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Movies bring rivalries to the fore

September 12, 2013

Quickly, tell me how many live action racing movies you’ve seen in the past 10 years – Cars and Turbo don’t count.

This summer/fall we’ve been blessed with two very good films about racing. One concerns itself with drag racing; the other delves into the world of Formula 1. One is a smaller film, the Snake & Mongoo$e tale of Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen’s rivalry, while Rush tells the story of James Hunt vs Niki Lauda during the 1976 F1 championship season.

I watched Snake & Mongoo$e just before the NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis last month. It’s a rollicking flick about the rivalry and personal relationship between Prudhomme and McEwen, friends today and competitors throughout their lives. Made with a rather low budget, its actors do an exemplary job of bringing the still-very-much alive protagonists to life on the big screen.


The loss of McEwen’s young son is one of the guiding points of the film and the fact that this duo pretty much brought professional drag racing kicking and screaming into the corporate age with their sponsorship from Mattel, changed the way the sport is run – and helped to develop one of the biggest rivalries in straight-line racing.

Snake & Mongoo$e has all the elements of a good movie with humor, pathos and racing action bringing the drag racing scene of the late 1960s and early ’70s to the fore. All the actors look a lot like the characters they’re playing did back in the day, with Jesse Williams emulating Prudhomme, Richard Blake as McEwen, Noah Wylie as Mattel executive Art Spear, Ashley Hinshaw as Lynn Prudhomme and Kim Shaw as Judy McEwen. Former NFL player Fred Dryer plays famed engine builder Ed Donovan to perfection.

With its human interest element, Snake & Mongoo$e can appeal widely. The archival racing film utilized, the cameos in the film (including Prudhomme and McEwen) and the general feel-good aspect of this film make it a winner. Just go see it.

I was among the privileged to see a preview of Rush, Ron Howard’s telling of the drama of 1976’s Formula 1 season and the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, two diametrically opposed human beings. Everything one did was different from what the other might do at any given time – off the track – but they were the best racers of their time and their rivalry put the 1976 F1 season on the map.

This film is rated “R” for the violence that occurs with Lauda’s German Grand Prix crash (and others), for language and for some nudity. It’s a beautifully crafted story of Lauda, who raced with his head and stopped at nothing to win and Hunt, the hedonistic and freewheeling playboy who had to throw up before he got into a racecar.

Casting for this film is brilliant with Daniel Bruhl cannily playing Lauda and Chris Hemsworth channeling Hunt, who passed away of a heart attack in 1993. The two actors fulfill the duty of portraying real characters, their skills enhanced by the spare dialog and clever direction by Peter Morgan.
For those of us entwined in motorsports, this is one of the few true renditions of the sport that tugs at our hearts and soul. The action is exceptionally good, the archival films look fabulous and, while not totally accurate, the story pretty much shows how F1 was back in that day. Hunt was the glamor boy and Lauda his rigid Austrian counterpart. Their story offers great human drama as these two immensely talented men pushed one another to the brink and back.

There are some surprises in the telling – and I’m not about to give them away – but when this film comes out in general release on September 27th, make a point to see it. You’ll be riveted to the screen throughout, as was everyone in the theater where I saw this film. You expect a well-crafted film from Ron Howard and in this one sure doesn’t disappoint.

But here’s the crux of these two films: they’re about rivalries. Great rivalries that rivet fans and pique their interest. Rivalries we just don’t see today in racing and that’s a damn shame. In fact, at the U.S. Nationals, the best press conference of the weekend came with Funny Car ace Matt Hagan, who has the look of a choir boy and whose day job is as a cattle rancher in Virginia.

After setting the fastest E.T. in qualifying Hagan came into the Lucas Oil Raceway media center and let loose. He said he was tired of all the “lovey dovey” atmosphere at the racetrack and all he wanted to do was beat everyone’s butt on the racetrack. He went on for a bit and made a few more incendiary statements, but watching Hagan’s cherubic face turn savage reminded me of the rivalries I wish I were seeing everywhere in racing.

Sure there’s a few in NASCAR, but in the Indy cars and in drag racing, it seems everybody wants to shake hands and be pals and buddies (maybe not so much in Indy cars these days with Penske vs Ganassi dogfights). Still, there are no more mano-a-mano battles like there were with Hunt/Lauda and Prudhomme/McEwen and that depth of hate is a good thing where it pertains to motor racing.

Let the gloves come off now.

We shouldn’t have to go to the movies to see great racing battles; rather, they ought to be happening right in front of us, each and every race meeting. But in the meantime, go see Snake & Mongoo$e and Rush – they’ll remind you of just what you’re missing.

By Anne Proffit

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