NASCAR has become so much more than just an adrenalized racing sport. It’s a cultural touchstone, what the right rallies around whenever the next Michael Moore movie or Al Franken tome arrives on the scene.
It’s ours. So it’s fascinating to watch a too brief but still intriguing documentary about NASCAR’s roots.
“NASCAR: The Ride of Their Lives,” now available on DVD, tells the history of NASCAR from its earliest days on the sandy beaches of Daytona to its current place as the king of spectator sports.
Fueled by rebellion, sand and moonshine, NASCAR began modestly but quickly grabbed hold of the southern culture. And it only spread from there.
The film, produced by CMT Films and NASCAR Media Group, doesn’t whitewash the sport … or its drivers. Some, like NASCAR icon Richard Petty, are shown to be devious at times on the race track, but also uncommonly kind to their fans. And the turbulent ’60s, and its racial flare-ups, dovetailed with the racism existing along the NASCAR circuit of that era.
Could the film have dug deeper? You bet. But there’s so much ground to cover here it’s hard not to want more of just about every chapter in NASCAR’s history.
The first and second generation drivers were often burly men, powerful figures who used their might to steer their cars to victory. Some older drivers bemoan the modern innovations that let whippet thin heroes like Jeff Gordon conquer all comers, but it’s hard to argue with the safety improvements that revolutionized the sport.
“Ride” might have appealed strictly to car enthusiasts, but the sport boasts a number of outsized drivers to draw in all viewers. Earnhardt. Petty. Allison. Each played a pivotal role in NASCAR’s evolution, though it was Earnhardt who helped bring the sport into the corporate world.
“Ride” doesn’t shy away from the sport’s danger, particular regarding the death of Dale Earnhardt at the age of 49. The sequences recalling his fatal accident, and son Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s watery-eyed recollections of that tragedy, stand as the documentary’s beating heart.
When it comes to NASCAR, it’s often a family affair. The sport teems with dynasties, driving skills and ambitions passed down eagerly from father to son.
Narrated with class and distinction by Kevin Costner, “Ride” is a uniquely American story, one both sides of the ideological aisle can embrace if given the chance.