USA TODAY International Edition
Series sure to delight fans
Team Hendrick glad to be part of documentary
A new documentary will pull back the veil on how Hendrick Motorsports conducts its everyday business. The team is thrilled and hopes fans will be, too.
Filming of the documentary wrapped almost a year ago. Filming of a sequel — if there is to be one — could begin with Hendrick drivers and crewmembers watching Road to Race Day together for the first time. It would be a wonderful team- building exercise, as the unvarnished and image- challenging documentary promises new angles on one of NASCAR’s most successful teams for fans and employees.
Directed by Cynthia Hill, the eight- part documentary will begin streaming Wednesday on Complex Networks’ Rated Red, available on go90. It chronicles Hendrick’s 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season, notable for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’ s recurrence of concussions and Chase Elliott’s ascent to replace four- time series champion Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Hill, a North Carolina filmmaker with a self- described desire to probe iconic Southern subjects and the stereotypes they elicit, approached HMS with an idea for the project in October 2015. She was shocked, she said, with the immediate interest from HMS vice president of marketing Pat Perkins.
Perkins told USA TODAY Sports that the organization had been exploring such a project since 2011 to satisfy a fan desire for “real, behind- the- scenes content,” and the project crystallized around an effort to showcase the team’s history and the launch of Elliott’s Cup career.
Hill retained complete editorial control, she said, and HMS placed few restrictions on access, other than reserving the right to redact scenes that might compromise trade secrets or sponsor relationships.
On a few occasions, she said, personnel bucked at her presence, with Earnhardt crew chief Greg Ives asking for more privacy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Jimmie Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus clearing the room on a few occasions.
Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson said he acclimated quickly, though he occasionally had to explain to disconcerted friends why a boom microphone was dangling nearby.
“Saying they were part of the team maybe takes it a bit too far,” he said of the film crew. “But they were around so much and you interacted with them so much, it was very second nature.”
Hill said she had been alerted to the authoritarian tendencies of Knaus, who quickly learned to deactivate his microphone when he desired privacy.
“He could have kicked us out, and we’d have no content from them,” Hill said, noting she eventually got much more from Knaus than expected. “You’re tiptoeing around, making sure you’re OK, so you stay back a little bit. … But as a filmmaker, your instinct is to press.”
Gustafson’s comfort was apparent in critical interactions with his rookie driver at Daytona International Speedway, as behind- the- scenes segments underscored a tense environment.
“Part of me ( thinks) it was the worst time to do ( the documentary) but also the best time to do it,” Gustafson said. “Worst for us, but really the best to give people the real image of what goes on in those situations. If it went on again, you’d see a much more refined relationship and how it’s grown in a different dynamic.”
The dynamic with NASCAR officials also was interesting. During one interaction with a NASCAR official after Elliott wrecked in the Daytona 500, Gustafson asserts he would “lose ( his expletive)” if a repair he wasn’t allowed to make showed up on other cars.
Gustafson and interior mechanic Jordan Allen said they were concerned with the presentation in that viewers might construe raw comments between team members as malicious rather than the product of themes tracing back years into their tenure.
“A lot of people don’t get our humor, but it works with the peo- ple who we work with,” Allen said. “It seems like the 24 guys hate each other, but it’s not true.”
The series concludes at Indianapolis with an episode originally slated to focus on Kasey Kahne. Instead, it was dominated by retired Gordon replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet after a recurrence of concussions that eventually cost him the second half of the season.
“I couldn’t see not covering that,” Hill said. “It felt like a gift from God, when that fell in our laps. And we were allowed to go and follow Jeff Gordon.”
There are no interviews or segments devoted to Earnhardt after his diagnosis because his episodes had been shot in the spring. Also, Hill said, HMS was hesitant to accommodate filming during the playoffs.
At its best, the film is revealing personality and providing a platform to crewmen who are otherwise nameless men in identical clothes attending to cars.
The comfort level attained by the team members as camera crews became regular parts of their landscape provided revealing moments, from gripes — a tire carrier complaining about his grade on a pit stop — to edgy office banter — Allen mocking spotter Eddie D’Hondt for reprising Johnson’s call to Elliott not to become “discouraged” over the team radio at Daytona.
There are also pinholes into the anxiety of those with anonymous but imperative roles.
In an episode detailing the beginning of Earnhardt’s season, in- terior mechanic Adam Jordan, who is responsible for safety gear such as seat belts and the installation of the steering wheel, laments:
“The problem is — and you try not to think about it — if something happens, it’s not like a group of 80 guys are going to be the only ones that know. If I make a mistake in here, millions of people are gonna know.”
Later in the episode, Earnhardt was forced to momentarily control his car under caution at Talladega Superspeedway by gripping the steering column when the wheel disconnected. The driver later absorbed responsibility for the mishap.
Fan vignettes are interspersed, with expected die- hard- comesto- see- favorite- driver montages and clips of Talladega Boulevard revelry giving way to more illuminating moments.
Fans accustomed to the glossy Hendrick persona will be jarred and enthralled by the interactions that occur far from autograph lines. Breaking: Adults in pressurized environments swear a lot.
“I curse a lot,” said Allen, who is a frequent subject in the series.
Hill called the organization’s willingness to allow copious amounts of adult language “really brave.”
“This is so foreign for us to see this human side,” Hill added. “To their credit, ( HMS) embraced it and said they were willing to take that chance to let an audience see some things where they are not so polished.”