It was the late 1950s and they were just a couple of kids from Southern Cal. who loved cars, but loved racing them even more.
Little did they dream that a decade later they would be stars of the National Hot Rod Association, driving nitro powered top fuel dragsters and “funny cars” emblazoned with the logos of national sponsoring companies like Pennzoil, Coke, Plymouth, Champion—or that they would become heroes to a generation of kids racing their Mattel “Hot Wheels” sets in their home playrooms.
Don Prudhomme, born in 1941, is just a few years younger than fellow driver, Tom McEwen. Prudhomme was so fast off the starting line of quarter mile drag strips like Lions in Long Beach, or Famoso in Bakersfield, that he was dubbed “The Snake.” In 1964, Ed Donovan, McEwen’ team leader, gave McEwen, already a rival to Prudhomme, the name “The Mongoose” because of that animal’s ability to outmaneuver and kill venomous snakes. The monikers stuck and elevated the two to a prominence in the drag racing hierarchy that was further enhanced by a series of highly promoted match races on quarter mile tracks across the country.
In the early years of drag racing, drivers did it simply for love of the sport. Prize money dribbled rather than flowed. Car parts and a miniscule fraction of “the gate” were the meager payout. Almost exclusively, companies within the auto industry did sponsored branding. McEwen, the more commercially savvy, was always looking for new opportunities to expand his and Prudhomme’s name awareness in order to increase their bottom line. In 1969, several years after the Mattel toy company introduced its “Hot Wheels” toy racing cars, The Mongoose persuaded The Snake to take a meeting with Mattel’s then V.P. of marketing, Arthur Spear, at the company’s corporate headquarters. The charming and persuasive McEwen had earlier pitched the idea of a Snake and Mongoose “Hot Wheels” set. They featured side-by-side looped raceways and a parachute pull at the end to stop the cars. This was to be the start of a multi-year branding contract that gave the two rivals enough money to build state of the art funny cars emblazoning the Mattel “Hot Wheels” logo on the Snake’s 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and on the Mongoose’s 1970 Duster—as well as allowing them to build new Top Fuel dragsters. More branding money from non-automotive sponsors began to pour in and the largesse spilled out to other drivers. The American Hot Rod Association, quarter mile drag racing, and the drivers themselves became “hot.” ABC’s Wide World of Sports featured key races on its Saturday TV broadcast.
The story of Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen’s drag racing career is told in a richly illustrated book by historian/enthusiast Tom Madigan.
This past Spring, I photographed a feature film about the friendship/rivalry of these two legendary figures. A special highlight for the film crew was that both Prudhomme and McEwen were involved in the production, acting as advisors and supplying many of the classic top fuel dragsters as well as the Mattel funny cars with their haulers. McEwen stopped driving in 1992, Prudhomme several years later. The Snake, however, continued in the sport with his own racing team, winning top fuel dragster in 2002 and 2003 with driver Larry Dixon. He was often seen on the track in the thick of action, until fully retiring in 2009. McEwen is still racing as well— but he now has a line of quarter horses, all somewhere bearing the name “Mongoose.”
I was drawn into this bio-film by my friend Adrian Seery, a colorist at Technicolor. He is a longtime friend of the director, Wayne Holloway, notable for his award winning commercials. The film is produced by Robin Broidy and Stephen Nemeth. The storied friendship and edgy rivalry of the two racers was a strong inducement for me to photograph the film, as was the promised participation of the legendary drivers. It’s not often that a filmmaker has the opportunity to do a bio-film with the real life figures so deeply involved.
It also represented a full filmmaking circle for me. My very first job on a major studio feature was as camera assistant on the Monte Hellman cult movie Two Lane Blacktop from 1971. The cinematographer was my first mentor, Gregory Sandor, who had photographed Hellman's two previous films: Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. Two Lane Blacktop is the story of a cross-country race for pink slips between two young men in a hopped-up primer grey ’55 Chevy and a slick con man in a 1970 bright orange GTO. A nearly wordless eight and a half minute sequence we filmed at Memphis’ Lakeland Raceway is a documentary slice of the period’s drag racing world, one that represents the local weekend warriors, not its stars like Snake and Mongoose. In the sequence, actress Laurie Bird vacillates between riding with Dennis Wilson and James Taylor in their ’55 Chevy, and Warren Oates in his stock GTO:
The movie is available in a beautiful Criterion Edition DVD that has many extras including Rudi Wurlitzer’s screenplay:
The nether world of drag racing, with its renegade cousin, street racing, has always fascinated me, even though I’ve had no desire to participate—beyond blowing out the cobwebs in my ’57 Chevy Bel-Air several times a month.
Ever since I photographed American Gigolo in 1979, I have tried to keep a photo record of each movie. At the time we began filming my first film with Paul Schrader, I had just bought a Polaroid SX-70 camera. During production I made hundreds of shots: compositions and images that caught my eye and helped me explore the rarefied visual aesthetic of the film. These were never, strictly speaking, “production stills” or a comprehensive record of camera setups and lighting like what my colleague Vittorio Storaro does—just a personal, impressionistic notebook. Over the years, this effort has been scattershot at best, and mostly I am just too busy to shoot more than a few snapshots. But at the beginning of Big Miracle in Anchorage, John Krasinski gave me a new iPhone 4. I had photographed his directorial debut film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men from the David Foster Wallace novel, and this was a belated wrap gift. Since the iPhone is now a ubiquitous prop for many of us, I had it at hand throughout production of Snake and Mongoose. I was able to make dozens of pictures while waiting for cars to be readied or for background to be set. This movie presented a richer color and compositional field than I often see: the sinuous brightly colored sheet metal bodies, glimmering chromed engines, and threatening looking headers, were seductive to the camera, as were the remote desert locations.
While writing this essay about “The Snake and The Mongoose,” it occurred to me that including some of the images I had made during shooting would illustrate the sensual character of the cars and engines, but also highlight a few of the fleeting impressions in a cinematographer’s field of view as he sets about the business of constructing shots or even just wandering around, an iPhone at his hip. So, with no particular schematic in mind, here are a few of the images that caught my eye during the course of our all too short 20-day shoot.
Obviously, I made many photos of the four-wheeled stars of the movie. Here are a few. These cars look great in any light.
The long, lean chassis of the top fuel dragsters are a world removed in their graphic profile from that of the funny cars, even though they may share similar engines.
In detail photos, their colors radiate around the hood air intakes.
Several days shooting were at a remote location about twenty miles due east of Palmdale, over a dirt road backed up against rocky hills. It was the perfect setting for a desert motel, gas station and diner oft used as location for commercials and music videos. Rundown and reeking of a “B” movie set, I was fascinated by the rust and broken signs that still glowed neon in the evening sky.
Only a few yards from this decrepit, yet oddly compelling, outpost stood a lone massive tree, an oak, I think—an arboreal orphan in a sere landscape. I was mesmerized by its majesty against the cloudless sky and bright sand.
I thought of the single shadblow tree that, in his last years, Edward Steichen photographed with his Arriflex 2C. In all seasons and in all light, he obsessively recorded its moods from the deck of his home. At the end of this excerpt from a documentary film of his life, “Captain” Steichen’s wife, Joanne, reads from a Carl Sandburg poem.
The throbbing heart of the top fuel dragsters and the funny cars is the engine. One of the most famous of these was the Yeakel. our film crew was endlessly fascinated by these powerhouse engines which burn gallons of fuel in the few minutes they “cackle” (start up and idle) at the starting line, do a burnout, and finally race down the quarter mile at under seven seconds. The ear-splitting roar at the “Christmas tree” start line can exceed 150dbs.
One morning, coming out of a Bakersfield motel, I looked up to see two contrails balanced against twin palms in a nearly cobalt sky.
An hour later, at the Famoso track, I turned a corner on the way to the set to find a near perfect William Eggleston color-scape.
During the shooting of a film I have found that my visual acuity to landscape and architectural form is heightened. Things that I often walk past or don’t notice, grab my attention when I’m in production. It’s an intensity of observation that would be too much to deal with every day. A certain amount of disengagement in the visual field around us, especially to the constant assault of advertising, enables us to survive.
This has been a somewhat rangy and eclectic essay that began by recounting the careers of two legendary racers but has morphed into a personal meditation. I thought for a bit about how I might structure it as a more unified essay. But I readily accept that our minds are often, in fact, just a jumble, chock a block with overlapping messages and images confronting us every day and that is sometimes how my own aesthetic dictates work as well. I am amazed when I see how coherent and consistent the camera setups of many of my cinematographer colleagues are over the course of a film. A visual discipline kicks in for them that we may simply take for granted—as though shooting the hundreds of shots that constitute a movie were akin to working from some existing blueprint—rather than from the disparate, even chaotic process of image creation that must daily congeal into a unified experience.
Beyond the work of shooting our movies is the life experience itself, the part that never gets recorded on film. It is the record of our lived lives, of alien worlds stepped briefly into. It has been said that we make movies because we are voyeurs. I can't deny that. Sometimes, the experience of entering into others’ actual lives is more rewarding than the movie we are making. One emotional off the set moment for me during the filming of Snake and Mongoose was watching Don Prudhomme, autograph a cap and give it to me.
There was also another unexpected but indelible moment—seeing these two legendary racers, rivals, now friends, sitting in a beat-up electric golf cart, waiting patiently for the call to action for their onscreen cameo.