Driving Dirty: Thundercars of Indiana

| November 23, 2008

Pretty soon after Sammy Hawkins drives his first race in the HBO documentary, Driving Dirty: Thundercars of Indiana, we see him accused of driving dirty. This pisses Sammy off. And though an even-tempered police officer offers that Sammy should just drive away if he doesn’t yet want to go to jail on this particular Saturday morning, we’ve already gotten to know Sammy enough to tell that he’s just blowing off steam.
Sammy really wants to win his first race at the Anderson Speedway in rural Indiana—he’s ‘0-for-5 seasons’ at this point in the film—but he’s adamant about defending his race ethics. As he further points out to said officer, “look at my car, my car’s creamed, and I don’t give a shit… It’s racing.”
Sammy’s all the way right about his racing—the car is indeed creamed—but maybe only half-right about ‘racing’ in general in this neck of the woods. As Thundercars progresses, it becomes pretty clear that racing, both winning and losing—clean or dirty, is far more than a few laps around the speedway track. It’s one-armed redemption for Wild Willie Coffman—who’s right-arm, and most of the rest of his life, was left nearly functionless following a motorcycle accident; or inherited destiny for grandmother Alice Riall who reigns over the Championship standings for most of the film; and it’s a stage for the confident and talented Billy Riddle to either shine upon, or get booed off.
Jon Alpert, the director and producer of Thundercars, does a strong job of developing these characters’ stories for us, but more importantly he does so at the same time that he develops their setting of Anderson, Indiana.
We read that one out of every three racers used to be an employee of the many GM plants that operated in the area during the ‘good old days’ of the mid-70s. By the end of the racing season, GM will have closed its final plant in the area, and Anderson on the whole will have lost 1300 jobs.
Sammy appears to be one of the lucky ones. He stays employed at a local Firestone Tires plant while many fellow racers suffer from other factory closings. He hasn’t suffered any physical handicap—crew chief Brandon Tompkins can’t race after a rear-end hammer shattered and went straight through his eye; Timmy Nickerson is nearly killed in a race crash. And when his wife drinks moonshine with him, she just asks him to play guitar where we see others’ “better-halves” both initiate and entice some serious physical violence.
And yet, he can’t seem to win a race, so when the finale of the racing season rolls around, we are just as likely to root for him, as any of the other of the local racers. Indeed, the final showdown comes loaded with anticipation due again to Alpert’s subtle and deft development not only of the racers and their respective ‘contexts’ but of the thrill of racing itself. Through only 3 or 4 races, we are thrown into nearly every racers car mid-race—nay, even mid-crash! —via lipstick cameras that clearly, and thrilling, convey the velocity of each car.
Alpert has successfully achieved a rare ‘tri-fecta’ here in the field of documentary. He’s given us not only a strong sense of his characters and the area in which they live in—either one of which on it’s own makes for a successful doc—but he’s also gives us an even stronger sense of the sport itself. A sport that even if you aren’t thrilled by—I must say I was semi-converted by those lipstick cams—you are still able to understand the appeal of, or even Sammy’s case, the adrenalin-driven-passion that it requires.
I will resist any sort of spoiler here, and simply say that our big finish is exactly what it should be, and needs to be for us and all of the racers—a telling and stark reflection of these people, their circumstances, their hopes, and maybe even the fates, both clean or dirty, for every one of their lives.

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