It is hard to tell if the title of Marshall Curry’s documentary about young hopeful race car drivers, Racing Dreams, is a play on, homage, or unintended mimicking of the documentary about young hopeful basketball players, Hoop Dreams. Either way, the comparison between the two films is unavoidable. Like Hoop Dreams, Racing Dreams is an up close and personal look at the culture of hope that surrounds American sports – where kids at the top of their game at a crucial age discover if their life long dream of sports success is going to come true or be forever lost. No matter how you cut it, that situation is an ingredient for a compelling story, which is why the odds are usually pretty good that a sports documentary is going to be engaging. Racing Dreams does better than that, succeeding to a large extent because of the tension added to the story by the high level of parental and financial investment that is necessary to chase down the dream of racing NASCAR stockcars.
The film follow three young go kart racers for a year as they compete in World Karting Association’s National Pavement Series, a national championship go kart circuit. This is the youth racing circuit that produced superstar drivers like Jeff Gorden, and the three kids, Annabeth (11), Josh (12), and Brandon (13), are at the critical age where success in the karting series means they could earn the sponsorships necessary to move up to stock cars and begin chasing down their NASCAR dreams. The subjects are well-chosen not only because all three are among the best racers in their age group, but because they come from very dissimilar backgrounds. Josh has a supportive middle class family with the means (or at least the credit cards) to provide the gear and hours needed to get Josh racing. These go karts are mini stock cars, and off track, the parents spend hundreds of hours fine tuning motors, bodies, and tires.
Brandon, on the other hand, comes from a broken family. He lives with his grandparents, and his deadbeat father, who is continually in and out of jail, returns to scene during the course of the filming. It is a miracle that Brandon can afford to race, even though he dominates the senior karting circuit. But this may be his last year on the track, as his grandparents plan to send him to military school.
Annabeth is unique because she is a girl in a man’s sport. Her gender plays into the story when puberty begins to set in during the racing year, and Annabeth’s interest in friends, boys, and other normal middle school age things make her question her desire to keep racing for the rest of her life.
That is the key question in Racing Dreams: who can keep in the race the longest. The sport of car racing is different than most others because the investment necessary to keep going is so high. If a kid decided not to play basketball, he or she would put down the ball and go inside. With racing, turning away would mean wasting tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of their parents’ dollars. There is a great scene when Annabeth climbs into a stock car her racing-obsessed father has bought for her. As her father attaches the windshield, you can see in Annabeth’s face a recognition that the she may in way over her head.
Curry does well capturing these moments, and each of the three story lines manage to portray the uncut humanity of their characters – kids rocketing through the age of adolescence, facing adulthood early because of their devotion to a sport. Of the three, Brandon’s story stands out as the strongest because he is working against such adversity. Brandon displays all the contradictions of a deeply hurt, problem child – bravado and insubordination matched with an innate sweetness and a puppy dog-like instinct to trust. We can’t help but cheer on Brandon as he races around life’s next bend, hoping he avoids a wreck.