The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2011. At each track, the NHRA plays host to a drag racing legend who participates in the event.

The Strip at LVMS has hit the jackpot with its 60th-anniversary ambassador: legendary car owner-builder Roland Leong of “Hawaiian” Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car fame.

Perhaps Hot Rod Magazine’s Cole Coonce described him best. “A shy drag racer from Oahu who came to California, raced ruthlessly, refused to suffer fools gladly, and dominated the competition until the operating capital disappeared unexpectedly. Even then, he found a couple of ways to jump back in the fray.”

Roland’s glory days began in the mid-‘60s when most race cars had names like Ramchargers, Rambunctious, Chi-Town Hustler and Brutus. Fans flocked by the thousands to their local drag strips to see the big names like Jungle Jim (Lieberman), Snake (Don Prudhomme) and Big Daddy (Don Garlits). With less than a handful of NHRA national events to compete in, Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster drivers earned extra cash by barnstorming in pairs or quartets, match-racing at tracks from Maine to California. It was big news when the Hawaiian came to your town.

It all began in the mid-‘60s when Leong decided to build his own dragster and race it. His maiden voyage down the quarter-mile in a front-engine, 200-mph machine did not go as planned. The car left the track, crossed some railroad tracks and wound up in the weeds. Dazed but unhurt, Leong decided to take on the role of car builder and owner and tapped Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for the driving chores.

Prudhomme, driving Leong’s Keith Black-powered Hawaiian dragster, dominated the 1965 NHRA Winternationals (Pomona, Calif.)  and U.S. Nationals (Indianapolis). Leong did it again in 1966, winning the Winternationals and U.S Nationals, this time with ace Mike Snively behind the wheel. Now, instead of having to call the drag strip operators for match-race bookings, track managers began calling him to secure the Hawaiian for their big shows. Roland and his drivers supported themselves by match-racing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and weekends from Carlsbad to Canada. Over the years, his roster of drivers included "240 Gordie" Bonin, Larry Reyes, Butch Maas, Pat Foster and Ron Colson. Bonin was the only driver to race for Leong twice, in 1973 and 1993.

Revell and MPC released several scale model kits of the Hawaiian and the infamous Charger graced the pages of just about every drag racing and hot rod magazine in the world. He was the first to take a Funny Car to a wind tunnel to improve the body’s aerodynamics. The car's name and owner's origins made it a natural fit with some sponsors, including Hawaiian Punch and King's Hawaiian Bread. In 1990, the Hawaiian set national records five times and was the first Funny Car to break the 290-mph barrier.

And then everything ground to a halt. A three-year sponsorship deal with a tourism bureau went up in smoke and there was no money for racing in a now-expensive sport. The famed Hawaiian was sold and the shop doors were locked.

Roles reversed as Leong went to work for his former driver, Don Prudhomme, as team manager in 1998. The pair dominated the circuit and nearly won the national championship.

Roland will sign autographs at the track each day and also will lead the Speedway Children’s Charities track walk on Sunday morning. A replica of the Top Fuel Dragster will roll up the strip in the pre-race parade.

The NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series brings the biggest names in professional drag racing – including John Force, Tony Pedregon and Tony Schumacher – to The Strip at LVMS twice each year. The NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals features Top Fuel Dragsters, Funny Cars, Pro Stocks, Pro Mods, Top Alcohol Dragsters, Top Alcohol Funny Cars and Sportsman racers.

To purchase NHRA tickets or obtain more information, please call LVMS at (702) 644-4444 or visit www.LVMS.com. Follow LVMS on Facebook and Twitter.

-- John Bisci