Racing Dreams (PG) (96 min.) — NASCAR champions got on the right track somewhere, and for many, like Jeff Gordon, it was the World Karting Association where children race go-carts years before they can legally drive cars. Marshall Curry's nifty documentary follows three WKA championship contenders, ages 11 through 13, as they juggle training with simply being kids.
For Annabeth Barnes, go-cart racing is vital to her dream of becoming the greatest female NASCAR racer ever. She's in the same Juniors category as spunky Josh Hobson, whose amusingly focused preparation includes learning the right things to say in postrace interviews. Annabeth has a crush on Seniors competitor Brandon Warren, whose hot temper is the by-product of a lurid family background.
They are three very different children, each sharing the goal of winning the five-race WKA championship series. Curry covers all five races — they're only 20 laps each — and clearly defines the shifting points tally. Yet crowning winners isn't the winning essence of Racing Dreams. It's the heartland values of supportive family members, the racing community and the awkwardness of adolescence that make this movie special.
Annabeth and Josh are born into racing, with fathers who competed and mothers barely comfortable that their "babies" whizzing around a track at 70 mph. Brandon isn't as fortunate, although his grandparents stepped in for parents with drug and jail issues. In the film's most dramatic sequence, Brandon's absentee father shows up. It's only a matter of time before he'll mess up.
That's a bracing passage in a movie spending most of its time presenting feel-good moments. Watch the expressions of Josh and Annabethe's faces the first time they crank up the 500-horsepower cars their parents buy to take them to the next level. Eavesdrop on Brandon and Annabeth's flirty but shy phone calls and conversations. You'll want to nudge starstruck Josh closer to his idol, Gordon, during an autograph session in the pits.
Racing Dreams makes these kids into our unofficial little brothers and sister for 96 minutes, without much to note beyond their devotion to the sport. It can get a bit redundant but always remains interesting, as young lives take shape on an asphalt oval. I suspect we'll be watching at least two of them on the Speed channel someday.
Racing Deams opens Friday at Citrus Park 20 and University 16 in Tampa. B
Steve Persall, Times film critic