Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: Looking Back at 2022’s Racing Films

We sit just under a month away from the 95th Academy Awards, which will honor a year’s worth of incredible films.

From a blockbuster sequel I personally saw multiple times in theaters in Top Gun: Maverick, to creative masterpieces like Everything Everywhere All At Once, to passion projects in The Fabelmans and Babylon and more, it’s been a pretty great year for movies. Films not nominated for anything have stood out as well, including The Northman, The Menu, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Terrifier 2.

Included in the overlooked category, as always, are our friends, the racing movies. It goes without saying that these were also not nominated for anything, as we’re accustomed to with the subgenre (Ford v Ferrari being the exception).

2022 was a bit of a down year for racing movies, however. We got three (for Dale, I guess), and while all three were documentaries and ranged from solid to excellent, it felt like there was the opportunity for more. Let’s also mention that the Netflix series Race: Bubba Wallace was released, which we’ll touch on by itself further down the road.

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NASCAR engines fired a week and a half ago (appropriately for movies) in the LA Coliseum, with plenty of stars showing up, including Maverick‘s Glen Powell, absolute legend (and one of my all-time favorite stars) Kurt Russell, the Fast and the Furious franchise’s Sung Kang, icon Danny Trejo and many more.

The Oscars are a month away and Daytona is less than a week away. As Alice in Chains’ classic track “Would?” so succinctly puts it: “Into the flood again / Same old trip as it was back then,” we embark on a similar journey this time each year, though both are bound to take unexpected twists.

So, given all that, it only seems appropriate that we check out the year that was in racing movies.

1. Rowdy

Ranking high with the likes of Senna, Blink of an Eye and The Last Race as one of the best racing documentaries to date, Rowdy chronicles the tumultuous career of two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch as told by the man himself, plus brother Kurt, fellow competitors and owners.

Likely the most divisive figure in the sport this century, Busch made his share of enemies on-track and off- early on as he debuted with Hendrick Motorsports in Cup, even scuffling with his brother in the 2007 All-Star Race. Other run-ins include the obvious incidents with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond Raceway in 2008, Kevin Harvick at Darlington Raceway in 2011 and Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas Motor Speedway later that same year.

But it’s not a run-of-the-mill, controversy-focused documentary that seeks to simply explore the two sides of the Busch: it delves into the brothers’ origins in racing and Busch’s rise through the ranks. Plus, it goes as far as to hint that he’s got more in store down the road: as Busch himself says, “this is part one.”

I suppose that in 15 years, we’ll have Rowdy 2, in order to chronicle his tenure at Richard Childress Racing and beyond; maybe even son Brexton’s first years in a stock car. To that end, too, Rowdy does a phenomenal job of touching on the family aspect. Wife Samantha is also prominently featured, and we catch glimpses of Kyle and Samantha working with Brexton at his races, plus Samantha discussing her reaction to her husband’s violent crash at Daytona in 2015 that left him with two broken legs.

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Similar to some other recent sports documentaries like The Redeem Team and The Battered Bastards of Baseball (which involves Kurt Russell, coincidentally), Rowdy is uncensored and better for it: showing Busch’s approach to racing and his career — as well as day-to-day time on track at points — in a raw, unedited fashion. I discussed that aspect with Rowdy head producer Chance Wright last summer ahead of the film’s release.

And we get a fun cutaway shot of Junior flipping double birds at the camera. Can you ask for anything more?

Quick shoutout to distributor Utopia Films as well, which released this and baseball documentary Facing Nolan after success with indie darling Shiva Baby in 2021 and a below-the-radar masterpiece with Gaspar Noe’s heartbreaking Vortex earlier in 2022. They’re releasing a little bit of everything, and I love it.

2. GO FAST RISK EVERY THANG: The Wild Story of Ken Block’s ’22 Rally Racing Title Chase

On Dec. 13, 2022, motorsports legend Ken Block’s YouTube channel posted Go Fast Risk Every Thang, a documentary taking viewers along with Block during that year’s American Rally Association season as he competed for a championship.

Just under three weeks later — 20 days, to be exact, on Jan. 2, 2023 — Block was dead in a snowmobile accident at the age of 55, one of the most unexpected sports tragedies in recent memory.

The news also came on the heels of that morning’s story of actor Jeremy Renner’s horrific injuries after a snowplow accident, as well as around the same time of evening that Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in a seeming cardiac event.

As past director of several of Block’s Gymkhana videos Brian Scotto explains early on, “go fast risk everything” is a common motto of rally racers given the difficulty, danger and time-sensitive natures of the sport.

Block competed with veteran Alex Gelsomino as his co-driver, while competing against two highly competitive Subaru teams: eventual champion Brandon Semenuk came through in the end, while driver-of-everything Travis Pastrana and co-driver (and Alex’s wife) Rhianon Gelsomino came home third. Block and Gelsomino finished second overall, holding the points lead at times but various misfortunes, including a wayward deer and a violent collision with a tree, ultimately derailed their title hopes.

Excellent camerawork from Block’s company Hoonigan, be it aerial, on the ground or in the car, places the viewer directly alongside Block, Gelsomino and the terrain over the course of the film’s runtime, clocking in at just under an hour.

As a personal aside, I’ve had the rally video game DiRT2 for well over a decade, and it’s been over 13 years since the game was released. Despite that, the graphics hold up to anything of today, and the gameplay is excellent; Block, along with motorsports counterparts Pastrana, Tanner Foust, Dave Mirra and Mohammed Ben Sulayem, lent their voices to the game.

With Block’s passing, competing against him (as it did with Mirra after his own death in 2016) in the virtual world will take on a whole new meaning.

It seems all but certain that we’ll see one or more documentaries centered around Block’s life, legacy and accomplishments in the years to come, especially after his premature passing. For now, though, Go Fast Risk Every Thang prominently portrays Block’s determination, commitment and approach to the craft in a fashion that, in a roundabout way, pays perfect tribute to the racing pioneer.

Be creative, live a fun life and don’t be an a**hole.” – Ken Block

Words to live by. RIP, Ken.

3. Rookie Season

Remember when select theaters around the country showed a little documentary called Rookie Season last spring?

No? You’re forgiven if you don’t.

The film follows IMSA team Rebel Rock Racing through its inaugural season, but it didn’t even get a poster image for its Fandango page and kind of just fell into theaters without much fanfare for a limited engagement. I was actually told by the theater manager that he thought I was the only one to have seen it during its run, at least to that point.

I personally knew nothing about it — hadn’t even heard its title — until I was browsing Fandango during a period of a couple weeks when I was finally getting around to viewing a few movies (primarily the fifth Scream film, Jackass Forever and the Foo Fighters’ Studio 666). None of these films are low-quality, but January and February have a reputation for their dearth of big attractions (and this was in the lead-up to The Batman in March).

Regal Virginia Center Stadium 20, just outside of Richmond, was one of only three theaters in the state of Virginia (where I live) showing it — another was in the far western portion of the state, near Bristol, and the other was up in Arlington.

All that said, I was thrilled to see Rookie Season randomly meander its way onto some big screens, so I headed to Stadium 20 for an evening showing; I was, unsurprisingly, the only one in the theater.

The standout aspect of Rookie Season is its sound and construction: the piercing engines of Rebel Rock’s cars filled the theater, and strategically placed microphones during filming, as well as an exorbitant amount of cameras inside the car, in the pit and spread out at the various tracks all coalesced into a gripping, engaging narrative. Great access never fails to provide an immersive experience.

Rebel Rock Racing’s (RRR, not to be confused with RRR, a film from last year as well) first season came in 2019, and though the documentary probably could’ve used a few additional minutes centering around the team’s genesis and driver Robin Liddell’s initial involvement, the film does a phenomenal job of taking the viewer through the trials and tribulations a fledgling team faces (similar to Trackhouse: Get Ready in 2021) as well as the driver’s own struggles.

That said, it all culminates in a phenomenal sequence taking place at Road America later that season, where Liddell flew from fourth to first in one lap to win the team’s first race. Liddell passed the second- and third-place cars on the outside in a corner and was in the right place at the right time (cue Dr. John’s classic tune) to sneak by leader Kuno Wittmer for a 0.070-second margin of victory as the latter’s car had an issue.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed this year for at least five racing-themed films. 2022 was a little disappointing on the quantity front, but the few that were released all succeeded on the quality level and rank highly in their respective motorsports’ filmographies.

This year, the only for-sure release we have is the August premiere of Gran Turismo, starring Stranger Things‘ David Harbour among others in an IMSA-themed adaptation of the video game. Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski is also reportedly working on a Formula 1-themed film starring Brad Pitt.

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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Every time I see Baby Busch as “Rowdy” he is nowhere close to being Rowdy Yates!

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