You'd think the world of junior go-karting would be a bit... insular.
Perhaps it is. But in the hands of documentary director Marshall Curry and his three speedy protagonists, it's also a world of discipline, purpose, socialising and competitiveness, where we get to know as much about the knotty world between childhood and adolescence as we do about racing turns.
Brandon Warren, 13, is one of the three drivers determined to follow his racing dream all the way to NASCAR
Curry had the good luck, or skill, to chart his film Racing Dreams through the eyes of three characters - Annabeth, Brandon and Josh - whose charm, character, humour and expressiveness would have made them stars with or without the mini-chariot and their dreams of one day racing at NASCAR.
"These drivers make a decision and they don't look back. That's how life goes - you make a decision and you don't look back." Some wise old track pundit, or social commentator? No, just 12-year-old Josh Hobson reflecting on the existential aspect of his sport.
Annabeth Barnes - a girl in a boys' world but, on the track, proving very much their equal
Meanwhile, throughout the five main races of the year that will determine the national championships, there's even hint of a giggly romance between Annabeth and Brandon. She leaves her number on the underside of his Race 2 trophy - that's impressive at any age, let alone 11. It's a compulsive watch, and highly recommended for both fans of the track, or just people who like watching other people... and below, director Marshall Curry affords HuffPost UK some insights...
What attracted you to making Racing Dreams and the subject matter?
Before making Racing Dreams, I didn't really know much about racing. I live in NY where a lot of people don't even own cars, and most people here probably couldn't name two race-car drivers. But I used to live in North Carolina, and I knew that NASCAR is the second biggest spectator sport in America- bigger than baseball, bigger than basketball. Then one day I read an article about extreme go kart racing - where 11 and 12 year olds drive karts that go 70 mph - that is essentially Little League for professional racing. I went to a few races to see for myself and it was unbelievable. The racing was noisy and exciting and the kids were smart and funny. They were at this perfect age, with one foot in childhood and another in young adulthood. I decided to make a film that was partly about racing, but was just as much about the challenges and thrills of adolescence.
Judging from what you got out of people from your conversations and the time spent with people – why do you think people get so obsessed with racing?
I think there's something primal about racing. Richard Petty (the greatest NASCAR driver of all time) was once asked when he thought the very first race occurred, and he answered "As soon as they built the second car." There's something about speed and competition - and of course danger - that draws people to the sport. I think people also love racing because it's something most of them touch every day. Most of us don't play football or baseball every day. But almost everyone drives a car, and in the back of their minds, they probably wonder what would happen if they decided to really cut loose. Among the families I followed, racing is a part of the larger story of growing up. The three day race events are where you fall in love for the first time. Races are where you test yourself and figure out who you are. And races are where you bond with your family - and also where you declare independence from them. There's a line I love in the film from Annabeth, an 11-year old racing prodigy. She says, "When you are 11 or 12, everyone is always telling you what to do. But when you are racing, you can't hear anyone else. Should I pass this guy? Should I wait another lap? It's all up to you."
Who'd have thought some very small cars would prove so thrilling? And yet...
Annabeth's mom put her love of racing into context for me at one point, saying, "A lot of people don't understand racing. They think it's just cars going around in circles. But we don't understand, say, baseball. to us, that's just guys standing around in a field, hoping someone will hit 'em a ball-- and they might not even hit it to him. So we think that's crazy..." I loved that because it reminded me that everything seems absurd when it's viewed from the outside-- whether it's baseball or jazz or documentary film. But once you get inside a little bit and start to understand, for instance, what makes a good pass in a race, it suddenly comes into focus and life becomes a little bit richer. It's a nice lesson about stretching yourself and paying attention to the world.
What was the biggest challenge when filming?
The most difficult thing in making documentary films is to get people to relax around you and be themselves. I always shoot with a skeleton crew-- usually just me and one other person-- and it's all very informal and relaxed. We don't set up lights or jam microphones on boom poles into people's faces. Everything is designed to capture intimacy. You spend a lot of time just hanging around, but when you capture a magical moment - like in Racing Dreams when the romance that develops between two of the kids-- it's really thrilling.
What was the biggest surprise?
I knew that I would like the families that we followed, but I was amazed by how generous they were with their inner lives. The film has very emotional moments of family struggle - for example, one of the young racer's father had drug problems - and those personal challenges turn the movie into something more than a "race fan" flick. It really made it a film about family and growing up that applies to anyone who has a passion.
What did you learn from the characters and what did you take away from the experience?
I think that the experience of spending time with these kids and families stretched me. It gave me a new appreciation for racing - the athleticism, the skill, and the excitement. I remember calling my wife, breathless, after a particularly thrilling race, and she had to laugh. I think she never thought her documentary-filmmaking husband from Brooklyn would ever become a race fan - but I caught the fever.
I also think the experience of spending so much time exploring the lives of young people reminded me of how important those early adolescent years are. I think in the media, usually we focus on cute little kids, or older teens, but those years when you have a foot in each world - 11, 12, 13 years old - are really pivotal. So much happens then that determines who we are for the rest of our lives.
Racing Dreams is available now from www.spiritlevel.com. Watch the trailer below...
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