Direct Connection & Mancini Racing Powers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme

Don “the Snake” Prudhomme’s stint with the Army sponsorship started in a ’74 ‘Cuda. That year he focused on match racing. Had he concentrated more on the NHRA points, Prudhomme may have surpassed Shirl Greer for the season championship. The Snake sported his usual #712 competition number on the ‘Cuda. (Howard Coby photo)

From his laid-back walk, with a slight bend of the back, and easygoing demeanor to an unhurried Californian discourse peppered with just enough west-coast lingo, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme was quite possibly the coolest drag racer ever. With his take no prisoners attitude, he started and ended his successful driving career shoeing top fuel dragsters. Still, his ‘70s and ‘80s funny cars, especially his ‘70s Army floppers, made a significant impression on yours truly.

Direct Connection was the performance division of Chrysler Corporation during the ’70s and ‘80s. Because of this connection, sportsman racers were able to get the same parts the professional racers used. Direct Connection was run through the extensive network of Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge dealerships. However, Mancini Racing was the original Direct Connection warehouse that supplied Mopar drag racers and street enthusiasts. In 1987, the Direct Connection name was changed to Mopar Performance.

Prudhomme’s Army sponsorship was initiated with a Plymouth ‘Cuda body. He moved to a Chevrolet Monza, followed by a Vega, before he returned to Plymouth in an Arrow, and concluded with an Omni. It was the swoopy red, white, and blue Plymouth Arrow bodies with a big #1 emblazoned on each flank that genuinely caught the fancy of many drag racing fans.

In 1970, Prudhomme and Tom “the Mongoo$e” McEwen embarked on a successful three-year sponsorship with Hot Wheels, a Mattel company. Even after the primary Mattel sponsorship ended, Hot Wheels continued to release new Snake and Mongoose diecast cars, and it was the 1977 Army Arrow that was one of my most prized Hot Wheels.

Like Prudhomme on the drag strip, the Snake Hot Wheels Arrow won nearly every competition on a Hot Wheels Thundershift 500 track that had been converted into a drag strip.

When not running the Snake on the Thundershift 500, I played a Vallco drag racing board game, a card-based simulation of the real on-track performance of the 1970s racers. Again, Prudhomme would often qualify number one and then slither through the 32-car field to earn the winner’s trophy – not yet nicknamed a Wally.

From 1975 through 1978, the Snake won a majority of the NHRA national (and divisional) events he entered. Unless Prudhomme finished the previous season as the champ, he always used the NHRA competition #712, so for those four years, he sported the #1. While racing the Arrows, Prudhomme and his crew chief, Bob Brandt, relied upon Direct Connection (Chrysler Engineered) parts to power their supercharged, nitro-fed Hemi, as depicted in this June 1978 Hot Rod magazine ad.

For 1978, the Snake had a similar appearing Arrow. Prudhomme and crew chief, Bob Brandt, relied on Direct Connection parts to power the nitro-burning Hemi. The Snake nailed down yet another championship with this Arrow. Between 1975-1978, the Snake won four NHRA Winston championships. (Dave Milcarek photo)

With the advent of drag racing in the 1950s, a group of Chrysler engineers began exercising their educational theories by developing and testing racing parts for purpose-built cars. By the early 1960s, these engineers, known as the Ramchargers, began supplying these unique pieces on the down-low to Chrysler team racers. These teams, due to their Chrysler connection, began dominating the drag strips throughout the United States.

The non-connected Mopar racers desired to get their hands on these special parts, and with that, Chrysler embarked on a new performance parts business. So thriving was the industry that by the early 1970s, Direct Connection became the go-to source for performance parts, and Mopar racers and street enthusiasts were the marketing focus. By 1987, the name was changed to Mopar Performance, but its operation remained relatively the same.

Nothing could be cooler than the Snake burning out under the Winternationals banner with snow-covered California mountains in the distance. After dominating the Winternationals in ’77 and ’78, the Snake struggled in the ’79 season opener. He had a decent season, but he was not able to maintain the #1 banner. He lost his title to Raymond Beadle, who also ran a Plymouth Arrow. In ’78 and ’79, a Pepsi sponsorship managed to find its way onto Prudhomme’s Arrows. This was a sign of the future, when, after finishing his Army sponsorship in an Omni, he ran the same Omni as the Pepsi Challenger. (Ron Lewis photo)

Mancini Racing is known as “the Original Direct Connection Warehouse,” and remains the Mopar source for all performance products. With the passing years, Mancini has adjusted with the times. There are parts for diehard racers, but the company has also branched into restoration parts for early Mopars and performance parts for late-model Dodges.

As in the past, if factory-engineered Chrysler components were good enough for the Snake, today’s parts will be good enough for you. All you need to do is let Mancini Racing be your Direct Connection.

Photos by Manufacturer, Howard Koby, Leslie Lovett, Dave Milcarek, Ron Lewis, and Author

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Chris Holley

Technical Contributor Chris has been a college professor for 25 years; at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA. for the last 20 years. Chris instructs automotive classes in HVAC, electrical/electronics, and high-performance, including using a chassis dyno, flow benches, and various machining equipment. Recently, he added a vintage vehicle upholstery class to his teaching assignments. Chris owns a '67 Dart, a '75 Dart, a '06 Charger, and a '12 Cummins turbo diesel Ram, and he is a multi-time track champion (drag racing) with his '69 340 Dart, which he has owned for 34 years.

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