IMSA and sports car racing are poised to receive a major nationwide promotional boost with the pending release of the feature film, “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”
And it’s thanks in great part to a past class winner in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The genesis of the film, based on the book of the same name, can be traced directly to noted driving instructor Don Kitch Jr.
A document Kitch wrote long ago explaining “the mental and physical disciplines for drivers to become efficient driving a car in the rain” not only helped racers become more prolific in wet race conditions, it inspired life lessons that led to the book and now the 20th Century FOX drama that premieres on Aug. 9.
Now, 15 years after putting his thoughts on paper and from the Garth Stein best-selling book, many of Kitch’s own life experiences will play out on the silver screen.
“Who’d have dreamed it would have gone to where it’s gone now?” Kitch said in an interview from Pacific Raceways, the track near Seattle where he operates ProFormance Racing School.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” centers on Denny Swift, an aspiring road racer who works in a Seattle auto repair shop as he strives to become a successful professional sports car driver.
The story is told through the eyes and thoughts of Enzo, Swift’s dog voiced by Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Kevin Costner.
Enzo is based on Kitch’s own dog, also named Enzo, who possesses many humanlike qualities and fancies racing.
“There’s no place more that dog loves to be than the racetrack,” said Kitch, co-driver of the Nissan/Lola that won in the SRP II class at the Rolex 24 in 2003.
Kitch, who turned 72 on July 16, competed nearly 20 times in the prestigious race from 1995-2012.
Stein, the book’s author, met the real Enzo when he enrolled in Kitch’s driving school. That’s also when Stein learned of Kitch’s essay on how to succeed driving in the wet. Stein saw many of its themes could be applied to overcoming obstacles in life and an idea was born.
“Garth called one day,” Kitch recalled, “and said, ‘I’m going to send you a manuscript. I want you to read it because I want to title the book after your paper.’”
Released in 2008, the book shot onto The New York Times bestseller list.
At the time, Kitch was co-driving at some events with actor Patrick Dempsey, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009.
Dempsey was then starring in the hit TV drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is set in Seattle. Coupled with Kitch’s passion to raise millions of dollars for Seattle Children’s Hospital through his racing, it forged their relationship and Kitch said Dempsey eventually acquired the filmmaking rights to “The Art of Racing in the Rain” with the intent to play Swift.
By the time the movie was made nearly a decade later, the younger Milo Ventimiglia was cast in the lead role. Dempsey is a producer of the film directed by Simon Curtis.
In the book and film, Swift’s mantra for racing in the rain is to anticipate what lies ahead and not react to what just happened. It’s taken directly from Kitch’s essay and he often reminds fans of it when he autographs copies of the book.
“Sometimes, I sign with a quote: ‘Possess the car. You own it, you’re the boss of it. You don’t get in a race car; you put it on, it becomes a part of you. You and it are one, but you’re the boss of it.’”
Swift carries that same thought process – “stay focused on where you want to go and don’t let anyone steal your dream” – into how he lives his life in the film, especially when he encounters a series of setbacks along the way.
While there is a Don Kitch character in the film – portrayed by veteran actor Gary Cole, known for many roles including Will Ferrell’s father in “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby” – the real Don Kitch knows that much of him resides in Denny Swift.
“The spirit of Denny Swift, I think, Garth saw it in me,” said Kitch, who will see the full feature for the first time on Aug. 1 before hosting a private screening in Seattle on Aug. 8.
“A lot of Denny’s willpower, a lot of his commitment, focus and all of that, I think he saw here in me.”
The filmmakers also saw to it that a lot of Pacific Raceways and Seattle were included. The crew spent several days shooting in the Pacific Northwest city. Among other film locations, with the aid of IMSA, was Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario, site of an annual WeatherTech Championship event.
Kitch said the assistance from IMSA and one of its top teams, Turner Motorsport, was instrumental in the making the film what it is.
“We couldn’t have made this movie without IMSA,” he emphasized. “Any other sanctioning body would have had us jumping through so many hoops and it would have been beyond (difficult).
“We’re all a part of it, so enjoy the movie.”