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Documentary film ‘The Last Race’ spotlights Riverhead Raceway

09/03/2018 6:00 AM |

Far removed from the glitz and glamour of mammoth NASCAR stadiums that attract crowds of more than 100,000 on race day, the venerable Riverhead Raceway, with its quarter-mile track, remains an iconic destination at the gateway to the East End. Every Saturday night from late spring through summer, the familiar roar of the engines fills the air as Modified cars, Super Pro Trucks, Legends cars and more race side-by-side. 

A Riverhead tradition for nearly seven decades, the raceway became the last remaining track on Long Island in 2003, when Westhampton Raceway closed its doors. As the years passed, the whispers grew louder: How much longer could racing continue in Riverhead?

That question is at the heart of a documentary entitled “The Last Race,” set to be released in November by director Michael Dweck and Magnolia Pictures. The 74-minute film shines a spotlight on Riverhead Raceway and the people who make it a unique place: from the drivers, to the fans, to the employees who dedicate so much time to keeping the small-town operation running. It was screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it received positive reviews. It will be available both in select theaters and on-demand, through outlets such as YouTube, starting Nov. 16.

Variety magazine wrote in January: “When it comes to the racing sequences, meanwhile, [Mr. Dweck] and producer-cinematographer Gregory Kershaw convey the thrill of the sport in impressive, immersive fashion, to the soaring strains of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor.”

“Michael Dweck is very meticulous about the story he’s trying to tell and the spirit of the story he’s telling,” said Bob Finan, the longtime voice of the raceway, who’s featured in the film.

Mr. Dweck, a Long Island native who now lives part-time in Montauk, is known for his fine art photography; “The Last Race” is his first foray into a feature film. In a director’s statement posted on the film’s website, Mr. Dweck described how he began photographing at Riverhead Raceway in 2007 “as a way to reconnect with this simpler past.” As a kid, he had often attended the former Freeport Speedway with his dad and brothers — and was present on the final day of racing there in 1983.

“It’s only a matter of time before the bulldozers move in and Riverhead goes the way of other tracks before it, replaced by a shopping mall or some other piece of disposable architecture,” Mr. Dweck wrote. “That’s what people want, and that’s OK. But when it goes, something will be lost.”

Mr. Dweck spent five years photographing at the raceway before deciding he needed to capture it in greater detail through film. Former owners Jim and Barbara Cromarty, who purchased the track in 1984, are featured prominently and the film documents the pressure they faced to sell to developers who could transform the property into something far more profitable. Mr. Finan said filming ended around 2015, right around the time the Cromartys sold the business for $4 million, a far lower price than the facility could have commanded in previous years.

“I think the movie is going to show what the Cromartys did for racing by preserving it as a race track,” said Tom Gatz, one of the current co-owners.

At the start of a trailer for the film that was released earlier this summer, Ms. Cromarty is shown on screen saying: “This is really what it’s all about: This intimate, emotional interplay between human beings.”

It turns out that fears of Riverhead Raceway’s imminent demise were a bit premature. Three years later, racing continues under the new ownership of Ed Partridge, his wife, Connie, and their nephew Mr. Gatz. They’ve invested in numerous improvements there, from redoing the bathrooms, to improving the lighting, redoing the food stands and an overall sprucing up of the property, Mr. Finan said.

“It’s not something they announce; they just kind of go about it and do it,” he said. “They’re not looking for the big fanfare.”

Mr. Gatz said he learned of the film shortly after the purchase was finalized. He said he’s excited to see it and thinks it will provide a good insight into what racing life is like.

“It’s definitely a special place and I think the movie is going to kind of show that it’s a special place,” he said. “I hope it draws more interest to the track.”

During filming, Mr. Finan said, the crew tried to be minimally intrusive. But the process did require a hands-on approach.

“They worked that balance pretty good,” he said.

In production notes posted online, cinematographer-producer Mr. Kershaw detailed the process used to create the film, from the photography to the sound.

“From the beginning of the filming process, we knew we wanted to capture the intensity of the car racing in a way that people had not seen or experienced before,” he wrote.

The production crew took into account small details, Mr. Kershaw wrote, like recording Mr. Finan’s voice over the PA system from multiple positions “to reflect the many perspectives that the audio could be perceived from locations in and around the track.” 

Mr. Finan, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the race track, is hardly a newcomer to the bright lights. In the mid-1980s, he acted as a color commentator for part of an ESPN show at Riverhead. But he’s not one to watch himself or seek out the spotlight. He said he’s seen snippets of the trailer for “The Last Race” and will eventually sit down to watch the entire film.

He laughed at the fact that he is listed among the film’s stars.

“I don’t think I’ll be on the red carpet with J Lo,” he said.

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