“32 Hours 7 Minutes”: Well Beyond “Rush”

Although the racing movie that is getting all the buzz of late is Rush, the Ron Howard production that tells the tale of the rivalry between two Formula One drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, in the 1970s, with the climax of the film occurring at the 1976 German Grand Prix [SPOILER ALERT], when Lauda was involved in a horrific accident, though he came back to defend his title before the season was completed and [SPOILER ALERT] took the championship, I’ve seen a much better racing film.

And while Rush is a fictional retelling of something that actually happened, this film, 32 Hours 7 Minutes is a documentary. Real life. Real people. Really happening. And really a whole lot better.

At the risk of getting a bit complicated here, the conceit goes back to the Cannonball Runs that took place in the early 1970s, when journalists (e.g., Brock Yates), professional drivers (e.g., Dan Gurney) and an assortment of enthusiastic amateurs drove cross country as fast as they could. Public roads. Public cops. The Cannonball Run was run five times between 1971 and 1979.

It was followed by the U.S. Express race across the country. Same challenge: Go fast and don’t get caught.

The final U.S. Express was run in 1983, with David Diem and Doug Turner going from Long Island, NY, to Emeryville, CA, in 32 hours, seven minutes.

Given distance and the time, that meant that the drivers ran at an average speed of 89 mph.

Because this race was conducted on public roads, Diem’s and Turner’s average speed raised a few eyebrows in the community of racers and followers of the long-distance runs. Think about it. That’s average speed. While there is a lot of open highway from one side of the country to another, there are also urban areas, construction zones, and routes that are heavily patrolled. What’s more, when you stop for gas, you’re going 0 mph, and even the quickest of stops means the average goes down.

Filmmaker Cory Welles knew Doug Turner, who has died, and one of her goals was to set about “proving 32 hours and 7 minutes.”

So she connected with driver Alex Roy and co-driver David Maher, and sat in the back seat of a 2000 BMW M5 in October 2006 as they set out from New York City to the Santa Barbara Pier, running through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. She instrumented the car with six cameras, a sound mixer, and a recording device. Roy and his colleagues instrumented the BMW with a Radio Shack catalog’s worth of electronic devices, ranging from a switch that allowed them to control the brake lights to radar jammers to a thermal imaging device.

I will not give it away as to whether they made it or not. While this is a documentary, I can honestly say that I found the characters (or real people) far more compelling than the characters (based on real people) in Rush. And as is the case in drama, things don’t always run smoothly (e.g., Lauda’s crash). No, there isn’t a crash in 32 Hours 7 Minutes that sets things awry, but there is something unexpected that occurs in the film that makes it all the more engaging.

It is a remarkable work that Welles has crafted. If you’ve ever been a backseat passenger in a car that’s traveling at a high rate of speed, often making turns, you’ve probably experienced, um, a bit of intestinal upsets. Her sitting in the back of that BMW is a feat unto itself.

Full disclosure: I was recently on a car driving program. The OEM had sent a car to the Santa Barbara airport to pick me up. I sat in the back of a full-size SUV and the driver and I started a conversation. Because she knew I was there to drive and had more than a passing interest in the auto industry , she asked what I thought about movies about racing. I answered that unless it is something from the way-back machine (1966’s Grand Prix), movies about racing really tend not to be all that compelling (e.g., 2001’s Driven). Turns out that I was being driven by Cory Welles. She gave me a copy of 32 Hours 7 Minutes. And it turns out that I was wrong about contemporary racing films.