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Slingshot! An American Hot Rod Foundation Film; Movie review by Richard Parks, Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz.

Slingshot! An American Hot Rod Foundation Film; Movie review by Richard Parks, Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz.
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A great little documentary by the American Hot Rod Foundation (AHRF) is a title that they produced called Slingshot!  It is approximately thirty minutes long and details the history of drag racing, using interviews with some of the most illustrious men to have ever competed or officiated in drag racing.  The film was written and directed by Jason Cilo.  Mike Stivala created the background music and was the film’s editor.  The executive producer is Stephen Memishian.  The film was produced by Henry Astor.  The photographic editor was Brian Knappenberger.  The film is part of the expanding library of research material accumulated through the financial backing of the Foundation and the principal sponsor, Stephen Memishian.  Slingshot!  is an amazing short documentary and at thirty minutes will keep your attention. In fact, I sat through it twice and felt that I wished that it could have been longer.  Since it is a series of work, part two will probably continue the story.  Before we get to the documentary’s plot, it is important to mention Memishian.  He resides in New York and has a consuming desire to know more about the history of hot rodding, landspeed and drag racing history.  He put up the money to fund the AHRF and to assemble researchers, like Jim Miller, to scour the records for biographies, stories, photographs and memorabilia.  After the researchers at the AHRF have copied these records they return them to their original owners.  Memishian’s goal is the attainment of knowledge and his efforts are vital in the preservation of hot rodding’s past.

Slingshot!  is a slick and professional movie documentary.  The photography and old video clips are as good as you’re going to get anywhere.  The background music and chatter is sometimes a bit annoying, but there has to be some noise or the viewer would be distracted.  I’ve got some videos that are simply visual and there is no dialog or soft music and it is very hard to sustain interest in them; simply cars roaring down the track or oval racers going around in circles.  The captions are clear and consistent; telling us who the interviewees are until we get to know them well.  There is no date on the disc to tell me when the movie was made, but it was before 2006 when several of the men had passed away.  If you are interested in the documentary you can check with Aerobooks/Autobooks in Burbank, California or the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California.  The AHRF website is  Slingshot refers to a particular style of drag racing car and is a strange title for a work on the origins of drag racing; as not all drag cars are slingshots.  However, it isn’t the title, the raspy music or the excellent photography that is the reason you should add this gem to your library.  I can sum it up in one word; research.  Included in research is the interviews with men who I consider to be the founders of a new American sport; drag racing.  The writing and editing is fantastically good.  It is so easy to spot bad editing when the interviews come out all jumbled and confusing.  The editors and writers for this documentary have a story to tell and they tell it through great narration and by the men that are being interviewed.

The film begins by stating that the origins of drag racing go back to the 1930’s in Southern California as young men took to the streets to race against each other.  Other young men organized this rich broth of hot rodders and created a landspeed group that made the long trek across dirt roads into the dry lakes of the Mojave Desert in order to race their cars.  A few even state that drag racing goes back to the domestication of the horse and that young men have always challenged others to feats of speed.  The movie goes on to show early footage of the Goleta drag strip just north of Santa Barbara where the first organized drag race began.  Watching the old videos of Goleta (circa 1949) was a real experience and I learned a lot from this.  The next scene showed footage of the Santa Ana Airport drag strip (circa 1950), which codified rules and established order to a new sport.  It was also the first venue to charge admission and to set safety standards.  The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was formed in 1951 to set standards for a national drag racing sport.  The sport of drag racing literally exploded in size and scope and in the early 1960’s a special tour was organized to take drag racing to England and from there to the European continent.  The film ends around the end of the 1960’s, but effectively the majority of the film is concerned with history prior to 1960.  I know almost every one of the interviewees and was fascinated with their precise, clear and interesting discussion.  This documentary is one of the easiest to follow along and I can honestly say that I never lost interest in the film.

Here is the list of interviewees in order of appearance; Tim Rochlitzer, Tony Nancy, Jim McLennan, Wally Parks, Leslie Long, Robert Genat, Don Montgomery, Art Chrisman, Blackie Gejeian, Harry Hibler, Fred Larsen, Bob Joehnck, Jim Nelson, Otto Ryssman, C. J. Hart, Creighton Hunter, Dick Kraft, Robert Petersen, and Tommy Ivo.  There were also dozens more who were listed in the credits who lent photographs or gave textual material to the editors to put together this fine documentary.  I ought to go back and add their names to this review; but it really isn’t necessary as you can already see by those named above that this is the cream of drag racing’s early history.  Of course, it does leave out a lot of information.  There is no way that this film can include all of the tens of thousands of important and influential young men and women who created the sport of drag racing.  The documentary is slightly flawed by being so regional as it doesn’t mention the huge contributions of men like Don Garlits, Chris Karamesines and other Eastern, Midwestern and Southern drag racers.  Perhaps these men and women will appear in part two or three of the series.  Slingshot!  was not intended to tell the complete story of drag racing.  Its purpose was to give the viewer an introduction to the sport and let them add to their library books and movies that tell a more complete history. 

Here’s a quick overview of some of the men who were interviewed.  Tim Rochlitzer is a well-known racer from the Santa Barbara area who raced at Goleta and now races on the dry lakes in the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA).  There were many early timing associations that organized racers back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s but the SCTA is one of the oldest and the only one that has survived to this day.  Bob Joehnck was another man who raced and organized young men in the Santa Barbara area.  Robert Genat, Don Montgomery, Bob Petersen and Harry Hibler are writers, editors and publishers.  Genat is a prolific writer who researches a subject thoroughly in two months and writes the book in one month and then is on to another topic.  As fast as he is, the work is first-rate and thoroughly enjoyable to read.  Montgomery has produced eight books on hot rodding, land speed and drag racing with thousands of well-captioned photographs.  Hibler has been a publisher, editor and writer for many of the hot rodding magazines and an early drag racer.  Petersen literally invented the genre of hot rod books and magazines with his publishing empire.  Tony Nancy, Jim McLennan, Tommy Ivo, Jim Nelson, Otto Ryssman and Dick Kraft were early drag racers who set the standard by which all other drag racers compare themselves.  Ivo was also a child and teen movie star and was portrayed in many early Hollywood teen hot rodding films.  Ryssman was nearly unbeatable with his aerodynamical and powerful cars; but was forced to retire in 1959 due to a tragic accident.  Kraft was short of height, lean and athletic, but created early drag cars that pushed the development of the dragster to new styles.

Art Chrisman and his uncle and brother took to drag racing the year that the sport first came to Santa Ana.  His #25 car, adapted from the dry lakes, became a ferocious competitor on the drag strips of America.  Over sixty years later the Chrisman family is still building and racing drag cars.  Leslie Long was there at Santa Ana as well, along with Creighton Hunter and C. J. Hart.  Long is an avid historian and keeps records on the early Santa Ana strip as well as on dry lakes racing.  Hart and Hunter have passed away; two important people responsible for the development of the sport and I found it so reassuring to hear their voices once again.  Hart had the idea for a track at Santa Ana and approached Frank Stillwell, who got the insurance for the drag strip, and Creighton Hunter, whose father had influence with the political power brokers in Orange County.  Blackie Gejeian and Fred Larsen are hot rodders, drag racers and supporters of racing.  Larsen is also a land speed record holder.  Finally, there is Wally Parks, my father, who is sometimes called the Father of Drag Racing.  He grudgingly accepted that title after it proved impossible to stop people from calling him that or putting it into print.  I think that he would feel more comfortable being called “The Wagon Master,” because that is his real importance to drag racing.  In his calm, steady, patient style he covered the whip with soft felt and tried to keep order in a chaotic sport with each timing association, drag strip operator and drag racer setting his own rules.  Sometimes I forget what his voice sounded like, as he has been gone for three years now, but his gentle, firm voice brought back a lot of memories for me.  Slingshot!  is a delightful little movie and I give it an 8 out of 8 sparkplugs and recommend that you add it to your racing library.

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