Driving everything from professional trophy trucks to unmodified pre-1982 VW Beetles, hundreds of hopefuls attempt to race 1,000 gruelling miles in less than thirty-two hours. Race coordinator Sal fish deems the legendary Baja 1000 is 'not for wooses,' but those who complete it go from "Dust to Glory."
Director Dana Brown ("Step Into Liquid") leaves his family's fascination for surfing (dad did the "Endless Summer" docs) literally in the dust to explore the gritty off road race that may be the world's toughest endurance sport. Brown's meandering storytelling, which marred "Step Into Liquid," is only slightly evident in this superior film that follows the travails of famous and not-so-famous racers in multiple levels of the Baja's twenty some odd classes.
Perhaps the most central story lies with Mouse McCoy, a motorcyclist attempting to be the first to drive the entire race by himself (usually the bikers relay among 3-4 drivers). We're thrown into the excitement and treachery of the course from a camera giving us Mouse's point of view, where a road rut looks like a chasm, to the observant lens that shows his course being as smooth as a washboard. Others of interest are the race's first winner, J.N. Roberts, competing for his twenty-seventh race in a row, NASCAR star Robby Gordon in a pricey trophy truck with its own pit crew, three members of the racing McMillan family, including seventeen year old Andy just licensed to drive three months prior, Robby Campbell, a bigger star in Mexico than his home country and the crazy Mexican team piloting one of the Class 11 Bugs. For the first time, a group of racing wives and mothers also compete and prove pretty adept at the approved habit of butting slower vehicles off the road.
There's plenty of drama, such as watching from the skies as the only spectators to the racer who stays the tougher course beating the guy who takes the beach detour, or listening to a driver describe as we see the hazards of silt, which obscures visibility but will stop the vehicle which reacts by slowing down. Ironies abound as well. Cops stop a line of trophy trucks for speeding, removing their thirty second safety spread. A racer's nephew sets up a camera at only one spot in the thousand miles and is the only witness to his uncle's crash. A driver who describes the race as Russian Roulette feels his time is up and gives up his spot, only to see the new participant become a casualty of the sport his first time out.
Brown still goes off road himself to tell the tale of Malcolm Smith, who believes on giving back to Baja by establishing an orphanage with his son. A nice tale, perhaps, but side trips which slow the action down less involve the 'weatherman,' who sets up a radio tower over a five thousand foot drop to relay news and conditions, and a race point known as Coco's Corner because of the loner who's created an attraction of it in the middle of nowhere.
Cinematographer Kevin Ward stays earthbound, races alongside and employs helicopters to give us the various sensations and dangers from obstacles like spectators and animals in the road to an active highway which must be crossed. Music, from the hard driving to the more contemplative, is beautifully matched to the imagery and the sound crew will frequently have your teeth rattling.
Brown shows some of the contestants we've been following end the race, sometimes with surprising finishes, before ending with his cast of characters trying to sum up the Baja with a single word or phrase. There is no common observation and Brown's achievement is that he has enabled his audience to experience so many of them. "Dust to Glory" is a gas.
Robin's review coming soon!
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