NASCAR Indigestion

Well, I’ve seen Marshall Curry‘s Racing Dreams (i.e., having been urged to do so by L.A. Times columnist Scott Feinberg) and I have to be honest and say that despite it being a well-crafted portrayal of a world I didn’t know (and have never wanted to know), it alienated and creeped me out because of the NASCAR culture and lifestyle issues it brings to the fore.

Racing Dreams director Marshall Curry (second from right), exec producers Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (left), Dany Garcia (left of Curry), and Bristol Baughan (right of Curry), as well the subjects of the doc (l. to .r) — Annabeth Barnes, Brandon Warren, Josh Hobson. Taken outside Tribeca Film Festival screening on Saturday.

Curry shoots and cuts like a pro and knows how to charm and engage and make it all come together within the confines of the material, but if you see NASCAR world as a ghastly cultural prison, as I and Will Ferrell certainly do, then it’s hard not to see Racing Dreams as a mixed-bag thing, at best.

It’s about three nice kids — Annabeth Barnes, Josh Hobson, Brandon Warren — going through a year of NASCAR Little League, and the various issues and challenges they and their parents are confronted with along the way. It’s mainly about positive and dedicated parenting and the teaching of solid values. I admired and identified with the parents (and in one instance a grandfather and grandmother) doing everything they can to help their kids make it in a very tough realm, and within these limits Racing Dreams is fine, I suppose, as a junior-sized Hoop Dreams on wheels. It’s well-cut, well-ordered, and stirring as far as it goes.

But I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the kids all through it. Here, I thought to myself, are three good drivers with skill and desire but doomed to live in NASCAR world for the rest of their lives. They’re in a cultural Devil’s Island and they don’t even know it, and they probably never will.

I trust I’m not the only urban-residing blue-state guy who despises the whole blue-collar NASCAR thing — muscle cars, all-over machismo, burning oil like there’s no tomorrow and certainly no global warming, a culture that loves its barbecued ribs and cans of beer and chili with ketchup and is totally about fortifying its own bullshit while keeping the outside world out, all the guys wearing Van Dykes and Fu-Manchu moustaches and everyone just enjoyin’ the noise and the exhaust fumes and the fast drivin’ and occasional wipeouts and rollovers and the everybody puttin’ on the sunscreen in the bleachers….hell, man… yeehawww!

Indiewire reported yesterday that Racing Dreams got a “five minute standing ovation at the end” and that “execs from Fox Searchlight, Magnolia, and Sheila Nevins from HBO were all in the audience.” It might play in shitkicker country but I don’t see it working out all that well in blue territory because it’s just too damn strange and alienating. Where’s the upside in succeeding in a world like this? At the end of the day it’s still a culture that pours blobs of ketchup into bowls of chili. If by clapping my hands three times I could eradicate NASCAR and the NASCAR muscle-car mentality, I would clap my hands three times.

Feinberg told me it’s “definitely gonna be nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar and could well win.” Well, I don’t think it’s a shoo-in at all. I know for certain I will never sit through it again.

  • BurmaShave

    And yet you revere THE LAST AMERICAN HERO? Strange. NASCAR should be your favorite sport, Hispanics aren’t involved in any aspect of it. I keeed I keeed.

  • corey3rd

    Because a movie about three kids in go carts is going to beat Burma VJ – a movie about dedicated guys with camcorders doing their best to get the truth out to the world?

    What other documentaries has Feinberg seen? What are his Top 5? Cause this ain’t going to cruise to Oscar glory unless the doc committee is taken over by old Zoom cast members.

    And I agree with you about NASCAR since the whole Car of Tomorrow has taken all the connection out of the sport. No longer is the shape of my car really zipping around that track. It’s all the same car with different stickers.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    I love Last American Hero — truly a great American film. Same subject, entirely different approach. Jeff Bridges’ character, Junior Jackson, was doing the best he could with all kinds of odds stacked against him. He’s a great driver and this is the best he can do, so more power to him. The kids in Racing Dreams, on the other hand, are born and bred into NASCAR culture — theirfuture is mapped out for them, and I felt enormously sad about that.

  • BurmaShave

    Fair enough. Haven’t seen it obviously, and I’ll be the first to admit I have about zero interest in this doc. I just thought it seemed odd you were overlooking how stock car racing emerged from a sort of mythic and stirring American folklore. I know it’s been corporatized up the wazz, but then, what hasn’t?

    But yeah I always feel icky about these kinds of sports kids with their free will removed. Have even known a few growing up. Figure skaters were the saddest.

  • DarthCorleone

    I can relate to this rant to some degree. I’m sure there’s a very human and affecting story in the world of NASCAR, and I’m sure it offers many of the tried and true themes related to winning and losing across all sports. Nevertheless, I’ve just never gotten the car thing (much less the NASCAR thing) in American culture. At all.

    I enjoy beer. I enjoy southern outside gatherings of all sorts. I like ketchup. I love football. But this whole thing does just seem so wasteful to me. I guess I’m an environmental extremist, but if I could clap my hands three times and make all automobiles into a sort of nationalized school uniform with outstanding miles-to-the-gallon, then I’d clap my hands three times and make the glamorization of going from 0 to 60 in however many seconds a thing of the past. Cars are “point-A-to-point-B” to me, and I don’t think a few speed thrills, engine revs, or the flaunting of a bank account are sufficient reason to make them anything more. (Obviously I’d make exceptions for utilitarian purposes.)

    I guess I’m something of a hypocrite, because I do enjoy racing video games, and I played with toy cars when I was little.

  • corey3rd

    these kids should be forced to train like the NASCAR greats – running moonshine for their pappy.

  • BoshBarnetWonkyDonkey

    I don’t quite understand how car racing is the sport of the blue-collar in America. In Britain, where I am originally from, Formula 1 is the big racing sport and its fans tend to be affluent middle-class, middle-aged men. The whole culture of Formula 1, with a racetrack in Monaco, each driver owning a private yacht, swanky champagne being spunked everywhere at the end of a race etc. just screams money.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    That’s a good point.

  • corey3rd

    NASCAR racing is more blue collar because of its origins. It was called stock car racing. The guy basically altered the engines in old cars so they could go faster Eventually they went legit at tracks around the south.

    Folks enjoyed going to the track and seeing Richard Petty with a slightly modified Dodge take down Fords and Chevy cars. That was your car on the track. Nobody in Europe drove to the grocery store in a Formula 1 racer. You weren’t cheering for a name, you were cheering for your car’s “cousin.”

    This wasn’t the rarefied air of Formula 1 racing with the rocket scientists pushing the engines. This was good ol’ boys who loved pushing their cars to the next level and pushing each other around the track. it was a people’s sport.

    However in recent years, the price of running a team has skyrocketed with all that time in the wind tunnel and building of garage mahals.

  • Edward

    I’ve never been enamored of American style oval racing. I find Formula 1 and road racing like Sebring to be much more interesting. I’d find NASCAR more interesting if they were actually modifying a car that could be driven off the dealer’s lot.

  • 62Lincoln

    The Formula One point is excellent.

    Jeff, I can’t explain Nascar in a few simple paragraphs. I know it very well, having grown up in the middle of Nascar country. The best movieland analogy I can make is: summer tentpole moviies. With most tentpole movies, there might very well tremendous technical achievements, outstanding cinematography, etc. all created by indiviiduals who share nothing with the intended audience. Nonetheless, at the end of the day the movie remains an empty shell designed to attract mouthbreathers. And despite the absence of shared interests, many cinema fans may very well find themselves (on occasion) sharing a theater with that very crowd to view one of those films.

    In Nascar, there are multitudes of high level engineers, moneymen, etc., who share nothing culturally with most of the fans. The “product” they create is done for reasons of competition, technical challenge, etc. And within the fanbase, there is much more than just yahoos, although the yahoos tend to crowd out everyone else (see tentpole analogy).

    It’s a strange coincidence, but yesterday I watched a good bit of the Nascar race, something I haven’t done in years. And the one thing that I will always remember was what happened on the final lap: after Carl Edwards’ car went airborne, crashed into the fence, flipped, landed upside down, and then finally on its wheels (one of the most horrifying wrecks I’ve ever seen), he climbed out of the car uninjured, and ran to the finish line on foot to be able to finish the race. Say what you will, but the man has balls the size of basketballs to step out of that car and run to the finish. It’s true grit, and that cannot be faked.

  • BoshBarnetWonkyDonkey

    Interestingly enough, Formula 1 is being spanked by the economic crisis. What’s more, it’s become fantastically boring and bureaucratic, with races occasionally being decided after the fact by a committee in the event of rule breaches, etc.

    I always thought it’d be far more fun if every car was exactly the same. Then it’d be a pure test of each drivers’ skill.

    The windy, unique tracks of F1 are far more interesting than the oval of NASCAR. If they just made every car the same and put them on those awesome courses, the sport would be fantastic. Sadly the manufacturers are so intent maintaining the pissing contest of whoever has the best engine/design/spoilers/tyres, etc. we’ll probably never see that.

    In summary, Jeremy Clarkson’s a twat.

  • BoshBarnetWonkyDonkey

    I meant to say winding rather than windy. They’re not all conducted on coasts.

  • Marty Melville

    I wish Altman was around to make a Nascar movie.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Carl Edwards is a man I can and do respect.

  • shanes5

    I missed something-where the hell did that Carl Edwards comment come from? Is it the backflip?

  • Arran

    Jeremy Clarkson may be a twat, but he still amuses me. I’m more of a James May fan, though.

  • Calraigh Bracken

    Clarkson may indeed be a twat but Top Gear is still consistently one of the most entertaining programmes on TV. Hammond notwithstanding.

  • 62Lincoln

    Shanes5, I think Jeff was referring to the final paragraph of my previous post.

  • Krillian

    You say that a lot. If I could clap my hands and make these people disappear. NASCAR fans, Republicans, conservatives, red-state-dwellers, people who voted for McCain… IF you could REALLY clap your hand and kill 45% of America, would you? REEEEALLY? It’d make you the biggest mass-murderer in the history of the planet.

    I feel a screenplay idea coming on…

  • BurmaShave

    What’s with all the hating on Jezza?

  • vp19

    NASCAR is an indication of how southern culture has permeated American society. When I grew up in the 1960s, the big auto race was the Indianapolis 500; only a handful of folks north of Martinsville, Va. cared about stock-car racing — that was for Bubbas. Today, the Bubbas have taken over.

    But whle I personally don’t care much for NASCAR, or the hero worship given some of its drivers, it would be a ridiculously broad brush to paint everyone involved with the sport as a bunch of yahoo racists. There is some science involved to the craft, though I don’t know whether it’s quite as sophisticated as Indy Car or Formula 1 racing, and NASCAR officials have tried to reach out to blacks and other minorities — not just as fans, but as participants.

  • corey3rd

    Indy racing didn’t help themselves with their power struggle. The politics turned off a lot of casual fans. Also didn’t help that it used to be the Indy 500 wasn’t broadcasted live on ABC – they tape delayed it for that night.

    Formula 1 and Indy Racing’s biggest problem is that it’s nearly impossible to tell the cars apart -especially teammates with identical paint jobs. NASCAR has colorful cars which you can tell apart without the help of the a pair of binoculars on loan from NASA. If you know what product sponsors your NASCAR driver, you can follow them. You won’t confuse the Best Buy car with the Lowes car.

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  • RichBly

    Never been much of a fan of Nascar, but I consider racing dreams one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

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