'Speedo' chronicles love in the pits
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It's another night on Long Island at the Demolition Derby, billed as "the wildest sport on wheels," and cars butt one other like rams in heat. The carcasses of Chevys, Fords, and Dodges are mashed and mangled, bent and folded, spindled and mutilated; some of them have even caught fire.
The documentary chronicles Jager's triumphs and setbacks not only on the racetrack, but also in his personal life. Jager, who works as a grease monkey at an Exxon station, dominates the derby circuit, but his marriage is as dented as a '78 Malibu. He lives with his wife and two sons in Levittown, Long Island - the embodiment of American suburbia - and has been sleeping on the couch for the last 10 years, nearly half of his marriage.
Jager's refuge is in the ring, where a subculture of gearheads and fans can play out their rock'em, sock'em fantasies.
"Every fan wants to see a crash in the ring," Jager says in an arching Long Island accent. "There's always that violent part: They want to see it; they want to know it."
Lest you think demolition derbies are dens of anarchy, there are rules: Everyone must wear a helmet; certain parts of the car can't be welded; and most importantly, "No fighting," warn the judges to the drivers gathered before every race. "I catch you hitting anyone in the driver's door and you're done."
Jager approaches a car the way a surgeon views the human body, although few doctors belch Mountain Dew and cigaratte smoke, have dirty, craggy fingernails, and beat their patients with a wrench and a mallet. Yet, Jager's mechanical genius enables him to understand and tinker with his car's anatomy. "The unfair advantage," he says, "is underneath my hat."
Although he and his wife are estranged, Jager adores his sons, who occasionally accompany him at the racetrack. He attends, or perhaps the better word is tolerates, a concert where one son's punk band performs; on another occasion, after winning $410 for a night's worth of racing, Jager explains, "That'll be for school clothes."
Like a battered race car, Jager's marriage eventually sputters and dies. His wife files for divorce; Jager sells the family house, and when he removes derby posters and photographs, he reveals a hole that apparently has been punched in the wall - although it could just as aptly describe the emptiness in his heart. "I better leave that `photo` there," he says. "I'll fix it later."
Yet, Jager the derby champ isn't lonely for long: His new girlfriend, Liz, is not only a race fan, but his fan."I love going to the track and watching him," explains the starry-eyed blonde. "The energy inside of him is what I wanted in my life."
By the end of the film, Speedo has quit the Demolition Derby and moved on to a fledgling career in stock car racing. But Liz seems to have captured his attention in a way that even a double overhead cam cannot: "I can't believe I found a woman who loves me," he says giddily. "She's a one-woman pit crew."
Part ethnography, part sports tale, Speedo is also a poignant love story between a man and a woman, a man and his machine, and a man and his dreams. •
By Lisa Sorg
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