Fifth Street

March 17, 2022

How off-roader Shelby Hall is charting her own course | These filmmakers are telling the story of local arts and culture | Media Sommelier: Russian propaganda, proudly manufactured in Texas

FEW THINGS SIGNAL a return to normalcy in the Jean Dry Lake Bed like the vroom-vroom of off-road racers making the rounds in the Mint 400. The race returns this year to Southern Nevada and, with it, the Hall family of racers. You know the Hall family even if you don’t think you know the Hall family. You just can’t have Nevada desert racing without a Hall in the mix. The patriarch, Rod Hall, started racing Jeeps in Hemet, California, during the ’60s. He’s known for racing faster, harder, and smarter than most drivers. That’s why he’s in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

His granddaughter, Shelby Hall, is picking up the mantle. It’s easy when you’re from a family of racers who find serenity in being dwarfed by massive sand dunes with clouds of red dust trailing behind them. She’s a Reno girl, who grew up in the Nevada desert kicking rocks and learning racing techniques from a man she only ever saw as “Papa.”

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But Hall is forging her own path. She placed second in the 2017 Mint 400 in her grandfather’s 1968 Bronco alongside veteran racer Amy Lerner. Since then, she has completed the Baja 1000 and become a brand ambassador for the Ford Bronco R. In October 2021, Hall and her navigator, Penny Dale, took fourth place in the rugged Rebelle Rally, a 2,500-km (1,550-mile) race through the California and Nevada desert. I caught Hall a few days before the Mint 400 to discuss racing, the male gaze, and the desert trails she loves. 

How did you get into the sport?
I rode with my Grandpa for one race. I was the navigator, which for my grandpa meant you're the passenger. You did not need to give him any navigation. He'd been doing it forever. I rode with him and then he said, “Okay, I think you're ready.” He then put me in the driver's seat. I’ve been racing with the Rod Hall Racing team since, and in 2018, I started driving for other teams.

You’re 5-foot-2 in a sport designed for men by men. Does that make off-road racing any harder?
I mean, yes, but at the end of the day, no, because you just put your middle finger to it. There’s a lot of nuances. One thing that is really frustrating for me is, I don't have my own race truck. That's a really big, very expensive undertaking. When I race, I'm racing with other teams and there's multiple drivers. I am 5’ 2”, and nobody else is that height. I don't fit in the seats, and the seats don't move forward enough. I have to have all sorts of custom cushions so that I can reach the pedals. The cushions move me forward so much that I don't have any side protection. It's a dream of mine to have my own car so that I have a seat that fits me.

Your family is racing in the Mint 400 this year, but you didn’t have the opportunity to race. Does being a member of the family create any additional pressure to be in these signal events?
When I was younger (Hall is now 34), it used to really eat at me. Now it flares up a little bit. I've kind of come to a point where I'm proud to be a Hall and I'm proud to have the lineage that I have. But I can only be what I am, and I'm okay with that. I feel like the expectation of knowledge is huge. People think that I have probably been everywhere and know how to do everything. Which might be an internal conversation; I don't know if that's reality.

Now you're also stepping in to do other things outside of racing.
In 2019, I got a phone call from Ford, and they asked if I would be interested in joining the Bronco R team as a driver. I raced in the Baja 1000 in the Bronco R in 2019 and in 2020. I felt this was my chance. It's just not every day that people get an opportunity to have Ford at the dinner table with them. I thought, “Give them your ideas. What's the worst thing they're gonna say? ‘No?’” All right. I felt like there were other opportunities that Ford should be a part of, like the Rebelle Rally.

The Rebelle Rally is a women-only race. Last year, it started at the Hoover Dam and ended at Imperial Sand Dunes, California. You had to drive without GPS. How do you navigate that?
The only thing we're allowed to have is a Terratrip, a precise odometer. Its wheel probes count the revolutions of the tire. That's how you're able to tell precisely how far you've traveled. But other than that, you use a map and compass, to navigate 1,500 miles over eight days, which is incredible. We have to turn our cell phones off and put them in a lockbox to really disconnect from the world for eight days. It doesn't really sound like that long, but it is.

My teammate, Penny Dale, and I won the first year in the Bronco Sport. We were the first people to capture a win in the new generation Bronco. That's a record that will never be broken which is pretty neat. That's how my grandpa and I get to share a Bronco record.

Eight days in a vehicle. What do you do for the bathroom? Do you wear makeup? Do you wear perfume?
When we're competing throughout the day, we just pop a squat. We have a trash bag going on in the car. We don't litter. Then each night we camp at a bivouac with restrooms and showers. We have to carry all of our own camping gear, all of our own personal gear, all of our own vehicular equipment. Any spare parts, any tools, any (motor) oils, anything like that, we have to carry with us.

People have the audacity to say that women can't race because they don’t have the strength or temerity to handle the horsepower.  You're the brand ambassador for the Ford Bronco R, a pretty powerful truck. You are also creating and supporting an environment for women to race. What spurred this desire?
At King of the Hammers (an off-road desert and vehicle rock climbing race), I wasn't racing but Sarah Price was. We were reviewing the results, and I overheard someone say, “I don't care what place I got as long as I beat Sarah Price.” That's just a terrible thing to say. The mentality where you don't care how you did, as long as you did better than the girl.

It makes me not want to race sometimes. It's a feeling that makes me nervous. Obviously, I overcome it. But there is that split second, where it's a scary feeling of being watched and judged. It's the fear of failure. Nobody wants to fail. Nobody wants to look stupid, and nobody wants to make a mistake. I think people who strive for perfection and people who love to compete and win, that’s what makes us better. What makes us fierce competitors is being able to overcome those fears and push aside that little feeling that makes us wanna quit.

How do you keep racing ready?
I work out every day, and then I go off-roading as often as possible.

Where are some of your favorite spots in Nevada to off-road?
I just went to a new area I think I'm going to mark as one of my favorite places by Jean. Vegas Off Road Tours near the prison is where we left, on the opposite side of the Mint 400 course. The east side of I-15.

What's attractive to you about that?
The different terrain. It was really fast and rocky. My favorite type of terrain is technical terrain. I don't really like just flat-out lake beds — I like having to work for the payoff — that's why I really love technical terrain. I like having to read (the terrain), and it was beautiful out there and fun. 

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IN THE SUMMER of 2018, I started work on a feature documentary about the creative scene that developed in a very specific Las Vegas location during a very specific era: Maryland Parkway in the 1990s. At the time, it felt like I was perhaps the first to tackle the subject of so-called “alternative” culture in Sin City in an easily digestible filmed narrative. But if my film Parkway of Broken Dreams — the result of spending three years blending together newly filmed remembrances with fragments of decades-old VHS camcorder footage — was among the first of its kind, it soon became clear it would not be the last.

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Recently, a number of other documentary films by Vegas-based artists (many of them first-time filmmakers) have either debuted or started production, all focusing on a particular aspect of the valley’s recent cultural history. Take, for example, 702 Unstripped, a feature-length visual history of hip-hop culture’s influence on the development of Las Vegas’ present-day art scene. The film, which screened rough cuts at a few private events downtown last fall, is the brainchild of Shannon Dorn, a longtime local photographer and entrepreneur. Dorn had been capturing various artistic happenings around the city on camera for years, with a focus on the Las Vegas Arts District, but she says once Zappos moved downtown and “things started to pop off,” she realized the importance of telling the story of the Arts District from the perspective of those who built it.

“People have their own ideas of how things happen,” Dorn says. “We’re not a historic town. Everything that we build, we tear down.” She says that making 702 Unstripped was “the only way I could physically do anything to keep the history alive in Vegas. It was important to me to tell the world that culture exists in Vegas.”

The film she produced with the help of Arts District stalwart and painter Dray Wilmore (at right), as well as other collaborators, proves her point. 702 Unstripped spans the opening of the Arts Factory in the late 1990s, the founding and expansion of First Friday in the early 2000s, and the gentrification of the Arts District in more recent years. In doing so, it serves as something of a sequel to Parkway of Broken Dreams, literally picking up where Parkway leaves off, with the heart of Vegas arts and culture being transplanted from the UNLV to downtown Las Vegas.

Featured early on in 702 Unstripped is 5ive Finger Miscount (5FM), Wilmore’s former collective of urban muralists, surrealists, and outsider artists whose brief existence around the same time as the launch of First Friday had a lasting impact on Vegas’ art scene. One of its founding members, veteran local artist Emmett “Iceberg Slick” Gates, announced just a few months ago that, in collaboration with Robert “Tagz1” Perez and Koby Dumas, he was starting work on a documentary of his own: a retrospective about 5ive Finger Miscount, naturally. Although Gates says the impetus for such a project was the fact that both 5FM and First Friday will be celebrating 20th anniversaries this year (and plans to have a version of the film complete in time for the occasion), his greater motivation to undertake such an exhaustive project isn’t dissimilar from Dorn’s.

“The landscape has changed so much downtown,” Gates says. “Vegas is a place that will tear down a landmark in a minute and pretend it never existed. I refuse to let that happen to all those original artists who paved the way for what’s there now.”

Although Gates says he did consult with Wilmore to ensure there wasn’t too much overlap between their respective films, these projects naturally share some familiar faces (including, in full disclosure, your humble author) as well as common subjects. For example, local art curator and urban historian Brian “Paco” Álvarez appears throughout 702 Unstripped as a commentator, but he also features prominently in a teaser trailer for 5ive Finger Miscount: A Documentary, discussing how the group introduced lowbrow art to Las Vegas. There’s also some crossover behind the scenes. In addition to crafting the visual look for the 5FM retrospective, “Tagz1” Perez also directed the recently premiered documentary short, This Doesn’t Happen, about Vegas-based artist Juan “Ninobuni” Muniz’s experience of returning to his old neighborhood in San Diego for a gallery show. And, of course, Muniz himself appears as one of the talking heads in 702 Unstripped.

All of this speaks to the close-knit and interconnected nature of Vegas’ creative community, which is also reflected in another recently completed documentary, 4 Years, 1 Song, G. Douglas Seitsinger’s nearly two-hour ode to the post-Downtown Project era of the Bunkhouse Saloon (right). The film screened for an invite-only crowd at the Artifice bar downtown last July, and made its public debut at the Silver State Film Festival in October, netting Seitsinger a “Best Director” award in the doc category. 4 Years, 1 Song does an effective job of conveying the rock ’n’ roll clubhouse vibe that made the Bunkhouse much more than just another place to drink beer and watch bands.

“It’s a good remembrance of what happened,” says Seitsinger, “but for the people who were never there, I hoped that it would make them wish that they were.”

Seitsinger, a former rock ‘n’ roll photographer and music writer who worked the Bunkhouse door from 2016 to 2020, surreptitiously captured hundreds of shows there on an Olympus pocket camera during his watch. He says he knew something special was happening — he just didn’t know it would end up becoming a feature film.

“I didn’t know if it was going to be a doorman’s journal thing,” says Seitsinger, who also shot (with Keith Ray and Mike Busch) 26 interviews for the documentary, most of them at 11th Street Records downtown. “I wanted it to be my perspective. I wanted to focus on the music and what the doorman captured.”

The Bunkhouse isn’t the only beloved downtown Las Vegas venue getting immortalized on camera. Inspired by developer J Dapper’s purchase and ongoing renovation of the iconic Huntridge Theater, Chandos Erwin of Los Angeles-based Hydro Studios is directing a film tentatively titled Huntridge: The Story of a Theater and Its City, which Erwin says will examine “its role in the city’s history, its place in the hearts and memories of the people who knew it as the place they saw their first show (or) played their best show, and its future as a part of a renaissance in downtown Las Vegas.”

The Huntridge looms large in Las Vegas’ collective cultural history, serving as a nexus for disparate subculture scenes. It’s shown in Parkway of Broken Dreams hosting performance art, punk bands, and hip-hop acts. It turns up in 702 Unstripped as the place Dorn first encountered 5ive Finger Miscount during a pop-up art show. Even for a self-proclaimed “outsider” like Erwin, he recognized what he calls “the cultural legacy” of the theater, and discovered a greater truth about Las Vegas that the valley’s homegrown documentarians are also trying to prove.

“Once we started talking to people, I realized how important the Huntridge was for so many in the community,” Erwin says. “Up until then, my only real experience with Las Vegas had been the Strip and the convention center. Spending time Downtown talking to people about the Huntridge has shown me that there is so much more to Las Vegas, that it is a city with a true heart and soul.”

Showing that there’s more to Vegas than the version regurgitated again and again in the pop culture strata since the days of the Rat Pack — that’s noble. That’s great. It’s something all the filmmakers I spoke with expressed. But even more urgently — especially in the case of folks such as Dorn and Gates — these films want to make sure the proper people get their due. After all, they can be easily overlooked when typical accounts of Las Vegas history focus on the usual iconic figures with big footprints: Siegel. Hughes. Wynn. Hsieh. Their transformative successes often overshadow the work of Vegas’ cultural entrepreneurs: The music nerd who borrowed twenty grand from his dad to open his dream record store in the same shopping center where he bought his first 8-track tape. The urban muralist who saw a home for artists in boarded-up railroad cottages on the wrong side of Downtown. The coffee shop owner who grew an entire community from a tiny space tucked behind a vintage clothing store.

Considering that, the best explanation for these projects coming to fruition now is a collective need to prove not only that culture exists in Las Vegas, but, as Dorn says, “that it’s always been here.”

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1. LIKE ME, RACHEL BLEVINS was a 2017 graduate of a large Texas school. Unlike me, Blevins, enviably, secured a job in her field upon graduation. While I went from English major to Victoria's Secret sales associate, Blevins went from journalism major to on-air talent at RT America, the Kremlin’s U.S.-based propaganda channel. This profile from Texas Monthly explores the question: “How did a young woman from a small town in Texas end up as the face of RT America as the network spectacularly imploded?”

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What I appreciate about this profile from Forrest Wilder — and where it differs from the avalanche of profiles centered around alt-right and Q-Anon-adjacent figures — is that the story is not preoccupied with humanizing or redeeming Blevins. Here, Blevins presents herself, and the profile in turn presents her, as a careerist. The piece charts Blevins’ career path from student journalist (“For a newsletter for Texas Tech … Blevins was writing articles with headlines like ‘Department of Public Relations Presents Student and Faculty Member of the Year Awards’”) to conspiracy-peddling freelancer (“At the same time, for We Are Change, she was writing articles with all-caps headlines like ‘WHY IT’S TIME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST TO GIVE UP THE ANTI-RUSSIA CAMPAIGN’”). As RT America has shuttered since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Blevins has pivoted to Facebook and Twitter, where the company has slapped a “Russia state-affiliated media” warning across her banner, to churn out monetized content. Wilder’s writing does provide biographical information and addresses the fish-out-of-waterness of it all —“Blevins, for all her pro-Kremlin messaging, had never quite fit the stereotype that might leap to mind when one thinks of Putin’s American puppets. For lack of a better term, she came across as a normal young American journalist, passionate and seemingly sincere.” However, Wilder is insistent on calling out what inspires voices like Blevins and her ilk: money.

2. While a promising young propagandist sees her star fade, a promising young prima donna has just begun her ascent to superstardom. Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria, The White Lotus, Sharp Objects) stuns in this dreamy photo spread by Amy Harrity in this profile for Teen Vogue, which has inducted the starlet into its 2022 New Hollywood list. While the photos stun, the most compelling part of this profile, written by P. Claire Dodson, is its meta nature. Dodson gives Sweeney a space to contextualize the writing around Sweeney, of which there is much thanks to the buzzy nature of Euphoria, and allows her to reflect on how interviewers filter and reproduce her words.

“Lately, she’s been thinking about interviews on a macro level,” Dodson writes. “‘No matter what I say, it’s never my words,’ (Sweeney) says. ‘There’s no context behind a conversation, like what you and I are having right now. People create their own narratives around a word or sentence that is said that is rewritten.’”

The profile addresses rumors, promulgated by decontextualized interviews, that Sweeney and Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson have butted heads over Sweeney’s nude scenes in the show. Dodson allows Sweeney to speak for herself on this issue and reminds readers, “Here’s something that’s important to Sydney Sweeney: context. It’s what allows her to compartmentalize the onscreen nudity that almost every interview touches upon. She knows people might not understand that stance or agree that it’s possible. The problem is that the world we live in cares very little about context.

Part celebrity interview, part crash course in media literacy, this profile encourages its readers, who demographically skew younger, to consider context and explore complex narratives when it comes to celebrities, whose portraits are often confined to 140-character statements and 60-second videos (did I mention Sweeney has a Tik Tok where she repairs vintage cars?).

3. The only topic more talked to death on Twitter than Euphoria is cryptocurrency. Personally, I’ll take Euphoria memes any day over JPEGs of apes selling for 4 trillion DogeCoin. For n+1, Sarah Resnick rockets into the cryptosphere in “Walk Away Like a Boss.” Resnick proudly labels herself a lurker, wallflowering Discords, Telegrams, and Twitter Spaces to become fluent in crypto so you don’t have to. “It’s a kind of rubbernecking only the internet allows,” Resnick writes, “providing near-full access to a subculture to which you don’t belong.”

The language of crypto, Resnick soon learns, is overwhelmingly masculine.  In the cryptosphere, which Resnick sees as “a place where all our economic ills are refracted,” she does find moments where “men (and occasionally women) (let) their guard down in moments of vulnerability … amid the dick talk, the casual misogyny, the advice on managing steroid-induced anxiety."

Beyond the gendered lens through which she explores crypto, Resnick links the volatility of crypto trading to the protean profession of influencing. “Hype” is the driving force behind cryptocurrencies and “its influencers (who else?) who make the hype go round … I looked around these online spaces and found that every token, every project, was at the mercy of the hype cycle, or what people in the cryptosphere genteelly call ‘narratives.’”

Whether you are a DogeCoin Discord mod or, like me, don’t know the difference between ETH and XPR, “Walk Away Like a Boss” is an expansive translation service for and primer on cryptocurrencies and the economic conditions that have led to their appeal.

4. I would be remiss not to include a piece in this round-up from The Believer, the beloved, Vegas-based publication whose final issue dropped this month. In this spirit of nostalgia, I am suggesting Mitchell Johnson’s “The Cheesecake Factory” from The Believer’s series “Places: Reports from Mundane Sites.”

With its overwrought decor and Dickensian menu, The Cheesecake Factory has recently become the stuff of meme fodder. Instead of dunking on the Cult of Osiris-frescoed ’90s chain restaurant, Johnson pens an authentically loving report from this “mundane site.” Upon arrival, Johnson writes, “like everyone else, we’re stoked to be here.” While the delightful descriptions of the restaurant’s interior and fusion monstrosities like avocado egg-rolls are fun, the piece shines when Johnson begins connecting the restaurant to larger conversations about late-stage capitalism and consumption.

“With all this attention, it’s gained a spot on the list of things we consider to be illustrative of late capitalism,” Johnson writes, “like gas station television, ‘Instagram Face,’ Hudson Yards, hologram Tupac, branded shitposts, and The Masked Singer, to name a fewthe dystopian products of a declining culture. They are chaotic objects, cynical and alienating, but (therefore?) we consume them anyway.”

I, among many others, will miss consuming The Believer, always as delectable as a steaming plate Bang-Bang Chicken and Shrimp. Nicholas Barnette

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Photos and art: Shelby Hall: courtesy Shelby Hall; 4 Years, 1 Song: courtesy G. Douglas Seitsinger

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