Directed by: Michael Dweck
Rated: Not Rated (contains strong language and disturbing images)
Length: 74 Minutes
The Last Race is a film that I have been curious about since I first heard of it back in August. This rather concise but stunning documentary focuses on Riverhead Raceway, the last operating auto racetrack in Long Island. The film’s opening titles notify us that there were once 40 such tracks operating in the area. We soon discover that Riverhead is barely holding on. It sits on a valuable piece of land whose owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, are dealing with health problems and contemplating retirement. They know very well how unlikely it is that the track will remain in operation after they sell it. The land is surrounded on all sides by development and new businesses.
Director Michael Dweck sets up these circumstances and then only sporadically provides us interviews with the developers who seem to be closing in on the beloved track. He makes the wise choice to instead focus on the people who play a role in all aspects of the track’s continued operation, from the drivers to an announcer to a videographer who records the races and hands out “tapes” (they are DVDs) of the races to all the drivers.
Dweck also explores the lives these drivers lead when they aren’t behind the wheel, which provides some of the most memorable footage in the film (quite a feat considering the racing sequences I’ll discuss later). One of the drivers is a bee and wasp removal specialist, and after we see him at work, the risks associated with stock car racing don’t seem quite so bad.
Some viewers might become frustrated with Dweck’s use of static shots. Many of them are magnificent, including a wide view of the empty 1/8 mile track, but some seem to last an eternity. Early on, we join an announcer in the booth as he calls every pass and near collision of a race. I’m not saying these sometimes minutes long static shots are a problem, but that they require the viewer to approach these scenes from a different mindset than how we typically watch movies and even documentaries. What the announcer is saying isn’t important. It’s the world he resides in. Dweck avoids distracting us with camera movement so that we start paying attention to other details, like how the booth rattles almost alarmingly each time the stock cars rush by. I’ve been to stock car races at local tracks, and I never would have imagined such simple tactics would capture the experience the way these scenes do.
The film’s greatest technical achievement though comes in the racing sequences. If you thought it was impossible for anything related to NASCAR to be called high art, think again. Dweck places cameras inside the stock cars the same way that NBC or ESPN would, but these are not the expensive, super-safe (by racing standards) and sharp looking cars you might see at the Daytona 500. In terms of behavior, the drivers are not as ready for broadcast TV either. Dweck provides us with long shots of the drivers’ faces as they compete, with only glimpses of the other drivers and cars out the back window. The reactions he captures are priceless, none more so than when one driver becomes enraged after nearly being hit. In the instant the near wreck happens, the engine is so loud we can’t hear the words being said by the driver, but it’s not hard to read the F-bombs firing from his lips. The drama continues after the race as the driver cruises over to officials and profanely complains about his competitor before taking the man on himself. You may have noticed I keep referring to people as drivers instead of providing their names. That is due to one of the film’s flaws. Unlike most documentaries, it does not provide us with captions of people’s names when they first appear. Occasionally, their names are mentioned in soundbites that play in the background, but those are somewhat hard to hear.
There are also some things I wish the film had expanded on. In its closing minutes, it shows us a preacher who uses racing metaphors, labored but sincere, in his sermons. His introduction in the narrative seems a bit intrusive if it is only going to be used so briefly, but it does show us how the track has fans in every corner of the community. The preacher’s gentle nature also offers quite a contrast to the countless F-bombs and firsts the drivers hurl at each other.
Early in the film, two of the drivers complain about a competitor they claim is a terrible driver, who also is a woman. Perhaps Dweck asked if she would be a part of the film and she declined, but if not it would have been nice to hear from her and see her behind the wheel. Aside from Barbara Cromarty, this film is dominated by masculinity, some of it quite toxic. At other times though, Dweck challenges us to further examine these local legends and not see them just as helmet wearing tempers in beat up old cars. Many of them have hobbies you might find surprising if your notion of blue collar families comes only from sitcoms.
There is more I could say about this film but I would risk describing every scene, which would still fail to do the visuals presented here justice. The Last Race is playing in select theaters throughout the country but is also available to rent on Vudu as of today. Please check it out. Even for viewers who hate racing, I think The Last Race offers a touching and thrilling look at how we all deal with the potential loss of a beloved institution.