Elana SherCar and Driver
Good things come from Hawaii: chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, surfing, and winning races. Danny Ongais, who has raced in everything from Top Fuel to F1; Motocross legend John DeSoto; and Roland Leong, famed Funny Car tuner, share more than their island birthplace: As of August 2022, they are now the only wheel members in the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame.
We would say that they were the only representatives of motor sports at all, but that would leave out Thomas Gentry, a motor boat racer.
Leong is the most recent inductee, officially joining the list in 2020, but due to COVID didn’t celebrate the honor until August 25, 2022, when the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame finally held its much-delayed banquet. We were ready to cheer when Leong took the stage, introduced by his first driver, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. It was the first time the two men had been together in Hawaii since they met in 1964.
Oahu Street Racing
Leong grew up on Oahu racing cars on the streets, much to the dismay of his parents. “My father had a master’s degree from Harvard. My mother was also a college graduate, very rare for a woman in the 1930s. They were respected businessmen. I didn’t graduate from high school and I wanted to be a drag racer. They weren’t happy.”
Leong’s father didn’t speak to him for years, but his mother came and supported him as he transitioned from street racing to drag racing at the island’s only track, the Kahuku Dragstrip. Leong held the gas dragster record of 8.50 at 180 mph when he met Prudhomme, who was piloting the Greer, Black, Nitro dragster Prudhomme sent to do exhibition runs at the island’s new, larger dragstrip. The two got along, despite the fact that Prudhomme barely understood Leong’s combination of Hawaiian slang and English. It didn’t matter; talking cars were a common language.
Later that year, Leong was in California working for a chassis shop and building his own gasoline engine. The first ride didn’t go well. “I guess I only had to go half way? I didn’t know that,” Leong says with the easy rhythm of a much-told tale. “I didn’t know where the parachute handle was and by the time I found it I was off the dragstrip. [Engine builder] Keith Black was not happy. He said he couldn’t stand me driving because he didn’t want to tell my parents I was killed in a car.
Black recommended Prudhomme as their partner in the GBP car was urging him to quit. Prudhomme began driving for Leong and took the new car, aptly named “The Hawaiian,” to victories at the NHRA Pomona Winternationals and Indy US Nats along with countless rounds of competition. “I always tell Prudhomme he’s lucky I didn’t cost anything as a driver or he wouldn’t have had a career,” says Leong. “Sometimes I think how strange we must have looked in ’65, on the road across America, a Chinese from Hawaii and a black man, often the only ones in the restaurant. We’ve never had any problems though. I guess the fact that people liked the car is too much to worry about who was with it.”
Prudhomme left Leong the following year, a decision he said he regretted as he watched the Hawaiian repeat wins at the Winternationals and US Nats with a different driver behind the wheel. Leong would become infamous for his rotating roster of cool shoes. “Not everyone had the same desire to win as I did,” he says with a shrug.
In 1969, he built the Funny Car, noting that body-fueled cars were more popular with fans and had more opportunities to race than the long, bare tracks. Leong’s “Hawaiian” cars won regularly, including the famous meeting at Bakersfield in 1967 and 1983 and another victory at the US Nationals in 1991 with a car that would later set a record as the first funny car to exceed 290 mph . His last year as a team owner was 1993, but he continued to work as a hired crew chief, including joining his old friend the Snake to set up a Copenhagen Funny Car with a young driver named Ron Capps behind the wheel. They finished second by a narrow margin to John Force in the 1997 championship.
One might consider that a solid career, but Leong continued to tune nitro cars after leaving the NHRA “big show,” working for nostalgic racers involved in the NHRA Legacy Series. Through it all, Leong remained friends with many of his teammates, including Prudhomme. Now aged 78 and 81 respectively, the Hawaiian and the Snake still act like they were in their early twenties when they met, pointing out hot cars and berating each other for their various failings. “You know, Snake and I would have lunch every day in Van Nuys,” Leong said. “He was working in a paint shop and I convinced him to go on the road with me in ’65, so he quit and hasn’t had a real job since.”
That’s one way to describe Prudhomme’s 389-round winning career, but Leong has known him since before he was a big star, when they were both just kids talking about cars in Hawaii, never imagining that they would returned to the Hall of Fame almost 60 years later.
Leong was inducted as part of the Class of 2020, along with surfer Ben Ipa and racquetball champion Egan Inouye. The 2021 inductees honored at the same ceremony included volleyball champion Rayden “Tita” Ahuna and sports promoter Larry Price. The Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame is a state museum recording the achievements of Hawaii’s athletes in all forms of sports.