Jack Hill’s ode to the wild world of figure eight racing is a non-stop blast!
When Roger Corman approached director Jack Hill about directing a race car movie, Hill was apprehensive. It was 1968 and the influence of French cinema’s art directors like Truffaut and Antonioni were creating unrivaled masterpieces and Hill was anxious to throw his hat in the ring. Jack reluctantly replied to Corman stating that he wanted to direct an art film and would it be ok if he was able to approach the project from that angle. Corman then told him “I don’t give a shit what you do as long as cars go fast and somebody dies!”
Thus Pit Stop was born.
Starring Richard Davalos, a very young Ellen Burstyn, and Spider Baby co-stars Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn, Pit Stop is the story of drag racer Rick Bowman and his rise and fall as a semi-professional race car driver. At the beginning of the film Rick is sprung from jail after a drag race gone bad by car club owner Grant Willard portrayed in his final role by Brian Donlevy. Willard proposes that Rick take a job racing for his car club as a figure eight driver in the newly created, hyper dangerous sport.
For those of you that don’t know what a figure eight race is, it is what it sounds like. Insane drivers get behind the wheel of souped up, refurbished junk yard cars and line up to engage in a criss cross track with four corners and a perilous intersection. Cars fly through mercilessly and sometimes they get crunched a little and other times they get obliterated. You truly have to be a little loony to take on these races.
Rick joins Willard at the fairgrounds for the weekly Sunday night figure eight race where he witnesses the true carnage of the “sport”. The star of the show is Hawk Sidney played to perfection by Sid Haig. Hawk is an unstoppable driver that intimidates and overtakes his fellow drivers and is utterly bat-shit crazy. Reluctantly, Rick accepts Willard’s offer and is off to his first race where he gets completely pummelled. Now without a car, Rick takes a job at the local junk yard where he works in a constant montage of blow torching, crane lifting, and sledgehammering as he refurbs these junk cars week by week in the hopes of overtaking the Hawk and tasting a little bit of the glory – he wants to know what it tastes like!
After a particularly nasty loss to the Hawk, Rick is approached by old man Pops the photographer for the races who used to be a stock car racer in the forties. Pops takes Rick under his wing and shows him a trick or two that could help Rick finally get a win. Well that montage pays off because that week, using his newly acquired skills, Rick rolls the Hawk and humiliates him taking the checkered flag and Hawk’s pride.
As if beating him wasn’t enough, Rick takes Hawk’s girl Jolene – his fucking girl! One thing that I love about this film (one of the many) are the swinging race car parties that Jack Hill treats us to. Seattle Psychedelic rockers The Daily Flash, the music is out of control and adds to the party scenes in a totally swinging way. After Rick’s night of victory and drinking, he and Jolene are on the way back to a hotel when a very drunk Hawk forces them off the road and then proceeds to beat the shit out of Rick and his car.
All this time we hear rumblings of a driver named Ed McLeod who is a pro on the circuit and a man who Hawk is supposed to be a back up driver for. Being ever the dirty bastard, Willard promises Rick that if he can win that week’s race he will be McLeod’s backup driver pushing Hawk out of the contention. Well Hawk fucked Rick up pretty bad including a broken arm but never to take it laying down, Rick has Jolene bust his cast right before the green flag. After a particularly suspenseful race, Rick comes out on top and a shamed Hawk apologizes for his actions and offers to buy Rick a beer. The two men put their differences aside and become team mates.
The third act of the story focuses on Rick’s out of control ego and his desire to be the winner regardless of who he steps on in the process. I really want you to watch this, so I’m going to keep the spoilers out of it and hope that I’ve excited you enough to check out this film. If you can’t get a copy of it at a video store, there might be a copy floating around on YouTube – wink wink.
Shot on a very meager budget for the time (reportedly 75K), Jack Hill shot the entire film in black and white, not necessarily for artistic form but because shooting in color for the night races required extensive lighting which the production could not afford. For a film released in 1969, Pit Stop was criticized for being shot in the B&W format which affected its success at the box office. Originally titled The Winner, Hill was forced to change the name to Pit Stop after the May 1969 release of Paul Newman’s Winning which preceded the release of Hill’s film.
The movie is a snapshot of racing culture of the time featuring some bad ass dune buggy hot rods and the height of auto technology. Several professional drivers portrayed themselves in the picture, namely Sandy Reed, Ed Hand, and the king of customs himself George Barris. This all adds a sense of authenticity to the picture spotlighting the pros in the late 60’s.
While the film is billed as a stock car picture, it does come to the table with some real attitude and emotion. Considering what Jack Hill had to work with at the time, he brings to the screen a film that can be truly considered an art film – something that you just don’t see coming. Rick’s story is a tragic one effecting all of those around him, regardless of who cares and who he should respect. He is a man possessed with winning at all costs and his metamorphosis from no name drag racer to a semi pro driver is a fatal journey. Pit Stop is a film that is very underrated but has gone on to achieve cult status and deservedly so.
Have You Seen This?