Two-Lane Blacktop

Since Lakeland International Raceway is now more than gone, this 1971 motion picture may be the most authentic record of the storied Memphis drag strip available on film anywhere.

When Two-Lane Blacktop arrived in theaters, I doubt anyone involved with the film foresaw the cult following that developed years after it's initial release. What looked to be be standard drive-in movie fare was soon greeted with a review in Esquire magazine as "The Movie of the Year". Eventually, this bleak story of lost souls searching for a meaningful existence on an American highway would become revered by fans of modern independent cinema, while simultaneously disappearing from theaters and video stores for close to 30 years.

It's a story of two drag racing drifters who scrape together a living by street racing a primer grey 55 Chevy through the canyons of the Los Angeles basin. The films begins with footage of the car in action with members of the Los Angeles Syndicate of Street Racers... an authentic group of illicit drag racers who usually raced their era perfect muscle cars on Terminal Island in the LA Harbor. The two anti-heroes then strike out on a road journey heading "east" to find fresh racing adversaries, and the cash that goes with the territory. As they follow the Route 66 conduit through the American southwest, and into the pre I-40 south, they soon encounter a middle-aged poser who's established life is coming undone. He's driving a new Pontiac GTO, and is in pursuit of lost glory. During a mutual gas stop, the drag racing duo slyly propose a cross country race to Washington D.C. for pink slips. The winner gets the losers car... a heavy challenge indeed.

Along the way... the drag racing protagonists pick-up a teenage she-hiker who provides considerable distractions to all of the male characters in short order. As they ply their way across America, things begin to look familiar to those of us who call Memphis and it's environs home. A cafe stop in Arkansas leads to a verbal challenge to race the 55 at nearby Carlise Drag-O-Way... then coincidentally, when this rolling street racing tribe pounds across the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, they find themselves pulling into the pea-gravel pits at Lakeland International Raceway for some speed wagers at the legit drags.

At this point, the film reveals a period perfect look at Lakeland Raceway in living Technicolor. About 9 minutes of scenes filmed at the old haunt show a lot of familiar cars and landscape that made Lakeland what it was. Dragsters, Cudas, Corvettes, Super Stocks, Altereds, The 'Super Duster' funny car, the tower, the pits, the grandstands... it's a real eyeful, and it's the best quality film footage I'm aware of that was ever made at Lakeland.

But I'm not going to give away the whole plot... such that it is... that would spoil the existentialist emptiness of what some film buffs today say is "the greatest road film ever ever made". Those are some big shoes to fill, but I find something new in this film just about every time I watch it. Specifically... it's not about very much, but in a larger sense, it's about pretty much everything. A realistic slice of life, tied together with a drag racing theme, against a backdrop of Americana on the open highway. The scenes from Lakeland's well known drag strip are icing on the cake... makes it kind of a double feature to my eyes. The original trailer for the film is embedded below (from YouTube), and it shows a few fleeting glimpses of Lakeland during it's brief two and half minutes.

Two-Lane Blacktop was directed by Monte Hellman, A maverick film maker with a penchant for obscure stories and surreal settings. He has a history of western films to his credit, and developed a special collaborative friendship with actor Warren Oates, who appeared in several of Hellman's films. In Two-Lane Blacktop, Oates was chosen for the character of GTO, and was the only actor with a substantial professional resume in the film. The other actors who filled major roles were relatively unknown, at least as far as film was concerned. Folk singer James Taylor, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys portray "The Driver" and "The Mechanic", respectively. They were apparently chosen because they looked right for the roles, and because Hellman wanted inexperienced actors for the emotionally disconnected characters. Laurie Bird fulfills the role of "The Girl" for similar reasons.

After years of being unavailable, Two-Lane Blacktop was finally released to video by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1999. In 2007, it was released in a new edition, by the Criterion Collection. The Criterion edition is an exceptionally full featured 2-disc DVD package replete with script, interviews, commentary, and other film buff goodies. Even if you didn't hang around Lakeland International Raceway in the "old days", there's still plenty of gearhead action to make this film worthy of your attention.

When Lakeland was still a ghost track, I photographed Allen McDaniel's clone of the famous Two-Lane 55 Chevy on the cracked starting line of the old drag strip. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Greg Friend and I also escorted Walt Bailey and his surviving camera car to Lakeland for a visit and photo session. Walt's car is now a fully restored original artifact from the film. Originally three 55 Chevys were built by Richard Ruth for use in the film. No mere movie props, the Ruth built Chevys were tough stuff, and the primary car was constructed to full race specifications and packed a mean tunnel rammed big block Chevy engine. Arguably, the 55 Chevy is probably the real star of film, and it would later become the iconic Black 55 Chevy seen in American Graffiti a few years after Two-Lane Blacktop was released. The car even made a brief appearance in an episode of the ADAM-12 television series. A pretty good Hollywood resume for a street racer 55 isn't it?

Two-Lane Blacktop may still be a bit too esoteric for your local video rental store to keep a copy handy. Should you have a desire to see this cult classic, I would suggest buying your very own copy from the folks at the Criterion Collection, or through Amazon.