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Half Mile: Dennis Kanegae

A blog post from Todd Marella...

Lunch was a lockdown affair at work today, with no one in the immediate vicinity to impress with my homemade Birria, cucumber salad, and chocolate chip cookies. Alone in my windowless closet of an office, I typed 'vintage ascot motorcycle movies' into my search bar. The first result was 'Half Mile, a film about Dirt Track Privateer Dennis Kanegae from…'

The recurring loop within YouTube’s trailer of a guy in ‘70s era black, white and red leathers receiving a push from a friend to bump start his bike, and I’m sold. And surprised. And a little titillated by the notion of discovering a flat track film set at Ascot back in the day…

Shot on 16mm at night with only stadium lighting to illuminate the subjects, a guy called Bill Clevenger captured enough raw footage to stitch together a patchwork of beautiful, if not dreamy vignettes of a selected rider’s Friday night racing. Borrowing from and influenced by the not quite one year old 'On Any Sunday,' Bruce Brown’s classic feature length film, which documented all things motorcycle racing for the time, Clevenger manages to take the viewer on an almost voyeuristic romp through one man’s course of events racing flat track, on one particular evening in 1972.

The showcased rider is 51X Dennis Kanegae, who on this night was fastest qualifier in the junior class with a lap time of 23.00 seconds. I won’t spend any more copy on summarizing the events in the 10-minute short. What I will do, is prepare the viewer for an artistic telling of a moment in time of Southern California cultural significance which was especially important and formative for me. The timing of the movie coincides perfectly with my own vivid and imbedded memories of the sights, sounds, and smell of a night at JC Agajanian’s historical race track in Gardena, Ca.

Unlike Bruce Brown, who’s masterpiece relied upon his witty and inspirational narration, 'Half Mile' benefits from some masterful quilting of actual PA from race announcer Roxy Rockwood, the thunder of the bikes, and a seductive little score written for acoustic guitar, electric bass, and flute, by the film maker, himself.

Visually, the film is stunning, utilizing long lens, panoramic sweeps depicting the scale of the track and showcasing the gorgeous graphic images of sponsors advertising upon every rentable square foot of fence, banner, or barrier. The viewer is also treated to shots of racers flying by the start/finish line with the lens poked through the same gap in fence panels I once poked his nose for an unobstructed view. And, what would a motorcycle racing film from the '70s be without close-up, slow motion shots? The director doesn’t disappoint. Count on as well, the obligatory close-ups of riders strapping on steel shoes, and surgically slicing rubber from tires in hopes of improved traction.

Missing are the violent crashes, broken clutch cables, and ambulance rides. In their place the viewer is treated to seemingly endless parade footage of Trackmaster Nortons and Triumphs, stunningly stitched leathers, and a peek into a scruffy nine-year-old kid’s dream of 'one day...' from long ago. All within a ten-minute span. Dig.

Further reading: Dennis was the rider in our Trophy Queen slot in Sideburn 14.


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