When it comes to racing, the extent of my knowledge comes from the Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby – and I’m the type who thought the teasing of NASCAR culture in that film didn’t go far enough. Viewing the “sport” from the outside, all that flashes before my eyes are comically omnipresent sponsorship logos, dip-spittin’ hotheads and a series of left turns.
Major credit is due, then, to Oscar-nominated documentary director Marshall Curry, for opening my eyes to a world of pre-big-time peewee go-kart racers, a competitive junior league that contains the fun and camaraderie of more typical youth sports with the added pressure of being practically the only way in to a professional racing career. Its prepubescent practitioners are allowed to be kids for the most part – the stakes don’t come close to those seen in youth basketball, as witnessed most harrowingly in Hoop Dreams, but it can be relatively cutthroat.
In the polished, engaging doc, we meet three potential champions: Annabeth Barnes, one of the rare females in the sport, on the verge of oncoming hormones; intense Brandon Warren, battling demons in his home life; and perennial champ Josh Hobson, a genial, press-ready kid with a bucket-load of skill and the twinkle in his eye of pure, unforced passion for the game. While Josh sleeps and eats racing, Brandon threatens to come undone by his absentee father while discovering the first hints of adolescent infatuation with Annabeth.
Josh is a machine and even merits a brief advice session with Jeff Gordon, but that also renders his story somewhat bland; his future seems nearly predetermined. The tale of Annabeth and Brandon, however, is captivating. Curry is lucky enough to capture their giggly romance in its most innocent and thrilling stages. If there’s a more heartwarming scene at the movies this year than the two of them play-wrestling in an open field right after they both finished well at a race – set to Ryan Adams’ “My Winding Wheel,” no less – then I haven’t seen it.
Of course, the estimable heroes (or villains, depending on your averseness to kids in competition) are the parents. Their Little League determination/obsession is on full display here. Some of them are going broke supporting their kids’ (and their own) ambition. They travel around the country as they attempt to shield their children from life’s more unsavory elements – in Brandon’s case, that would mean his father – and they mostly acknowledge their own nurture vs. drive duality. There’s a great scene with Annabeth’s father as he toils away tweaking his daughter’s go-kart, where he grins and admits that she might not continue the pursuit once she discovers boys. He seems to know full well it’s already begun but isn’t quite able to admit it yet.
It’s those human moments that sets Racing Dreams apart from other sports docs. If you want intense, life-altering drama set in the youth league world, it’s Hoop Dreams you’re after. Curry’s narrative may be less traumatic than that, but it’s better off – as are these future NASCAR drivers – for it. One comes away grateful to know that there are still Little Leagues out there that haven’t been completely overtaken by the greedy corporate mentality. I never thought it would be found beneath the layers of colorful logos on a go-kart.