“Rapid Response” review: Compelling documentary or gory crash-fest?


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Being a child of the eighties, a substantial part of my early motorsport education came through race crash compilation videos. They bore names like ‘Car Wars’ and ‘Havoc’ and offered exactly what they said on the box.

One title which often came back with us from the video rental shop (I did say it was the eighties) was called ‘And They Walked Away’ – a clever title which promised thrills but offered the reassurance that no one paid for your entertainment with their lives.

It’s not a title which would work for ‘Rapid Response’, a documentary inspired by Dr Steve Olvey’s memoir of the same name. Olvey, his colleagues and other significant figures from the IndyCar racing world explain how the sport’s safety standards were revolutionised to the point that Alessandro Zanardi survived his 2001 crash which was so severe both his legs were severed on impact.

Inevitably the transition from book to film has forced some changes. Olvey’s book also gives his first-hand account of one more IndyCar tragedy: The split in the championship and subsequent collapse of the once-great CART series. This is overlooked entirely in the film and it’s a cut for the better which keeps the story focused on the safety aspect. It also gives the filmmakers room to explore other safety improvements not covered in Olvey’s book.

The story begins with Olvey’s first taste of the Indianapolis 500 in 1955, when his hero Bill Vukovich was killed, and in the intervening period many drivers lost their lives. This makes Rapid Response tough viewing at times; probably more so if you know the details behind all of the crashes featured, some of which are glossed over.

Assembling the material to tell this story clearly proved a challenge. Unlike say, Senna, where the interviews are spooled over contemporary video, it seems there wasn’t enough of that material for Rapid Response, so we spend a lot of time watching the talking heads. While Olvey’s colleague Terry Trammel provides some of the liveliest dialogue, the producers clearly decided to interview him a second time after he returned from vacation, and he suddenly reappears sporting a much fuller tan…

The other material gets thin in places, relying at times on still diagrams from presentations. It therefore has to lean on original footage heavily, and so we see the aftermath of some crashes perhaps more vividly than is really necessary.

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Crashes from Indianapolis in 1964 and 1982 give a good illustration of the difference. The former, a fiery crash which claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald, is undeniably shocking. But the grainy footage and wide angles lessens its impact. It also fits within the film’s narrative, as it is used to explain why changes to the fuel rules were introduced.

In contrast the inclusion of Gordon Smiley’s sickening 1982 crash adds little to the film’s discussion of safety improvements. And the footage of Smiley’s body being thrown down the track is surely more than we need to be shown.

So Rapid Response is strong stuff in places. Nor is it up to the high production standard of the likes of ‘Senna’. But it does handle a challenging subject in a way is usually enlightening and seldom anything approaching exploitative. As far as similar recent films go it’s a cut above the flabby, unfocused 1: Life on the Limit and vastly superior to the cheap sensationalism of Grand Prix: The Killer Years.

While CART was just a few years away from collapse, Olvey and the rest of the team were performing some of the most remarkable feats seen in motorsport. Not just Zanardi’s incredible rescue, but the unprecedented decision to cancel a 2001 race at Texas Motor Speedway as the cornering forces proved so high drivers were blacking out. Rapid Response is often an uncomfortable watch, but it also an engrossing one.

Rapid Response trailer

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RaceFans rating

Rating four out of five

Rapid Response opens in cinemas on September 6th


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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 3 comments on ““Rapid Response” review: Compelling documentary or gory crash-fest?”

    1. Why not both?

    2. Looks very interesting. The drivers were really brave back in the day, but that was life of the early drivers.

    3. Wow that’s a blast from the past! I remember going to Blockbuster as a kid with my mum and hiring all the “… And they walked away” VHS tapes!

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