Pit Stop (1969)

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Written and Directed by Jack Hill

Starring: Richard Davalos, Ellen Burstyn, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn

Tagline: Crash-O-Rama!

Trivia: Prior to filming, Sid Haig did not know how to drive a car.

Fast cars, rock and roll, and existentialism shape the mid-tempo groove of Jack Hill’s 1969 Drive-In movie classic Pit Stop.  The film’s protagonist Rick Bowman aims to take over the figure eight racing circuit as a stepping stone in a quest to achieve greatness.  His rival “the hawk” is played by a young Sid Haig.

I’d never heard of figure eight racing before watching Pit Stop.  The track is literally shaped like an “8” and cars cross each other at the center, increasing the chance of collisions.  To survive the driver must have impeccable control and timing – the racing sequences are well shot and create an edgy excitement.  Included is a surreal sequence of dune buggy’s racing through the desert.

In between the racing we get a minimal character study.  Davalos imitated Brando and McQueen in his performance, speaking in simple sentence monotones. Haig chews up the scenery as the unhinged rival.  A young Ellen Burstyn appears in a supporting role, billed as Ellen McLeod, the intriguing wife of Rick’s mechanic.

The rocking soundtrack, riffing on “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MG’s, perfectly telegraphs the atmosphere and rebel spirit of the 1960s.  Even the “big race” at the end maintains a cool tone.

Every character is passionate about racing and their honesty rolls off the screen. They live for nothing else.  Unlike the big Hollywood production Grand Prix and the Steve McQueen vehicle Le Mans, Pit Stop gets the experience of racing without all the cinematic trickery and melodrama.  In culinary terms, it’s the equivalent of a greasy cheeseburger and French fries.

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