In the engrossing documentary Racing Dreams, 12-year-old Josh Hobson can train to be a NASCAR racer even when his dad drives him around town. During the summer months, Josh cranks the car’s heater up to 90 degrees to help him acclimatize to the scorching temperatures of NASCAR tracks. Racing Dreams’ aspiring drivers may be too young for learner’s permits, but they ain’t kidding around.
Filmmaker Marshall Curry follows Josh and two other adolescent competitors in the National Karting Association’s five-race season. If go-karts strike you as improbable vehicles for a compelling documentary, know that these machines look like stock cars, hit speeds comparable to your own automobile and allow tomorrow's NASCAR stars to prove their mettle. Nevertheless, Racing Dreams finds young protagonists with such intriguing personal stories, the audience cares more about their lives than who crosses the finish line first. Racing Dreams spends relatively less time with Josh, a focused but friendly youngster who’s such a nice guy, you can’t resent him for being Little Mister Perfect. The film’s other two subjects face greater challenges. Annabeth Barnes, who turns 12 during the course of the film, is the only female competitor among her peers and practically leads a double life with her schoolmates. Brandon Warren, 13, drives like a demon but wrestles with problems at home. The film illuminates some of the young drivers' strategies, and when Brandon comes from behind in one race, even NASCAR neophytes can recognize his skill.
Brandon’s grandparents describe him as fearless: “He had more scars and stitches before he was 5 years old than I’ve had in my life,” says his granddad. He’s quick with a smile and a song, but he also struggles with anger problems that can be traced to the bad example of his birth parents. His drug-using, ex-con father turns up halfway through the film and, while outwardly supportive, seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
But Racing Dreams discovers sunny subplots as well. Adorably, Brandon and Annabeth become pals who flirt over long-distance phone calls and during off-hours on the racing weekends. These short scenes capture tweenage puppy love far more joyfully than most fiction films. In less than a year, Annabeth seems to mature from a girl to a young woman (she’s more than a year younger than Brandon, but a head taller than him), and though she shares her parents’ passion for racing, her horizons expand to indicate that there’s more to life than driving around in circles.
Racing Dreams follows such kid-oriented competition films as Spellbound and Hoop Dreams (the new film’s title even evokes the latter), although it sputters at first with clichéd images and soundtrack choices. Nevertheless, the director effectively compresses 500 hours of footage into a little more than 90 minutes, and reveals the touching relationships of the kids and their parents (grandparents, in Brandon’s case), who financially overextend themselves to help their children pursue a stunningly expensive hobby. The financial demands of racing turn out to be one of its biggest stumbling blocks, and Josh even talks about preparing to be an effective spokesman for his future sponsors. Maybe Josh, Annabeth and Brandon won’t be the next Dale Earnhardt or Danica Patrick, but with Racing Dreams, at least they’re movie stars.