Lunch with Chris Szwedo


 “In the Northwest Corner of Connecticut, far from the pace of the Interstates, is a place that is as private and hidden as its ability to capture the adrenaline in our imagination. Where every year men and women gather to make real their notions of what is beautiful and exciting…where crowds gather on hillsides to root for their friends and heroes. It is called Lime Rock Park.”

And so The Secret Valley opens up as Lime Rock Park is coated in a soft blanket of white.  It is a hypnotically peaceful introduction to one of America’s finest road racing tracks.  The voice-over sets the mental stage for how Chris Szwedo takes us from this wintry landscape to understanding the history and personality of this unique track.  This film, the editing, and the script are all Chris.

It is amazing that no one had ever done a documentary on Lime Rock.  For years it has been a track that attracted the best drivers of motorsports.  It was the focal point of Trans Am racing in the days of the pony cars.  For me, it was a long drive from the Cape to northwestern Connecticut, but it was worth it to watch events such as Car and Driver competing in SCCA’s Showroom Stock series while surrounded by the beauty of the valley that cradles this track. 

There have been many movies made featuring cars and motorsports.  Most of them have been attempts at romanticizing a sport that few people on the outside really understand.  The two most successful movies that come to mind are Grand Prix and Le Mans.  Even fewer still have been documentaries on cars and racing, especially meaningful ones.

At the top of the list of successful documentaries of this type has to be Chris Szwedo’s work.  He has two to his credit which is probably twice as many as anyone else.  The first is “The Secret Valley” and the other is “A Gullwing at Twilight”.

While on my annual return to the Cape this year, I was able to meet with Chris and talk to him about his work as well as learn about what it was like for him to produce these gems.

I met Chris at his home.  He and I had talked on the phone and arranged a time that would fit his packed schedule. He introduced me to his wife and then took me to his studio where he does his editing.  He was working on a project unrelated to racing or cars that will be on the PBS “Nature” series in February.  I viewed some early cuts of this work in progress.  It was fascinating to see not only the product, but the process of modern video editing.  Technology has improved this process so that Chris can do editing out of his own home. 

We found a place near by where we could have lunch and I could ask questions about how Chris had gotten to make the documentary and where his interest in motorsports came from.

There is a challenge when making a documentary on racing and race car drivers that present quite a barrier to any that attempt it.  On the surface racing is as out in the open as any sport can be, but there is another part of racing that can be as shrouded in mystery as a Masonic Lodge. There is a real reluctance among the “insiders” of racing to open up to people who want to make a film about it.  There is a justifiable fear that outsiders will misrepresent and misinterpret what really goes on.

Racing has been represented as a noisy sport where the participants cheat death and mayhem in a brutal contest where it is all about the cars.  The reality is that it is a blend of technology and athleticism that demands incredible amounts of concentration along with every bit of skill from the drivers and support crews.  The racing fraternity doesn’t invest much effort into explaining itself, probably out of frustration.

Chris visited Lime Rock and had an epiphany of sorts.  He saw not just a race track but a complex environment where racing took place, and where people had relationships that went beyond the obvious.  Chris realized that this valley in Connecticut needed to have its story told.

The first thing he did was to see who else had made a film on Lime Rock Park.  No one had.  Was this a sign of a golden opportunity or an indication of just how impossible it was to produce a documentary of a race track?

Chris spent eighteen months filming this track through all four seasons, but that was nothing compared to the challenge of acquiring vintage films of historical significance and dealing with the many levels of local politics.  This involved everything from advertising for people’s home movies to dumpster diving.

It was critical for him to establish the trust and confidence of the track’s racing fraternity.  This is no simple task, but Chris has sincerity and passion that is genuine and transparent to anyone who meets him.  As a result he was able to include interviews with Skip Barber, Paul Newman, John Fitch, Sam Posey, Butch Leitzinger, among others,  that not only provided historical background, but endorsed his efforts.

Chris chose to introduce his audience to this valley of racing and then build upon that introduction in a way that educates the viewer without lecturing.  As the film evolves, so does the viewer’s understanding of what is so special about this place and, more importantly, the racing culture that is drawn to this valley.  At the point John Fitch explains that if you are not scared then you are not driving fast enough – you are in a car that passes under the bridge and into the downhill turn – you lose your grip and the car understeers into the wall smashing the front end. 

Another filmmaker would have used this shot to induce shock into the audience at the expense of the story, but Chris holds off until the viewer has earned the right to experience what just happened and sees it not as a shocking event, but the learning experience it really is.  The purpose of a documentary is to enlighten after all.  This is how a great story teller exercises his craft.

By the time this 57 minute film has ended you will find that you have spent a year in the Berkshires and will want to see this special place in person.  The DVD also includes another 45 minutes of historical video, interviews, and some of Chris’s own thoughts.

Lunch was over all too soon.  I was impressed, not just with Chris’s talents, but with his humanity.  I sincerely hope that he will be able to follow these two documentaries by others on the subject of motorsports and drivers.

If you cannot wait until your local PBS station shows either of these productions you can always go to Chris’s web site and order your own copy. 

This entry was posted in Car Movies, Cars, Life and Cars, Road Racing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lunch with Chris Szwedo

  1. Noel says:

    Nice piece. Looking forward to seeing the film. Have never driven the track there, but would love to do that.

    Lime Rock, at least in the ’70s, was just a cool place to watch racing. Sort of an East Coast version of Laguna Seca because it’s so much more compact than longer courses like Watkins Glen in the east or the old Riverside course in California I used to visit. Pit access was easy, cars and drivers accessible, vantage points for the racing were excellent.

    I have some good memories of watching races at Lime Rock. You and I went there once, Jim, and I especially remember another time, also at a SCCA Showroom Stock race while in college out that way. It was pouring rain for half the day and I spent time talking with Sam Posey, some amateur drivers, and quite a while with Brock Yates, who had just gotten back from a run to Alaska in a Corvette. That was back in the day before the Al-Can was paved–it must have been quite the trip. But Lime Rock… Fall in NW Connecticut, road racing, good people, fine road course. A special place.

    And yes, video editing these days is pretty amazing. I do some corporate video work and the guys who do the editing are maestros at using tools like Final Cut Pro and others.

  2. Leslie says:

    Hey, Jim. If you aren’t doing anything this weekend, you might want to check this out. September 29, 2007
    Car Show – Historic Speedway Group
    Hillsborough, North Carolina
    Celebration of the Automobile Car Show at the Historic Occoneechee-Orange Speedway
    Estimated attendees-10000 919-636-0751

  3. jimsgarage says:

    Thanks Leslie – sounds like a good place to be on Saturday!

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