Pop Matters

‘Racing Dreams’: Just Wide Open

By Cynthia Fuchs

“Brandon has no fear of nothing. You say, ‘Brandon, that’s hot,’ and he’s gotta touch it.” As his grandmother Katy speaks, you’re watching 13-year-old Brandon Warren speed his dirt bike over hills and holes: zip, zap, zoom. His grandfather Phil adds: “He is just wide open. This kid’s had more scars, more stitches by the time he was five years old than I ever had in my whole life.” Zwooop: the bike disappears off screen.

Brandon is like that: restless, relentless, and fast. A world-class kart driver, he sees himself in a constant now. While he has an idea of breaking into NASCAR when he’s old enough, Brandon is less ambitious than he is relentless. “If I’m not racing, I’m not happy,” he says. “That’s really all I care about.” Brandon is one of three kids profiled in Racing Dreams, which screens 13 May in the Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, then opens in select theaters 21 May. As they make their way through a season’s worth of World Karting Association races, the drivers and their families share their expectations, achievements, and disappointments, their passion and their distractions.

Astute and engaging, Marshall Curry’s film shapes these experiences into an increasingly complicated story—about how kids grow up and how adults affect them. The film goes another step, too, in showing how this interlocking process is influenced by a wide-ranging media culture (including this film itself). So, as Brandon says that he “grew up around” racing, owing to Phil’s interest in it, the film shows them watching a race on a tiny TV in their shop, gear and car parts strewn in the background. As they cheer and frown and pump their fists, you’re aware that they’re aware of the camera hovering nearby. That’s not to say their self-performances here or elsewhere in the documentary are not true or even spontaneous, only that they’re more layered by virtue of the filmmaking. And in this, they’re much like the self-performances available in most any representation of “real life.”

To this point, each of the three drivers first appears watching TV. While Brandon describes what he sees in terms of speed (“You’re going 200 mph. That’s the length of a football field every second, and at the same time, you’re six inches from the wall”), 12-year-old Josh Hobson comes at it from another direction: “You have to be a person that can make a decision and not look back,” he says, “There’s millions of jobs out there, but being a NASCAR driver is the coolest job you could ever have.” For Josh, racing is work—it may be fun but it demands attention and analysis. The camera observes him reading in bed, zooming to reveal the book’s subtitle (“Mental Strategies to Maximize Your Racing Performance”). He explains, “I stay up all night writing my essays for school until it’s the way I want it.” He appears bent over his desk while he says, “I’m really a perfectionist on the track and I think that’s why I’m fast and really consistent with my lap times.”

You see where he gets this sort of focus when you meet Josh’s dad, Tim. While his son piles up trophies and medals in his bedroom, Tim keeps a spreadsheet on his laptop to keep track of the season’s points. “This is big year for Josh,” dad states. Seeing the WKA as a “Little League for professional racing,” drivers at 12 or 13 start deciding whether they’re pursuing careers or hobbies. Tim and Josh have a sense of where they’re headed: Josh’s “racing resume” is designed for the national sponsors they’ll need if they want to go on. The $5000 they spend each week on races now won’t begin to cover larger cars and more equipment and crewmembers.

Josh is ready: after a win, he stands with the local TV interviewer and thanks his engine and chassis manufacturers. A beat later, he’s watching Jeff Gordon on TV after one of his victories: “I just gotta thank Dupont and Pepsi and Quaker State, GMAC, all the folks from Nicorette and Georgia Pacific.” Josh helps you keep up: “I like to look and see how they do interviews,” he says. “And see how, when I get in the bigger stuff, how I would do. I need to learn more.”

As plain as it is that racing is a business, it is also a means of self-definition. Eleven-year-old Annabeth Barnes’ mother calls it and “addiction” (and old photos of her Anna’s dad in racing gear show they’ve been in it for years). Now they’re Anna’s crew and managers, calculating this year’s points so she might be recognized by NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, providing recognition and funding for female and minority drivers, with hopes of changing the sport’s image. At the WKA convention, Anna signs autographs and smiles for photos: precisely promoted, she delights in her celebrity and in being described (inevitably) as “the next Danica Patrick.”

While Anna notes in passing that she’s taken some grief as a girl driver (“But race time comes around, and they were like ‘Huh!?’ You can’t hide speed”), she’s keen when it comes to actual cars and driving. Anna’s transitions are multiple during her first season as a Junior Class driver. She’s sometimes bored with racing (she misses a friend’s birthday party) and is intermittently interested in boys (she and Brandon exchange a few flirtatious phone calls: “So, who do you like?”). Throughout, she’s uncannily aware of what’s at stake—on the track, with her parents’ expectations (“It’s hard for an 11-, 12-, 13-year-old to think about what they want to do for the rest of their life,” Anna says), and on film. During a sequence that shows each of the kids trying to a larger car—feet on pedals, engines gunning, faces intent—she wonders whether she’ll sweat inside this hotter, tighter driver’s compartment. After a couple of minutes inside, revving loud, she smiles: “Well, that was awesome.”