Happiness is a Warm TV

From ‘A Chef’s Life’ to NASCAR, Durham filmmaker explores the true characters of the South

Chase Elliott in the first episode of “Road to Race Day.”
Chase Elliott in the first episode of “Road to Race Day.” Courtesy of Markay Media

For fans of the work of Durham filmmaker Cynthia Hill, award-winning director of the documentary “Private Violence” and the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” Hill’s new “Road to Race Day” docuseries about NASCAR may have been unexpected.

But Hill says racing fits a larger theme that runs through her career.

“For me, it’s iconically Southern, and I like the idea of exploring things that are iconically Southern,” says Hill. “This one may not seem like an obvious choice going from a documentary about domestic violence and a series about a female chef, due to its hyper-masculinity. I was just curious about it. It has a lot of stigma associated with it, like a lot of things associated with the South, so I just wanted to see what it really is like to be part of a NASCAR team.”

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Durham filmmaker Cynthia Hill, photographed in Durham, July 2017. Jeremy M. Lange Jeremy M. Lange

“Road to Race Day” is an eight-part series that goes behind the scenes with racing team Hendrick Motorsports, showing the NASCAR experience from every angle, with particular focus on pit crews and drivers. Hill says the idea for the series was conceived by her and Malinda Lowery, one of the producers of the series who runs the Center for the Study of the American South and is a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. The series is streaming free now on the digital video network Rated Red.

“We were very much interested in Chase Elliott joining the team and taking over Jeff Gordon’s place in the #24 car,” says Hill. “We thought that would be a good entry point for us to see what it’s like through the eyes of somebody new coming in, and also a really good jumping point for an audience to be introduced to the subject.”

But before the big pitch, Hill, who grew up watching NASCAR on TV with her grandad but had not followed it as an adult, had some boning up to do.

“I read ‘NASCAR for Dummies,’ no lie,” says Hill. In fact, she was reading the book in the car on the way to the meeting. “Just trying to understand the technical terminology. I didn’t even really understand what the playoffs were, and trying to figure out what this thing is with the chase. So that when I walked into that meeting I didn’t look like a complete fool – I just looked like a partial fool.”

Hill says they thought the project was a long shot, but the Hendrick folks had seen the previous work of Markay Media, Hill’s production company, and liked what they saw.

“They were very much interested in how this story could be told in the way that our team tells stories, which is really observational,” says Hill. “And just going in and trying to understand the world from the inside, being a part of it and being embedded into that world.”

Embedding with NASCAR

Hill’s initial pitch involved following Chase Elliott, the son of NASCAR royalty Bill Elliott, a young driver with lots of buzz. But when offered access to other Hendrick drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr. (more NASCAR royalty), Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne – she couldn’t say no.

“Having the opportunity to spend time with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is the most popular, the most iconic, I would say, at this point of NASCAR drivers and the history, it’s one of those opportunities that – it would be hard for anybody to say no to that.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (center) talking to his crew chief Greg Ives (second from left). Courtesy of Markay Media

As a bonus, Markay also ended up spending time with retired racer Jeff Gordon, who went back to racing at the end of the 2016 season after Earnhardt had concussion symptoms and had to step back from driving.

“We were there for the very race he gets back in the car, and it’s the last episode. It’s really interesting watching him get back in and that becomes part of our narrative that we weave in with the #5, the Kasey Kahne team.”

A small Markay crew of five to six people started filming in January 2016 and went through July. Hill says they had “pretty much full access” to any place they wanted to film, but had to be respectful about “ultra-sensitive stuff.”

“We got a lot of access to their environment, their interactions, their team meetings,” Hill says. “Places where initially we were told we couldn’t go, we eventually ended up in anyway. But we did have an agreement with Hendrick Motorsports that we would not reveal any trade secrets and so we had to be really careful about those kinds of things – and they did watch the cuts on the back end just to make sure that we didn’t show anything.

Hill says there was some skepticism when Markay started because the race teams were not used to her type of camera crew being there – they were more accustomed to cameras escorted by marketing people. But for the most part, they were left alone.

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Co-producer and co-director of photography Josh Woll working on “Road to Race Day.” Courtesy of Josh Woll

“We were pretty much just left within the facility to just hang out,” she says. “I’d say the key for each team was getting the buy-in from the crew chief because they are basically like the head coach. You have to build a rapport with him and then he sends the message down to other team members that it’s OK..”

Revealing true characters

Since all the action in the series took place last year and viewers already know what happened during the races, the actual races aren’t that important to Hill’s storytelling. Her job is to tell the viewer what they don’t know.

“What they don’t know is the backstory of it and the strategy and things that are going on behind the scenes, and all those parts that make each race different,” she says. “We’re filming something that is about a sport but we’re not treating it like sports coverage . . . We’re using the race as a dramatic tool for the storytelling, but that’s not what it’s about. The outcome of it is not necessarily what we’re trying to tell. We’re trying to tell a much broader story about these teams.”

The series has been well received by NASCAR fans and critics of sports documentaries. She says she owes a lot of that to her longtime editor, Tom Vickers, who was her editor on “Private Violence” and who edits her Vivian Howard series, “A Chef’s Life.”

“He really understands the content we’re collecting in the field,” says Hill. “What we like are things other editors or filmmaking teams would throw on the editing room floor. We like those small moments where it might not necessarily seem like an obvious choice, but those small moments really are the things that reveal true characters.”

How to watch ‘Road to Race Day’

Stream “Road to Race Day” on go90.com. There are eight main episodes in all, with each episode released in three acts. A new episode is released each week. Pay no attention to go90’s labeling – just keep watching through what go90 calls episode 24.