Photos courtesy of: Snake and Mongoose Movie
Friendship and rivalry are often two sides of the same coin, and few partnerships illustrated that so completely as Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. The drag racing legends were famous not only for their skills, and their much publicized rivalry, but for changing the face of drag racing from a bank-account draining endeavor into a well-known sport which launched the current model for corporate sponsorship.
But none of that really conveys the work, the thrill, the connection, and the pure enterprise that was Snake and Mongoose. Fortunately, a new film coming out aims to change all of that.
By the summer of 1971, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and Don “the Snake” Prudhomme had become the rock stars of drag racing. Together they thrills millions of fans, revolutionized the way the sport was perceived and opened up auto racing to corporate America.
Writer Alan Paradise already had a successful career as an automotive journalist when he started working in production. When Mattel approached him about making a documentary to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of Prudhomme and McEwen’s partnership with Hot Wheels, Alan started digging beyond the facts that everyone knew: the races, the friendship, the rivalry, the entrepreneurial spirit and found two intertwined lives lead largely in the public eye. He found a story bigger than racing, and he wanted to share it with the world. Through the documentary, he’d developed a casual friendship with Prudhomme and McEwen, who encouraged him to write a book. But while working on a narrative was fulfilling, the story itself was so visual that Paradise kept seeing it on a big screen – the chemistry, connection and competition were just meant for the movies! Paradise started the screenplay, and never looked back.
The 'Cuda and the Duster tipped up.
Sending the finished product to friend and producer Stephen Nemeth of Rhino films, Paradise held his breath, but he didn’t have to worry. Two days later, Nemeth called to option it, and “Snake & Mongoo$e” became a film project. But how to honor the legacy that Snake and Mongoose had left in drag racing history? The two men were still alive, still active in the community, even following Prudhomme’s retirement in 2010.
“We realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be a big studio release,” Paradise explained, “but in some ways that was great. We wouldn’t have the money to rebuild the cars, so we were going to need a better alternative.”
That alternative turned out to be the literal history. With permission from the NHRA, the team spent hundreds of hours watching race footage from the NHRA vault, and when it came time to re-create the iconic races, the producers decided there was no point in trying. No re-enactment could capture the thrill of the actual events. Instead, the team decided to intercut the original footage.
The 1978 final race.
The nod to history is appropriate. When Prudhomme and McEwen began their drag racing careers, what money there was to be had was gained weekend to weekend as they hauled to various tracks, and risked life and limb to race for whatever purse the track owners decided to offer. It was the wild west – hard on families and relationships, harder to get ahead and create a stable life in a less than stable environment. Talent wasn’t enough, luck wasn’t enough, and neither was skill. Prudhomme’s skill was undeniable, as was McEwen’s flair for promotion. In 1964, McEwen won his first race against Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. The race garnered so much interest that two more races were staged at Lions Dragstrip in 1965, followed by a final meeting at the 1966 Winternationals. The combined talents of the two men lead to a national touring team sponsored by Mattel.
When McEwen and Prudhomme partnered with the toy giant to create the representations of the yellow ‘Cuda and red Duster for a “Snake & Mongoose Drag racing set”, as well as sponsorship stickers on the actual vehicles, they changed the face of the sport. Suddenly, it was possible to afford new, better, and safer equipment, and the partnership offered them a new level of exposure. Decades, and entire careers including extraordinary wins later, people still know them from the three years as Snake and Mongoose. The film tells that story, but it goes deeper – past McEwen’s acumen and Prudhomme’s on-track talent.
Producer Robin Broidy explains what sets this film apart, and notes a wide appeal. “The sport itself is so exciting. It’s dangerous, it’s loud, it’s larger than life. Everyone knows the story of these two men, but this film is the fly on the wall, talking about HOW they did it, how they revolutionized drag racing and put themselves, and Hot Wheels, on the map. Cars are safer now, and faster. Drivers have a chance to make a living doing what they love. It’s about the lives they were really leading at the time.”
Both Prudhomme and McEwen were instrumental in helping their on-screen personas come to life with the young actors portraying them, something both Jesse Williams (Snake) and Richard Blake (Mongoose) found helpful and inspiring.
From left to right: Tom McEwen, Richard Blake, Jesse Williams, and Don Prudhomme.
“Tom McEwen was great—I spent a lot of time in prep with him,” Blake recalls. “As an actor you always have a responsibility. Whether it is a fictional character or not, you are telling someone’s story, somewhere. Now, with this story, the guys whose story you are telling are sitting there and watching you re-tell it. About six weeks before shooting, when it was really real, every Monday, I would drive down to see him. We would take time during the day to go to a location that was in the script. And he would explain to me scenes that were in the script, how it happened, what actually happened. But he was also really cool about understanding it was a movie.
The physical resemblance between Prudhomme and Jesse Williams was astonishing, but he knew that wasn't going to be enough. “I grew up in Southern California,” said Williams, “and it was great to portray someone from this area, to represent that era. I got to spend a lot of time getting to know Don and his family, and I was really determined to get this right.”
“When I met Jesse in person, especially after he shaved, it was a little scary because I thought, ‘damn, this guy and I look alike,’ ” Prudhomme relates. “He came to my house one day, we went to lunch, and bonded quickly. I really liked him playing me in this story—he was perfect.”
In addition to the actors, including Williams, Richard Blake as Tom McEwen, Noah Wylie as Mattel executive Art Spear and Fred Dryer as engineer Ed Donovan, several real life players have cameos in the movie.
Ron Capps, who drove for Prudhomme’s race team for 8 years, plays Lou Baney – an iconic team owner. “The whole set was like going back in time to the 1960s,” says Capps. “ Snake was there every day, and several of the actors are race fans. I got to ask them for tips to getting my character right.”
Tom McEwen was also on set. “I’d been drag racing since 1953, and it was great to have some say in the movie, and in the shots to make sure they got everything right. It’s a great story, particularly for folks who grew up with the Hot Wheels, and the movie really gives a sense of what it was like – working together, living together, the rivalry and the true spirit of friendship and competition.”
The other stars of the show are the cars, which were loaned to the production, including the original Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster now owned by car collector Bruce Meyer, the English Leather Corvette owned by Don Trasin, and the phenomenal collection of dragsters, funny cars and iconic haulers owned by Don Prudhomme himself – who oversaw their restoration to their original glory.
Snake and Mongoo$e is directed by Wayne Holloway. It opens September 6 in select theaters.