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Legendary NHRA Team Owner Roland Leong, ‘The Hawaiian,’ Passes Away

The world of drag racing lost a true legend with the passing of Roland Leong on December 29. Known as the mastermind behind the iconic Top Fuel and Funny Cars titled “The Hawaiian.” Leong was 79.

Born in Hawaii, Leong first made a name for himself as a gas dragster driver, becoming a local celebrity. However, his ambitions led him to California in the early 1960s, where he joined the esteemed Dragmasters chassis-building team. This move marked the beginning of an illustrious career in motorsports. Leong’s Dragmaster-built rail, driven by Danny Ongais, clinched the Top Gas victory at the 1964 Winternationals, setting the stage for future triumphs.

NHRA photo

Leong’s initial aspiration was to be a Top Fuel driver, but after a harrowing crash at over 191 mph, his mentor, engine-building genius Keith Black, advised him to become a car owner. Heeding this advice, Leong teamed up with Don Prudhomme, a rising star in drag racing. Prudhomme, already known for his driving skills, had met Leong in Hawaii, and the two quickly formed a strong bond.

Their partnership was a defining moment in drag racing history. Together, Leong and Prudhomme secured victories at the 1965 Winternationals and U.S. Nationals. Although their collaboration ended before 1966, with Prudhomme venturing solo and Leong honing his skills as a car owner and tuner, their friendship endured.

Leong’s success continued, even after parting ways with Prudhomme. He replicated his earlier victories with driver Mike Snively in 1966 and made a successful transition to Funny Car in 1969. His cars, adorned with elaborative paint schemes and “The Hawaiian” in faux bamboo letters, became a massive attraction in the 1970s and ’80s. A roster of renowned drivers, including Bobby Rowe, Leroy Chadderton, Gordie Bonin, Mike Van Sant, Denny Savage, Norm Wilcox, Larry Arnold, Ron Colson, Mike Dunn, Rick Johnson, Johnny West, and Jim White, drove Leong’s cars.

However, Leong and Prudhomme reunited in 1994 during Prudhomme’s Final Strike tour, a testament to their enduring friendship and mutual respect. In later years, Leong emerged as a revered crew chief, mentoring Ron Capps, a budding superstar, and reigniting his popularity in the Nostalgia Funny Car Wars of the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series.

The last couple of years, Leong had been in poor health. Prudhomme visited “The Hawaiian” the day before his passing, and the two spent the afternoon together reminiscing.

Leong’s contributions to the world of drag racing were recognized with numerous honors, including his recent induction into the Hawaii Motorsports Hall of Fame. His passing leaves a void in the racing community, but his legacy will continue to inspire and influence generations of racers and fans.

This story was originally published on January 2, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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