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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