There’s a tremendous amount of buzz in Hollywood right now about director Ron Howard’s film on Formula One racing slated to be released next year. If you haven’t heard about it, Rush will tell the story of the 1976 Formula One campaign and the spirited title bout between McLaren’s James Hunt and Ferrari’s Niki Lauda.
This is a big budget film and Howard has surrounded himself with talented personnel, many of whom have won Oscars for previous films. Race cars from the era that have survived have been pressed into service (including a still bizarre looking six-wheeled Tyrell P34) and replicas of other cars were carefully reproduced right down to the correctly placed decals. When possible, filming took place at the same tracks where races were held in 1976.
I eagerly anticipate seeing Rush and I wish Howard well with his project. I’m a bit worried about how the film will play here in the U.S., though where interest in Formula One rivals curling and cricket. It’s also going to be interesting to see how Howard makes James Hunt out to be a sympathetic character. While Hunt was a tremendously talented driver, his life offtrack was even more reckless than his racing. A notorious womanizer back in that era, before AIDS forced people to reconsider casual sex, Hunt was also known to drink, smoke pot, and even snort cocaine in the hours leading up to a race. I don’t think that sort of behavior is going to be very well received.
Making things that much more complex is Hunt’s chief rival is going to an infinitely more sympathetic character. For those who don’t know the story, Lauda crashed and received severe burns at the 1976 German Grand Prix. Despite having been given Last Rites and having been horribly disfigured by those burns, Lauda returned to the cockpit of his Ferrari weeks later to continue his quest for a title — but it wasn’t to be. In the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix, monsoon-like rains hit the track during the race. Lauda felt track conditions were so dangerous that he pulled off the track and retired from the event. My guess is most moviegoers will be left wishing Lauda had won.
Maybe I’m wrong. Scarface did well at the box office and our boy Tony wasn’t the most sympathetic of characters, either.
NASCAR hasn’t fared so well in Hollywood, as they continually struggle to put out a decent racing film. The last compelling film centered on the sport I recall was The Last American Hero, loosely based on the life of Junior Johnson. Talladega Nights was a comedy from the outset, and more of a parody of the sport and its fans than a movie about the sport. The most notorious NASCAR film remains Daze of Blunders, er, um, Days of Thunder released back in 1990. Despite the talents of Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Robert Duvall, the film was panned by both critics and NASCAR fans alike.
Perhaps Days was doomed from the outset. It was originally supposed to be an adaptation of Tim Richmond’s life — then Tim got sick (it is widely rumored he contracted AIDS while out in L.A. working on the project) and they had to scrap that idea. Somebody decided if they had a lot of huge smoky pig piles of car crashes, that would put butts in movie theater seats. Characters were never fully developed and came off as cartoonish. I’m told that the film did OK in terms of box office numbers but my guess is those greenbacks were spent by fans of Kidman and Cruise wanting to see him reprise his role in Top Gun, only driving race cars rather than piloting jets.
To a person, every race fan I know who has seen Days hated it.
NASCAR racing in general hasn’t fared very well in popular culture. When it’s mentioned during TV, shows it’s usually in a negative connotation, just cars driving around in circles being cheered on by toothless, drunken Bubbas there to see wrecks. South Park and King of The Hill both have run episodes that basically savaged our sport. It’s rather curious given the number of Americans who claim to be NASCAR fans (though you wouldn’t know it by current TV ratings and race attendance) we’re barely a cultural blip on Hollywood’s radar or in the publishing industry for that matter. Could that one day change?
Maybe if Rush is a big success for Howard, he might consider a docu-drama of Winston Cup’s 1992 season. Most of you know what happened that year so I will describe it only briefly. There was a tight championship battle between Davey Allison in a Robert Yates Ford and a surprising independent owner-driver by the name of Alan Kulwicki. Most, however favored the newly formed superteam of Bill Elliott, the sport’s Most Popular Driver, paired with Junior Johnson, the sport’s most successful team owner of the era. Allison suffered through some hard wrecks that left him injured as well as the death of his brother Clifford that year. Then, it appeared Kulwicki’s chance at a title was done-in at Dover that Fall, when he wrecked three cars during the weekend. Like the ‘76 F-1 season, though, the championship would be decided in the final race of the year at Atlanta, on the same day King Richard Petty retired.
I think such a movie, if done well would be very successful especially since a lot of movie-goers like to see the underdog (Or Underbird in this case) win.
Even if Days of Thunder had been a good movie (and let me reiterate, it wasn’t) it would be badly dated by now, 22 years after its release. Those were kinder, simpler days and though we all thought there was big money in the sport back then, these days those sums would be considered laughable.
So how would one go about making a good stock car racing movie? Way back when as I started my NASCAR novel, I solicited advice from the published authors I knew. What they told me was to not to write a book about stock car racing. They weren’t trying to discourage me, they told me instead to write a book about compelling characters who happened to part of NASCAR’s traveling circus. Write about the racers, not the racing, though of course there’d be racing in the book as well. Thus were born Wild Bill, Jennifer, Wyatt, and Dusty, their adventures and misadventures chronicled in an epic 800-plus pages. (Yeah, way too long… thanks to all of you who soldiered through it.)
Well even Wild Bill’s story would need updating for accuracy these days. There’s no getting around the fact even moderately successful drivers are pretty wealthy now; they tend to have nice homes and some expensive toys. They live under a microscope 38 weekends a year, traveling coast to coast, where even the slightest off-track comment can make high-dollar sponsors skittish. But almost to a person everyone I know involved in the sport is pretty down to earth. They lead interesting lives and face some unique challenges. Yeah, a driver may have his own private jet but a lot of them are constantly leaving wives and kids at home traveling off to a race, where there’s at least some possibility they might not survive.
We all like to think it could never happen again and the sport is safer than its ever been but someday it will.
Yes, in any racing movie there’s going to be some wrecks. Usually we see drivers climb out of their cars — even after the bad ones. But do you ever wonder how a driver who took a hard hit on Sunday feels waking up bruised and battered on Monday? Do you ever consider how a driver in a long winless streak has to worry about keeping his ride even as rumors begin swirling he’s going to be replaced? How hard is it to walk up to another driver rumored to be your replacement, smile and shake his hand before driver intros? How do a driver and team that know they won’t be together again the following season interact for the last few races of a year?
Do personal grievances and hurt feelings ever boil over? When a driver reads the grim statistics about cumulative concussive syndrome in sports, does retirement ever cross his mind knowing he’s likely taken some good licks to the head? There are a lot of young millionaires driving Cup cars these days; they could easily walk away and live comfortably. What is so compelling, maybe even addictive, about driving a race car that the drivers keep doing it even knowing they’re taking harder licks than an NFL player. How does a single driver manage to forge a relationship with someone, despite being on the road constantly with the attendant temptations and weekdays chock full of sponsor obligations?
Like I was told, tell a story about people. Not everyone who reads your book (or goes to see your movie) is going to be a stock car fan, but everyone who reads it will be a person, a person with dreams, challenges, and aspirations of their own. And occasionally life needs a happy ending even if it’s only at the end of a two-hour film.
Since Hollywood is actually in the business of making money, not art, a NASCAR-themed movie presents a unique opportunity. We all know what product placement is in films and TV shows. The characters drink a certain brand beer or soft drink (label always carefully towards the camera) or drive a certain make of car. Well in contemporary NASCAR racing, product placement is king.
Think what Ford might pay to have the movie’s star character race a Fusion. What company might be interested in signing on as that driver’s title sponsor, knowing they get their logo on the hood and quarterpanels of the car, as well as on the driver’s clown suit, once he mentions them over and over just like the real drivers mention their sponsors? What company might be interested on being on the TV panel at the rear of the car? Hey, there’s still room on the C-pillar, sign up now! Might such a project one day lead to new companies not currently involved with NASCAR deciding to sign on for the real deal?
Lord knows with the exodus of long-term sponsors leaving the sport we could use some new ones.
OK, we have our concept, a movie about people involved in NASCAR racing, not a movie about NASCAR racing. What’s the story? Is there a writer in the house? Oh, yeah, that would be me. We have a once-competitive two-car team that’s fallen upon hard times and is in danger of losing both sponsors. One of their drivers starts suffering ill effects of too many concussions and has to take time off. (We’re thinking Ricky Craven.) A mid-season replacement has to be found for an unknown period of time, while the team owner’s daughter who is taking more responsibilities with her father’s team, wants to rehire a driver who had almost won the team a title before retiring young after a nasty accident.
Said driver agrees to run a test for the team but isn’t sure he wants to leave his life of leisure on his farm. Driving in the test session reignites his desire to race and win but as a non-high school graduate known for his brawling, cussing, and drinking, he’s not an easy sell to the sponsor. Nor is he sure he even wants to attempt to pretend to be politically correct. Eventually a deal is struck and he’s back in the car on a trial basis, but even after just a few years away he’s amazed by how demanding the sponsors and their commitments have become, and how they expect him to act polished and squeaky clean at all times.
Meanwhile, the team owner’s daughter who bought him back into the sport begins to admit she wasn’t just interested in getting him back in the car. When he was driving for the family team before the accident, she was a teenager with a crush on him. Now she’s all grown up and seriously interested in a relationship with her driver, a notion that would most likely not only get him fired but shot by her daddy. We’ll take it from there, though a SWAT team worth of script doctors needs to be on high alert.
Done properly a stock car racing movie could be appealing to hard-core race fans but still intriguing to non-fans — or perhaps I should label them “potential” fans. Keep the racing action itself real enough not to be insulting to fans and give them a glimpse of what goes on out of sight in the garage area. Teach the potential fans that’s it’s not just a bunch of guys driving in circles and tell them a nice story without hammering them over the head with compression ratios, spring rates, and camshaft lift specs.
Ron Howard, have your people call my people. We’ll do lunch.
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