Amy Lerner, 55: Off-Road Racer and Filmmaker Amy Lerner brings fearless determination to a whole new level whether off-road racing in Dakar or making a documentary film with no prior experience. She discusses her lifelong love of cars, her favorite races, and her approach to new adventures.
byDavid Stewart April 22, 2021 That often overused brand slogan, Just Do It, seems a fitting life mantra for the ever-surprising Amy Lerner. There are no limits in Amy’s world. There is no voice that says ” Oh we can’t do this, we may fail”. Her voice is saying, ” I’ll find a way.” Car rally in the desert with a car never tested, in a country not known for its female-friendly policies? The only question is: Where is the signup sheet? Having never done anything like it, she gamely pitches a film idea to a personal hero who then says yes — and, oh wow, now what? Figure out how to make a filmand follow it to the end. As someone who prides himself on making it up and getting things done, my beginning to know Amy Lerner showed me what the next level looks like. It is a combination of fearless realism, dogged determination, and a multi-level skill set that just gets stuff done, no matter what. I get the feeling there are no limits in Amy’s world. There is no voice that says, “Oh, we can’t do this, we may fail.” My initial conversation with her was about her off-road racing endeavors. Having some experience myself photographing these races and the racers, I know what is involved. These are not for the faint of heart; they are no easy day at the track, refreshments at noon. Nope. They are grueling, physically punishing, dangerous, and epic. Then I find out about the movie… What was your experience like doing the Dakar Rally? How many days was it? How did the car do? The Dakar Rally is 12 days of competition with 1 rest day in the middle. It was an incredible experience, super challenging. The car held up amazingly for a 40-year-old lady. We had a few minor issues and had to replace a shock after a particularly rocky hill climb. “We probably blew up on Saudi social media” How were you treated there? Having 2 women drivers in Saudi must have been eye-catching. Were you the only women in the race? We were in a ‘Covid bubble’ and didn’t really interact much with the locals beyond at gas stations. I will say we probably blew up on Saudi social media because, while transiting on the roads, it was a constant stream of phones out the window of cars that passed, recording accompanied by lots of honking, waving and cheering. “One of the best things about cross-country rallies, for me, is just that: the sense of camaraderie is so strong” It is a long rally. Is there a camaraderie with the other drivers and crews? One of the best things about cross-country rallies, for me, is just that: the sense of camaraderie is so strong. Everyone is super willing to lend a hand or a spare part to make sure that everyone gets to the finish line. How did you find out about the race? This was during Covid, so there must have been some additional challenges. Dakar has been on my personal rally wishlist for as long as I can remember. Doing it during Covid was particularly challenging. A week before we were due to leave the US, Saudi Arabia shut down all commercial air traffic due to the newly discovered UK variant. After 3 sets of flight changes, we all got booked onto charter flights out of Europe to Jeddah. Once there, we had 4 days of testing and quarantine before we could join the rally. The Dakar Classic, Saudi.What was your goal in this particular race? The first goal was to be able to race every possible kilometer. Next was to improve performance every day. How did you get interested in cars? I’ve been a ‘gearhead’ since I was big enough to grasp a steering wheel. My dad was an antique car collector and I spent most of my time hanging around while he was working on them. He put blocks on the pedals of a 1950 Dodge pickup truck and let me drive it around our yard when I was 9. When did you start racing? I took a racing course at Skip Barber a while back and planned to compete in their series but became pregnant and that plan got put on hold. In 2010, I learned about the Gazelle Rally in Morocco which was my first off-road rally. From there I moved on to racing as many other rallies as I can. Appeal of Off-Road Racing Why off-road racing? It would seem to be the most physically punishing of all the motor sports. It is one of the toughest physically, but that is part of the appeal, as is the mental challenge of being able to read the terrain ahead of you, which you’ve never seen before, as you approach it at speed and react accordingly to keep you, your co-driver and your vehicle safe and moving as fast as possible. Do you do any work on the cars? It would seem that off-road would require some deep knowledge of how to repair the cars in the wild. I do have basic mechanical skills and can do a lot of field fixes if needs be to get back to a safe place. Prepare to launch, Dakar RallyYou were in a vintage 911SC; is this the first time you raced in a Porsche? Yes. Also my first time off-road in a 2WD manual transmission car. Racing Rod Hall’s 1968 Bronco You have now a lot of off-road races. Any favorite memories stand out? The Dakar Classic is at the top of the favorites, as is racing in the Mint 400 in Rod Hall’s 1968 Bronco with his granddaughter, Shelby Hall. That Bronco was the only 4WD drive vehicle to win the Baja 1000 overall (in 1969). At the time, I was in the middle of filming “One More Win,” my documentary about Rod’s legendary career, and it was really special to me that he honored and trusted me to drive his piece of racing history. You worked on Wall Street early on. Why did you leave?
Babies. Do I understand correctly that you were a stay-at-home mom who was also into racing? (Award for coolest mom ever.) Yes, at the time of my first Gazelle Rally, my kids were 8 and 11. Arrived in SaudiHow do you approach a new adventure? What is your mindset? I tend to approach new adventures analytically, considering all the best- and worst-case outcomes. Then, when I decide to pursue something, I keep at it, even if it is not something I’d be expected to do, until I get it done.
Merging Racing and Filmmaking What is coming up next for you? Races, or maybe something else? Most immediately, I will be watching the San Diego Film awards on May 14 on KPBS to see if “One More Win” wins in the Best Documentary category. I am the producer and co-director of the film, about off-road racing legend Rod Hall, his career and his quest for a record-setting 50th consecutive Baja 1000. I am also planning to return to the Dakar Rally in January of 2022.
What is this film, and how did you get into it? I ran into Rod Hall, my friend, racing mentor, and all-around legend, at the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame awards in Vegas in 2015. He talked about how he was going to try to do 50 consecutive Baja 1000 races and set a record. Though at 77 years old, he was starting to wonder if he should just retire. I thought about that and all the great stories Rod had told me of the early days of off-road racing and had an idea. I called him the next day and asked what he thought about my trying to put together a documentary about his career and the two years to come of his racing up to the 2017 50th race. His answer was that he’d been asked a lot over the years about doing a book or a movie but he always said no. ONE MORE WIN Trailer. from Amy Lerner on Vimeo. “I turned a mental cartwheel out of excitement then thought: ‘Oh crap, now I have to figure out how to make a movie.’ “ Since this time it was me asking, he was going to say yes. I turned a mental cartwheel out of excitement then thought: “Oh crap, now I have to figure out how to make a movie.” I had zero experience in filmmaking but knew a little about the doc process having been approached about being the subject of a film about women in motorsports. I called a friend who called a friend who recommended someone who could function as DP and we headed down to Baja for the first race. Along the way, I was able to convince a number of super talented, experienced folks to join the production. Not long after the first race, Rod got some health news that would impact his ability to race and even to walk. We continued to film and follow. What I thought was going to be a biography of a legend wrapped around the quest for a world record became the story of an almost heroic struggle to achieve one last goal while passing on a family legacy. “One More Win” was set for the festival circuit just as Covid hit so a lot was canceled or migrated online. We did manage to win a number of awards including a ‘fan favorite’ award. The awards show coming up is for the San Diego Film Week and we are up for Best Documentary. Distribution is in the works. Amy Lerner and Rob HallI functioned as producer and co-director on the film as well as being the creative driver of the whole process (and had my shot at fame for my 2 seconds on film racing the Mint 400 with Rod’s granddaughter, Shelby). “There is absolutely a parallel to off-road racing and filmmaking” I see filmmaking as an endurance event; they require such tenacity. Do you see a parallel to your off-road racing? There is absolutely a parallel to off-road racing and filmmaking in my opinion, particularly when making a doc follow. The doc process can be very long (in this case 2+ years of filming) and while you try to plan everything out, there’s no way to know what will end up happening and if you will even be there to capture it. The races we shot are 1000 miles long. It is impossible to film the whole thing so I had to get multiple crews and position them along the course in hopes of being in range when something that furthers the story occurs. One of my favorite sequences in the film happened because everything worked. The 4 GoPros on the race car were on, the mic in Rod’s helmet worked and the drone was in position when Rod got bad directions from his co-driver and got stuck in the sand 2 miles outside of town on the side of a rocky wash. I’m proud of that one because while it looks like no big deal when you see the sequence, it was so unlikely that we got what we did given the sheer number of miles the race covers.
In both racing and filmmaking, you have to visualize the overall picture. A scene that is captured may be just a scene or it may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the story, but you have to recognize that it could be important on the fly and decide to film it. In a long race, the implications of hitting a rock are very different if you have 2 miles to drive or 200. A tiny bit of damage may be no big deal on its own but over a long time can wreck a vehicle, so the big picture of the whole race needs to be considered when making decisions at all times. And for both you need to have the tenacity, drive, and grit to keep going. @teamlerner