What does a photographer and visual artist whose works have been shown in the Museé du Louvre in Paris and the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles see in a gritty, down-at-the-heels stock-car track in Long Island, New York? He uncovers an Edward Hopper-style reality that is both homely and gripping.
“The Last Race” is director Michael Dweck’s first feature-length film. It is the intimate — sometimes almost too intimate — portrait of a ancient racetrack populated by blue-collar drivers whose passion for short-track racing is equalled only by their passion for beer and the occasional bare-knuckle brawl. Ironically, their haven, the 69-year-old Riverhead Raceway, is under existential threat by the gentrification of the community. Run by owners pushing 90, the racetrack might not be there for the drivers much longer. The struggle to hold on to an American racing tradition in the face of real estate development that threatens its survival cuts at the very heart of the dichotomy of values that is rampant across the country.
Dweck’s eye for imagery takes you inside the world of racing stripped to its barest essentials. The race cars, like the men who drive them, aren’t the handsomest specimens on the planet, but they are likely the most earnest. The drivers want to win as much, or more, than the highest-paid, most talented NASCAR driver. But their sights are set lower, their expectations disarmingly modest and their lives are open books. Noble but not perfect, the drivers are as everyday as a sale on chuck roast at Piggly Wiggly. They don’t race to live, but there is no doubt they live to race.
In the film something they hold sacred is threatened with imminent extinction. If the racetrack vanishes, if the rudimentary stands and indifferently paved asphalt are ripped apart to make way for a strip mall or an apartment complex, the lives of the drivers and their friends will be indelibly altered, and the only thing keeping that looming possibility at bay are track owners Barbara and Jim Cromarty. They know their property is worth millions, but they also harbor a deep love for the track and its community.
“I was three when my parents moved from Brooklyn to Bellmore in 1960, and some of my earliest memories are of watching the Bombers race at Freeport Stadium,” director Dweck said, recalling a long-gone track very similar to Riverhead. “The images of Wink Herold or Jerry ‘Red’ Klaus scraping off the walls in turns two and four left their own scratches and paint on my childhood, as did the snarling sounds of cars I could hear from my bedroom window.”
In 2007 Dweck started photographing at Riverhead as a way, he said, to reconnect with a simpler past – both his and Long Island’s. The photography eventually led to the production of the feature film, which opens today at selected theaters across the country including the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica, California, and on demand. It’s worth watching if only to see a part of America simply fade away.