The Last Race is a story some know all too well, while others might not have ever thought about it: It’s the story of the fight to keep a community tradition alive, with commercial development closing in from all sides as the value of the land that tradition clings to continues to skyrocket. It’s the apprehension around the seemingly inevitable—the sale of the last remaining race track in a region.
The story of small tracks and their struggle to stay alive amidst the decline of stock-car and local asphalt racing is a story not many outside of those local communities tell or even know exists, and The Last Race, released last month, tells it extremely well.
It does that by profiling a quarter-mile asphalt oval called Riverhead Raceway in Long Island, New York that’s been around since 1949, as similar tracks all around it have closed over the years. Grocery stores, shopping centers and restaurants are popping up closer and closer the track, closing in on it as property values increase, real-estate agents swarm, and its aging owners struggle to keep putting the effort in.
Small tracks like Riverhead were sprinkled all across the U.S. decades ago, with some areas having several to choose from. They provided a slight hope for hobby racers looking to work their way up the pipeline without connections or family money, as well as a place for hobby racers to go if that’s all they ever wanted to be. But as is obvious from the Lost Speedways project and from seeing how a once abundant local sport dwindled to almost nothing in places like Texas, many of those once active race tracks are now corpses sprinkled across the country, declining along with interest in oval racing.
But some tracks have faced more than just the fate of closure and subsequently rotting away, like Riverhead. The filmmaker for The Last Race, Michael Dweck, grew up going to local tracks in New York and returned to the activity when he began photographing Riverhead in 2007. Riverhead is the center of his film, but not because he chose it amongst the Long Island-area tracks.
It’s the center of his film because it’s the only track left.
Dweck’s short but absorbing 75-minute documentary starts by saying that exactly: There used to be 40 small, local race tracks on Long Island, and all but one are gone.
That one remaining track, Riverhead, has development inching closer, ready to maul it over—much like other race tracks that are still active, and much like tracks of the past whose land became shopping centers or other commercial sites. Real-estate agents with no emotional connection to the track are just waiting for the day its 87-year-old owners fold and sell the old thing for its rapidly rising land values, which were $10 million at the time of filming.
Those 87-year-old owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, have walkers sitting in their office at the race track. They move around the track slowly and need help, and it takes a lot of effort at any age to do what they do—they pack a suitcase every race weekend and stay at the track, heading home only when it’s over. With that and the development closing in, the bulldozers feel inevitable.
The Last Race starts out slowly, and lacks some of the emotion you’d expect given the situation, before it pulls you in. Each person and their different stories about the track help to give a sense of just how connected these people are to their local racing history: former racers able to recall minor details of a race from decades ago, people with old newspapers and memorabilia from tracks long gone, drivers and team members whose emotions during the races are incredibly raw, and onlookers who devote their time and money to supporting their local heroes.
You see the same thing elsewhere, like in our stories about Longhorn Speedway and Central Texas Speedway in Texas—people remember what happened at their local tracks whether they’ve been closed for years or they’re still around, because for a lot of people, the tracks were a central part of their lives.
The film catches the pure emotion coming from the people regularly at Riverhead: the angst of one driver in a car before the race; the anger of another who’s been wrecked and wants to fight a person involved, because their race car came from their garage and their wallet; the stories of families wanting to keep racing despite medical problems, because that’s what they’ve always done; and the reality of drivers risking their lives to race not because it’s a career, but because it’s what they enjoy. It shows that while the local racing on Long Island might not be important to everyone, to some, it’s everything.
The Last Race is a warm film that still keeps its distance from the subject matter, appearing to show both the good and the bad that happens at local tracks. But one part that didn’t seem to be included—or at least wasn’t a prominent feature—was something noted by Jalopnik editors Mike Ballaban and Raphael Orlove, who went to Riverhead during a race week in September of 2017 while filming Car vs. America. They mentioned seeing a lot of Confederate flags, which is one of the more unfortunate features of a lot of local race tracks.
We’ve asked the film company whether The Last Race lacked the flag imagery on purpose, or if there just weren’t any around at the time of filming. (Update, Dec. 13, 2018: The filmmaker told Jalopnik during his time filming at the track, he “hadn’t noticed any confederate flags displayed.”)
Perhaps one of the best parts of The Last Race, though, is when it follows an older man who attends and watches races at Riverhead religiously. He’s shown walking around with a camcorder in hand, recording all of the races so he can go home, make copies and give them to the winners from each week.
It isn’t made clear if he works for the track or just does that because he cares, but it’s an incredible picture of just how invested people are in Riverhead.
The Last Race feels natural and intimate. It shows how the impacts of the track and its people are weaved throughout the community, yet still conveys how much people with monetary interest in the land don’t care about its existence—the sad reality for a lot of local tracks. It gives a spotlight to the basic but often ignored point that while the closure of a local track isn’t necessarily good or bad, depending on whom you ask, it’s a life for many people.
And it’s a life that, all over the country, continues to be erased.