POV: Can you describe for us the experience of being track-side at a demolition derby?
Jesse Moss: The first thing you notice about the track is the noise. It’s deafening. It’s like standing next to a jet engine. And I’m an adrenaline junkie, so personally, I find that captivating. I love it. Riverhead, where Speedo first competes, is tiny; it’s a quarter mile oval, which is the smallest regulation NASCAR track. And the stands are built right up around the track so you’re literally right on top of the action.
POV: How did you try to bring that experience alive for viewers?
Moss: Capturing the excitement of a live event can be difficult. Part of the challenge is narrowing your focus, finding your character(s), and making sure you’re in the right place at the right time. For me, this meant staying mobile, working with wireless microphones, and keeping the crew small — often just myself. In the early stages of filming, when I didn’t know what direction the film was taking, it was hard to be selective, and I tended to over-shoot.
It was easy to get distracted by the color of the races themselves, and forget about the human story. In fact, some of the most interesting events occurred before and after races, whether they were small moments at home, with Speedo telling Michael he couldn’t come to the track, or a fist-fight in the parking lot after a race. These are events that remind us that there’s a lot more at stake for Speedo than an oversized trophy. Of course, interesting things didn’t happen at every race, and I shot an enormous amount of footage that quickly found its way to the cutting room floor.
POV: Shooting the demolition derbies and races must have been difficult. What techniques did you use to safely film exciting footage?
Moss: The races themselves were rich audio and visual spectacles. I was fortunate that Riverhead Raceway allowed me to shoot from the starter’s platform, and I could get right over the action. I wanted people to feel the excitement and occasional danger of the races, smell the burning rubber, and hear the crunching metal. The in-car cameras that capture Speedo’s win at the Wall Stadium championship were cheap, Hi-8mm video cameras that I was fully prepared to sacrifice. Only one of them survived. It was also really useful to mic the track announcer Bob Finan, who offered colorful commentary and a running play by play of the race. In some instances, I had a second camera shooting the action, and this gave me some helpful options in the editing room.
POV: Aren’t demolition derbies considered car racing’s lowest-of-the-low?
Moss: Absolutely! There’s a racing hierarchy with NASCAR at the top and demolition derbies at the bottom. But I’m always interested in those people who are on the bottom rung trying to work their way up. The demolition derby is a kind of Saturday night carnival spectacle. All of the drivers had nicknames, they’re larger-than-life personalities. Initially I thought this could be cartoonish, and I was a little wary of that, but Speedo was so alive and so open. These drivers had elevated what we think of as the lowest rung of auto racing to a real kind of professional pursuit. And I respond as a filmmaker to people’s obsessions.
POV: What’s the relationship between NASCAR and demolition derby fans?
Moss: I was surprised to see such a diverse group of fans at Riverhead. It’s more like NASCAR than I thought; although it’s predominately working class, there were many kids and women. Although racing is a very male sport — a male obsession — these tracks make an effort to appeal to families.
I think that racing or NASCAR fans like the demolition derby. You can’t not like it. It satisfies a kind of childhood urge. It’s like bumper cars, but a little more dangerous. I think that NASCAR fans don’t always acknowledge that they like the crashes. But if you watch the highlight reel for racing on television, you’ll see the winners in the pits with the trophy and the girl, but you’ll see the crashes, too. Racetrack owners know that the fans have a desire to see that stuff and I think in a kind of shrewd, clever way they’ve decided to give the fans what they want.
At Riverhead, once a month, you get the demolition derby, which satisfies all your pent-up desire to see a crash. And, although the demolition derby is part of the racing world, it’s the bastard child of racing. Demolition derby drivers like Speedo feel like they don’t get the respect that they deserve because these guys are as passionate about racing as NASCAR drivers. It’s a cheaper sport than NASCAR — you don’t need a sponsor, you don’t need a pit crew, you don’t need a fancy car. You can take a 1970s rusted-out Cadillac and turn it into a battering ram for $500.
POV: Have you ever competed in demolition derby?
Moss: Had I raced while making the film, I would have probably lost my interest in the demolition derby. Now that the film is finished, Speedo has been building me a car, so I can compete in a demolition derby this summer. A ’78 Mercury Marquis. It’s, like, thirty feet long…