When my friends told me about a documentary akin to American Movie about a man trying to relive his past glory as a demolition derby champion I was warned of two things: one, it’s a great watch, but two, I was going to feel guilty watching it.
I think the guilt they felt came from laughing while grown, lower-middle class men tore apart cheap cars in preparation to ram their vehicles into each other. Sure the subjects of HotRod: The Movie say funny things, and they get drunk on camera a fair bit, but I think the shame would only come if it seemed the directors were mocking the subjects in the making of this film. Watching the doc, I didn’t get that feeling.
The director and writer of HotRod, Michael Morrow, is from Lansdowne, Ontario, the home of Joe “HotRod” Kemp. Growing up in the home of a demolition derby, Morrow knew of Kemp, who had won the derby in 1998, and decided to follow him as he prepared for the 2003 match.
While the background of the derby is interesting – it’s hard to believe anyone wants to take part in these things when you see footage of people catching on fire when their gas cells ignite and other such horror stories – the most compelling part of the doc is watching these men, Kemp included, break down and rebuild their cars in preparation for game day.
The object of a demolition derby is to smash up your opponents’ cars while keeping yours in the best condition possible. If your car stops running or gets completely destroyed, you’re out. So, competitors strip the cars to the bare bones, removing the windows, bumpers and a lot of the guts to essentially create ramming machines.
While the guys say that they love smashing up their cars during the derby, the smashing they have to do to get the cars ready also looks like a lot of fun. One competitor who called his car The British Bulldog let a little boy stand on the hood to throw a rock through the windshield, while other men used power tools to cleanly remove the windows. However, protective clothing does not appear to be popular with the subjects of this doc. Only one man mentions protective glasses as he’s breaking the windows of his car, yet we see he’s only referring to the sunglasses on his face. At one point HotRod cuts himself with a grinder when it jacks backward, slicing his bare hand. His reaction: he makes the cut sing “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Naturally.
HotRod really proves the old adage: it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you smash up cars without getting arrested that matters.