Start your engines.
Producer Nate Adams on becoming a racing documentary powerhouse
Nate Adams first gained notice among carfolk in 2015 when he and producing partner Adam Carolla released Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, which explored the iconic actor’s championship-winning racing life. Since then, Adams and Carolla have released The 24 Hour War, chronicling the fierce Ford vs. Ferrari battle at Le Mans in the 1960s, and a documentary on racing driver Willy T. Ribbs, the first African-American driver to race in the Indianapolis 500.
In 2016, Adams and Carolla also launched Chassy Media, a documentary channel dedicated to anything with a motor.
By his own admission, Adams does not come from an automotive background, so we kicked off our conversation by tackling that subject.
Adam Carolla is a car nut and you’re not. Might that actually be a good combination when it comes to making a documentary?
My background is in screenwriting, and that led me to producing and directing sports documentaries. My relationship with Adam Carolla funneled me into racing. He is definitely the serious car guy of the two of us. I am the more story-oriented film guy. It makes a really great combination for our experiences, especially now because we’ve been acquiring so much content for the new channel that we’re creating.
Most motorcycle and car documentaries fall into one of two categories: They’re either made by someone who knows a lot about cars and motorcycles but very little about filmmaking, or by someone who knows a lot about filmmaking but very little about cars and motorcycles. The two rarely meet.
Adam and I have some funny conversations. He is a car guy and he really loves getting into the details. He’s very adamant about the car sounds and how we have to show this car instead of that car, because that car is one year off. There’s some nerdy motor stuff that Adam likes to talk about, and I have to say, “People are going to go to sleep, Adam, if they have to hear about how the carburetor on this works.” I would never notice that stuff in 1,000 years of watching the same documentary, but he notices it and we have to bring accuracy to that world.
And of course, there’s always some version of a peanut gallery, especially for something like The 24 Hour War, because that story has so many facets to it. You have the Ferrari guys, the GT40 guys, and you have the Shelby guys. We love the Carroll Shelby component of that film so much that now we’re doing a documentary on Carroll Shelby, but [when The 24 Hour War came out] the Shelby guys were pretty upset. They felt that we didn’t really dig as deeply as we should have into their world, even though we did actually dig very deeply. It just didn’t make it into the final cut because, ultimately, this is a documentary about Ford and Ferrari and you can’t have a half-hour tangent on Carroll Shelby.
What do you look for when you’re producing a racing documentary?
The human element to all these stories is what’s critical. Some of the mistakes that I see in other automotive or motorcycle documentaries is that they get a little too technical and they don’t allow you into the human’s in the story and what their place is.
In The 24 Hour War, it’s about conflict. That was one of the reasons we were so attracted to that documentary: Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari genuinely didn’t like each other. They went at it on a race track from a corporate perspective and it was deeply personal for both guys. They were very competitive individuals and they were both icons and household names. The story was already laid out like a movie.
In Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, we have a guy who, at 47 or 48 years old, discovered a deep, deep love for racing and that’s all he wanted to do. The conflict for him was that he was one of the biggest movie stars on Planet Earth. As a producer of films myself, I can say that no producer would even want to consider insuring an actor who’s an active race car driver. Newman’s conflict was that he loved racing, but he loved acting, too.
You just really need to find something that the audience can attach themselves to. We also need to make sure, I believe, that people learn something. One of the best compliments I’ve gotten from the Newman documentary was, at the screening, Michael Andretti—who spent hundreds of days and weekends with Newman—came up to me and said, “I did not know all that stuff about Paul Newman.”
When you have people who are very immersed in the world you’re exploring telling you that they actually learned something, then that tells me we did a really good job.
What about auto racing and its history have left the biggest impression on you?
The main thing that I’ve learned is how unbelievably dangerous racing was back in the day, and how truly courageous the drivers were. Brian Redman told me they would make $500 per race and maybe $1,000 if they did Le Mans.
Mario Andretti told me they would have a lap belt, if there was a seatbelt at all. Dan Gurney told me the same thing: they didn’t want to wear seatbelts because it was safer if you got thrown out of the car—you didn’t want to be trapped in the car in a crash with no bladder in the gas tank because you would burn up.
Brian Redman had been trapped in multiple fires, and I asked him, “After the first fire, why on earth would you get back into a race car?” And he just said, “What else am I supposed to do? That’s all I knew how to do. If I didn’t want to race a car there were plenty of guys lined up behind me who did want to race a car.”
In that era, when the cars weren’t computerized and nobody was monitoring anything, you were completely accountable to the car, especially during those endurance races. It was as much the driver, and maybe even more the driver, than it was the car because the drivers had to make sure the car could compete for 12 or 24 hours, depending on the race.
What makes Willy T. Ribbs such a compelling documentary subject?
The Willy T. Ribbs story is really fascinating to me because, number one, he is kind of a soundbite machine. He speaks in these Muhammad Ali-isms. He also came through racing at a volatile time. You would think segregation was done by the time he got into racing in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but really we’re finding out even now that it’s not really gone, and it certainly wasn’t gone back then. There were some guys who just simply did not like [Ribbs] and did not want him around solely based on the color of his skin.
Then there were others who didn’t like him because there was a stoic older guard in racing that just wanted the driver to come in and drive the car and not be charismatic, but Willy jumped up on the roof of his car and did the Muhammad Ali shuffle when he won a race—that pissed people off because they thought he was a showboat.
He also punched a couple of other drivers. A guy tried to run him off the track during practice once and he punched the guy. He was very, very outspoken and if you know a lot about racing you know that getting sponsorship is about as important as being a good driver, and if you do things that don’t allow you to be sponsored then you lose opportunities.
That’s a little bit of a conflict in this: did his own behavior hurt him with sponsors or was it racism? Or both? It’s a very interesting story in that way. I do find it interesting that he went over to England one year and won the Formula Ford series but couldn’t get a single person to give him a ride after that. That’s a little strange to me.
Who have you most enjoyed interviewing while making these films?
We interviewed Bernie Ecclestone for the Willy T. Ribbs documentary because Willy was the first black driver to test a Formula One car, and I really found Bernie to be a super funny, interesting guy.
And I’ve interviewed Mario Andretti for multiple documentaries. He was very close with Paul Newman, and he was a rookie during the GT40-Ferrari Wars at Le Mans. Mario is a special person to me. He is very charismatic and, for his life and what he has accomplished, he really is a kind human being.
All filmmakers have to make tough cuts when they’re editing a project. What story or tidbit ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish you could share?
We had the whole story in The 24 Hour War about how Eric Broadley had developed a Lola and was ultimately brought in by Ford to begin developing and creating the GT40. There’s a lot of speculation about whether the GT40 was an exact rip-off or a slightly modified Lola Mk6 that David Hobbs had raced at Le Mans the year before. But in talking to the other designers, it actually wasn’t a rip-off. Ford brought in Broadley because they liked that car, but they then designed the GT40 from the ground up. I really liked that section, but ultimately we had to cut it out. I think it’s in the DVD extras on iTunes though.
Tell us about chassy.com. What do you have planned?
I believe that, for folks who like anything with a motor, Chassy is a pretty extraordinary channel. We’ve been working diligently to acquire content. We’re going to be releasing a documentary soon, called The Indian Wrecking Crew, about guys who raced Indian motorcycles. It’s narrated by Jay Leno.