Gallery: Owner and Nitro Tuner “The Hawaiian” Roland Leong Passes Away (Videos)

Roland Leong, “The Hawaiian,” died on December 29, 2023, at 79 years of age after declining health. Over his five-decade career, Leong was known for owning and tuning scores of hard-charging nitro-burning dragsters and funny cars.

Above: After Leong crashed on his maiden voyage, Keith Black suggested Don Prudhomme take over the driver’s seat of the Hawaiian. Leong and Prudhomme won the NHRA Winternationals and the U.S. Nationals in their first and only year together. Pictured, Prudhomme blazes the hides of the Gen I Hemi-powered Hawaiian. (Photographer unknown)

Leong always had meticulously clean vehicles. During his career, he earned the respect of his peers, including Keith Black and Don Prudhomme. Leong relied on Chrysler parts, and when he switched to funny cars in 1969, his choice of fiberglass bodies was Mopar, except for 1975-1979 when he switched to Chevrolet.

The Hawaiian was born May 22, 1944, to well-educated parents on O’ahu Island in Honolulu, Hawaii. He and his two sisters grew up in an affluent community. During his formative years, Leong played piano and clarinet and considered a music career. Still, in his teens, music started to take a back seat to loud cars, although he continued with music as a drummer in a garage band.

Above: “The Hawaiian” (left) and “The Snake” (right) were just kids when they met. Leong and Prudhomme met in 1964 when Prudhomme, driver of the Greer, Black, and Prudhomme Top Fuel Dragster, raced in Hawaii. The two became “fast friends,” and the friendship was lifelong. (Photographer unknown)

Once Leong earned his driver’s license, he modified his mom’s 1959 Oldsmobile, and then a 1962 Corvette. He eventually started racing the Corvette in the B/Modified Sports class, and soon after, he began winning.

While still racing his Corvette, Leong ordered his first gas dragster from the Dragmasters in Carlsbad, California. Jim Nelson from Dragmasters delivered the dragster and helped Leong and his investors get it running. Soon after, Leong dropped out of high school and started working for Dragmasters. Leong lived in Hawaii but also established a residence in Los Angeles. He drove the Dragmaster Hawaii gas dragster.

Above: Another lifelong influence on Leong was Keith Black of Keith Black Racing Engines. Black developed great power from the 354/392 Hemis and then the 426 Hemi. His engines found their way into the chassis of many Top Fuel and Funny Car greats. Leong switch to Funny Car in 1969 to take advantage of the growing match race popularity. After some initial difficulties, Leong’s successful tuning put drivers Larry Reyes (1969) and then Butch Maas (1970) into the Winternationals winner’s circle. (Photographers unknown)

In 1964, while successfully racing his gas dragster in Hawaii, Leong met Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, the Greer-Black-Prudhomme (G-B-P) Top Fuel Dragster driver (Tommy Greer and Keith Black). The Snake and Hawaiian quickly developed a deep friendship that lasted a lifetime.

Emboldened by his successful series of gas dragsters, Leong switched to Top Fuel in late 1964. In his only trip down the quarter mile in a supercharged, nitro-burning Hemi-powered dragster, Leong motored through the quarter mile and crashed. Leong was banned from earning a Top Fuel license because he did not meet the NHRA requirements of shutting off at half-track.

Above Left: Bobby Rowe shoed the Hawaiian for a spell. Leong went through a lot of drivers during the early 1970s. The “mini-Charger” body was popular in the early-to-mid-1970s, and Leong’s Hawaiian Funny Cars were always beautifully painted. (Photographer unknown) Above Right: Leroy Chadderton slipped into the driver’s seat and continued the Hawaiian’s winning ways. (Steve Reyes Photo)

Witnessing Leong’s crash, Keith Black suggested Prudhomme fill the driver’s seat since the G-B-P team was breaking up. In 1965, the Hawaiian team of Leong and Prudhomme won the NHRA Winternationals and the U.S. Nationals, a considerable feat because there were only four NHRA events that year. Additionally, they won plenty of match races and non-sanctioned events held throughout the country.

In 1966, Prudhomme went out on his own, so Leong hired Mike Snively to shoe the Hawaiian Top Fueler. The two met with great success, winning the Winternationals, the U.S. Nationals, and several other events and match races. In 1967, Leong missed a three-peat at the Winternationals and the U.S. Nationals. Still, Snively won at Bakersfield at the Hot Rod Magazine Championships and swept the three-day “Rockford 500” event in Rockford, Illinois, and the Mr. USA Invitational on the East Coast.

Above: While Chadderton was at the controls of the Hawaiian, model maker Revell came on board as a sponsor. Several Hawaiian Funny Cars were replicated into 1:16 and 1:25 scale models. Check the prices for unassembled models on eBay. Models that were a few dollars in the 1970s will cost a nice chunk of change today. (Photographers unknown)

Also in 1967, Leong added a second dragster, the Hawaiian II, with Mike Sorokin testing a Keith Black 426 Hemi. The success of the 426 Hemi convinced Leong to install one in the 1968 dragster driven by Snively. It was a good year, with plenty of wins and record-setting runs, but the significant events seemed to elude the team. On a high note, Leong won his second consecutive Car Craft Magazine All-Star award (Dragster Crew Chief). He would win several more throughout his career.

By 1969, the match race draw of funny cars was so great that Leong left Top Fuel and fielded a funny car. He tapped Larry Reyes to fill the seat. Leong righted the team after severe growing pains, including the Hawaiian Dodge Charger taking flight at the Winternationals and irreparably damaging the body. The Reyes and Leong team had plenty of success in 1969 and 1970 and did well on the match race circuit. Leong and Reyes won the 1970 Winternationals, and Leong won again in 1971, but with Butch Maas at the controls.

Above: Match racing provided big money for the Funny Car teams in the 1970s. Show up to a booked-in event, perform a couple of qualifying passes, compete in a best-of-three series of runs, and collect a check at the night’s end. The barnstorming lifestyle was a challenging but rewarding way to make a living. In the 1970s, massive burnouts with smoke bellowing from the wheel wells and escaping from the open side windows were part of the show. Additional showmanship may include a second burnout and, of course, several dry hops. (Photographer unknown)

From 1972 through 1980, Leong experienced reduced national event success. His cars had several fires and crashes, which resulted in writing off several bodies and chassis. In 1973, his entire operation (truck, race car, tools, parts) was stolen (and never recovered) from a Holiday Inn in Gary, Indiana. Leong did not have the operation adequately insured, costing him about $50,000 to $60,000 in losses. He rebounded, but it took some time.

Leong became well-known for his ever-changing roster of drivers. Between 1971 and 1976, in an extreme case of “drive it my (Leong’s) way or the highway,” Leong hired and fired (some quit) eight hot-shoes, including Butch Maas, Bobby Rowe, Leroy Chadderton, Gordie Bonin, Mike Van Sant, Denny Savage, Norm Wilcox, and Larry Arnold. By mid-1976, Leong settled on Ron Colson to oversee the driving chores, which he did until the end of 1980.

Above: By 1980, drag racers needed corporate sponsorships to cover the ever-increasing costs of competitive drag racing. Leong returned to Mopar in 1980 and had a new sponsor with King’s Hawaiian Bread. Ron Colson, the Hawaiian driver since 1976, raced in the new Omni for only one year. Mike Dunn (pictured in both photos) drove the King’s Hawaiian Bread and then the Hawaiian Punch entries for several years. (Photographers unknown)

As the costs of drag racing increased, Leong had sponsorship help from Revell, Avanti Antennas, and then, in 1980, King’s Hawaiian Bread. 1980 also marked the return of the Hawaiian to Mopar with an Omni body. In 1981, Mike Dunn, son of the “Fireman’s Quickie” Funny Car driver Jim Dunn, took hold of the reigns.

The years 1982 and 1983 could have been better. Dunn was better remembered for some of the most spectacular crashes in drag racing history than any significant accomplishments. In 1984, the Hawaiian Punch-sponsored Omni suffered a broken rear-end coupler, which fractured Dunn’s left leg and ended his time with Leong.

Above: After several down years (by Leong’s standards) with Dunn, Rick Johnson, and Johnny West at the controls, Leong, with the help of cylinder head guru Wes Cerny, stumbled onto a phenomenally successful tuning combination. Driver Jim White ran top speeds and was a low qualifier at many events. The team won several races, including the 1991 U.S. Nationals. “How about a Hawaiian Punch?” (Photographer unknown) 

Rick Johnson and his successor, Johnny West, raced a series of aerodynamic Hawaiian Punch-sponsored Dodge Daytona Funny Cars with limited success. From 1988 until mid-year 1992, Jim White occupied the Hawaiian Punch driver seat. The duo won several events, including the 1991 U.S. Nationals. Additionally, the team earned several number-one qualifiers while setting low elapsed time and top speed at multiple events.

Above: For the entire story, CarTech has the book titled Roland “The Hawaiian” Leong Drag Racing’s Iconic Owner & Tuner” book on its website. Lou Hart did a fabulous job putting together the history of the Hawaiian while capturing the significant moments of Leong’s life. Prudhomme provided the foreword of the book. 

Leong parked his operation after the Hawaiian Punch funding ended during the 1992 season. He made one last attempt to run a team with Gordie Bonin in 1993, but after some initial success, the funding fell through, and he closed his operation for good. Leong became a successful crew chief for several drag racing teams, including Chuck Etchells’ Funny Car, driven by Jim Epler, and Prudhomme’s Funny Car, driven by Ron Capps. After stepping away from tuning nitro engines for several years, Leong was lured back to crew chief on a Nostalgia Funny Car team.

Above: Many competitors witnessed but did not enjoy this viewpoint of the Hawaiian. (Steve Reyes Photograph)

Leong, Hawaii’s winningest drag racer, was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 2022 (inducted in 2020, but COVID-19 delayed the ceremony). Leong had a tremendously successful career, from the infancy of drag racing through its barnstorming match race period to the corporate-sponsor years. The entire drag racing community mourns the loss of such a treasure. A hui hou – until we meet again – a beautiful Hawaiian phrase with a more profound translation than merely “goodbye.”

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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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