New York Times




“Too Young for Driver’s Licenses, but With Full-Throttle Ambitions”

By Stephen Holden

“Racing Dreams,” Marshall Curry’s absorbing documentary examination of the world of professional auto racing, comes at its subject craftily: from below. Instead of profiling the superstars of stock-car racing, glorifying the sport and relating its history, it concentrates on three up-and-coming competitors in its unofficial Little League, the World Karting Association.

Its subjects, Annabeth Barnes, 11; Josh Hobson, 12; and Brandon Warren, 13, are too young to have driver’s licenses. But zooming around oval tracks, in a yearlong national series that has produced many of Nascar’s top drivers, they gun their vehicles to speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. Those speeds are in contrast to the 200-m.p.h. full-speed velocity of a 3,000-pound professional stock car

This cool-headed film, edited down to 93 minutes from 500 hours of footage, has no extra fat. With any more trimming, it might have lost its smooth narrative flow, in which the everyday lives of the young racers and their families are given more attention than racing scenes.

Like a pint-size “Hoop Dreams,” “Racing Dreams” is the unusual sports movie that is more interested in the lives of children on the verge of adolescence than in giving viewers the cheap thrill of vicarious competition and heaping glory on the winners. Above all, it is a portrait of a rural, working-class society in which families live close to the bone, surviving on meager incomes that are barely enough to support their children’s aspirations; Christianity is woven into their daily routines, including racing.

Even at the World Karting Association level, car racing costs about $5,000 an event. The film follows its competitors to five races in various parts of the country.

Annabeth, from Hiddenite, N.C., is a third-generation racer and a rare female contestant in a male-dominated sport. She dreams of becoming the first woman to win the Daytona 500. Her mother, Tina Barnes, who describes stock-car racing as an addiction, is something of a role model. But as she approaches puberty, Annabeth faces a looming conflict between chasing her dream and having a normal adolescent social life.

Josh, from Birch Run, Mich. (outside Flint), is the most likely candidate for Nascar stardom. Poised, focused and bright, with a 4.0 grade-point average and impeccable manners, he is a student of Nascar. Even though his supportive parents are willing to mortgage their future for him, he understands the importance of gaining corporate sponsorship if he is to advance and pursues it avidly.

The most volatile is Brandon, who lives with his grandparents in Creedmoor, N.C. “He has no fear of nothing,” declares Kathy Petty, his grandmother. By the age of 5, his grandfather Phil Petty says, Brandon had more scars and stitches than most people have in an entire lifetime. At the end of the film’s shooting, Brandon enrolled in an R.O.T.C. program, and his grandmother says she believes he should attend military school to learn some discipline before considering a return to racing.

During the film, Brandon’s father returns from prison. (His absent mother, barely mentioned, is described as a drug addict.) The father’s return brings tension into the house and a sense of foreboding that Brandon’s good behavior won’t last long, which it doesn’t. His father’s presence brings out the core of vulnerability under Brandon’s bravado. His insecurity has already shown in a competition from which he was disqualified for “rough driving” after placing first.

For all its craft, “Racing Dreams” leaves you longing for more information about the sport. There are smidgens of advice on how to maneuver a go-kart around turns. But a few more details about the sport’s rules and basic mechanics — and its considerable risks (one accident is shown) — would have been welcome.

That said, “Racing Dreams” is one of the rare documentaries you leave wishing it was a little bit longer.