Rush roars into theaters everywhere on Friday, and after you see it, you’ll probably light the burner for some more cinematic racing action. But like our own George Kennedy wrote in his review last week, making a good racing movie isn’t easy. The vast majority tend to try and make off-track drama a part of the film, when it’s the on-track material we’re really interested in. (What made Rush unique was that the off-track dialogue actually lived up to the on-track excitement.) The result is usually a mess that neither racing fans, nor girls who like kissing in movie theaters find satisfying.
With that in mind, we’ve chosen ten racing films – other than Senna and Rush, which we imagine everybody that’s ever thought about racing has seen by now – that really hit the mark. Some are fictionalized dramas, some are comedies, some are documentaries, but all of these films really get it right.
World’s Fastest Indian (2005)
A lot more people should’ve seen The World’s Fastest Indian, but many avoided it because they don’t think they like racing, they don’t like motorcycles, or they think going fast in a straight line isn’t racing. Balderdash. See this movie, and better yet, make your significant other see this movie. It’s got everything: Motorcycles, salt flats, Mickey Thompson, a sense of humor, a transvestite, and a crotchety old guy that pees on his flowers. If you come away from this without thinking that the real-life Burt Munro was the coolest old geezer in history, you have a wizened, black caraway seed for a heart.
Le Mans (1971)
I have many problems with Le Mans, but the racing portions of the film are beyond reproach. Lee H. Katzin gets directorial credit for the film, but Steve McQueen bullied and blustered his way behind the lens in almost every racing shot. After the first half-hour, I’d suggest having your thumb on the fast-forward button, because the “story” in the film is crushingly boring, but be that as it may, the racing is as authentic as you’re likely to see anywhere.
Grand Prix (1966)
Same deal here. Grand Prix is five years older than Le Mans, and it stars Jim Garner, who also went on to race competitively. John Frankenheimer directs, and you can feel his influence in every shot, as the Formula One cars jockey for position in Monaco and elsewhere. Again, the off-track romance is unnecessary and distracting, and it takes away from an otherwise engaging film. Skip that nonsense and stick with the racing and you’ll have a blast.
The Last American Hero (1973)
The fictionalized account of the life of Junior Johnson, heavily borrowing from Tom Wolfe’s article for Esquire magazine of the same title. The Last American Hero stars a young Jeff Bridges in the title role, as a moonshiner-turned-NASCAR champion. This movie, and the Esquire story it’s based on, accounts for about 95 percent of the urban myth associated with NASCAR racing in its nascent days. It’s a tough film to find now, but it’s well worth watching.
Gumball Rally (1976)
The Gumball Rally is the fictionalized version of Brock Yates’s “Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash,” conceived as a protest against the national 55 mile per hour speed limit. Many of the characters in the film are loosely based on real competitors in the rally. For example, pro Trans Am driver Tony (“Tony A-to-Z”) Adamowicz competed with Oscar Koveleski and Brad Neimcek in a Chevy Van that was parodied with a 1971 GMC “Acme Plumbing” van in the film. The entire movie’s a blast. Don’t worry much about plot, continuity or script. That’s not the point.
Dust to Glory (2005)
The first of two documentaries on this list. Dust to Glory documents the amazing, largely lawless Baja 1000, and follows the pro trucks driven by the likes of Tony Stewart, along with motorcycles, and the fantastic SCORE Class 11 unmodified VW Beetles. The pre-run sequence with Mario Andretti is pretty much worth the price of entry, but the most exciting racing sequences are those featuring the motorcyclists. Mike McCoy embodies the spirit and determination of the lone privateer, determined to finish the race alone. With nothing but guts and a few bananas, McCoy attempts not only to finish, but to win it outright. The racing footage is unreal, and the DVD extras are just as good as the movie.
On Any Sunday (1971)
On Any Sunday was directed by Bruce Brown, the father of Dust to Glory’s director, Dana Brown. It’s stupefying that people who say they like Steve McQueen have never seen this movie. This isn’t Steve McQueen acting in a role. It’s the real Steve McQueen competing in real amateur motorcycle racing events under the assumed name “Harvey Mushman.” Along the way, you meet the young versions of motorcycle racing legends like Mert Lawwill, J.N. Roberts and Malcolm Smith, who is about as engaging as any character ever filmed.
Greased Lightning (1977)
Another true-to-life version of a story of a NASCAR competitor, Greased Lighting is the fictionalized story of Wendell Scott, the first black stock car driver to win a NASCAR Grand National race. Scott is portrayed by Richard Pryor in 1977, at the height of Pryor’s career. Other notable cast members include Pam Grier, (the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), Cleavon Little (the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, and the blind DJ “Super Soul” in Vanishing Point), and a brief acting appearance by Richie Havens. Along with the fun dirt-track racing footage, and later scenes from NASCAR’s greatest era, it’s also an indication of Pryor’s acting chops in a fairly dramatic role.
This is the forgotten member of the triumvirate of great racing movies that inspired their stars to race professionally. Paul Newman starred in this movie and never spent any time in a race car prior to its filming. After this film, he spent as much time racing as he did acting. It literally changed his life. Pretty much every brand of racing is represented here, from Indy cars to Can-Am to NASCAR and everything in-between. Even Paul Newman’s love interest – his wife, Joanne Woodward – seems authentic enough. Its’ a cross-section of all the racing going on in the late 1960s.
Days of Thunder (1990)
Oh, boy, we can hear the comments coming in already. This movie has more haters than fans, but Days of Thunder has aged better than you’d expect. It would’ve been better to cast…well, anyone other than Tom Cruise in the lead role, and again, we’re saddled with a sappy love story, but the racing is actually pretty decent. And how can you not love erstwhile presidential candidate Fred Thompson cursing like a truck driver, or Robert Duvall as Harry Hogge with the quote “He didn’t slam you, he didn’t bump you, he didn’t nudge you. He rubbed you. And rubbin’, son, is racin’.”
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