A new motorsports documentary titled Rookie Season just hit theaters this past weekend inviting audiences into the pits with Rebel Rock Racing's first IMSA season under new ownership. The doc from director Adrian Bonvento follows main characters Frank DePew, the President and CEO of solar development company Urban Grid who acquired Rebel Rock, alongside his ringer serving as coach, manager, and driver, professional racer Robin Liddell.
Captivating from the first frame while jumping from enervating in-car footage to interpersonal relationships roadside at the raceway, Rookie Season delivers more than just another cut-and-dry look at a race team's triumphs and successes, instead focusing on the psychological motivations underpinning an entire sport dedicated to winning at all costs—yet a sport where most teams never even reach a podium finish.
I recently spoke with Bonvento, a crew of one who directed, filmed, and edited the new movie, about making the leap from short film to feature-length documentary while following an essentially new racing team over the course of a full IMSA season.
The Film Sense
Bonvento's trailer posted to YouTube gives a hint to Rookie Season's style and sensibility. Slower, more focused moments that build character help to portray the long burn of a full racing season, even if the intense moments of driving and a few close calls on the track heighten the sense that this sport requires so much more focus and concentration than most other lighthearted documentaries might reveal.
Director Adrian Bonvento
Bonvento's story sounds like a million other kids who grew up visiting racetracks where they got hooked on cars hanging out with their dad. In this case, Lime Rock Park served as the gateway drug that would eventually evolve into a full career shooting motorsport.
"I’ve been a motorsports fan for as long as I can remember," Bonvento recalled, "Just being in the pit lanes and being next to squealing tires, the smell of gasoline, revving engines, all the sights and sounds."
Bonvento told me he originally took up fan photography and then decided to make the leap to professional gigs after burning the midnight oil working a corporate job. Eventually, still images made way for video work, but Bonvento sees both as outlets for an inner creative drive that corporate culture clearly couldn't fill.
"I’ve been doing motorsports filmmaking for the past six or seven years, it’s very niche but it is my full-time job," he said. "This is just the combination of pure passion for a number of years with my vision for filmmaking and my experience as a fan."
Starring Frank DePew And Robin Liddell
Perhaps because he entered the racing world as a child, eyes wide to the pit lane's sights and sounds, Bonvento's perspective on the sport steers away from standard portrayals of wins and losses, instead focusing on the mentalities that drivers bring to the car, that teams bring to the circuit, and even that filmmakers bring to their projects.
"I had always had this question which was central to my shorter filmmaking, which was less about race results and statistics and who won what race," he explained. "I was more interested in what drove people to do what they do."
"Why do you do what you do? Why do you race? On the surface, it seems like a fairly simple question."
But where most people might quickly respond with canned answers about the thrill of competition, pumping adrenaline, and an addiction to danger, Bonvento hopes Rookie Season can avoid such platitudes. The film's sparse dialog, without forced narrative structure, helps to enter that psychology framework. Think Steve McQueen's Le Mans—but in real life.
"It starts to get harder when you ask yourself 'Why?' five or six times to get to the real core building block of that question."
DePew and Liddell serve as the main focal points for Bonvento's exploration, providing two contrasting character studies as DePew steps up into an arena in which Liddell already tasted the sweetest victory winning championships in the Michelin Pilot Challenge and European Le Mans Series.
A Racing Season Out Of Order
Bonvento always intended to avoid a linear narrative structure, though Rebel Rock's season ended up providing almost a perfect amount of plot regardless.
"As it turned out, they had a pretty incredible season and the story kind of wrote itself," Bonvento laughed. "They had some big hiccups in the beginning. They had some pretty brutal crashes, so Frank [DePew] was struggling coming to terms with the car."
After setbacks to start the season, the team managed to right the ship in a big way.
"Then they had some real storybook wins," Bonvento said, "Wins that I have never experienced in all my years of watching racing as a fan. We’re talking last lap, across the finish line, under a second, in the pouring rain, on the grass, kind of absolutely insane."
To an extent, Bonvento even sounded a bit disappointed that the universe delivered such a seemingly chronological hero's journey for his documentation. Luckily, he captured plenty of inspiring footage in the interim and, to an extent, found willingly self-reflective subjects in DePew and Liddell when they provided voiceover after the fact.
Challenges Filming A Solo Motorsport Documentary
Simply capturing the footage to flesh out a full film sounds like quite a challenge. Having spent time filming at Laguna Seca and Radford Racing School recently, I asked Bonvento about how he managed the sheer logistics of a one-man film crew chasing a team across the United States and Canada.
"A lot of that was just experience being at the racetrack," he replied, "And knowing how race strategy plays out. Part of it was being cued into the team radio all the time, which I was simultaneously recording for use in the video."
Even figuring out where to place cameras in the Rebel Rock Racing Camaro GT4.R presented a bit of a nightmare. Bonvento mounted four cameras in the car for every race, plus most practice sessions, and learned quick lessons about the heat a front-engined racecar produces during full-gas competition.
"It regularly got to be over 120 degrees Fahrenheit inside," he explained, "So any surface you touched would burn your hand if you left it there for more than a couple seconds. And these GoPros are very sensitive to heat, so that was a constant juggling act."
In addition to placement away from hot surfaces—and ideally with some ventilation nearby—the cameras could not block driver visibility, but still needed to capture the cinematic angle an engaging documentary requires. But then I brought up audio, given how much trouble I've had with racecars and even the likes of an open-topped Polaris Slingshot. In addition to the four cameras, it turns out, he also mounted a separate microphone in the car for the highest quality playback of such an important aspect of the racing experience.
“Good audio can really transform a film," Bonvento admitted. "Especially with this car, because this car sounds so good. It’s got that deep muscly, throaty American V8 that really shakes the earth, and then on the inside, it’s got a straight-cut gearbox. So the combination of those two things makes it kind of like a Michael Bay movie in there, it sounds like Transformers the movie—in the best way possible."
Heartbreak And Headache
Over the wide-angle visuals of drivers pushing themselves and their car to the limit, over the engine roar and gear whine and tire squeal and raindrops—yes, rain plays a critical role in the film—Rookie Season features a fair amount of voiceover narration, though not quite like most documentaries.
"There’s not a single talking-edit interview in the entire thing," Bonvento almost boasted. "It’s not a traditional documentary, I wanted it to really feel like cinema."
High-res images from handhelds and GoPros alike foster impressive production quality, achieving exactly the levels of lofty cinematic emotionality that Bonvento strives to capture. But even with the narrative structure of an almost fairytale season, gaps where the words don't quite mesh with the action do crop up, as most voiceover-heavy films tend to reveal (looking at you, Malick).
But then, one of the most singularly intense, simultaneously nerve-racking and calmly Zen racing sequences ever caught on camera wraps up Rookie Season and delivers a knockout punch of an ending—no spoilers here, you'll have to check out the movie in theaters or wait until it hits streaming platforms in early April.
"Racing, to me, is not about champagne and trophies and podiums," Bonvento wrapped up. "It’s about all the hard work that goes in behind the scenes, the incredible dedication that these people have, the excessive single-minded desire that is really necessary to do this as a living. Because nobody has to do this, people choose to do this. Most of the people there in the paddock are there because they love it."
And next to the pits, the teams, the drivers, and the cars, keep an eye out for director Adrian Bonvento at any IMSA race, exploring his own inner drive to capture the racing mindset in ways never before seen on camera.
Sources: rebelrockracing.co, adrianbonvento.com, urbangridsolar.com, youtube.com, limerock.com, and prattmiller.com.