Two of the sport’s all-time most popular drivers – Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen – will help the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) celebrate its 60th anniversary by serving as grand marshals for the Oct. 27-30 NHRA Big O Tires Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

McEwen and Prudhomme will meet race fans and sign autographs in the NHRA tent in the pit area from 2-3 p.m. on Friday, 10-11 a.m. and 1:45-2:30 p.m. on Saturday and 12:30-1 p.m. on Sunday. They also will head the track walk at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday and then serve as grand marshals during opening ceremonies.

Forty years ago, the sport of drag racing was nothing like the nationally-televised spectacle of today. With only a handful of NHRA-sanctioned national events on the calendar, big-name racers made extra money by booking themselves as pairs or quartets and “match-racing” each other at strips across the country. It was not uncommon to see a big star like “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and an opponent compete in a best-of-three in Lancaster, N.Y. on a Thursday night followed by an afternoon meet in Nelles Corners, Ontario, Canada on Sunday.

At the same time, the Mattel toy company had revolutionized the miniature die-cast car business with its new line of Hot Wheels cars. Until Hot Wheels burst onto the scene, young boys were forced to play with mundane cars that did not roll well. The 1/64-scale cars – more for display than play – could be pushed around on the carpet but they did not race and certainly did not look racy. And slotcars needed electricity and dad’s help with wiring and maintenance. Suddenly, with a Hot Wheels track, a kid had only to attach the “starting line” section to the top of a chair or table and he and his friends could race their wildly-colored, lightning-fast cars just about anywhere.

McEwen had been racing against Prudhomme since the early 1960s. The popular pair from California routinely match-raced four nights each week in those days are were in high demand with track operators. They would roll into town, stop at the local AM Top 40 radio station to talk some smack about each other to hype the event, thrill the crowd at the track and head for the next stop on the gypsy-like tour.

Like other forms of motorsports during that era, sponsorship was not plentiful and usually limited to backing from car dealerships, auto parts manufacturers and breweries. More money was needed to maintain the cars and pay the traveling expenses for the rigorous match-racing schedule.

Mattel was headquartered in their backyard, at the epicenter of the Southern California car culture craze. The pair approached the corporate office, hoping to attach their “Snake-vs.-Mongoose” rivalry with the incredibly-popular Hot Wheels line. It was a match made in quarter-mile heaven. The Prudhomme-McEwen Hot Wheels racing team dragged the sport into the living rooms and basements of homes across America. Kids who never had attended an NHRA national event suddenly were emulating their new heroes, arguing over who would be “the Snake” and who would get to play “the Mongoose.”  Prudhomme’s yellow Barracuda Hot Wheels Funny Car and McEwen’s red Duster regularly were featured on the covers and in the pages of Hot Rod Magazine and Car Craft Magazine. Mattel purchased the Monogram Models company and suddenly hundreds of thousands of Hot Wheels Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster plastic replica car kits hit the retail shelves.

McEwen won his first major event in 1972, topping the Top Fuel Dragster class at the March Meet at Bakersfield, Calif.

“I was the (promoter) and Prudhomme was the racer,” McEwen told NHRA.com. “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.”

The Hot Wheels sponsorship lasted for three seasons – 1970-1972 – and helped to sell hundreds of thousands of Hot Wheels cars. The marketing magic of the toys and their team also proved to other potential sponsors that drag racing certainly was worthy of a look – and a fat check.

Prudhomme sits at No. 3 on the NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers of All Time. After winning six of the NHRA’s eight national events in 1975 and seven of eight in 1976, Prudhomme explained his drive to succeed. “There was never a backup plan for me if racing hadn't worked out," said Prudhomme. “I had to win to keep food on the table.”

Prudhomme retired from driving and became a team owner in 1994. In his final year as a team owner, he won the 2009 NHRA Big O Tires Nationals at The Strip at LVMS with Spencer Massey behind the wheel.

Drag racing fans of all ages will not want to miss the opportunity to hang out with their heroes at the track.

Tickets for the NHRA Nevada Nationals may be purchased at the LVMS Ticket Office, by calling (702) 644-4444 or online at www.LVMS.com. Follow LVMS on Facebook and Twitter.