You may have heard that there’s a movie about car racing coming out. For dramatic tension it’s based on the real life story of two drivers, competing when the sport was very dangerous, whose relationship went from rivalry to respect to a deep friendship. Actually, there are two movies like that coming out. You’re probably more familiar with director Ron Howard’s $100 million F1 epic, Rush, which opens on Sept. 20th and centers on the competition between Niki Lauda and the late James Hunt. Made for about one tenth of that, and opening Sept. 9th is Snake and Mongoo$e, about drag racers Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. Snake and Mongoo$e had its worldwide premiere last weekend in conjunction with Reno’s Hot August Nights cruise festivities that included a Barrett-Jackson car auction. With a million and a half car lovers congregating this weekend on Woodward for the Dream Cruise, the producers decided to have a Detroit premiere as well, and the film will be screened at the Palladium in Birmingham all weekend long.
I knew about the film and had seen the trailer. Yesterday, I saw in one of the Detroit dailies that there was going to be a local premiere and that one of the film’s producers was the wife of the CEO of Event Services International. One of the things that ESI does is press fleet management, they’re the nice folks who drop off press cars, freshly washed, detailed and with a full tank of fuel on my driveway. The people I’ve dealt with at ESI have been great so I called up the local office and they put me in touch with the woman doing publicity for the film, Shari McCullough Arfons, who has a connection to drag racing herself since she’s married to the son of Art Arfons, of Green Monster jet car fame. Shari graciously arranged for me to get passes to the premiere so that you could read this review and if you’re in Detroit for the Dream Cruise maybe stop over at the Palladium and check it out.
McEwen and Prudhomme were competitors in the California drag racing scene going back to the late 1950s. Prudhomme worked in the family body and paint shop while McEwen came from a wealthier background. Prudhomme had been using the nickname “Snake” for a while and after McEwen beat him in an important race, Tom started using the nickname “Mongoose”, apparently at the suggestion of his chief mechanic who read the Jungle Book when he was a child. By the time they reached the top level of NHRA racing, though, both of them were struggling to make racing pay for itself. Sponsorship was minimal and often on the local level for a few hundred dollars. Race winnings barely paid the bills.
The men have very different personalities. Prudhomme is quiet while McEwen is outgoing. Prudhomme preferred to focus on racing, while McEwen had a better sense of public relations. For example, while Prudhomme team wore t-shirts with his snake logo, McEwen sold t-shirts with his rodent on them. It took him a while but eventually McEwen convinced Prudhomme that by working together as business partners they could make a lot more money than they did as competitors in NHRA. They started a barnstorming tour of match races, with guaranteed money up front. By then, the late 1960s, Prudhomme had won NHRA titles and McEwen was a top competitor so they were a big draw and could command the fees they demanded.
Both men were married and McEwen and his wife had three sons. Once, after returning from an out of town race, he noticed his sons playing with some new toy cars called Hot Wheels, billed by Mattel as the fastest cars in the world. I don’t know if the proverbial light bulb went on but McEwen had what has to be one of the great marketing ideas of the last half century, though it’s really a variation on “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. In this case, the buyers were young boys and their parents and the cars being bought would be Hot Wheels versions of funny cars that McEwen and Prudhomme actually raced. It was a brilliant stroke of cross-promotion, with the racers and race cars selling die-cast models and the die-cast models making new fans to come out to the race track and watch the real cars race.
Considering this all took place over 40 years ago, it was a fairly sophisticated marketing brew with other companies than Mattel, like Chrysler, involved. Prudhomme’s car carried a yellow Plymouth Baracuda body and McEwen’s a red Plymouth Duster. A Hot Wheels designer, a racing fan himself, helped design the cars’ and their transporters’ graphics.
It was a great idea. The two drivers made money from the sponsorship, which also allowed them to build cars that were competitive in NHRA funny car and top fuel categories. They made appearance money from their match races, and trackside merchandise, and of course Mattel made lots of money, selling millions of cars and racing sets.
All good things come to an end and after three years, Mattel ended it’s sponsorship and the two ended their business partnership but the die had been cast both in the business of motorsports and in their intertwined personal lives. The promotional materials for the movie stress how groundbreaking their deal with Mattel was. It wasn’t just that the money was good, it was the fact that it was part of a large marketing scheme, that a major corporation was making racing part of their business. The picayune historian in me says that’s a bit of an exaggeration, since by then Jim Hall had made plenty of deals to license his Chaparral to model companies like Cox and Colin Chapman also had arranged some big money sponsorship from a tobacco company for Lotus, but to be fair to the producers of the movie, none of those deals were as comprehensive or as mutually beneficial as the Snake, Mongoo$e and Mattel.
The names Snake and Mongoo$e and Prudhomme and McEwen are well known to a generation of drag racing fans and a younger generation of Hot Wheels fans. Their competition, which lasted over two decades, is considered by many to be drag racing’s greatest rivalry, the Gatti-Ward of the quarter mile.
Cross-promotion is a fact of life in Hollywood today. I don’t know how much product placement was actually involved in the making of the movie but included in the movie’s press kit is a press release from Cam2. Cam2 oil was one of Prudhomme’s sponsors and their logo would normally appear in the film so that deal does make sense. Thinking about some of the logos in the movies, it occurs to me that the two racers were pioneers in another regard. After the Mattel deal was over and they dissolved their team, Wildlife Racing, they started looking for other big sponsors. McEwen first got the United States Navy to sign up. Prudhomme responded by getting the Army logo on his cars. The U.S. Army still sponsors a NHRA team. It’s possible those sponsorship deals with McEwen and Prudhomme were the first time American armed forces services sponsored motorsports teams.
The movie starts and ends in 1978, at the NHRA nationals in Indianapolis, with the two going head to head for a title. Ron Howard is spending a lot of money with some very pricey vintage racers along with special effects to make Rush realistic. The producers and director of Snake and Mongoo$e went in a different direction, using mostly archival footage when showing on track action. That footage is rather seamlessly integrated into the film, though watching on a modern digital 4K cinema screen, it’s sometimes a little visually jarring to go from the grainy film or raster-lined tv footage to the high definition material. Access to the archival film was no doubt made easy by the fact that the movie is being presented and distributed by Rhino Films in connection with the NHRA. With digital processing, the old racing footage looks better than it ever has, even if it isn’t in high def.
Dramatically, Snake and Mongoo$e actually turned out to be better than I expected. Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, but then all sports movies are. The acting was fine. Nobody’s going to win any Oscars but the characters were believable. Jesse Williams, of Gray’s Anatomy, plays Prudhomme and he has a remarkable resemblance to Prudhomme himself. He seems to catch Prudhommes taciturn manner well. Richard Blake plays McEwen and shows a little range, since the real life McEwen had to deal with the death of his son Jaime. The real life McEwen and Prudhomme do have cameos in the film, as do other racing figures like Wally Parks. Prudhomme and McEwen also participated in the production, and were on set frequently. Blake spent weeks before filming with McEwen, going to locations and explaining what really went down. Linda Vaughn’s and Pam Hardy’s busts also make cameos in some of the archival footage. ER’s Noah Wyle plays the Mattel executive, Art Spear, who saw the wisdom of McEwen’s plan. Spear later would reduce and then end the sponsorship because they thought sales of the Hot Wheels versions of the Snake and Mongoo$e’s cars had peaked. Ashley Hinshaw plays Lynn Prudhomme and Kim Shaw plays Judy McEwen. Tim Blake Nelson plays, mostly to comedic effect, a composite track/tv announcer with a period perfect mustache and sideburns. Fred Dryer has a character role as McEwen’s gruff longtime racing engineer. The film was written by automotive writer Alan Paradise, inspired by a documentary he had worked on for Mattel celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Snake and Mongoo$e Hot Wheels cars. It was directed by Wayne Holloway.
To be honest, I expected something along the lines of a made for tv or straight to dvd movie, but it was much better than I expected. Not great art, but the characters were engaging, the motorsports side was authentic, the business and marketing history portrayed in the film continues to impact the way racing is promoted and sponsored today and the story arc kept my interest. If the film falls down it’s where it fleshes out the characters and their family lives. The way the strain on McEwen’s marriage brought on by his constant travelling (and philandering) was portrayed seemed a bit by the numbers. Juxtaposing the birth of the Prudhommes’ first child with McEwen and his estranged wife’s grief as also a bit heavy handed. Those were true life events. Sometimes life itself is melodramatic. Also, not only were their families part of the story, there have to be characters and events that resonate with women. My guess is that the casting of Williams, Blake and Wyle has something to do with that as well.
In any case, I enjoyed Snake and Mongoo$e and would certainly recommend it to any car enthusiast. If I came across it on cable tv I’d watch it all the way through. Everything looked authentic and at the heart, like screenwriter Paradise says, it’s a great story about two men. It’d make a great double feature with Ron Howard’s Rush, well, if they still did things like double features.
There is one big difference between the two movies. Unless you’re exceedingly sensitive about bad words or smoking, if you have kids you can take the whole family to see Snake and Mongoo$e. It’s rated PG-13 for “smoking throughout and some language”, according to filmratings.com. Prudhomme was a heavy smoker. McEwen liked pretty girls, and there are quite a few in the film, but there are no sex scenes or skin. The raciest it gets is when Judy McEwen gives Tom a warm kiss when he gets home from one of the racers’ tours. Howard’s Rush, on the other hand, is rated R. James Hunt drank, did drugs, and had a lot of sex with a lot of women. If you have kids, you might want to leave them with the sitter for the second feature.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS