Revving up the history of NASCAR
Filmmaker John Warner IV (History ’85) brings sport’s story to DVD.
Photo by Kathleen O'Rourke.
Reprinted with permission from The Advocate, Greenwich, Conn., March 12, 2006.
Fairfield County is not known as NASCAR country. However, it is home to one of its most passionate fans and historians, living on an antique homestead in Southport that borders horse trails.
Filmmaker John Warner IV, a transplanted Virginian and former professional racecar driver, has made it his personal mission to tell the story of American stock car racing's fascinating history.
"The story of NASCAR is really a very patriotic story, a very American story," says Warner, 43, the youngest child of Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va. "It is romantic, it is rich and it mimics in almost every way the history of the last century."
Last month, Warner's production company, American Stock, released the "Golden Era of NASCAR," a four-part documentary on DVD he hopes will appeal to NASCAR fans and history buffs alike. It tells the story of NASCAR from its days when gritty racers faced off on beaches and dirt tracks through the 1960s.
And in much the same way that documentarians, such as Ken Burns, tell stories of American pastimes, such as baseball and jazz by interspersing montage with personal narrative, Warner relied on more than 50 NASCAR old-timers and their families to help him tell his story.
Warner's father, who became a NASCAR fan after campaigning at Virginia stock car races with his second wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, plays a role in the project. He narrates the series in a pitch perfect, elegant Southern drawl. Indeed, Burns once tried to persuade Warner to voice Gen. Robert E. Lee in his Civil War series, but the senator's schedule prohibited it, his son says. The elder Warner has joked of this project that it took too much time (120 studio hours) for him "not to even get a ham sandwich out of the deal." Still, Warner says, his father was proud of the completed series and around the holidays they gave out the DVD sets as holiday gifts to Iraq war veterans convalescing in military hospitals.
"NASCAR fans of today won't really recognize the NASCAR I found," says the younger Warner. "It was a very different sport, wild and woolly, not the sport you see today that is very popular. Today... it's become very commercial, very politically correct, very controlled in every way."
For Warner, the NASCAR project, four years in the making, has been compelling and deeply personal in ways that extend beyond the collaboration with his father. It was inspired by his love of racing, history and filmmaking.
For 15 years, Warner raced sportscars with modest success on circuits including Grand American and American Le Mans. He describes himself as a "middle-of-the-pack driver who loved racing and got what I wanted out of the sport." He studied history at the University of Virginia, and film composition and related skills at the Parsons School of Design. He had worked in composition at Blue Sky Studios in White Plains, N.Y. He retired from auto racing four years ago. "I was a little burnt out and I had a few bad crashes and for the sport I was getting old," he says.
He was anxious for a new project and found it when he became interested in the largely untold story of Wendell Scott, the first African-American to win on the NASCAR circuit.
"If there was a perfect project for me, it was this," says Warner, who adds he didn't realize what he was getting into at first.
"Doing a documentary on NASCAR is not the best choice if you are looking for an easy, first project," he says. "It is a closed community. Especially with the old-timers. I had to work long and hard to win their trust and respect to get them to tell me their stories."
Warner adds that ultimately, "It helped that I was Southern, that I raced cars and that they knew who my father was and respected him."
An untold story
The documentary project initially began with Warner's poignant profile of Scott that first aired on the History Channel four years ago.
It was a story Warner became curious about after watching what he calls, "one very bad and silly movie" while prepping for a race in Texas.
"Greased Lightning," a 1977 commercial and critical flop starring the late comedian Richard Pryor, got Warner asking questions about Scott's life. Although "Greased Lightning" was loosely based on Scott's life, Warner rightly suspected the biopic was a poorly told version of how the driver crashed through color barriers in a racially divided South.
"I went to find a book about Wendell Scott, but there wasn't a book," explains Warner. "Really, there wasn't anything about him."
By working closely with Scott's surviving wife and children, Warner got access to his personal archives and the incredible stories of the prejudice he faced on and off the track. Scott was such a controversial presence at the track that he was stripped of titles, subjected to excessive inspections and sometimes berated by fans and drivers. His children worked for him as his pit crew because he could not finance one. "Eight percent of the drivers and fans loved him because he was the underdog," says Warner. "He was a brilliant mechanic, a brilliant and tenacious driver." Still, his color brought him little in the way of endorsements or sponsorship that might have made his NASCAR experience easier. And in one of NASCAR's sorriest moments, Scott was temporarily stripped of a title he legitimately won on a track in Jacksonville, Fla. "It was because he was a black man, plain and simple," says Warner. "And they were afraid to let him win." (He eventually received a modest trophy). Warner calls him the "Jackie Robinson of his sport, but unlike Jackie Robinson, he really never got the accolades he deserved."
In exploring Scott's legacy, Warner realized he had a bigger story to tell.
"Scott's story is incredible, but the whole story of the sport is filled with characters like him," he says. "And I became very interested in telling that story in an emotional and personal way."
Warner, who had been a fan of the sport since childhood, had long heard rumors that its earliest racers were moonshiners who honed their driving skills running from the law.
"And that, incredibly, is true," says Warner. "A lot of those myths, like the guys wearing lead helmets and racing on back country roads, really did happen and it was one of the fun parts of doing this. Things I believed were just myth and legend were really part of the sport's history."
The earliest NASCAR racers tended to be gritty individuals who raced more for love than for glory. "They did it to put food on the table," says Warner. "Back then nobody really got rich doing it."
Warner, who invested $3 million of his own money in the documentary project, is not sure if he will recoup his investment.
A portion of any profit he makes, he says, will go to a foundation for the Scott family.
"Every minute, every dime was worth it, even if I never get a return on my investment," says Warner. "For me it was life-changing because it made me part of a sport I love. And unlike the average NASCAR fan, it gave me a perspective on this sport I would have never had if hadn't gone on this journey.
"The Golden Era of NASCAR" can be ordered at (800) 956-7694 or at www.AmericanStock.Us. It sells for $79.95.
©2006 Southern CT Newspapers, Inc.