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Josh Hobson in RACING DREAMS (Photo: Tribeca Film Festival)

Directed by
Marshall Curry
Produced by
Bristol Baughan & Curry
Released by Hannover House
USA. 93 min. Rated PG  

Where do Nascar drivers come from? Most of the top ones start out as early as age five in competitive karting. Racing Dreams follows two boys and a girl, who are driving towards that winner’s circle. This competition is not arcane, at least not to the huge audience of Nascar fans who know it as a Little League-like training ground. The World Karting Association claims 10,000 members, and 100,000 Americans attend its road races around the country.

For the rest of us who find driving fast in circles, weekend after weekend, repetitive as a spectator sport, Racing Dreams is a revealing portrait of three very different young people intensely focused on being champions, and the impact of their determination on their devoted families (and vice versa).

This is not for hobbyists. Sanctioned karts have no suspension, but are about 72” long, 50” wide, weigh about 150 pounds, and have engines that generate over 30 horsepower in order to race at 70 mph. Tweens who can’t get a driver’s license are speeding around tracks, shrugging that it’s no dangerous than any other sport.

Twelve-year-old Josh Hobson, of Birch Run, MI, is so much like the Tom Cruise of Top Gun/Days of Thunder, cockily poised as he thanks donors to his annual fundraising event. (It can cost at least $5,000 a race to compete.) Though every aw-shucks grin seems carefully calculated for his wholesome image, Josh is a nice middle-class boy in a comfortable, supportive family, where mom bakes and dad tracks his progress on a spread sheet. But he’s so nakedly ambitious (he could be running for president) that it’s hard to root for him when, as he says, he’s “in the zone.” (For those who may find a fictional show business context helpful, think of Rachel in Glee without the endearing insecurities.) He’s star-struck when he meets his racing hero Jeff Gordon, but still has the confidence to aggressively ask for career advice.

A recipient of Nascar’s Drive for Diversity sponsorship program for talented female and minority drivers, 11-year-old Annabeth Barnes, of Hiddenite, NC, is the very model of its effort to broaden its market. She follows in her family’s “addiction,” as her mother describes itAnnabeth calls it being “born to race”yet there is also a strong sense of her dad reliving his youthful career vicariously through her. She may just meet her goal to be the first woman winner of the Daytona 500, if Danica Patrick keeps crashing. Director Marshall Curry (Street Fight) is there for an important year in her life as she grows from tall, stringy tomboy tween to girly teen, yet still passionately in love with racing and competing in a swaggering environment.

With an unpredictable temper, thirteen-year-old Brandon Warren, living in isolated Creedmoor, NC, is the bad boy in the bunch who catches Annabeth’s attention. (Cameras in both of their homes sweetly capture their tentative phone flirtation and when they walk around the meets together.) But the audience gets most caught up in his story because his home life’s considerably more complicated than the others. His gritty story raises the emotional level and intimacy of the film considerably.

Brandon lives with his protective grandparents, but it’s sometime into the film before we see why, when his ex-con father wanders back into his life and breaks his family’s hearts—again—by not staying sober. The grandfather has to—again—tensely banish him from his son’s life. No wonder Brandon wistfully notes “If I’m not racing, I’m not happy.” Finances are a continual issue for him, and in the postscript, Brandon is said to be excelling at ROTC, but into 2010 he still has no racing sponsor. His storyline will, no doubt, be the most poignant in the feature version that Dreamworks has commissioned.

Dedicated to filmmaker and racer Paul Newman, Racing Dreams has already played at theaters around the country in racing hotbeds, and Nascar fans helped to vote it the audience award at the Indianapolis Film Festival. But the film also won the best documentary award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival before now returning in triumph to New York City for commercial release. Nora Lee Mandel
July 9, 2010



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