FAST LANE SUMMER MG Films Directed by Eli F. Bleich
Produced by Kathleen Pearce, Aaron Bleich, Eli F. Bleich
Director of Photography Ares Demertzis
Edited by Judith Herbert
A Movie Review by Phil R. Elliott
I get requests to do reviews of books and movies fairly often. I’d never heard of Fast Lane Summer when I received a request to review it. When the package arrived and I’d inspected it briefly, I figured the movie was going to be a home-movie-style overview of a summer of nostalgia drag racing. Boy was I wrong.
“Fast Lane Summer is high speed, high drama.” So says sentence one of the media kit for a cinematic documentary I recently received. But this review is not about the media kit but about a damned good, feature length, very interesting movie, based around a summer of fun and action with the Foothill Flyer, a Nostalgia Top Fuel team based in northern California. We all have top tens in our head and this one roared onto my list of race movies of all kinds.
Later, I plugged the CD in my player with absolutely no premonitions or predictions. Almost immediately, I was introduced to the owners of the Foothill Flyer, a NTF entry I’ve seen on several occasions. But, it was a car whose owners and crew I really didn’t know at all. In fact, the only particular I recognized was Pete Jensen. He and Mike Civelli have been running the “Flyer” for awhile, reaching some pretty prestigious final rounds over their career with drivers like “Wild Bill” Alexander and “Nitro Neil” Bisciglia. But the movie quickly pointed out that they had a new block, heads and tune-up, and that they were about to try out a green driver, Jerry Kumre.
With just that much in mind, Fast Lane Summer already had my interest piqued.
A short retrospective showed the car erupt fifty feet into a burnout, and after the team members took the blame I quickly figured out this was the reason for the new engine pieces. Am I perceptive or what?
The next segment went over details of assembling parts and crew, and even a few individual anecdotes. Through interview-style narration, I was totally sucked into the story.
Huge costs of racing were covered in a rather interesting fashion – discussions with a variety of members of the Sutter Creek and Jackson (California) councils during a Chamber of Conference display. Most of these folk were astonished that so much investment of time and money could reap so little reward.
Civelli is from Santa Fe, New Mexico, not exactly next door to Gold Country. What was not brought out in this movie was Mike’s tremendous background in F1 boats, how he and Jensen met or hooked up, or just why Foothill Flyer crewmembers kept referring to themselves as the Free Mexican Air Force. Later.
What surprised me more was reading through the credentials of the production company – mediagroup inc. of Norwalk, Connecticut.
Mediagroup inc. has a long list of productions for all the major networks as well as some of the lesser known cable companies, several of which I’ve seen. President and CEO, Eli F. Bleich, who also directed Fast Lane Summer, was personally involved in Oscar winners back in the ‘60s, and later, his credits included the critically acclaimed 1972 rock-umentary, “Fillmore” about the final days of one of rock-n-roll’s favorite venues, the Fillmore West.
The rest of the crew, including co-producers Kathleen Pearce and Aaron Bleich, all have earned multiple awards, especially Emmys and Peabodys. Director of Photography, Ares Demertzis, has a long list of awards too, mostly in TV commercials for big name clients. He also spent quite a bit of time in the ‘60s under the tutelage of Martin Scorsese.
I bring all this up to suggest Fast Lane Summer is not the normal single-camera, amateurish production overdubbed with awful garage band rock-n-roll covers. This whole movie has aspirations of theatrical release and not just something sold out of a trunk at various car events. According to Eli Bleich, considering all the favors he called in and a mostly volunteer crew, production costs were still in the “quarter of a million dollar range” and “took just under a year to complete from start to release.”
I don’t pretend to know anything about movie production. I have been involved in only tiny fragments of a few TV projects, especially in editing and continuity checking. What I do know is that they can be immense in terms of financial and logistical burdens. And while in Hollywood terms, a quarter of a million dollars may not seem to be a huge sum – compared to some of the extravaganzas of recent years – it is far more than the involvement of most similar projects.
Back on May 5 (2006), Fast Lane Summer premiered at the New York International Independent Film Festival in New York to a nearly full house! Again, according to Bleich, “The response was excellent. Clearly, those who know anything about Drag Racing thought it was great and those who knew nothing found themselves drawn into the characters and thought it was fascinating.”
And, I know from inside information that Bleich himself knew absolutely nothing about drag racing when he started this project. Another item to cover later.
I asked Bleich just how producers of quality documentaries and commercials could possibly have gotten hooked up with a nostalgia drag race team. I’ll let him explain:
“We were introduced to Mike Civelli by a long time friend (Baron Wolman) in Santa Fe. He is a photographer (official photographer of Woodstock, many musicians of the psychedelic age and later one of the initial staff of Rolling Stone – www.fotobaron.com
) and had done a book about Danny Sullivan (Fast Lane Summer, written by the late Leon Mandel about a season in CanAm) some years ago, which I had tried to turn into a movie. When I mentioned that I was going to do a documentary about racing, he immediately suggested that I meet Civelli, because he thought he would be the right person for the movie. Civelli, one of the owners of the Foothill Flyer, invited us out to spend some time with the team. The rest, as they say, is history.”
As a good little reporter, I quickly shot back this question:
Is it in tribute to Leon Mandel that you titled this movie Fast Lane Summer?
Bleich responded quite quickly:
“I didn't know Mandel but yes, you could say that it was inspired by both Wolman and Mandel. And certainly Mandel's writing of Fast Lane Summer was a brilliant and insightful look at racing from the inside when it was written. In fact, I had optioned the rights to the book and tried to film it as a TV documentary – we were actually going to follow Danny Sullivan the following year on the Indy circuit -– but were unable to sell it. Nonetheless, it stayed with me for these last 20 years... and finally we got to make it on our own.”
Please trust me when I say that this 20-year wait is drag racing’s gain.
When I asked Mr. Bleich about the schedule for release, he did not give me an exact answer because all that is still in the planning stages. One way will be on a market-by-market basis in conjunction with NHRA national events. He mentioned that Fast Lane Summer screenings might be used as a fundraiser for DRAW to help raise money for injured drivers.
Besides, mediagroup is negotiating with RacingJunk.com to release Fast Lane Summer as broadband “webisodes” which can be viewed on-site. The full length DVD will also be available for purchase on that site, possibly about mid-July.
But back to the fun stuff.
I called Pete Jensen to get his take on being part of this movie. As I said, his partner Mike Civelli is from Santa Fe. They actually met during the craziness that became the introduction of the drag race world to Cole Coonce, a cross-country sojourn covered in two-parts in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, titled, “Have Nitro, Will Travel.” That explained a lot.
The Free Mexican Air Force is a musical reference to a 1978 Peter Rowan piece from his first solo album about UFOs and government cover-ups – the Free Alien Air Force is chased all over the skies by the Mexican Air Force (is there such a thing?) led by Emiliano Zapata who “flies a ship that can still outrun the wind.”
When I reminded myself of the SS&DI story and Rowan’s lyrics, things began to click. The Foothill Flyer team is a perfect match for a summer of fun, with or without a front engine dragster. In fact, the latter might just hamper their style.
Then Peter dropped another bomb. He was a child of the south bay (San Francisco) and nearly the epitome of that old “raised by wolves” line. At an early age, he was pretty much brought up by Ted Gotelli, the one known to westcoast nitro racers and promoters as “Terrible Ted.” And Civelli had spent a teenage summer touring with Don Garlits! The pieces of this weirdness puzzle were truly beginning to fall into place.
According to Jensen, the story Bleich had told about how the project came together was nearly correct. But it had been photographer Wolman and AutoWeek columnist, and former racecar driver, Denise McLuggage who actually knew the Foothill Flyer gang, that really set the deal in motion.
So, after an initial meeting between Eli Bleich, Kathleen Pearce and Mike Civelli, a “production meeting” was set up to introduce the producers to the racers. Let’s picture this scene: Several Connecticut and New York film makers climb off a plane in Sacramento and are whisked to the wooded Sierras to meet a group of outlaw drag racers. In the Bleich party’s eyes, it must have seemed akin to French aristocracy meeting Ma and Pa Kettle and the James Gang.
Once the trepidatious handshakes and head nods settled down, the rather pompous speeches began. “If we begin this project, we’ll be in your way and you’ll just have to get used to it.” The guidelines went on for a while, then Peter Jensen decided it was time to fire up the racecar.
As he recalls, “These folk nearly shed their shorts. From then on, the whole thing was easy. By the third day, Eli was drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with the rest of us – he was a scotch in a clean glass guy and hadn’t smoked for over ten years – and begging us to start up the car again!”
Jensen told me some of the technical insides of the Foothill Flyer, including its just 369 cubic inches. He also mentioned that besides Ted Gotelli, he had learned much from Clayton Harris. He told me more stories of how the production crew became nearly indistinguishable from the race crew by the time the raw film was “in the can.” It sounded like the entire process had been just an extension of what Foothill Flyer was all about anyway.
What came out of this collision of sophisticates with supposed myopic neophytes is a reality-documentary that gives a truistic and microscopic look inside a rather unknown world. Fast Lane Summer is one of the best examples of why people race I’ve ever seen – a group of people having a great time, even when adversity smacks them.
I’d like to emphasize that this movie is strong, certainly among the very best ever done on drag racing. It is mandatory for fans and an extremely good indoctrination to drag racing for novices.
Phil R. Elliott
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