Lime Rock Park: The Secret Valley of Racing

By Mike Covello
May 28, 2001

Why is it that Hollywood had never been able to capture the real essence of racing? Other than Grand Prix and Le Mans, most every racing movie has disappointed. As much as we love the exciting racing shots of the Ferrari 512s and the Porsche 917s, even McQueen’s masterpiece is sub-par when the actors open their mouths and try to explain why men race. On May 23 (9pm) and May 27 (6pm) Connecticut Public Television will present Chris Szwedo’s Lime Rock Park: The Secret Valley of Racing. This 57-minute documentary not only captures the unique beauty of Lime Rock, but it contains more art and integrity than most of the racing films combined.

For 18-months writer/director/producer Szwedo filmed at Lime Rock in rain, hot sun, snow and freezing temperatures. These disparate, seasonal conditions are captured so well that they carry the weight of the soul-searching narration with an ease that belies the effort involved. The beautiful Berkshire Hills seem to sing the message of nature as eloquently as the racing luminaries captured on the film depict the depths of their racing passion.

Sometimes the newest converts are the most zealous, and Szwedo authentically captures the drama, the humanity and the pure fun of racing. Interviews with racing personalities Sam Posey, John Fitch, Skip Barber, Butch Leitzinger and others are the heart of the film. Their decades of experience provide racing insights that ring true for both the experienced racer and the casual observer.

This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the film. Szwedo demystifies racing for anyone who ever wondered what drives a person to risk life and limb competing in fast cars. One such novice remarked that he felt the film was powerful enough to popularize racing in the same way that Paul Newman’s The Hustler brought pool from disrepubility to a fixture in many suburban basements. (Yes, even Mr. Newman weighs in on the importance of Lime Rock in the international racing scene.)

Unlike many racing movies that try to generate excitement by thrusting you into the action immediately, Szwedo’s film starts with a snowstorm that is gradually revealed to be blanketing a place normally only experienced in the warmer seasons. Tom Phillips (PBS’s The American Experience) score is both evocative and hypnotic; it's about as far away as you can get from ESPN’s “sport music.”

As Skip Barber says, “Lime Rock doesn't look like a racetrack, it looks like a park.” Its setting adds immeasurably to the racing experience for drivers and fans alike. Szwedo uses the changing seasons quite effectively as a metaphor for the rhythms of racing. We journey from the cold, speculative time of winter into the joys of seeing the surrounding hills explode with the new life of spring. And so the fledgling drivers are the first to be portrayed. The students at Skip Barber Racing School provide us with our introduction to some of the nuts and bolts of racing. Both John Fitch and Sam Posey are locals to the track, residing within a few minutes of Lime Rock Park. When we see them talking on camera, their love for the track and passion for racing provides some of the most memorable footage. The interviews come across as one-on-one conversations with the viewers, rather than canned speeches that have been tossed out hundreds of times.

With summer come the big events, and the throngs of fans. Lime Rock’s history is presented, and track founder Jim Vail is portrayed as a construction worker with dreams that go well beyond the boundaries of a road circling a gravel pit. We see how Lime Rock has fulfilled the spirit of that vision, overcoming considerable obstacles along the way. Moving on to explore racers and their machines, the elegance and precision needed to compete at the higher levels is captured without long exposition that dwells on technical terms or repetitive shots of the same cars. Mark Donohue speaks of why men race, his voice fresh, as if still with us today. To realize that Donohue’s death shook Posey enough for Sam to give up major league racing is to experience the pangs of Mark’s death anew.

For many people Lime Rock is at its best in the fall. The blazing colors, cooler temperatures and the sense of fleeting time give the Fall Vintage Festival and the NASCAR Busch North races a sense of accomplishment of a fruitful season, and a feeling of lingering sorrow for those bygone days of summer. Seeing John Fitch motoring off in his Fitch Phoenix draws the circle to a close.

Lime Rock Park: The Secret Valley of Racing is well crafted. The images, narration, interviews, and music all weave a tapestry that is both entertaining and thought provoking. It delights those racing fans who have grown up with Lime Rock during its 44 years of operation. If you do not receive Connecticut Public Television, you have two choices. Either call or write your local public television station and ask them to pick up this film for their broadcast. See if you don’t agree that McQueen and Szwedo may someday be commonly mentioned as film champions of our sport.

Buy Lime Rock Park: The Secret Valley of Racing

FAN REVIEW -- Lime Rock Park: The Secret Valley of Racing

This movie is absolutely awesome!

Whether you've been there and driven the course or not, or maybe not even raced or driven any road course, this documentary captures the park, the driving, the racing, and why we do it.

There are quite a few of us who just drove it for the first time this past November and the feeling I got when I saw this film sparked that passion and presented quite a bit about the course, its design and theory. The movie is brilliantly made.

I am lucky enough to have an extremely special and supportive wife (thanks Jeanette). She ordered this movie directly from the source just before I drove the course, and gave it to me for Christmas. It quickly became my favorite gift.

I suggest purchasing the DVD which has many extras including interviews, an alternate ending, vintage footage, and three rides on the track in three vastly different cars.

If you've been there then you should get it. If you've never been and are a fan you will love it. If you aren't a fan you will get a better understanding after seeing it. It's simply an extremely well made movie, both beautiful and hypnotic.


© Chris Szwedo Productions |