Born Racer
(Photo: John Cote/IndyCar Media)

Reel Racing: The Humanity of ‘Born Racer’

This weekend’s Saturday night race at Texas Motor Speedway marks the long-awaited opener of the NTT IndyCar Series’ 2020 season.

The series has been on a three-month hiatus after the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and resulted in the cancellation or postponement of multiple races. The first race of the season, the March 15 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, was the first to fall, with multiple races following suit.

Nearly three months later, though, we’re back! And, for the return of both Reel Racing—put on hold amid the chaos of NASCAR returning to the track—and IndyCar, we’ll take a look at one film in the tiny selection of movies about the sport.

Alongside IndyCar’s return, Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon enters his 18th full-time season of competition in the series. The five-time champion has 45 wins to his name—one of them an Indianapolis 500 victory—and 112 podiums during his career.

The New Zealand native was the focus of a 90-minute documentary quietly released on Oct. 2, 2018. Directed by Bryn Evans, Born Racer is a feature that likely flew under most fans’ radar.

It follows then four-time IndyCar champion Dixon on his quest for a fifth title in 2017—a crown he ultimately lost to Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden. Dixon went on to win his fifth the next year, but Born Racer is so much more than the chronicle of a season.

It’s the breakdown and analysis of everything that makes drivers who they are, their attitude towards racing and their lives away from the track, as well as Dixon’s humble approach to the sport. You would never know that he sits third on the list of all-time victories in IndyCar, or that he has the second-most championships in history.

Born Racer conveys every aspect of Dixon’s personality and allows the viewer to get to know the man under the helmet.

The first 20 minutes of the film are dedicated to the 2017 Indianapolis 500, where anyone who watches IndyCar knows what’s eventually going to happen.

“That’s what it’s all about, you know,” Dixon says in voiceover, “is just winning. That’s why I do it.”

We as an audience ride along with Dixon for the better part of the opening credits, the driver taking us through his four qualifying laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most of the shots are from the camera pod above his helmet, occasionally cutting to third-person shots of the car or to his wife Emma and crew on pit road cheering him on.

Those four qualifying laps were good enough for pole position, and Dixon led the field to green in the 101st running of the sport’s most prestigious race.

The ensuing minutes take the viewer through the lead-up to the 500: interviews with crew members, shots of track activity before dawn, practice and the morning festivities of race day. Interspersed with those pre-race moments are voiceovers of both Dixons, where they make it clear that they both clearly know the risks every time Scott straps into a car.

“We try very hard to live in the moment,” Emma says, “because I am scared that one day, you know, it’s my turn. And that’s what I have to live with as well.”

Back in the race, Dixon leads the field to green and stays out in front for the first five laps, with Tony Kanaan inheriting the lead as Dixon drifts back. The New Zealander pits and rejoins the race, and the film stops in its tracks to hold on the camera pod of Dixon’s No. 9 Dallara Honda – that camera angle and the audio from the car and radio is all the viewer has for several excruciating seconds.

Just ahead, Jay Howard’s car hits the outside wall, careens back down the track and lands directly into Dixon’s path. Dixon’s right front wheel hits Howard’s back left wheel, launching the No. 9 into the air toward the infield. The camera feed cuts out as Dixon’s car lands sideways on top of the infield wall, and cuts to the rear-view camera from Helio Castroneves’ car, which was just in front of the accident.

Dixon’s car, of course, tumbled through the grass and back onto the apron, but he was uninjured and walked away, as did Howard. Despite using crutches for a swollen foot, the narrative quickly jumps to the next race—the first of two back-to-back races in Detroit at Belle Isle.

This is where the film really dives into the in-race communications, with Dixon and his crew bantering back and forth, whether it’s about what Dixon needs to be doing as a driver, or Dixon firing back with frustration or things he needs to know.

“They were bottled up,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull tells Dixon as the race continues. Hull is also Dixon’s race strategist.

“I need to know that,” Dixon responds. “I would have used way more OT on the out lap.

“You got to stay on top of that f—king s—t,” Dixon adds.

He finishes second, six days after he came within inches of death at Indianapolis.

What immediately follows is one of the most humanistic moments of the documentary: Dixon at home, surrounded by his wife and children, playing in their pool and eating together. The rest of the documentary continues to follow Dixon’s title pursuit, but it never fails to show the quieter side of life away from the track and other sides of the sport.

Born Racer’s most effective moment, though, comes a little under an hour into the film.

Amid discussion of the sport’s many risks, the documentary turns to a retrospective of Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident at Las Vegas in 2011, IndyCar’s second-most recent fatality in competition.

On the heels of comments from Dixon, Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi, the audience gains a perspective of Dixon’s steely attitude towards racing and how much Wheldon’s death affected him.

“It’s the only time I’ve seen Scott cry. . . when Dan died,” Emma said.

When the series arrives at Sonoma Raceway for the season finale, Dixon’s ultimate disappointment comes as he battles all four of Team Penske’s cars. Three of them do everything they can to interfere with Dixon’s plans, allowing Penske stablemate Newgarden to win his first series title.

While Born Racer is indeed a behind-the-scenes chronicle of Dixon’s 2017 championship campaign, his background in racing and his personal life, it’s also an examination of what fuels these drivers and their careers.

“The only time you’re gonna keep me out of that car is if I’m dead,” Kanaan says, “or if I can’t really do it, because a doctor tells me I can’t.

“We live to race,” he concludes. “Everything else comes around that. Your family, your wife, your kids, everybody. They have to adapt to your lifestyle.”

Born Racer ends just as it began: with anticipation. Scott and Emma stand near the pit wall after seeing the championship slip away, already awaiting the 2018 season. It’s the perfect metaphor for how every racing fan feels now—we were already eager for the season to start in March, and the extra 86 days have only heightened that excitement.

Born Racer is available for streaming on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

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Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Entercom Richmond's radio station. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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