How Hunter S. Thompson Gave Birth to Gonzo Journalism: Short Film Revisits Thompson’s Seminal 1970 Piece on the Kentucky Derby

“In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson went to the Kentucky Derby, and he changed sports journalism and broadcasting forever.” Or so claims historian Douglas Brinkley, the oft-imitated but never replicated writer’s literary executor, in the short Gonzo @ the Derby. Directed by Michael G. Ratner and first commissioned by ESPN’s 30 for 30, the thirteen-minute documentary tells the story of how, having made his name with a book on the Hell’s Angels, the 33-year-old, Louisville-born Thompson took a gig with the rebellious and short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly to go back to his hometown and report on its famous horse race — and how he almost inadvertently defined a whole new kind of journalism as a result.

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the United States looked like a country in serious turmoil: “Everything seemed to be coming unglued in America,” says Brinkley. “Kent State and the Black Panthers and the rebellion that’s going on around the nation, and yet here is this old-fashioned Kentucky Derby festival going on.” The late Warren Hinckle III, who edited Scanlan’s, had one question: “Who went to these damn things?” And so Thompson, described here by former Rolling Stone managing editor John Walsh as “the quintessential outsider who likes to make himself the quintessential insider,” went — with neither press credentials nor reservations — to find out the answer.

Thompson did not, as every fan knows, find out alone. Scanlan’s also flew in, all the way from England, an illustrator by the name of Ralph Steadman. When Thompson and Steadman managed to meet amid the gregarious chaos of Derby-time Louisville, neither man could have known how inextricably the culture would soon associate their work, the former’s feverish, impressionistic yet hypersensitive prose and the latter’s untamed-looking, distinctively monstrous artwork. Both of them found their voices in presenting reality not as it was, but as grimly heightened as it could feel to them, and both, given the era, occasionally did so with the aid of mind-altering substances.

At the Kentucky Derby, however, they stuck to alcohol — as did, if you believe Thompson’s reporting, all the rest of the attendees, and in an at once hellaciously debaucherous and sinisterly genteel way at that. “Unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track,” he writes in the final product of he and Steadman’s trip, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” (Find it in the collection, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time.) “We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.” Yet even as they gazed, backs to the horses, upon the sheer grotesquerie of what Brinkley calls “the white Southern power elite,” they realized that they, too, amid their blustering fakery, half-remembered altercations, and near-constant binging, had become beastly themselves.

After all that, Thompson, back in New York to write up the story, feared that he didn’t have a story at all. In desperation, he told not of what happened at the 1970 Kentucky Derby but of how he and Steadman experienced the 1970 Kentucky Derby, leaving plenty of room for speculation, remembrance, artistic license, and unverifiable madness that eventually devolves into the raw notes he scribbled amid the storm of high-society Southern squalor. Could he have possibly suspected what a potent combination that and Steadman’s illustrations (described as “sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick”) would make? Bill Cardoso, then editor of the Boston Globe, understood its power when he first read the article, even coining a word to describe it: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”

The short documentary, “Gonzo @ the Derby,” will be added to our list of Free Online Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

Related Content:

How Hunter S. Thompson — and Psilocybin — Influenced the Art of Ralph Steadman, Creating the “Gonzo” Style

Hunter S. Thompson Gets in a Gunfight with His Neighbor & Dispenses Political Wisdom: “In a Democracy, You Have to Be a Player”

Hunter S. Thompson Gets Confronted by The Hell’s Angels: Where’s Our Two Kegs of Beer? (1967)

Playing Golf on LSD With Hunter S. Thompson: Esquire Editor Remembers the Oddest Game of Golf

Hunter S. Thompson’s Harrowing, Chemical-Filled Daily Routine

Hunter S. Thompson, Existentialist Life Coach, Gives Tips for Finding Meaning in Life

Read 10 Free Articles by Hunter S. Thompson That Span His Gonzo Journalist Career (1965-2005)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Bill W. says:

    Sounds great until you realize Hunter Thompson was born-into the “Southern Power Elite,” hailing from Kentucky, himself. Sure, he roundly criticized the Derby attendees debauchery, hedonism, and ‘sinister’ genteelness…which he embraced as a lifestyle for himself, whilst condemning others for doing the same. What a self-righteous hypocrite, Thompson unwittingly WAS ‘one of them!’

  • Richard Waite says:

    Be that as it may, he certainly was not afraid to attack his fellow Derby denizens. I think that he was less hypocritical in having that courage.

  • Kirby Michael Wright, MFA says:

    I’m writing about my meeting with Hunter @ UCSD in the Eighties. I was in charge of shuttling him to and from Lindbergh Field and satisfying his various requests, including a quart bottle of mescal with the worm on the bottom.

  • M. Mescal says:

    To: All my loyal followers and supporters.

    The worm in the bottle is not meant to eat/consume …. of course in the United States liberty grants you the right to do as you wish regarding the worm …. but rather the worm was intended to serve as a reminder … a reminder to procure a fresh bottle.

    By the time you reach the worm … you may need some assistance in remembering that your resources are dwindling.

    Hope that helps clarify the “logic” after all these years of confusion.

    If you have already reached the worm in the bottle …. most likely this explanation will not serve a valid purpose …. you most likely either will not be able to read or comprehend the contents anyhow.


    M. Mescal, Sr.

    Grandfather of the “worm”

    aka “Senior Abuelo Gusano”

  • William A Befort says:

    I’m surprised that no one traces “Gonzo” to the character in La Chartreuse de Parme. Gonzo doesn’t appear till the last chapter, but is a clearly drawn figure who plays a significant role in the novel’s ending. A very minor Parma noble who lives by cadging free drinks and meals at the tables of wealthy aristocrats, Gonzo maintains his welcome by peddling salacious tattle, taking care never to offend his hosts’ serious prejudices, and putting up with their frequent insults: “Tais-toi, Gonzo, tu n’es qu’une bète.” This is one of the two Stendhal novels that everyone claims to have read, yet I’ve never seen anyone draw what would seem to be a not altogether inappropriate parallel between Gonzo and Thompson.

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