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Hei hei is Hawaiian for “race.” Hele means “go”. And in the early days of drag racing, nicknames like Big Daddy, Snake, Mongoose and Ed the Ace dominated. Competitors feared them. They loved to “Hei Hei” and “Hele”
One name that became equally recognizable, and came to define the verb “go” was “The Hawaiian”. Sounded nice and tropical. It brought about thoughts of relaxing on a sandy beach, looking out onto crystal blue waters.
Roland Leong, a Hawaiian from birth, was the hurricane behind the series of dragsters and Dodge/Mopar® funny cars that carried the name Hawaiian and it took down all the big names in the sport one by one.
He wasn’t exactly the Big Kahuna, but Roland Leong let his Mopar-powered race cars do the talking for him. His passion to win and his dedication to Mopar, Dodge and HEMI® engines carried him to the legendary status that he holds today.
“Growing up in Hawaii,” Leong says, “you were either into surfing or cars. I was into cars.” He started at around 15 years old, racing his mom’s ’59 Olds at the airport track in Honolulu. “It was easy,” says Leong. “All you needed to race was a seat belt.”
But his racing career in mom’s car was short-lived. “My older sister Marilyn was at the races and saw me,” he explained. “She went home and told my parents and that didn’t go over very big.”
As the years went on, Leong spent a lot of time hanging around a local race shop, Hawaii Racing Parts. He was interested in their racecars and he felt that was something he wanted to do.
His mom would soon invest in the race shop, and Leong would spend even more time there. It was better than running the streets, his parents thought. A few years later, the speed shop owner hired Jim Nelson to build a Dragmaster dragster with a Mopar engine; that car and Jim Nelson convinced Leong to leave Hawaii for the mainland and begin his racing career.
“I duplicated the car Jim Nelson had,” says Leong. “That AA Fuel dragster had a 480 cubic inch Dodge Wedge motor that I took back to Hawaii and set a track record of 8.50 at over 180 mph at the first race in 1964 at a new track in Hawaii. The first real track there.”
Things were moving fast. “I had an unblown A dragster and the blown dragster,” says Leong. “Then I built a fuel dragster and went to Keith Black for an engine. I knew nothing about fuel racing. But I decided to duplicate the Greer Black and Prudhomme fuel dragster that was winning all over the west coast.
“I tried to drive that car at Long Beach at the end of ’64 and crashed it on the first run,” recalled Leong. “They took my license away because you’re supposed to run a half pass the first run. I ran a full pass of 8.01 at 190 mph. That was pretty good in ’64.”
It was then that Keith Black pulled Leong aside and suggested he abandon his driving career. “Black told me to just hire (Don “The Snake”) Prudhomme to drive and that I should just run the car. Black said he wouldn’t know what to tell my parents if I hurt myself. I guess the rest is history.”
Leong painted his dragster “metal flake blue” with the word “Hawaiian,” done in bamboo-shaped lettering, emblazoned on the sides. “I went to the paint shop to see how the car was coming and the painter asked me what I wanted to name the car,” Leong says. “I said ‘I don’t know,’ so he said, ‘You’re Hawaiian, why not call it The Hawaiian?’ I said OK.” Just that simple.
Leong and Prudhomme would go on to win the Winternationals in 1965, then win the biggest of NHRA races, the U.S. Nationals, and win 90% or more of their match races in between. Both Leong’s and Prudhomme’s careers were officially launched.
The pair would split the next year but Leong put Mike Snively in the Hawaiian dragster and won the Winternats and U.S. Nationals again, the first time anybody won those races back-to-back, after Prudhomme and Leong were the first to win both in the same year the previous season.
“In 1967, Keith Black was working with Chrysler Marine and the program leader says the boss at Chrysler wants me to run a late model Mopar motor and he would supply the engines,” says Leong. “So I had two dragsters, my trusty 392 early model and a late model. The late model motor was being run by just the Ramchargers and Garlits; I was the third guy.”
Leong was clearly one of the favorite factory guys. In those days, a lot of the money was made at match races. And Leong could see that funny cars were the new thing, attracting most of the attention at match races. So in late 1968, he decided to build his first funny car.
That car started a string of Dodge funny cars (with a couple of Brand X funny cars thrown in when Leong admitted he temporarily lost his way and made a bad mistake), that carried his full-time racing career through the early ’90s. He dominated at times with Dodge bodies and drivers like Jim White and “240 Gordie” Bonin, and saw the name change with Hawaiian Punch sponsorship for most of the final 10 years.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” says Leong, who, at 72, lives in southern California with his girlfriend of 33 years, Suzie. “I owe a lot to Chrysler, Dodge and Mopar. Dick Maxwell, Brian Schram, Larry Henry and Joe Hilger from Mopar. Those guys were good to me.”
Leong stays in touch with NHRA racers and tunes a nostalgia front engine dragster for Jim Murphy part-time. He says he’s never looking for work. But you can tell when you talk to him it wouldn’t take much to get him back out tuning a racecar full-time.
“Prudhomme says when we did it, we were passionate about racing,” Leong says of what it takes to win. “We had the passion. Failure was not in our vocabulary. We did whatever it took. If we crashed, we worked all night. It was different back then.”