Documentary Review: “The Last Race”

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Far away from the spotlight of NASCAR, IMSA, Indie Car or F1 racing, there are still people who race because they love it, work on their own cars because they have to and spend their Saturday nights at a tiny tracks, pursuing local glory and a cheap trophy to add to the decor in their (mostly) Man Cave.

One of the places that happens is the last race track in the area that claims itself as “where stock car racing was born, in 1927” — Long Island.

“The Last Race” is about those drivers and that track, Riverhead Raceway, a quarter mile paved circle in Riverhead, Long Island.

Filmmaker Michael Dweck cheerfully channels the wry, eccentric early documentaries of Errol Morris (“Vernon, Florida,” “Gates of Heaven”) in crafting this would-be eulogy for a way of life and the people living it in this working class corner of suburban New York.

Dweck mixes cheerfully amateurish interviews and staged moments with the driving community and track eco-system with poetic and visceral footage of the action on the track, racing sequences often set to sacred choral music by Mozart.

There’s nothing the least bit fancy in play here — no dazzling drone shots, nothing that would make Fox Sports track him down to work on their whizzbang NASCAR coverage. The technique fits the setting, a tiny 69 year-old track with an “infield” barely big enough for the ambulance and two wreckers that stand by, always at the ready, when the action is underway “Every Saturday Night!”

The people aren’t identified on camera — not the honking “New Yawk” good ol’boys grousing about “Jessica’s here. She thinks she’s a racecar driver.” Not the aged fan who shows off memorabilia from the scores of tracks Long Island used to have, ticking off their names — “Islip, Juniper Valley, Oakwood Park, Roosevelt Raceway, Sheepshead Bay, Freeport…”

Not even the young driver, captured by a GoPro camera in the cockpit of his late model beater, silently psyching himself up, putting on and adjusting his helmet, crossing himself and rolling forward as a “blunderbuss start” kicks off another 20 lap event at Riverhead.

Barbara and Jim Cromarty owned the track when this was filmed, one of the reasons Dweck & Co. came to document the track’s imperiled status (there have been many newspaper stories about Riverhead’s survival over the years). The Cromarties show up on race day with walkers, both of them.

They were hanging on as long as they could, holding out in the face of a crush of surrounding, soul-sucking development.

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That’s one of the things that Dweck uses to set the ironic tone he was going for here. Realtors and avaricious developers are posed in front of earth moving equipment or in parking lots, reveling in all “that used to be just trees” which have been cleared for “a new Costco…a Super Walmart.”

One of them even agreed to chat on the golf course. Nothing says “thoughtless greedhead” like that sort of arrogant cluelessness.

As with drive-in movie theaters and small farms, “the land is worth a lot more” than what it’s being “used” for, in this case, more than $10 million.

More amusingly, Dweck drops in on a racing preacher using racing metaphors and caution flags in his sermons.

“This flag, God’s been waving at our lives since we were teenagers. Racers, like the rest of us, do we want to be pulled off to the side…We wanna keep racing. God is telling us, ‘The tire’s falling off. Your CAR is on fire!’ Nooo! I wanna keep racing!”

Because the rest of us need reminding that if you get far enough off the Interstate, there isn’t that much difference between Riverhead and Brainerd, Minnesota, McCool Junction Nebraska and North Wilkesboro or Rockingham, N.C.

We hang out with the drivers, again unidentified, and lip-read “Crazy” Eddie Mistretta cursing a fellow driver, then hear him screaming profane threats, followed by him driving over to the officials and innocently claiming the other fellow was the one threatening to “beat my ass.”

His house is just a storage place for his trophies, something his new-ish wife is having a hard time reconciling.

Another driver shows off the extra junkyard fenders for his ’80s Chevy. “I got plenty’a spares,” he brags, “which is why I don’t mind hitting somebody out there.”

Fights break out in the parking lot that doubles as pit row and the garage. Even with stakes this low, tempers run hot.

One driver fires a few rifle rounds into a junker he’s about to convert into a race car. Another test fires his motor and tamps out his latest carburetor fire — with his hand.

Even though there are young drivers, here and there, Dweck suggests he’s capturing a vanishing subculture and a sport that is going away faster than the internal combustion engine. It might just fade out of sight, the bulldozers rolling in during the off-season.

But not if these folks have any say about it. Not without a fight, or a blaze of carburetor fire glory.

3stars2

 

MPAA Rating: unrated, fistfights, profanity

Cast: Marty BergerMike Cappiello, Jim and Barbara Cromarty

Credits:Directed by Michael Dweck, script by Michael DweckGregory Kershaw . A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:15

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