East Bay filmmaker’s tribute to racer, friend to debut in Danville
By Lou Fancher
Even in their wildest dreams, Bill Bentley and Ron Pestana never imagined they’d rock and roar at Danville’s Village Theatre.
But that is exactly what will happen July 23 when the quaint, 19th century building plays host to “Gentleman Champion — The Ron Pestana Story.” The documentary made by record producer and filmmaker Bentley tells the story of the celebratory life and tragic, sudden death of his best buddy, Pestana, a short track champion racer and lead bass member of the rock n’ roll band, Ron Pestana and the Pit Crew.
The 70-minute indie film fulfills a promise and delivers a life-affirming message while paying tribute to the racing industry. The film score, created along with the documentary in his Concord studio, Bill Bentley Productions, features the two guitarists’ music.
“I grew up in Lafayette, lived and worked as a record producer in L.A., then relocated to Concord in 1998. While working on the doc, I was driving in Danville, where I live, and passed the theater. I’d never noticed it before, but I put a reminder in my mind that if I showed the film locally, I’d prefer to show it there,” Bentley said.
A demo put on by the theater clinched the deal: “They screened the trailer for me. The facility is impressive, the sound system unrivaled. When I heard it, I had chills up and down my spine.”
That might have been the simplest part of bringing to the screen the documentary that features Northern California race tracks including Stockton 99 Speedway; Altamont Motorsports Park in Tracy (built by Pestana’s father, the late John Pestana); and All American Speedway in Roseville, where Pestana died in 2012.
The Byron-based driver had a heart attack before crashing into a wall on a weekly Kids Night attended by hundreds of spectators. In the film, Bentley handles that part of the story with gentle but dramatic impact.
“I researched the most professional storyboard for this kind of subject,” he said.
After earlier portions of the film introduce viewers to racing history and the mens’ ascending popularity on the music and race circuits, there’s a blank image, a date and scenes of people in tears.
“We realize, with unbelievable shock, what happened, just like when it happened. Just prior to that moment, I have a song entitled ‘Hot Lap My Ashes.’ The song is Ron’s description of how he wants to be remembered in the event of his death. It was written over a year before he died,” Bentley said.
The lyrics direct survivors to “pour my ashes into Speedi Dri and hot lap my ashes away.” Hot laps are performed prior to a race to make sure the tires are at the right temperature.
“At memorials held in Pestana’s honor, they poured his ashes onto the racetracks and drove his truck over them,” recalls Bentley.
The film’s final footage is selected from 30 to 40 hours shot by Bentley, a KTVU segment of the two men at Sonoma Speedway in a “local-guys-race-and-write-music” human interest story and other footage collected from friends, colleagues and historical archives.
Bentley raised about half of the $10,000 budget through donations and says that with today’s technology and old-fashioned hard work, a professional feature film can be made on a shoestring budget.
“You just have to include, with permission, footage already shot, use software creatively to make it come together and compose the music yourself or choose what’s available. In my case, the music we wrote before Ron passed was successful, known worldwide and perfect for the film.”
Bentley has “Outback” Andy Foster to thank for his path and Pestana’s too-short life intersecting. The former Altamont track announcer played Pestana’s home-recorded music over the PA system during races.
“Indirectly, I introduced Bill and Ron because Ron was bringing me CDs and I was broadcasting and talking about them. Bill heard the music and went right down to meet Ron,” says Foster. “I’d been racing for a long time, but when I got to Altamont, Ron was one of the best, most welcoming guys ever. Talking about him for the film was hard and it still is: I miss him every day.”
After a two-year process conducting interviews with Pestana’s friends, family and colleagues and editing, Bentley says the strongest impression left behind is about love.
“He would teach me racing: I’d set him up with a record deal. That was the promise. I assumed he was a facilitator at race tracks, but I learned from famous racers and others that he was like a host. He’d make them comfortable; he was delightful, fun, entertaining, dramatic, loving. He lived larger than life and left larger than life. The remarkable thing I learned was that the racing community is charitable, generous.”
But it’s not the most significant lesson, because ironically, making the film entirely reshaped Bentley’s life perspective.
“It’s vital to have the courage and enthusiasm to pursue the dreams of your life, even if you can’t do them the way that you hoped,” he said. “You give yourself permission to do them at whatever level you can. Ron and I had these dreams, and the film is one of them for me.”
Bentley is waiting to hear from the 10 film festivals in which he’s entered the documentary. A cable broadcast and DVD are in process.
Next up? A documentary, “Sunblock,” about the solar eclipse. Shooting from a motor home while traveling from Reno, Nevada, to Madras, Oregon, where about 100,000 people are expected to witness the eclipse, Bentley says he’ll need to stock up on clearance forms for all the “extras” in his next film.