You guys remember Matt Hardigree? He used to run this site and was responsible in one way or another for bringing in some the best stories and writers we’ve ever seen. I spoke with him the other day because apparently he’s a director now, just like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, more or less.
The film he co-directed with his colleague and longtime friend-of-Jalopnik, J.F. Musial, Pikes Peak: On the Edge, follows six hillclimb entrants through their 2020 runs, chronicling what ended up being a wild year on the mountain. It’s narrated by the brilliant Neko Case and illustrates why Pikes Peak is still one of the most compelling events in motorsport.
The film comes on the heels of 2019's Apex: The Secret Race Across America, which is one of the best car culture movies I’ve seen. Naturally, I was excited to catch up with Matt and hear about the Pikes Peak project.
Anyway, what follows is that interview, condensed and edited for clarity:
Jalopnik: So, how did you go from being the editor-in-chief of Jalopnik.com to being a film director?
MH: Very slowly then very quickly. I came over to this company called Tangent Vector, which almost no one outside of the industry knows about. It’s the company that created The Drive YouTube channel and sold it. Tangent did Apex: The Story of the Hypercar and Apex: The Secret Race Across America, a bunch of other videos you’ve seen including for Jalopnik, which is how I know them.
I loved them and I loved what they did, so I joined the company to do media consulting type work as well as a little bit of show development. And, it turns out that I really like making videos and film.
It went from, “OK, I’m helping produce The Drive on NBC show with Chris Harris and Mike Spinelli and J.F. Musial, who’s the head of the company and the founder, and then working on producing the Secret Race Across America film. And then I directed a couple of TV episodes and got used to directing, though I was sort of terrible at it, or just learning how to do it.
But then we had this opportunity, through Rob Holland, who’s obviously a Jalopnik contributor and whom everyone loves, to do a Pikes Peak movie.
My thing with J.F. was that if we did the film, if we got somebody to bite on doing it, I would get to co-direct. I couldn’t do it all by myself, but I wanted to learn and I wanted to do it with Pikes. He said sure, if we get it, you can go direct with me.
But then flash forward four months, we had a partner and we had a plan. It went from talking about it to having paperwork signed and working on it in less than six months, which is pretty amazing for this industry. Normally, you come up with an idea, and then you’re lucky if you can do it two or three years later.
Jalopnik: What is it like going from a TV show, you know, a half-hour or hour TV show, to doing like a film? Not like, “ Was it harder?” Like, functionally, what does that entail?
MH: The thing that I completely underestimated having worked on like internet videos before is how much work 22-and-a-half minutes of television is. Making a television show can take four months from pre-production to shooting it. Shooting is the easy part, you can shoot it two days, but getting everything set up and getting it there, and then getting it edited and getting it turned into something is so much work. And I foolishly thought, because I was just learning how to do all of this, that having directed a couple of episodes of television, that it would just be like that, but five times more work. And that was my naivete on display there because it’s really a hundred times more work.
Jalopnik: And I assume it’s harder at Pikes than on a show like Proving Grounds...
MH: To make this documentary, we’re following six different racing drivers and teams and their teams, we’re following the organizers of the race. We’re following the official photographer, plus all the other ancillary characters.
And at the end of the day, we’re trying to make sense out of footage from 60 cameras. J.F. and I would just go to his apartment in Jersey City, and we literally just spent weeks just trying to figure out what we had. We didn’t know, because Pikes Peak is a crazy place.
The starting line of Pikes Peak is 9,000 feet into the air. And you can’t communicate across the mountain really, because radio’s really hard. The cell signal is actually a lot better than it used to be, but it’s just an extremely hard place to work. And so much is happening simultaneously that you really can’t get a sense of what happened until after you look at all the footage.
Editing it is just an immense, immense, immense job. Credit J.F., because while I did a lot of it, J.F. was the person who spent literally a week just trying to line up all of the shots into one coherent day, starting at 1:00 in the morning. and running until 3:00 in the afternoon.
Jalopnik: So then, how does this movie compare to what was in your head going in? How similar is this to what you thought it would be?
MH: Yeah. I mean, there’s a quote by Werner Herzog, which to paraphrase is something like, if you make the documentary that you set out to make you failed. I thought was cutesy until I actually did it. Like we knew that we were going to follow some drivers, and we were focused so much on the actual race itself in preproduction, thinking about how we would do it. We knew that we would go to the people’s homes and that because of the pandemic, filming people’s homes, filming with their families would be harder.
Jalopnik: Yeah, you shot this all during the pandemic...
MH: It was fascinating to see so many people’s plans change, or come together at the last minute with the pandemic. We got so many good stories out of that.
I never would have guessed we would have a whole episode just on practice. Practice is important at Pikes because nobody gets to run it during the year. No one’s out there running on Pikes Peak until a couple of weeks before the race.
So you never get to do the full course until race day. And every day, every hour of practice, something happened. I was interviewing Randy Pobst, and I was like, “ Oh, let’s do it after you go do a couple of runs.” And then he goes off to do that run, and he crashes in the most dangerous part of the whole racetrack.
Every day, coming off the mountain — because you’re stuck at whatever part of the mountain you’re on — you’d miss stuff that happened elsewhere. But coming off the mountain, you’d see the carnage, the cars 400 feet off the road in a lake. And you’re like, what the hell happened? And you have to go find a GoPro and you have to go figure it all out. The practice episode is as exciting and as good as the actual race episode.
This was unusual this year, and there isn’t really a good explanation for why, but, this was probably one of the most dangerous, crashy insane events they’ve had a Pikes peak. I’m lucky, really lucky that we were there to capture it.
Jalopnik: So, you were able to piece a lot of that together? How much of that stuff were you able to get in the actual film?
MH: We have a shooter we’ve been using for 10 years, who shot motorsports, who shot the Nürburgring, Le Mans, rally, everything. And he has either a knack or bad luck. He just happens to be there when cars have incidents and accidents. Like if we would set him — and we didn’t even really fully understand this until we got all the footage back, but you know, we had a sense of it as we were shooting — like if we put him up at Engineer’s Corner, somebody was going to have a problem with that corner. And it happened every time, every single time.
Jalopnik: Pikes is a really old event, draws people from all over the world. What’s its place right now?
MH: I think it’s second longest running or continuously running event, depending on how you count it, after the Indy 500. Weirdly, in the United States for the average motorsports enthusiast, I think Pikes Peak is sort of a mid-tier event. It doesn’t rank as high as the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 or, or, um, you know, 12 Hours of Sebring.
And that’s part of the reason we wanted to do this. Working with the organizers in our pitch to them was, you know, we want to be able to show what’s hard for them to represent. It’s really hard to capture the race cause the place is so big. So one of our goals with this was to make you feel what, what Pikes Peak is like, so you can understand it. Hopefully you’ll care about it more after watching.
In Europe and Japan, it’s actually much more famous. You know Dai Yoshihara? We follow him, he came over here as a drifter and he said, basically his family didn’t understand why he was doing it. But last year he DNF’d at Pikes Peak, and it made all the papers in Japan. And so his parents kind of understood. Because of a bunch of drivers, specifically Monster Tajima, it’s hugely popular in Japan.
Any of my European friends, when I told them I was doing a Pikes Peak documentary, they lost their minds. They love Pikes Peak. They know about it. They knew the history of it. It’s huge for them.
And then for manufacturers, I think that there are only so many places you can, you can win and it feels like it matters forever.
Jalopnik: So now, as far as manufacturers, it seems like the appeal is running an EV there...
MH: It’s so hard on the machines. And, looking forward, I think that the significance of this event will probably be the electric cars. Three of them showed up this year and they were like rock stars.
There were definitely people there who didn’t understand it. Some of the old school open-wheel racers didn’t really understand the electric racers. And there was definitely some tension there.
But when one of the Teslas crashed and it went to go get rebuilt, 14 or 15 people showed up just to see it getting rebuilt and get pictures. People cared more about the Teslas that crashed at Pikes Peak this year than they cared about the car that won. I think that that tells you everything.
And it’s sad, what happened with Randy. I think that Randy could have been close to fastest up the mountain in that Tesla. When it was working, it qualified like second, third, and that car was insanely fast and at the top it should be faster. That Tesla would have shocked the world, a production car winning.
Jalopnik: So if people see this movie, and they love it and they want to get involved, what should they do?
MH: I mean, if you’re crazy, you should go run it. The people who finish it seem to be extremely happy. I’ve had the pleasure of going to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to Indy, to Daytona 24 to Sebring...I’ve been filming at racetracks for the last three years. Oh, and the Nürburgring 24 a few years ago. I’d say you have to go to four of them. Go to Le Mans, go to Nürburgring, go to the Indy 500 and then go to Pikes Peak. The views are incredible. The air is wonderful. It’s like nothing else, Pikes Peak, the race is incredible. You see the craziest diversity of cars, even crazier than the Nürburgring 24. You’ll see a former Trans-Am Camaro go up before a lightly modified Mazda 3, before a Sierra. And where else are you going to be able to see 4,700 feet of elevation change for a car in your life?
Jalopnik: All right, give me the single most compelling reason for me to watch this film.
MH: So, Jeff Zwart, he’s a photographer and an amazing filmmaker, maybe you’ve had one of his posters on your wall. He is most famous in a racing sense for racing at Pikes Peak. And one of the nice things he said — I think I can repeat this — was that he saw things in our documentary that he had never seen before. Like just parts of the world of that event that he hadn’t seen. And he’s been going there, racing there, for 30 years.
If you’ve never seen it, but you’ve been curious about it, I think this will show you what Pikes Peak can can be. And I think if you’re an expert on Pikes Peak, I think you’ll see something, especially behind the scenes with the access that we had, that you’ve never seen before.
Oh, and also Neko Case is the narrator for it, which is really super cool. She’s a Jalopnik reader, I met her through Jalopnik. I interviewed her nine years ago, I dunno, eight years ago when Middle Cyclone came out. She was awesome and it turns out she was a big car person.
And then I, we were doing this doc and to Motor Trend’s credit, they were like, “don’t give us what we have, give us something different.” Neko had never narrated anything before. She did an awesome job, knocked it out of the park and was so cool.
There are two version of Pikes Peak: On the Edge, a feature documentary edit and a limited series edit. You can catch the series version on Motor Trend On Demand right here.