Review: ‘The Last Race’ is a requiem for our raceway

There’s a scene about midway through Michael Dweck’s documentary “The Last Race” when the screen quickly flashes to the moment of impact in a fiery crash. 

The driver is shown climbing out of the car seconds later, his suit in flames, as track staffers immediately leap to action, extinguishing the fire he’s become engulfed in.

The driver is not identified, his face never even shown as the archival footage continues to roll and he describes the incident in an off-camera interview.

“Did you breathe in?” the filmmaker asks.

“No, I held my breath the whole time,” he responds. “That’s ultimately what they told me saved my life.”

The scene is a jarring, extreme reminder of the risk every driver takes when they get behind the wheel on a Saturday night circling Riverhead’s fabled oval. But the documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and will be released in select theaters and to more than a dozen home-streaming services today, is ultimately about a different type of endangered species: the track itself.

Rent ‘The Last Race’ on Prime Video

It’s no accident that the Blunderbust division driver in the crash scene, like almost everyone else in the film, is never identified. The only subject you really need to understand is Riverhead Raceway, the last track of its kind on Long Island and a property that will be under the threat of being sold to commercial developers until the day closing documents are inevitably signed. It’s noted in the opening moments of the film that the island was once home to 40 such tracks.

Tempers flare on the track at times in ‘The Last Race.’ (Credit: Magnolia Pictures Courtesy Photo)

The documentary is a requiem for the stock car racing way of life on Long Island, which since his childhood in Bellmore has captivated Mr. Dweck, a visual artist best known for his narrative photography. He spent the summers of his youth watching the cars circle the track at Freeport Stadium. In his director’s note on the film’s website, Mr. Dweck recalls attending the final night of racing at Freeport in September 1983.

Podcast: Conversation with ‘The Last Race’ filmmaker Michael Dweck

Over the past decade, the artist has been a regular at Riverhead Raceway, first photographing the cars and later filming them and some of the men who drive there each week (even capturing some of the uglier moments like the pit fights that have long plagued the raceway experience).

The result is this meditative documentary, Mr. Dweck’s first feature, which offers a surprisingly patient look at a world where speed is usually everything. The filmmaker gives equal weight to the quiet moments at the track as he does the revving engines and twisted steel more commonly associated with a day at the raceway. A particularly affecting scene shows a driver strapping on his safety gear and saying a prayer in the moments before a race begins. There are no words, just the faint sounds of breathing under a forceful choral symphony. We never see how that particular driver fared and we don’t particularly care. It’s a portrait in the form of a moving image and it’s so skillfully shot by Mr. Dweck and cinematographer Gregory Kershaw that the scene works as a singular piece of art, telling a story without a single word being uttered.

Barbara and Jim Cromarty inside their former office at Riverhead Raceway. (Credit: Magnolia Pictures Courtesy Photo)

The words “arthouse film” and “Riverhead Raceway” have likely never before appeared together in a sentence, but that’s what the filmmakers have done with “The Last Race.” It works because the visuals are so appealing, with interview subjects framed in unique ways and the action on the track filmed to make you feel as if you’re on the track yourself.

It’s those driving scenes that fans of the raceway will enjoy most. Riverhead residents will also like seeing a few familiar sights and faces.

Unlike most films, don’t expect to see any arcs among the subjects featured. We don’t get much of their backstory and we learn very little about the specific history of the track. There are no information dumps at any point outside of a few sentences at the beginning and end of the film and one interview early on with a man who speaks to the history of racing on Long Island. Even the scenes with former track owners Jim and Barbara Cromarty tell you only what you really need to know about their history.

The film is structured more like a series of fly-on-the-wall vignettes than a traditional narrative documentary. This plays awkwardly at first — especially when you don’t know anyone’s name until about 20 minutes in, when local realtor Millie Thomas volunteers hers — but you eventually get sucked into the flow of it all and begin to appreciate the craftsmanship behind it.

Racing in all forms is about getting from point A to point B faster than everyone else and “The Last Race” clocks in at a brisk 1 hour and 14 minutes. It’s a film that earns a great deal of reflection afterward, particularly about the future of Riverhead Raceway and the development of the Route 58 corridor.

You will walk away from this documentary with a better understanding that a last race will one day be held at Riverhead Raceway. It may not happen this year or even this decade, but that day will come.

The track’s fans and drivers can hold their collective breaths for as long as possible waiting for that day, but nothing will save the track from extinction.

Grant Parpan is the digital and lifestyle content director for Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].