Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Adjusting My Spring Brake

Last week was Spring Break here on the Leelanau Peninsula of northern Lower Michigan. While families headed south in droves to escape the lingering effects of a cold, damp and seemingly-endless winter (mine own, included), some more-hearty folks (and me) stayed close to home.

Not that I didn’t want to accompany my wife and son to sunny Orlando, Fla. I have problems with back pain and walking long distances – the aftermath of a pit-road injury I suffered many, many years ago. A hastily-lifted wheel morphed into a chronic arthritic condition that’s pretty much robbed me of easy mobility.

Long story short: my wife, son, and mother-in-law drove to Orlando for a week of fun while I remained at home and did yet another round of physical therapy. These new treatments seem to be helping, however, so perhaps there is a future jaunt to sunny Florida in our familial future.

Anyway, I wiled away my week of vacation by re-watching a slate of movies about automobile racing. Building a collection of such films occurs when 1) one teaches college courses in film studies and popular culture and 2) has devoted their entire life and career (thus far) to aspects of motorsports. It had been many years since I’d watched some of the titles in my informal collection, and having a week on my own seemed like a good time to race down Memory Lane.

As a warm-up to watching Ron Howard’s 2012 epic feature Rush, I screened a short documentary on Netflix that explored the 1976 Formula 1 season and the intense rivalry that bubbled-up between Niki Lauda and the late James Hunt. The 2012 movie took liberties with the rivalry (as films so often do), but the end result was still an amazing piece of racing cinema. Such realism should be expected from the director who brought the ill-fated exploits of Apollo 13 to the big screen.

I then marveled at the realistic portrayal of 1960s F1 racing presented by John Frankenheimer’s racing classic Grand Prix (1966). I wrote about this film for Frontstretch back when James Garner passed away. Garner not only starred in Grand Prix, but he was also a dear friend of NASCAR. One of my prized racing possessions is a 35mm slide of Garner at a party in the company of Curtis Turner back in the mid-1960s – the two surrounded by a bevy of female admirers. Real macho racer stuff there.

James Garner did much of his own driving for the film, which also included a ton of on-track footage collected from tracks all along the then-wildly-dangerous F1 circuit, including film shot on the high banks of Monza. The in-car camera work blended neatly with the material culled from F1 events to create an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience.

If only NASCAR could get so lucky.

My screenings of NASCAR-based feature films were limited to Days of Thunder (1990) and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (2006). I thought about re-watching both Cars (2006) and Cars II (2011) from Pixar, but given that my son loves these two movies, seeing them without him seemed cruel. To compensate, I watched Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005). Seeing a Disneyfied universe where Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett (among others) get schooled by a 1963 VW Beetle soft-top was little more than mindless entertainment.

Speaking of mindless, did I mention I watched BOTH Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights?

To cleanse my cinematic pallet, I took time to watch the 2007 CMT documentary Dale. Being able to re-connect with NASCAR in terms of both reality and respect saved me from long-term psychological damage.

My Spring Break screenings also included more understated movies like Winning (1969) with Paul Newman and LeMans (1971) with Steve McQueen. Romantic entanglements aside, these two films provided some great “shot on location” kinds of racing footage. I almost re-watched Weekend of a Champion, Roman Polanski’s 1972 documentary about Jackie Stewart at Monaco, but I had recently viewed that title and though another run-through seemed like overkill.

Same thing with checking out the 2013 DreamWorks/20th Century Fox animated feature Turbo; my son would never forgive me if he thought I watched the film without him.

There were several titles I did not watch. I teach Senna (2010) to my film students as an example of innovative use of editing to create narrative, so I skipped viewing that powerful documentary. Same with silent classics like The Speed Kings (1913), Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), and The First Auto (1927) – films that paved the way for today’s cinematic celebrations of motorsports.

Given that Easter Sunday was going to be a week off from racing, sitting down to watch a variety of automobile racing-related movies seemed appropriate. One thing these kinds of films do is try and put racing into some kind of sociocultural context. The drivers often wrestle with personal demons, the competition is always depicted as pure spectacle and the lessons learned are always universal (usually dealing with such qualities as loyalty, sacrifice and the benefits of teamwork).

It wasn’t the same as a trip to sunny Orlando, but it was an escape from the dregs of winter, nonetheless.

My family enjoyed their sojourn to Florida and there’s already talk of another trip once I get a bit more mobile. Until then, I guess we’ll have to hunker down and watch the inspiring tale of a young snail who follows his dreams to reach victory lane at Indianapolis.

There’s no business like show business – no matter if you’re talking motorsports or motion pictures.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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