Known as 'The Hawaiian,' Roland Leong loved auto racing from an early age

Jan. 14—He dropped out of 'Iolani School in the 11th grade to follow his dream of fame and fortune as a National Hot Rod Association drag racer. Roland Leong, known in motor sports circles as "The Hawaiian," died Dec. 29, at his home in Silicon Beach, Calif. He was 79.

Roland Hung Chew Leong was born in May of 1944 at Queen's Hospital and grew up on Pacific Heights. Auto racing became his passion at an early age. His first "race car" was the Leong family car. He then transitioned to drag racing, racing cars of his own at the Kahuku Drag Strip and elsewhere.

In 1963, Hawaii businessman and racing promoter Jimmy Pflueger opened Hawaii Raceway Park in Ewa. Pflueger brought in three of California's drag racing greats — car owner Tommy Greer, engine- builder Keith Black and driver Don "The Snake" Prudhomme — to make demonstration runs with their G-B-P (Greer, Black and Prudhomme) dragster.

Leong met Prudhomme, who was only a few years older, and they bonded immediately.

"We were like brothers, I was closer to him than my own brother. We were, as they say, 'hooked at the hip,'" Prudhomme said from his home in Southern California as he looked back at their 60-year friendship. "I was so proud of him. A kid coming from Hawaii to come over here to the mainland, and he made it in the sport, he made it on his own."

Leong had already been "commuting" to races in California when he met Prudhomme. He moved there permanently in 1964. Black suggested that Leong's strengths were as a team owner and engine tuner. Leong excelled at both.

In his first year as a California resident, with Danny Ongais as his driver, Leong won the Top Gas Eliminator category at the National Hot Rod Association Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. One year later, now with Prudhomme driving, Leong became the first car owner to win the Top Fuel Eliminator category at the Winternationals and the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in the same season. He did it a second time, this time with Mike Snively behind the wheel, in 1966.

In 1969, Leong switched from racing "rails" (cars that consisted of a bare frame, wheels and an engine — and cockpit for the driver) to "funny cars" (cars with a light weight shell vaguely similar to the bodies of regular commercial models). The funny car body provided much more space to car owners to advertise their team name and their sponsors. Leong's early funny cars carried his nickname, "The Hawaiian." They were eye-catchers as well as race-winners.

Someone at Hawaiian Punch offered "The Hawaiian" a sponsorship. Leong's cars carried the "Hawaiian Punch" brand name to victories across the nation.

While Leong was winning races he was also welcoming young drivers and mechanics to the sport. Mike Dunn, now a retired NHRA champion driver and ESPN motor sports commentator, started his professional career in 1977 when Leong hired him as a mechanic.

Dunn remembered Leong as a man who believed in helping others. Dunn was a member of Leong's pit crew for three years. When Leong learned that Dunn wanted to be a driver he used his connections to help Dunn get the experience he needed to make the transition.

"He got me the ride (driving) in the Bear Town Shaker (funny car) in the summer... I drove it in the summertime to get some seat time, and then I went back with Roland at the end of the year. I drove a few races for him and actually won. I got ride (driver's job) full time in '81."

Leong helped Dunn off the track as well. When Dunn was too shy to introduce himself to a woman he wanted to meet, Leong made the introduction for him. Mike and Sandy Dunn have been married for 41 years.

Jerry Inouye, retired HPD officer and life-long drag racing fan, credits Leong for his "dream come true" second career working on funny cars.

"I was attending the Winternationals with some friends, and we saw Roland and his funny car in the pit," Inouye said. "He waved us to come over. He said, 'Are you guys from Hawaii?' We said, 'Yeah, how did you know?' He said, 'I can tell by the way you walk,' and we had a conversation. He always seemed to reach out to people from Hawaii, even though he had been in California since the early 1960s, He was so proud of the fact that he was from Hawaii."

A friendship grew from that first encounter. From years of friendship came an opportunity Inouye had never anticipated.

"He asked me if I wanted to come help him work on a nostalgia top fuel dragster owned by this guy named Jim Murphy. He let me tag along and he taught me what he could. Through Roland I got to help out on not only that dragster, but a funny car in England, a funny car in Missouri, and I'm working on a funny car on the NHRA circuit. I'm working on Bob Bode's funny car. All of this is because Roland introduced me to all these people. This is like a dream come true for me," Inouye said.

Leong was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 2020; COVID-19 precautions delayed the formal ceremony until 2022.

A biography, "Roland Leong 'The Hawaiian': Drag Racing's Iconic Top Fuel Owner &Tuner" by Lou Hart, was published in August 2023. Prudhomme wrote an introduction for it.

Leong is survived by his girlfriend, Susie Sue; his daughters, Rolanda Leong Mori and Lani Leong Denhardt; his sisters Marilynn Leong Tsuru and Jamie Leong; and four grandchildren.

Prudhomme will host a celebration of life for Leong on March 21, at the Lions Automobilia Foundation &Museum, 2790 E Del Amo Blvd., Rancho Dominguez, Calif.

Plans for Hawaii have not been announced.