It doesn’t take a wrench-turning, gear-head car lover to understand the term “Snake and Mongoose,” particularly for anyone who grew up in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Even if they had never watched an NHRA-sanctioned drag racing event on ABC TV’s the Wide World of Sports, they were inundated on Saturday mornings with commercials for the popular 1:64th scale Hot Wheels toy cars of the same name sold by Mattel.
But there is a real story behind the wildly popular cars that remain the bestselling Hot Wheels of all time.
Their names were Don (The Snake) Prudhomme and Tom (The Mongoose) McEwen. Their all-out, head-to-head rivalry to pilot a 1,000-plus horsepower car one-quarter mile at 200 miles per hour, helped lay the foundation for what is now the billion dollar industry of drag racing.
Friday, automotive journalist Alan Paradise and automotive artist Kenny Youngblood will sign posters from the 2013 movie “Snake and Mongoo$e” at the annual Winter Rod and Speed Show at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center.
The movie was written by Paradise and chronicles the two men’s careers and their then unheard of corporate deal with Mattel that became the financial blueprint for other racing teams to follow.
“This is a film that is set up for true racing enthusiasts,” said Paradise, a southern California native who now lives in West Salem. “It depicts their struggles, their battles. It is very authentic. Don and Tom were on the set nearly every day and they say it is extremely true to their story.”
Writing the movie’s script seemed only natural for Paradise, whose love of all things automotive started as a 13-year-old helping his neighbor build a custom hot rod in La Mesa, California. He grew up in the Muscle Car era when his town’s streets were lined with Shelby Mustangs, SS Impalas and hemi-powered Mopars.
When his baseball career ended, his life as an automotive journalist began, including writing for magazines such as Street Rodder, Truckin’, Hot Rod and Motor Trend, as well as corporate racing work with Ford and Mazda. He has also produced numerous pieces for NASCAR.
“Mattel hired me to produce a documentary about the Snake and Mongoose Hot Wheels story and Tom McEwen suggested that I write a book,” Paradise said. “It was only natural that a movie come from that.”
It took several years to move the project from concept to fruition — his 350-page book had to be edited to a 120-page script for example.
The movie’s cast includes a mix of young and veteran actors. Jesse Williams of the long-running TV show Grey’s Anatomy portrays Prudhomme. Richard Blake, whose work ranges from Days of Our Lives to NCIS, portrays McEwen. Noah Wyle of the TV series ER and Falling Skies, portrays Mattel executive Art Spear, and former Los Angeles Ram Fred Dryer (Hunter TV show) plays motor sports engineer Ed Donovan.
Although their partnership with Mattel and their grudge matches that took them from coast-to-coast lasted only about three years, both Prudhomme and McEwen went on to illustrious careers and etched their marks in drag racing history.
Prudhomme notched 49 NHRA wins, won the U.S. Nationals seven times, was the first Funny Car driver to break the 250 mile-per-hour mark and the first to drive a quarter-mile in less than 5.20 seconds (5.193). At the age of 51 he became the third Top Fuel driver to pass the 300-mph mark at 301.60 mph in 1993.
McEwen is considered a mechanical genius throughout the racing industry. He won five NHRA national events, three AHRA championships and was inducted into three automotive halls of fame during his 45-year career.
“I’m a car guy,” Paradise said of why he took on the challenge of the movie. “It’s part of my DNA.”
Paradise said it was fortunate that the movie was made, because McEwen died in June. He is now working on another movie, this one shot in the Silverton area that is a coming-of-age story about three young women in the early 1970s.
He’s also developing a show called “Cars & Guitars” that looks at the relationships between music icons, such as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top or the Beach Boys, their love of cars and the music that has been created based on our love of cars through the years. It is being produced by David and Greg Bohnert of The Bachelor TV show.
Paradise and his wife, Annette, moved to West Salem about 18 months ago. Although he has owned numerous interesting cars over the decades from a Mazda Miata, an Italian-designed Ford-powered Pantera and a split-window ’63 Corvette, his daily grocery-getter is a Toyota Prius.
His only extra special rig now is a 1967 Ford Falcon that was purchased new by his wife’s parent’s and is virtually untouched, although a paint job is in its future.
“We knew that once our last son graduated from college, we were going to move out of southern California,” Paradise said. “We are very happy here.”