Documentary Review: A driver’s Indy Car season lets us see he is a “Born Racer”

2018 Indy 500

It’s the teamwork that steps to the fore in “Born Racer,” an Indy Car racing documentary built around the 2017 season of New Zealander Scott Dixon.

Dixon has had an international racing license since he was 13, and home movies track that climb up the career ladder from go-carts to Indianapolis. Members of his team marvel at his competitiveness, his instincts and trained reflexes.

The film shows the space age tech that he uses to train his neural pathways (mental sharpness and reflexes) and his neck muscles to handle a bouncy, stiff race car traveling at 400 feet per second with 6,000 pounds of down force — fascinating.

Director Bryn Evans works hard to maintain the suspense of a championship points race, covering that 2017 season from the pits, the telecommunications center, the garages and the RV where Dixon and his wife and kids stay on race weeks. We see a big crash, a furious physical recovery and the quiet stoicism of Dixon and those rare few who can do what he does.

But “Born Racer” sets itself apart from other racing films with the on-track sequences, the degree of interaction shown between driver and his entire Chip Ganassi Racing team.

We’re just sitting, either in the stands or at home staring at the TV, watching the cars weave around the road courses or loop Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but “there’s so much more going on.”

Instructions are calmly put in his ear — “Stay left. Debris in front of you, there.”

Profanity blasts back and forth when a pit stop goes awry.

Engineers are staring at telemetry about the car, its speed, fuel consumption — telemetry that distressingly flatlines when a car crashes. They’re not watching the track, they’re like NASA monitoring a spacecraft that’s just had a “catastrophic failure.”

Evans takes us through one of motorsports’ longest days — the running of the 101st (2017) Indianapolis 500 — from pre-dawn preps to team meetings. And he introduces us to virtually everybody who contributes to a winning, or losing, effort.

Kenny the tire specialist checks his “wet” and “dry” tires for the day, and being a veteran in the sport, compares Dixon to legends like Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna. They all share that same razor’s edge focus.

Assistant engineer Kate notes that “he car itself is not a fun thing to drive. You run over a pebble…the vibrations” rattle your bones.”

Chief engineer Chris marvels at a human “making corrections (on the road) faster than you can think. If you have to think about it, it’s too late.”

And Dixon’s wife, a former Olympic level British distance runner named Emma, shrugs and admits “We just don’t talk about the dangers, really. I married a guy who, unless he’s going really fast, he doesn’t feel he’s really alive.”

The danger part of the sport is mentioned, here and there. But “Born Racer” doesn’t have the pathos or urgency of “Senna,” one of the best recent documentaries about motorsports. It does have a crash, captured as it happened, and it’s a doozy — the Camping World Honda #9 airborne, pieces flying everywhere, flames, the works.

Emma Davies-Dixon keeps a cool head in front of her kids, but confesses, “That car saved our life today.”

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Engineer Kate marvels that the debris from that wreck was spread over three garages when it all was over. But they’re on the case, rebuilding the car from scratch, and Dixon is doing his part, limping to therapy, chomping at the bit to get back at it.

It’s hard to reinvent the motor racing movie in the age of GoPro, when any live telecast is giving us points of view and coverage that filmmakers of yore had to move Heaven and Earth to obtain.

Voice over banalities like “It’s just about winning” and  “I think globally, the Indy 500 is a significant event” don’t add squat to our understanding of the psyche, the special skills and gifts of the drivers. They get emotional (a flashback to a tragic earlier crash), but they’re poker-faced daredevils, not given to bragging, emoting or giving too much away.

“Born Racer” still manages to give us things NBC, ESPN, CBS or Fox Sports cannot, an insider’s view of just how many insiders it takes to get a winner off the starting line and to the finish line, week in and week out.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R for some language

Cast: Scott DixonChip Ganassi, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan.

Credits:Directed by Bryn Evans, script by  Bryn EvansMatthew Metcalfe. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:32

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