Tom McEwen, a legend in drag racing and one of the drivers behind the modern team sponsorship model still used in the National Hot Rod Association today, died Sunday at age 81, the National Hot Rod Association said.

No cause of death was given for "The Mongoose," a gregarious and popular figure in the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes who took on his nickname in 1964 in part to goad Don "The Snake" Prudhomme into a match race.

It worked, so well in fact that the duo became business partners for a time with sponsorship for both of them from the likes of Mattel, Coca-Cola and Carefree sugarless gum. The model for race team sponsorship was set.

"We are all saddened to learn the news of Mongoose's passing," NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a statement. "He was truly one of the most brilliant pioneers of NHRA Championship Drag Racing and continued to support the sport through a number of initiatives including our current NHRA Legends Tour in which he played an instrumental role. Everyone at NHRA will miss him deeply. Our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences are with the McEwen family at this difficult time."

Mattel's "Hot Wheels" line featured Mongoose and Snake cars that were among its bestsellers. While McEwen won only five national events in his 35-year career, it was his humor, outlandishness and popularity that contributed to him being named No. 16 on the NHRA's list of the top 50 drivers in 2001.

"I was the (fast-talker) and Prudhomme was the racer," McEwen once said. "I'd set up the deals, then we'd go out to the track, and he'd usually beat me. There were times when he was beating me so regularly that the only way I could have beaten him was if he got lost on the way to the track and I got to single.

"We were a good team; we complemented each other. Don was the serious guy, spent a lot of time with his car, and I was more like the wrestlers today, saying how bad I was going to beat him to build interest in the deal."

Field Level Media

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