationals, it was the first time anyone had won the Winternationals and the U.S. Nationals in the same year. Then in the meantime I said, “Maybe I’ll try and book this car and we can go back east.” A lot of them didn’t know who I was because Prudhomme had been the one who called them before. When I first called them prior to the Winternationals (to book the car), the answer was kind of “no.” They’d say, “I already got Prudhomme.” A lot of them didn’t know he wasn’t driving the car anymore. After we won the Winternationals and I called ‘em back and off we went. I’ve been going down the road racing since 1965.
DRM: Do you have any regrets about your chosen vocation?
Leong: Oh no, I wouldn’t change anything.
DRM: The motors that everybody is running now is really based on the Chrysler 426 hemi. Is it fair to say that you were on the ground floor of the research and development of that motor?
Leong: The late model motors…the Ramchargers and Garlits probably had them before us. We were the first people on the West Coast to have a 426, which was through Keith Black. Actually, at the time we were running two cars — I still had my 392 with Snively. We ran the 426 mostly on the West Coast with Keith Black running it because I was back East — I had to make a living.
When we first ran it, it was quite a bit different running than the 392, right? The combustion chamber was a lot bigger, there were a lot of little things (different) that were pretty important. We had to find out what would make it go and not go.
DRM: It’s amazing how over 30 years later it is still what everybody uses. So Black used your car a test bed with Mike Sorokin driving. This combination won the 1966 AHRA Winternationals in Tuscon…
Leong: Ahhh, I don’t even remember…
DRM: I’ll tell you what you won and you just agree with me. Despite all your early success, people are just now acknowledging your talents as a crew chief.
Leong: Back in those days there was no such thing as a “crew chief.” Even now it would be hard to acknowledge me a crew chief. I guess I would have been the crew chief all along because I owned the thing and I ran it!
Like I tell people, this would be the first real job I ever had — thanks to Prudhomme. He’s been an excellent boss as far as I hire the guys, run the car, and buy all the parts. I basically do everything but pay for it. But then again my make up is the way I did things when I owned it is the way I do it here. I think I bring a little more (to the table) because at one time I owned it and had to pay for it out of my own pocket. In that respect, I’m probably more in tune. I won’t go “just get it, just get it, just get it.”
I’m not saying other guys aren’t doing the same thing, it’s just that it’s a different perspective when you never had to buy it. When you actually had to buy it, you just think differently.
DRM: Would it be fair to say that you were Keith Black’s star pupil?
Leong: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. He helped a lot of people. But my theory is that nobody knows everything about everything. The trick is to be able to go to the right people and get the right answers — answers that you don’t know about or don’t want to about. Then again, you have to be able to know so much about what you’re doing or what you’re trying to do to be able to relate to this person because most of the time this person you are trying to relate to doesn’t know what you are trying to do or what you are up against. Take one of these engines: Yes, it is an automotive engine; but there ain’t an engine in the world that goes through the torture (laughs) on a lot of these parts that we put them through.
DRM: It’s another universe.
Leong: Right. it’s just another plane.
DRM: You were the first to go 290 mph in a funny car. That was with Wes Cerny tuning. What did he bring to the plate?
Leong: Well, it’s just like anything else. Wes is a very intelligent person. If he needs something and nobody makes it, he’ll go make it himself or can go make it himself. There ain’t very many people in these pits (points 180 degrees) than can do that. They might have an idea but if they can’t get it made….A guy like Wes, he can make it himself.
DRM: What did you and Wes do together to make it go 290?
Leong: Well…it wasn’t one thing, okay? It never is. My theory is that there isn’t a part on this car that makes it go, it’s a combination of parts that makes it go. It’s just a matter of giving it what it takes, so to speak. When you make a run and you come back and tear everything apart, different things are telling you something. I relate it to a baby: A baby cries and you don’t know if it’s hungry, if it wet its pants, or if it’s sick. That’s the theory I go by here: Different parts are telling us something and it’s up to us to figure out what it’s telling us — and then figure out how to fix it. Nothing fixes itself — that’s another one of my theories. Everything has a reason why it happens. It don’t just happen to happen — and it ain’t gonna’ fix itself. Whatever problems we have, I feel it’s up to us to figure out what it is, what’s doing it, and try to fix it — as opposed to just bolting another motor in there. Something might have happened — this things always throw you a bone, you know? They’ll throw you a bone on a run and you’ll say, “I got it now.” And the next run, it won’t repeat it. Or something else happens, you know?
So the bottom line is you have to just pay attention to everything that is going on just as close as you can and hopefully — hopefully — you know what causes it, good or bad. But then again on another token, it seems like it don’t matter how smart you are, or how many championships you got or how fast and quick you ran. Everybody gets into trouble. It just seems like the good guys, they don’t stay in trouble — eventually they find the trouble. I see people that got in trouble, and for whatever reason — not saying that they were stupid, maybe they ran out money before they found the trouble. I think all of us — whether it’s the team, whether it’s the driver, or whether it’s the crew chief, we’re all gonna’ have good years and bad years, okay? And not just is drag racing; if you go back in history you can look at Roger Penske when he didn’t qualify for the Indy 500. You know it wasn’t for a lack of money; you know it wasn’t for a lack of the right people because he can buy them all; you know it wasn’t for a lack of the driver. That’s the way it goes sometimes; that’s reality.
DRM: In your career, you have been through a litany of drivers. You and Ron Capps seem to have a real rapport — more of a rapport than was apparent with your former drivers. Do you have more of a respect for the driver now? Have you always had a respect for the driver?
Leong: I’ve grown up a lot. I’ve made mistakes — like everybody else. But I think that Ron and I do have an excellent rapport. One of the biggest things is that he has proven to me that he could the job — and I’ve proven to him that I could do the job, okay? He doesn’t mess with me and tell me how to tune this car and I don’t mess with his area and try to tell him how to drive it. My explanation, what I tell him, is that, “Hey, you do the best you can or whatever it takes to put that win light on; and I’ll try to do the best that I can and do whatever it takes to put that win light on. If we’re both on the same page, with a little bit of luck we’ll do great.”
DRM: He went through a real trial by fire last year. The car shook, rattled, and rolled while he was trying to just get a bead on driving a nitro Funny Car.
Leong: Well, on top of that he’s just an ordinary guy. He’s a very optimistic guy — always upbeat. Things are gonna’ happen, I don’t care what you do or how long you do it, things are gonna’ happen. And I will get upset with myself at certain times and it just seems like he’s the one that is always optimistic and is holding all of us together as a team, myself included. And on top of that, I can honestly say that he is one of the best drivers I have ever had an opportunity to work with.
DRM: Wow. So let’s rewind a little bit. After you went 290 in the “Hawaiian Punch” funny car, you took a brief hiatus and then returned to the sport tuning Ray Higleys’ car, who is kind of low-buck racer.
Leong: Right, I did that for about a year and a half.
DRM: For lack of a better term, wasn’t it kind of a neat learning experience? Wasn’t it nice to be in charge as just a hired gun?
Leong: It was different. I was always in charge because I always owned my own deal, but then back in ’88 or ’89 with all the sponsors and trying to keep all the sponsors…the business part had gotten so complex and rigorous that I couldn’t do both (owner and crew chief) so I decided then that I needed a crew chief to run the car. So I hired Wes Cerny.
In ’91 we ended up number 2 in the world points, set the speed record and was killing everybody…
DRM: This was with Jim White driving.
Leong: Right. Then in ’92 Procter & Gamble bought Hawaiian Punch (Leong’s sponsor) from RJ Reynolds around 1990 and they kept the (drag racing) program through ’91, but then after that, like a lot of companies do, when they changed hands — or even as much as change upper management — they look for different direction or different things to do with their advertising dollars.
In ’92 I didn’t do anything (in drag racing), but in ’93 the state of Hawaii approached me and I did a deal which was supposed to be a three year program, but I was kind of lied to by some politicians.
DRM: Imagine that.
Leong: Anyway, in ’93 — knowing the program was going to last three years — I went ahead and hired Leonard Hughes. So prior to that, I had never made any real tuning decisions myself since ’89.
The only reason I did the Higley thing was because I had known Higley since I came over from Hawaii back in the ’60s — we both worked for the same company, Dragmaster. He had a car, he was attempting to run Funny Car so he called me and I agreed to do it.
Prior to that, all my cars had whatever it took to get the job done. When I went over there he had, the way I put it was, “No money, no parts and no people.” That’s what it made it tougher, right? I had to change my whole way of thinking in going over there. My actual goal was to get the car to qualify…as it was, we were able to go a couple of rounds in a couple of places. At Indy, we were the third qualifier. For the parts that he had and for the money that was there, like I say, I had to be very careful because he just didn’t have the funds. That made it harder to learn — not making all the qualifying runs and so and so forth. When Prudhomme called me to do this thing, I had to change my whole way of thinking again.
Like he said, “Don’t worry about parts, just win the race.”
DRM: Money is no object, eh?
Leong: Well not that it’s no object, it’s just a different way of doing things.
DRM: I remember when Higley’s car was running some five-teens and some five-ohs…
Leong: At Indy, when we were third qualifier, we turned five-flat.
DRM: That car was kind of crowd favorite amongst race fans in the know. People love an underdog, and when you parlay that with your connection to the car…
Leong: Come to find out it was a 14-year old chassis — it still is — that I owned way back when. I didn’t know that until I got there and started looking at it and I said, “You know this car really looks familiar, where did you get it from?” He bought it from a guy that I had sold it to 8 years prior.
DRM: Do you think part of your recent success with Prudhomme is timing? The conventional wisdom was that part of Prudhomme’s problem earlier — before he hired you — had been the result of some really funky clutch discs.
Leong: Yes and no. Yes, it (problematic clutch discs) had been a problem, okay? To me the hardest problem in drag racing is putting together a good team: Finding the right combination of people. The way I explain is that putting together a good team is like having a race car that runs good; there isn’t one part in a race car that makes it go, it is a combination of parts and pieces that make it go. It is no different when you put together a team, okay, it’s a combination of people. Sometimes you have go through different people the way you go through different parts. You have to find the right combination.
But nowadays with all the work that has to be done and with the schedule that we have, good people means a lot more.
DRM: So it’s chemistry as much as anything else.
Leong: Well, yeah. You can have one of the smartest guys but let’s face it: Egos in this business run pretty high. A lot of the young guys — and some of the older ones — but the young guys it’s like they haven’t “been there” yet. They haven’t experienced things that a lot of the older guys have. We went through all the periods of adjustments and transitions and all the bullshit. I’m pretty sure a lot of us changed, changed our way of thinking, changed the way we look at a lot of things: We’ve mellowed, the whole works.
Some of the younger guys, not that they’re stupid or screwed up, they just haven’t gone through that. Nowadays, when you’ve got five or six guys on the team to travel all across the country with these cars, when you get different personalities, different egos and all that involved — Jesus! that makes its a lot tougher. I mean you know when you are the crew chief or the boss of these guys, you got to be a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a dad, the whole works.
But that’s what the game has become — it is just part of the game. You do whatever it takes.
This weekend at the 42nd Pepsi NIghtfire Nationals in Boise, Idaho, veteran dragster driver Jim Murphy attempts to claim the lead in the NHRA Heritage Series Points Chase.
Two session of fuel funny cars on Friday at Famoso Raceway. Here are some photos. (all images by Cole Coonce)
A feature on Chris “the Golden Greek” Karamesines — who is still driving Top Fuel dragsters at age 81 — has hit your local magazine rack: Page 58, the March 2010 ish of HOT ROD Magazine…. — CC