CHANGING GEARS

A movie tribute to his race car-driving dad puts an alumnus on the fast track

By JILL INGRAM MA ’08

A career in law enforcement didn’t exactly prepare Gary Lewallen ’04 to executive produce a feature film, but his crowd control skills might come in handy as he debuts the movie up and down the East Coast.

Gary Lewallen ’04, son of one of NASCAR’s first drivers and
himself a racing enthusiast, spends a lot of time on the road
promoting “Red Dirt Rising.”

When Lewallen, a member of WCU’s first online criminal justice cohort, retired as chief of police in the town of Archdale in 2009 after 34 years of service, he promptly turned his attention to promoting “Red Dirt Rising,” an independent film inspired by his father. Set in the 1940s, the movie follows the lives of three men instrumental to the beginnings of stock car racing, including Jimmie Lewallen. “A lot of the things I did with this movie were based on memory and family and people my dad associated with,” said Lewallen, whose father died in 1995.

Jimmie Lewallen, born in 1919, grew up in the Piedmont, and like many others, fell in love with fast cars by running moonshine. He competed throughout the Southeast in the days before NASCAR, and after the organization’s formation competed in what is now its Sprint Cup Series. After Gary was born, the senior Lewallen reduced his racing schedule but continued to run local tracks, often taking his son with him.

Lewallen worked closely with the movie’s directors and writer, and enlisted investors to raise the movie’s $600,000 budget. Filming took place in the Archdale area, where Gary Lewallen was born and raised. James Suttles of Pisgah Forest, who produced and directed the film with Kathleen Bobak of Florida, whose credits include “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Titanic,” was impressed with the project’s community support. “I think everyone Gary knows was on the set at some point,” Suttles said. “There was no request he couldn’t answer, no matter how wild or unusual. That’s probably what made him successful as a police chief and as the executive producer of a movie.”

“Red Dirt Rising” premiered at the North Wilkesboro Speedway in May with an event that included races, a concert and appearances by the movie’s actors. (Cast members R. Keith Harris Jr. ’92 and Ben Mabry ’76 also are WCU alumni.) Approximately 4,000 people attended the premiere, a huge number for an independent film. Since then, the movie has shown at tracks and festivals in North Carolina, Tennessee, New York and Iowa. There are plans to kick off the DVD release at the Mountain Moonshine Festival in Dawsonville, Ga., in October. “There are so many things being thrown at me that I’m having a hard time keeping up,” Lewallen said.

He looks forward to the day he can direct film proceeds toward the Racing Legends Medical Hardship Fund, a nonprofit organization founded in 1991. Lewallen said supporting the organization, which assists former drivers and others involved in racing, was a prime motivator in making the movie. Lewallen is the hardship fund’s chairman, a position held previously by his dad.

For more information, visit www.reddirtrising.com.