Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: The Evolution of Motorsports Films Across Disciplines

Too bad Auto Club Speedway might go the way of the dodo bird after this season, considering it was the site of an epic race in Ford v Ferrari … that was supposed to be taking place at Daytona International Speedway in the actual movie’s plot.

I kid, I kid. Yes, Fontana’s trademark blue walls stick out like a sore thumb during the “7000+ RPM, Go Like Hell” scene intended to represent the 1966 running of the 24 Hours of Daytona, but that would only annoy a die-hard racing fan who would notice that sort of thing (me … and a bunch of others).

The James Mangold film, helmed by the man responsible for the upcoming fifth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise and the man behind classics like Logan, Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, is with little competition the best racing narrative film ever made. Le Mans, Grand Prix and a couple others come close, but this week I thought about the evolution of racing films, documentary and narrative, through the years for different disciplines of motorsports.

Now, I won’t pretend I’ve seen every single racing film or even all of the hallmarks of the subgenre, but I think I’ve seen enough to potentially provide an overview of the disciplines’ evolution. I’ll probably omit a few for brevity’s sake, but I’ll absolutely name-drop any pertinent to the sub-subgenre’s importance.

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NASCAR

Sure, we had a couple mildly forgettable pseudo-biopics in the 1970s with 43: The Petty Story and Greased Lightning, then The Last American Hero and then a movie that hasn’t aged super well with Stroker Ace. But in 1990, NASCAR was put on the cinematic map with Days of Thunder. Not perfect by any means but pretty gorgeous to look at, it’s essentially Top Gun with racecars, directed by and starring the same pairing that had worked on the plane-based film four years earlier.

Three years later, Tony Scott directed an utter classic with the Christian Slater vehicle True Romance (as someone who works in radio, I’m obligated to also recommend Pump Up the Volume here) and made films for nearly two more decades, and Cruise continues to be at the forefront of true action blockbusters.

But Days of Thunder never fails to get its share of ridicule from fans and non-fans alike. Yes, it’s a pretty silly movie at times and there’s plenty of continuity errors to it, but I’ll be damned if by the end of it you don’t feel like you’re right there in victory lane with Cole Trickle. Maybe it’s why I love the original Top Gun despite its cheese: something about it just grabs you and pulls you along for the ride.

Since then, in terms of NASCAR movies, they’ve been few and far between and mostly documentaries. 2004 brought us NASCAR: The IMAX Experience, the first movie I ever actually saw in theaters. Two years later, we got anthropomorphic automobiles and Ricky Bobby — the summer of 2006 really driving stock cars into the brains of kids, teens and adults alike (while also reinforcing some of the sport’s stereotypes, unfortunately).

Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam made The Legend of Hallowdega, for some reason, which we’ll get into closer to the date NASCAR visits the superspeedway in April. Since 2006, though, it’s mostly docs: Rowdy, Blink of an Eye and a number of TV documentaries.

It’s worth noting that Brock Beard’s YouTube doc Three Before February is excellent. So is the film Logan Lucky: not a NASCAR movie per se, but a film that centers around the Coca-Cola 600 and stars Daniel Craig, Adam Driver, Channing Tatum, Riley Keough and a host of other talented actors. That’s one we need to break down later this year too.

IndyCar

Yeah, not a lot here, if I’m being honest. I continue to commit the cardinal sin of having not seen Driven. I love Sylvester Stallone, but I’ve heard so much crap about that movie that I haven’t brought myself to be able to watch it quite yet.

That said, both Yellow Yellow Yellow: The IndyCar Safety Team and Born Racer, released in 2017 and 2018, respectively, are both phenomenal. The former analyzes the safety response to and aftermath of James Hinchcliffe‘s horrific wreck during practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500. The latter focuses on a crash as well — this being Scott Dixon‘s violent, airborne 2017 Indianapolis 500 flight — but more so on the surrounding aspects of his family and the impact of his career on his loved ones.

Tack on 2019’s Rapid Response, highlighting Dr. Steve Olvey and his team’s efforts through the years to make IndyCar safer and on-track safety’s and recovery’s evolution, and it’s a very solid subset of documentaries.

Formula 1

Easily the sub-subgenre with the most prowess here. My personal belief is that Rush (2013) and Senna (2010) are the best narrative and documentary, respectively, racing films ever made … and both happen to concern Formula 1. Both are also probably in my top-50 or -100 films ever, too, out of the almost 1,500 I’ve seen in my lifetime.

I could rave about Rush for days, but Ron Howard’s most underrated narrative (haven’t seen Thirteen Lives yet, but we don’t talk about In the Heart of the Sea and how one of my favorite books was turned into a mediocre film) hits every single nail on the head of what it aims to do. Rush captures the danger, debauchery and triumphs of its era, all through a very saturated, vintage look perfect for its 1976 setting.

Senna should’ve won an Oscar, but fortunately director Asif Kapadia did about five years later for Amy. It’s a perfect portrait of a racer focused only on winning, who was also an incredible person off the track in terms of the community he was a part of and the toll his death took on both the sport and country.

Other notables include 1966’s Grand Prix, with some of the best racing scenes ever put to screen; The Green Hell, a hard-to-find but underrated doc about the treacherous Nurburgring in Germany; Williams, McLaren and Schumacher — all from recent years.

One fascinating little curio is One By One, later rereleased as The Quick and the Dead, a 1970s documentary about how dangerous F1 was during that time period. One of the posters literally has headshots of drivers, with some denoting multi-time champions and the others with the word “KILLED” in block letters. It literally looks like that one X-Men comic book with the words “APPREHENDED” or “SLAIN” slashed across a number of major characters.

One By One, or whatever you want to call it, is indeed a very good portrait of how those F1 cars at the time were literal rolling coffins, but also borders on exploitative in some respects. It rides the line of feeling like something you’d want to take a shower after watching.

Endurance Racing

Le Mans remains one of the most underappreciated films within the motorsports subgenre. Steve McQueen was the ultimate badass, and the racing scenes — as well as how how director Lee H. Katzin handled the day-to-night-to-day transitions from the drivers’ perspectives — are beautifully executed.

Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans was made almost 45 years later and excellently captures the process and difficulties of the production, as well as serving as a profile of McQueen himself.

The other primary notable endurance racing film is, of course, the aforementioned Ford v Ferrari, in which Matt Damon and Christian Bale give fantastic performances and director Mangold is close to perfect on how he handles the racing sequences.

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Other Disciplines

The Last Race stands atop the racing films falling under the “other” category, a depressing but impressive portrait of Riverhead Raceway’s uncertain status in the Long Island community midway through the 2010s. Fortunately, the track remains active, but the interviews with the owners, drivers and attendees strike a chord few other racing-themed productions do.

As for rally, GO FAST RISK EVERY THANG: The Wild Story of Ken Block’s ’22 Rally Racing Title Chase is the most recent entry into that world and an outstanding portrait of his pursuit of a championship in 2022. Unfortunately, the legendary Block was killed less than a month after its release in a snowmobile accident. Group B also falls into this category, a very good short film starring Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as a veteran driver with a conflicted past (plus a fun cameo from Michael Smiley).

Adam Carolla’s and Nate Adams’ Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, The 24 Hour War, Shelby American and Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, despite the varying disciplines — IndyCar, endurance racing, Trans-Am, etc. — all excellently portray the event or subject they’re profiling as well.

The most interesting part about doing research for this was seeing how the tendencies of the racing film subgenre have evolved over the years, from at the outset the occasional narrative production to becoming more focused in recent years on documentaries.

The best example of this? Of the 20 most recently released motorsports-themed movies that I’ve personally seen, only one — Ford v Ferrari — is not a documentary. That’s not to say the docs are bad — the 19 in that sample set hail from FOX Sports, NBC, Netflix and a few other studios — but it’s a shame that there aren’t more narrative productions.

Hopefully, this serves as a preview of many conversations and analyses to come this season in this column. I’ve said it before, but motorsports films is a wonderful subgenre, filled with a ton of gems, and continues to be supremely underappreciated.

Follow @adamncheek

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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gbvette

While I enjoyed Ford vs Ferrari, it’s far from the “best racing narrative film ever made”. Rush, LeMans and Grand Prix are far better and more realistic films.

The use of Auto Club isn’t even the worse thing about the “7000+ RPM” scene. While the film shows Miles just catching Walt Hansgen at the finish, in reality the Miles/Ruby Ford won by 8 laps, and ahead of another Shelby MK II, not the Hansgen/Donohue Holman Moody MK II. Dan Gurney & Jerry Grant finished second driving for Shelby, the Hansgen/Donohue Ford was 9 laps behind in third. And how can you say “director Mangold is close to perfect on how he handles the racing sequences”, when the film starts with drivers having a conversation, from their cars, while racing??? This is just a fraction of the inaccuracies in the film.

Ford vs Ferrari is a fun film to watch, but it’s hardly the best racing movie ever. Ron Howard proved you could make a good racing movie, without filling it with silly, unrealistic scenes and events.

Duane

No true fan of Nascar and auto racing in general thinks Days of Thunder is a good movie. I find Batman and Superman movies more believable. The racing scenes were terrible with the mixing of tracks, which only true cup fans would recognize. But the racing scenes were horrible, showing the drivers always shifting on an oval to pass. The drivers always hitting each other and the cars being dirty black during the races. The back story of Tom Cruises character coming from winning World of Outlaw championships but not knowing tight and loose. They had a very good base to make a movie using Harry Hyde and Tim Richmond’s story as a guide, but they took that frame work and Hollywooded it all up and made a disaster. Most all movie made with Nascar in stink because all Nascar cares about is publicity and not authentication. Example Talladega Nights, I know it was a comedy but it laughed at Nascar not with.

Big Tex

Stroker Ace holds up as a good example of racing in the 80’s, sorry/not sorry.

The only genre not covered here is drag racing & there are plenty of good ones. Don Garlits “Close Calls” is outstanding and Shirley Muldowney’s “Heart Like a Wheel” is legendary. Probably more docs than all other series combined, for what reason I don’t know.

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