Long Island may have been the birthplace of American stock car racing, but today the sport can only be seen at one iconic local venue, Riverhead Raceway.
Michael Dweck gives viewers a behind the scene look at the track, which was established in 1949, its former owners Barbara and Jim Cromarty, the local heroes that race every Saturday night, and the fight to protect the property from becoming the latest causality of corporate interest in The Last Race, which is making its East Coast premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
We caught up with Dweck to learn more about the mesmerizing Riverhead track, the magic of the American tradition, and more:
Stock car racing came to Long Island in 1927 and at one point there was 40 raceways on the Island. Why do you think Riverhead Raceway is the sole survivor?
MD: It’s probably the last place where big box development consumed a town. Also, because there were some strong political forces there that liked the race course to stay – up until this point. Long Island has always had a racing culture, always. Starting back in the ’20s and ’30s and it was really strong in the ’50s and ’60s. I think that this particular track is so tied to the community because you have 2,000 people showing up every Saturday night to root for their drivers. The drivers are these working class people. They don’t have great jobs during the week, but Saturday night they have dignity and you have 2,000 people cheering them on and getting autographs in the pit and feel quite special. I think because of that, that’s why it’s stayed there this long. These racetracks are a very important part of a community at a time where communities and culture in general are becoming disconnected for a bunch of reasons – a lot of it has to do with social media, but also because of the way the country is developing very quickly where you don’t have community centers anymore. You now have big box centers consuming communities, places like libraries, little cafes, bakeries, diners – all these places we used to hangout at are gone.
Before you started filming, were you aware Jim and Barbara were interested in selling Riverhead Raceway?
MD: No. I heard rumors and I asked a lot of people about it and I asked them about it and they said yes, we have been getting offers for this piece of land for ten years and we refuse to sell. And, I said, ‘Well, why?’ Because when I first met them in 2007, I was starting to shoot photographs there and they were elderly, but they were only 77-years-old at the time. Barbara had already broken her hip once and Jim had broken both of his hips already. And I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘We feel responsible to the community, we feel responsible to the drivers.’ That line in the film where she says, ‘Most of our friends that retire, all they do is decide what card game to play and where to have dinner. Well, we have more. We have our youth.’ I thought that was very interesting for someone in their late 70s to say to me – that they had their youth. They were also dressed in NASCAR uniforms and I could see them transform. I could see this couple coming from Manhattan, coming down this dirt road to the track and I’d watch them transform to what seemed to older people into young spirits popping out of a car, opening the gates to the track, opening the hotdog stand, opening the beer stand, opening the ticket booth. Then when I saw it, because I was shooting photographs there for five years (from 2007 to 2012), I made that my photography studio and tried to memorialize the racetrack and I shot and filmed it for five more years after that. I spent a lot of time there and everybody that came through that gate, the drivers, the workers, all transformed. I’d be living with them, filming their homes, and I’d see people at work, mechanics that had backs that were destroyed, couldn’t walk, had a rough life and you’d watch them just transform. Come through the gates of the pits and they would just change into something else. That’s what I realized was the magic of that place, not just for the drivers. The drivers, the fans, the workers – what that gave the town was the magic of life. You now knew what it was like to be alive again because of the sound, the smell, the noise, your attachment to the racers. It’s just a magical place that I thought had to be saved.
As someone who had admired stock car racing for many years, what did you hope to accomplish with The Last Race?
MD: I spent the last five years of my life working on this film and I funded it mostly from my personal savings and I think I did it because I believe that grassroots culture is important. Riverhead Raceway is a place where fathers and sons work on their cars during the weekdays so they can race on the weekends – you see in the film how important that is. It’s a breeding ground for the world’s next generation of racers, which is kind of important. And more importantly I wanted to show the world what it’s like to race in this place. I’m hoping that the attention that this film brings will help keep the lights on just a little bit longer.
How many drivers race there?
MD: There are usually 200 cars there. Each only race lasts, depending on the division, from 11 to 15 minutes. They go very fast, they go 100 miles an hour. It’s the same track in high school where they have the track meets, that track, it’s the same size. Imagine you have 30 cars going around the track at 100 miles per hour around your high school.
Will any of the drivers attend the screening?
MD: You betcha. A lot have confirmed already but I hope they all come. I was trying to get the drivers out to Sundance where it premiered but it was too difficult. The local drivers came and they have the same problem out there. The local track is closing in Sundance. We had a car brought out there and The Last Race was painted on it and when they came out of the screening, the audience signed it. It was raced that way the entire year up until the very last race this year.
In addition to The Last Race, a selection of your photographs which focus on Montauk were featured in a special Sotheby’s exhibition. Could you speak about those works a bit?
MD: 15 years ago almost to the day was when Sotheby’s had decided to show my photographs for the first time – it was the first time anyone had decided to show my photographs and that was the beginning of my photography career. I decided to do a body of work about Montauk – it was a place I have been going to since 1974. The End was my idealized version of Montauk. They showed 62 pieces. That was a narrative and very much like a movie – a day in the life, in my mind, of how a surfer lives. They showed that body of work, they showed my second body of work, the Mermaid series, and the third one which is in Cuba, Havana Libre, and my newest body of work which I did at the Raceway. I spent five years from 2007 to 2012 making that. I spent another five years making the movie. What my work all has in common is the same theme – it’s all stories about cultures that could be gone in a generation. I knew that Montauk was going to change. My projects are all about worlds on the edge of extinction and I use observation photography and filmmaking – the power of that to hopefully prevent it or preserve it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
MD: The filming technique is quite different. It’s my creative effort to provide the audience with a singular emphatic experience as opposed to what documentaries typically do, which is give you information. I tried to have the audience become active participants and witnesses to the spirit of this place, the Raceway, and I hope they explore questions of blue collar American identity.
The Last Race will screen at the East Hampton UA (30 Main Street, East Hampton) on Saturday, October 6 at 3 p.m. and again at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach) on Sunday, October 7 at 3:45 p.m.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.