Last year, NOS Energy Drink asked its longtime creative agency, The Many, to create short-form commercials around the brand's sponsorship of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series. In these competitions, high-powered vehicles race at speeds up to 160 miles per hour on dirt tracks.
Instead of :30s or :45s, the agency souped up its approach, shooting some 200 hours of footage in the summer of 2019 to produce a 45-minute documentary. It aired on CBS Sports in June, following a December premiere for a few hundred devoted fans and racing luminaries at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Currently available on YouTube, "For the Love of Dirt" eschews glitz for mud-soaked, sweat-streaked realism. Naturally, heart-pounding race footage abounds. But just as compellingly, the film dives into the hearts and minds of the drivers and crews who propel the sport. With its emphasis on family relationships—focusing largely on up-and-coming driver Sheldon Haudenschild and his dad Jac, a legend who still competes—"For the Love of Dirt" reveals a tight-knit community. Yes, they feed off the energy of ecstatic crowds and bust ass to win, but their heartfelt love and support for each other shines through.
As gears grind and tires squeal, viewers get a feel for the passion and danger of the sport. Case in point: the fatal 2016 crash of Sheldon's friend Bryan Clauson. This tragic tale, recounted in an early sequence of the documentary, keeps the narrative focused and very real, upping the emotional ante.
"We wanted to create something to show the world outside of racing that it's not just a sport but a way of life, and give viewers something to connect to," says Trevor Paperny, executive producer at The Many and its Plus Plus production studio, who directed the film with Andrew Maguire. "Also, NOS is a down-to-earth, no-bullshit brand, so we didn't want to sugar-coat or glamorize the sport."
This trailer sets the gritty tone:
And here's the full film, which has tallied more than 1 million views since dropping online:
Below, Paperny and David Horowitz, head of production at The Many and Plus Plus, steer us through their experiences making "For the Love of Dirt." The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Muse: How did the mandate morph from commercials into a 45-minute film? What are the advantages of going long?
David Horowitz: NOS is open to any idea so long as it's bad-ass, on brand and effective. They are always down to take a risk to do something different. On a more subjective note, I think there is also an element of longevity that long-form has that you might not always find in traditional commercials. It's the wild west of content, and there are endless opportunities out there for marketers to connect with their audiences.
Trevor Paperny: We originally wanted to include all of the drivers in a spot, but then we realized the easiest way to get them all together was at one of the races. And if we're down there, well, maybe we should do something that captures what makes these guys so special. And that was going to take more than 45 seconds and a one-day shoot.
What was the client's response when you suggested doing a full-length doc? Did they need some convincing?
Pure excitement. When we presented the concept, we had a comprehensive rollout plan, our key markets nailed for OOH, a PR strategy and where our media dollars would go to promote the trailer. It was a conference call—an antiquated method at this point. Our client, [NOS marketing director] Lauren Albano, was immediately receptive. She buys great work. If we are excited and the idea is solid, Lauren gets excited.
Had you done projects of this scope before?
For "Hot Wheels for Real," we created a one-hour special on ABC, so this wasn't completely new to us. Our driver selection was seamless. We had access to the best drivers in the world, especially the NOS-sponsored Team 17, which the film is centered around. Sprint Car is the underdog of racing, so when we approached the team with an opportunity to open the world's eyes to the sport, they were on board.
I like that the film has something of a story arc. There's a narrative. Did you start with that in mind?
Paperny: We went in with one idea and came out with something totally different. But that's the beautiful thing with this type of filmmaking. You go in as a journalist and your subject's world starts to unfold. For example, the legacy of the #17 team and the death of one of their early drivers, Bryan Clauson. From this, we were able to take viewers through the heartfelt story that Sheldon was now carrying the torch, and the team was not only fueled by the drive to be the best, but by the desire to make Bryan proud.
How long did it take to make?
Paperny: From filming to delivery, the project took around six months. We centered the shooting around the national championship in Knoxville, Iowa, the Knoxville Nationals, which is known as the Super Bowl of sprint car racing and filmed all the events leading up to it. We traveled from Indianapolis to Missouri and finished in Knoxville. Knowing we had limited access to events, we wanted to maximize the opportunity, so we had multiple shooting units at each event to make sure we could fully cover the story. We partnered with another director, Andrew Maguire, and I couldn't have done it without him—he played a huge role.
Can you talk life on the road during the shoots?
Paperny: We were on the road for a few weeks. We immersed ourselves in the lives of the drivers. We got down and dirty with the pit crews and rolled cameras non-stop. There's no other way to paint a picture of this life. We did a few nights in Pevely, Missouri, before we went to Iowa for the Knoxville Nationals, which lasts for five days, and where NOS is the main sponsor.
These were long days in August heat, with 6 or 7 a.m. call times, getting back to the hotel at 1 a.m. It's pretty dangerous in the pit, so just trying to balance safety with all the natural chaos of a dirt race proved challenging. We couldn't phone this in. Everyone had to be mentally and physically up for this to work.
What was the hardest part of making the film?
Paperny: The hardest part was finding the balance between creating something for a brand, but also creating something that felt candid and natural, something people really wanted to watch. We walked away with quite a special story, and we owe it all to our client who was willing to take chances and talk about the sometimes-difficult outcomes of the sport, like the loss of lives. That really allowed people to connect emotionally and have a true, raw, inside look at what makes this such a close-knit family.
How'd you get the media partners involved?
We shopped the trailer around, and through NOS's partnership with the World of Outlaws and CBS Sports, we were able to lock in a primetime slot. But the core of the strategy was to leverage YouTube as the main platform and treat it like a traditional film release, including PR, OOH and radio interviews. We also put some paid media behind the trailer. As Covid hit and things came to a grinding halt, here we were with this sexy trailer and a long-form doc. [In that sports-starved environment], a lot of interest naturally came up.
Tell us about the premiere.
We rented out the Pavilion at the Indiana Motor Speedway and invited the NASCAR and the dirt driving and Formula Drift community in the Indianapolis area, which is a huge hub for racing. We secured press coverage in local markets leading up to the event to build buzz and create anticipation for the film. But the event was purposely intimate—an exclusive for die-hard fans. The World Of Outlaws season had just ended, so it was the perfect time to bring everyone together to celebrate the sport, celebrate the film, and blow off some steam right before the holidays.
Professionally, personally—has making the film changed you?
Paperny: Well, I can say that I now love sprint cars. I think that's one of the things I love about my job—I get to throw myself into worlds and cultures that I know nothing about and then obsess on everything about them and find a passion for it. This was a big moment for me and Dave, diving into the long-form narrative world, and it has been leading to more work similar in nature.