Dirty Driving: Thundercars in Indiana

Dirty Driving: Thundercars in Indiana, a subtle, provocative documentary that premiered last month on HBO, observes the complicated relationship between racers and the car industry.

Dirty Driving

Airtime: Thursday, 9pm ET
Cast: Sammy Hawkins, Alice Riall, Wild Willie Coffman, Billy Riddle
Subtitle: Thundercars in Indiana
Network: HBO
US release date: 2008-11-13
I'm not out here to make any friends. I'm out here to get trophies.

-- Sammy Hawkins

"We don't make cars any more here in Anderson, Indiana. But we can still race 'em and we can still wreck 'em, and they can't take that away from us." Sammy Hawkins makes his way down the road in Anderson, which thrived for years making parts for GM. Passing locked gates and boarded windows, he points out the businesses that have closed and notes that some "800 houses are up on the market." Day to day life in this tiny Indiana town is grim and getting worse, he acknowledges. "It's kind of downheartening," he sighs.

At the start of Jon Alpert's Dirty Driving: Thundercars in Indiana, Hawkins still has his job down at the Firestone tire factory. He knows he's lucky: "Half these machines sit idle during the day," Sammy says as scopes out the floor en route to the break room. "Not enough employees to run 'em." He's hoping this bit of luck will carry over to the activity that inspires him most -- racing thundercars (unmodified stock-cars) down at the Anderson Speedway. He's never won a race, "not yet," he says. But he remains optimistic because, he adds, "Every dog has its day." And with that small comfort in his back pocket, Sammy and his young nephew crunch through the snow that covers the track's parking lot. Soon it will be a new season, and he can try again.

Dirty Driving, a surprisingly subtle, provocative documentary that premiered last month on HBO and will air through December, observes the complicated relationship between racers and the car industry. The racers and their families build their own cars and serve as their own crews and vociferous cheering sections. During racing season, any casual encounter might lead to a confrontation, as drivers and their supporters take their wins, losses, and changing point standings very seriously. As the season begins, the film shows various rituals of consecration: the town chaplain asks if any drivers want him to say a prayer (one mother asks if he'll bless her nephew, "about to go over... for war"), while the drivers check their gear. "I'm nervous, dad," Sammy admits. "It's raining like hell."

The slick track doesn't keep Sammy from slapping his car around, sliding through mud and into a few other cars to boot. This riles his competitors, including Wild Willie Coffman, whose mother Mary calls him out the next morning. Sammy brings the film crew along when he stops by to "pay my respects to my rival," at which point Mary comes at him in close-up: "Straighten your act up on that trace track and quit driving dirty!" Willie's girlfriend is similarly inclined to defend her man: "I don't have any problem with him coming over," she says of Sammy. "But that don't mean he won't get his ass beat, 'cause he will."

Sammy laughs off their partisan vehemence (and pays little mind to Willie's tour of his crowded trophy room), but Willie's supporters are hardly the only race fan in town who think Hawkins cheats. Sammy's sense of order is less rigid than most. This even though he holds grudges when he gets hit in races, and he gets payback when it matters -- that is, when it will make a difference for his opponents. Though he ranks 27th and then 32nd in points during the season, compared to Willie or the grandmother Alice Riall, who swap places at number two or one -- Sammy finds something like a calling when he drives, even when it's into another wall or the sloggy infield one more time.

Though he's pretty much your basic man's man, not much interested in figuring out his emotional needs or reasons, Sammy does reveal details of his background, for instance, the fact that he's "lost rights" to see his daughter (whose name he paints on the side of his car for "good luck," and whose absence makes him sad: "She's with her mother. I just want to cry every time I think about it'), or that his other children died young (he keeps pictures of a two-year-old son everywhere in the house). A brief shot of his second wife, Christina, shows her stretched across an armchair, her limbs splayed, a drink in hand. "I don't have nothing to do," she says, "What else is there to do but drink?"

Christina's performance and frustrations are echoed elsewhere in the film, in other ways. Where the drivers find a weekly focus for their energies, their supporters tend to rage at perceived cheaters and bad sports. As much fun as they have watching the speedway sideshows (cars that crash and flip as entertainment, schoolbuses "racing" while loaded with delighted, screaming kids), the race fans all have their own investments. The film doesn’t judge them, but doesn’t look away when they act out (a couple of women start fighting after a long day and too much drink at a bar: "I like Holly," Shauna cries in the parking lot afterwards, "She's a good person, but not when she eyeballs my old man") or step to one another at the track (a cop intervenes more than once when Sammy rattles cages, urging his father to make sure his son backs off. "We've had a lot of ups and downs," Sammy's father says. And they've found ways to cope -- in distractions, tensions, and jobs, at least until they don't have them anymore.






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