“If I’m not not racing, I’m not happy,” says one of the adolescent drivers in Marshall Curry’s “Racing Dreams.” Of course, an eleven year old’s perception of happiness tends to rely on the whims of the surrounding environment, and the speedy realm of the racetrack can certainly make the the rest of the world look boring. Curry, the Academy Award-nominated director of “Street Fight,” inspects the forces behind this obsession by finding the starting point with a handful of North Carolina youth as they compete for the National Championship of the World Karting Association. While many of the young, enthusiastic subjects remain subservient to their car-loving elders, this NASCAR training ground provides more a simple outlet for the stage parent mentality. These kids admire NASCAR the way some devour Saturday morning cartoons. They play with cars like anyone else, except these cars go faster than your average die-cast model.
While Curry’s pedestrian pace occasionally belies the dizzy momentum associated with the sport, he does display many of the deeper thematic forces behind the WKA competiors. Growing up in predominantly lower middle class households, they dreamily watch NASCAR races as a form of escapism — as do their parents. At home, many of these children struggle with dysfunctional families, strict religious constraints and the demands of school, but they leave all that behind on the racetrack. Each competitor shows one major aspect of the young racer mentality: The moody Brandon suffers from anger-management issues, which leads to a reckless driver problem; Annabeth, the rare female WKA competitor, feels alienated by her girly peers and turns to racing for a change of pace. But both of them seem mainly reliant on their parents for what they should do at any given moment, and therein lies the apparent flaw of such heated competition at their age. The racers think they’ve found their calling, but the arbitrariness of youth — and the hefty pricetag behind the sport — make it hard to commit in the long run.
As Curry neatly captures an adorable relationship that blossoms between Brandon and Annabeth, it becomes clear that cars are only one element of their lives. A gentle survey with a less-than-groundbreaking conclusion, “Racing Dreams” nevertheless succeeds at revealing the origins of the NASCAR impulse, leaving its merits up to the audience. At the same time, Curry does hint at the danger of allowing the sport to preclude other values in life. “Racing is an addiction, and we’ve got it bad,” confesses the tough parent of a young WKA star. Viewed with such candor in mind, the movie testifies to the perilous drug of athletic ambition.