'The Last Race' Focuses on a Disappearing Culture in Riverhead

Stock car racing was born on Long Island in 1927
The Riverhead Raceway’s longtime owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, are the beating heart of “The Last Race.”

“The Last Race,” the first film by the noted photographer Michael Dweck, opens a window on a world that has a long history on Long Island but has all but disappeared. Stock car racing was born on Long Island in 1927, and by 1956 there were 40 racetracks here. 

Now only the Riverhead Raceway survives, and its unique but endangered culture is captured in Mr. Dweck’s riveting documentary, which will have its East Coast premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival this weekend.

The director discussed the film in the context of his larger body of work. “I look for places that have this magic, this indescribable something that gives them energy. All my work is about cultures on the verge of extinction.”

The places captured in his photographs have included Montauk, where he has a had a house since 2000, Havana, and Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida, which bills itself as “the only city of live mermaids.” His fourth book focuses on the world of stock car racing, specifically the big, heavy stock cars known as blunderbusts that run on the Riverhead Raceway.

He spent five years taking still images at the track before deciding to make the film. “The problem for me was that I couldn’t capture the motion or the emotion of how that place made me feel without going to motion pictures. I started with one movie camera, but I wanted to immerse the audience even more. That eventually required my welding 20 cameras onto the fronts, backs, and sides of cars.”

Mr. Dweck takes a distinctive approach to his subject. There are no identifying titles, no voice-over narrative, just the images and a soundtrack that includes choral music, 4,300 sound effects, racing engines, squealing brakes, crashing cars, and conversations with drivers, track employees, and the track’s owners, Jim and Barbara Cromarty.

“I wanted the audience to feel like they were there. The only way to do that was to not have editing define the story. I had to be a visual storyteller without having to spoon-feed the audience with a narrator or endless talking heads. It was challenging. My main character in this film is a racetrack.”

While the racing footage alternates with a dozen people who come in and out of the story, the through line is the Cromartys’ determination to keep the track open. At the time of filming they were 87 years old, and both had suffered broken hips and strokes. In one shot they arrive at their office wearing Nascar uniforms but aided by walkers.

Discussing why they haven’t sold the track, Ms. Cromarty talks about their winters in Florida, where the biggest challenge facing most of their retired friends is what card game to play. “We have a life here,” she says, adding that the track keeps them young.

Mr. Dweck grew up in Bellmore in Nassau County in the shadow of the Freeport Speedway. He was 4 years old when he first went to the track with his parents, and on nights when he couldn’t be there he would sit in his bedroom with the window open. “I could see the lights, the smoke coming up out of the stadium, and I could hear the noise. It made me sad when I was missing it.” 

He recalled his first visits to the track in Riverhead. “As a kid, you got to wait by the concession stand and you could watch the cars go by after the race, leaking fluid, dragging metal pieces, and the drivers, who were your heroes, were all beaten up and dirty, they were like wounded warriors.” 

“I can’t think of any place you can go where you can experience anything that visceral. That place smelled different, your skin felt different, the rubber bits that flew off the cars got in your hair, on your skin. The noise, the visual stimulation you get — there’s nothing else like it.”

While taking photographs there from 2007 to 2012, he watched as the forests and the farmland along Route 58 were being decimated. “In one day I saw 100 acres reduced to sawdust. The following day they started laying asphalt for a shopping mall. I thought the track’s days were numbered, and I wanted to memorialize it, to document what it meant to me and to other people in simpler times.”

The track is surrounded by malls and box stores that over the years have had a devastating impact on downtown Riverhead and loom as a reminder that the value of the land is a threat to the raceway and the working-class subculture that sustains it.

At one point, Ms. Cromarty delivers a reflective monologue celebrating “the drivers, who are plumbers, shoe salesmen, but they come to the track and they are heroes. Racing touches lives in a very strong way that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s all about the intimate, emotional interplay between human beings.”

The Cromartys sold the track in 2016. “It was very difficult for them to make the decision to sell. I talk to them every week,” Mr. Dweck said, “and it was a decision they still occasionally question. They tried to hold on as long as they could, but they’re frail.”

“We’re tired,” Ms. Cromarty says near the end of the film. “It’s just that simple.” The raceway reopened under new owners, but, considering the property is worth more than $10 million dollars, the current season, which ended on Sunday, was likely a stay of execution for the track and a way of life.

“The Last Race” is one of the festival’s Competition Films as well as one of the Views From Long Island selections. It will be shown on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the East Hampton Cinema and on Sunday at 3:45 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center

“The Last Race” is the first film by the noted photographer Michael Dweck. Cecilia Luppi