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Interview with Jon Alpert

As a perpetual underdog, I'm attracted to similar species. Sammy Hawkins - and Anderson, Indiana - are about as underdoggy as it gets.

HBO

At the time of this interview, Jon was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan filming a new documentary for HBO. He brought a DVD of Dirty Driving with him, and reported that film subject Sammy Hawkins had become a cult hero among the American soldiers, especially the helicopter pilots who have to do some pretty dirty driving to stay alive. The soldiers all want to thank HBO for letting Jon document life in Anderson, Indiana, and for letting Jon film in Afghanistan. Jon sent in these comments.

HBO

What attracted you to the world of thunder car racing?

Jon Alpert

As a perpetual underdog, I'm attracted to similar species. Sammy Hawkins - and Anderson, Indiana - are about as underdoggy as it gets. But Sammy sure has fighting spirit. And I really admire that, and his determination to scrape himself off the wall of that track - and to scrape himself off the wall of life - every time he get smashed by dirty drivers, and an even dirtier economy. I come from a town - Port Chester, New York - that lost all its jobs and factories when I was in High School, and I've driven though our former Rust Belt, and seen town after town like Anderson that are haunted by empty factories and by the ghosts of jobs that have vanished and are never coming back. I guess if it wasn't for spirits like Sammy it would be pretty depressing.

We were on a bus tour across the country - showing our films from ground zero, Afghanistan, and Iraq - in town squares of the heartland, using the video wall on the side of our bus to show our tapes and organizing town meetings to discus the issues affecting America. Brent Renaud ('Dope Sick Love') was our one man advance team. We didn't have much time to properly plan all our stops, and we were looking for a town to visit in the formerly industrialized mid west. Brent said, "I had some relatives who used to live in Anderson." He got off the freeway to look around and reported back that the town seemed dead. I said "Find something, 'cause we're arriving on the bus in 6 hours." Brent hung up the phone, looked up, and saw two pit bulls chained to a tree, an orange stock car with the number 26 on the side, sidled past the dogs, knocked on the door and Sammy Hawkins answered. The next thing we knew, we were at the Anderson Speedway, the world's steepest banked quarter mile track, holding on tight as Sammy showed us a world of scrapped fenders, bashed bumpers, and fist fights in the pits.

The racers of Anderson seem to be searching for a singular moment in the sunshine. Life in Anderson is cold, cloudy and the forecast gets gloomier everyday. Friday night at the track is their chance to be somebody, to shake their fist at the steam-roller of life that has flattened everybody else and shout "Not This Time Buddy."

The car - and the freedom and mobility it bestows - has always been part of America's identity. In High School, I still remember the excitement when Dad came home with a new car. The whole neighborhood came over. I remember family road trips and the feeling of freedom, and sort of poor man's manifest destiny that the car provided. I even secured a 1954 - junk Ford - with the illusion that I could fix it up, make it run, and that girls would want to drive around with me (spectacularly unsuccessful on all counts). Well put the car culture on steroids and you have Anderson, Indiana. When I was a kid we grew up with a baseball in our hand. In Anderson, it's a wrench.

The passions that car racing unleashes are sort of a surprise to New Yorkers; the screaming fans, the rivalries on and off the track. Most of us city folk don't know who the current NASCAR champ is. But everybody in Anderson, Indiana knows who #26 is: Sammy Hawkins. And that's what Dirty Driving is all about.

I admire Sammy Hawkins and his fellow drivers. It is a tough life in Anderson. They experienced the sub-prime mortgage crisis a decade before the rest of America knew what sub-prime was. But they don't quit. And I know if I cut them off, they are slamming me into the wall.

Gentlemen (and Ladies) start your engines!

Dirty Driving: Thundercars of Indiana