Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: Late Models Take Pole Position in ‘Poker Face’ Episode

Somehow, the first racing-related media of 2023 isn’t a movie.

Instead, racing takes center stage in the seventh episode of Peacock’s series Poker Face, titled “The Future of the Sport,” and it might be one of the best portrayals of it we’ve seen in a while.

Director Rian Johnson’s latest project is a case-of-the-week mystery series starring Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black, Russian Doll, Uncut Gems, Ad Astra and the American Pie series) in each of the episodes as Charlie Cale, with an overarching plot also involving Benjamin Bratt and Ron Perlman.

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This episode also ties two recent pieces of news — one, that the series was renewed for a second season, and two, sponsor Lucas Oil is involved in the episode just days prior to the announcement that Kyle Busch‘s No. 8 will be backed by them at Auto Club Speedway this weekend — together in a roundabout way.

First off, a quick introduction to our director: Rian Johnson’s filmography started with the mystery film Brick, followed by bigger-budget successes in Looper and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (controversial among some, but the installment I enjoyed the most of the new trilogy) and then a more recent return to mysteries with Knives Out and Glass Onion.

Now, to business: Poker Face, Johnson’s most recent project. Our endearing, wonderfully-scratchy-voiced hero Charlie Cale can tell when someone is lying (usually muttering “bulls–t” when they do) and is on the run from some casino ne’er-do-wells after the first episode. On the way, she frequently gets tangled up in murder mysteries in small, isolated towns, and we follow her as she tries to help figure out what happened.

A few clips from the racing episode can be seen in the trailer below.

Now, I want to focus more on the racing elements than the actual mystery because I don’t want to spoil the episode for everyone. After all, the episode’s only been out less than a week, and I’m sure we were too preoccupied with watching the Bluegreen Vacations Duels the night it dropped, as well as the Craftsman Truck, Xfinity and Cup Series races from Friday-Sunday, to get around to it. But in case it wasn’t evident, I do recommend it.

True, the episode centers around Peach Tree Speedway in an indeterminate location, but it’s still evocative of so many dirt tracks around the country. Drivers take to the oval in beat-up late models, led by grizzled veteran Keith Owens, played by Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Minority Report, Nightmare Alley) and up-and-comer Davis McDowell — no relation to Michael (I think), played by Charles Melton (Riverdale, American Horror Story).

Owens feels threatened by McDowell’s presence on the track and the duo’s battle for the championship, as well as a dumping at the hands of McDowell’s No. 9 in the penultimate race of the season, so he decides to take things into his own hands by way of sabotage … but there’s a subsequent twist of its own.

As is the case with many of the episodes, Charlie’s journey through the states has landed her in close proximity to the crime at hand, and in this case she’s working at a go-kart track near the raceway alongside Davis’ mother. She’s the one to offer up the typical outsider’s inquiry, questioning the appeal of racing, using cars for sport rather than what she’s been doing — getting from one place to another.

“This whole racing thing, I think I kinda don’t get it,” Charlie says to Davis. “[…] You’re just going in circles, basically just turning left a bunch of times.”

We open with a montage worthy of Days of Thunder or the like — I actually want to say that Le Mans had something similar — with a sun-baked, metallic feel to it; something hard to describe but perfectly fits the short-track atmosphere.

Johnson and his production team did an excellent job of mixing the engines, the sights and sounds (from the fans to Owens’ spotter communication to the track PA announcer) and the camerawork to land something that feels very authentic, right down to overhead and near-the-dirt shots for an appropriately gritty feel. There’s even a green-and-yellow No. 46 car in the field, plus a No. 43 machine: I’m not sure if a Days of Thunder-loving crew member suggested the former or if it happened to just be one of the extra cars brought in, but it adds to the genuine feel.

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Everything — the cars, the helmets, the equipment, right down to the gauges inside the cars — feels lived in. All the machines feel at home with their driver’s side dirt screens and beat-to-hell appearances, and the mid-interview scuffle early on all fit perfectly.

Maybe these are just basic things I should expect from any racing-oriented production, but to have something feel so authentic, as compared to some massive production where everything looks pristine, is refreshing. Nelson even has a decked-out firesuit and hat to match, despite the sponsors (of course) being fictional.

Everything comes to a head late in the episode, though it takes the intriguing route of not offering us a definitive resolution. We’ve seen police cars converging on the culprit at the ends of a couple of the episodes now and lives collapsing around the murderers in others, but this takes a bit more of a karmatic turn.

It’s hard to rank the episodes, but my racing bias would probably slot this in the top two or three of the seven episodes so far. Charlie is a wonderful protagonist, Lyonne’s performance is incredible and the anthology-esque feel of the series — similar to Johnson’s Knives Out films — retains its central storyline and character while transporting us to a different environment each episode.

Johnson scored Oscar nominations for the latter two, Original Screenplay for Knives Out and Adapted Screenplay for Glass Onion, and we’ll find out in about two and a half weeks if he can win his first. That said, both are immensely enjoyable mystery films with ensemble casts out of this world — Daniel Craig’s (who was at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL a couple years back) detective Benoit Blanc as the through-line, plus the likes of Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans and Don Johnson in Knives Out, and Edward Norton, Janelle Monae, Dave Bautista and Kate Hudson in Glass Onion.

Each episode follows similar formulas, inspired by Columbo, but they’re different enough to where it’s never dull. From a barbeque joint in Texas to a traveling, washed-up rock band to a rest home and more (even a future episode hilariously titled “Escape from S–t Mountain”), I haven’t seen a series this wildly entertaining in a while. I recommend everything about it and encourage you, dear reader, to check it out.

I’ve personally found out over the past several years, particularly since Knives Out, that I love a good whodunit, and Poker Face is right up that alley. Add racing to it and you’ve got a surefire hit with me. Thank you, Rian.

Follow @adamncheek

About the author

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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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