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NASCAR 101: Racing on the Silver Screen

About a month ago as part of the weekly Friday Faceoff, the Frontstretch staff debated about the best racing movie ever made. That got me thinking: What movies were part of fans’ first exposure to NASCAR as kids/teens/young adults? Maybe families members watched races and it was a family thing. Video games likely played a part, as did reading histories of the sport and biographies of drivers. But most of the early exposure likely happened in fictionalized form through movies.

The first example to really get NASCAR on the map fictionally?

Top Gun (1990)

Cast includes: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall, Michael Rooker, Cary Elwes, John C. Reilly

Tom Cruise is the epitome of cool. So even if this is basically a remake of Top Gun on the ground, it legitimized NASCAR as something that was OK to follow. Cameos include Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace, Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant. As a sports movie, it’s fine, though not great, and as a racing movie it’s pretty terrible, but it still offers an interesting look at an era of the sport when multi-car teams were still looked on with suspicion, and the sport’s influence was mostly still regional.

Tom Cruise plays a hotshot Californian named Cole Trickle, who trades in his open-wheel vehicle for a stock car, learning from his grouchy crew chief along the way. There are characters loosely based on Tim Richmond, Rick Hendrick, and Cary Elwes gets to play an antagonist pre-Twister as Russ Wheeler, the driver of the No. 18. Also, without Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns, Kyle Busch would have a much less catchy nickname.

A few years after this movie released, there was this hotshot kid named Jeff Gordon who entered the Cup Series, and he turned out to be pretty good, fueling the skyrocketing success of NASCAR throughout the 90s.

Also, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch have both driven throwback cars based on this movie.

NASCAR Racers (1999-2001)

This Saturday morning cartoon ran for two seasons and 26 episodes on Fox before it had the rights to actual races. It was set in the near future (roughly the present now), when the NASCAR Unlimited Division raced on roller-coaster type tracks, and cars are equipped with rocket boosters and wings. (When the real-life NASCAR announced the “Car of Tomorrow,” I pictured these incredibly impractical yet awesome racers. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed.)

Things the show got right: four-car super-teams dominating the series, corporate-owned teams like Fassler Technology’s Team Fastex (Red Bull Racing, Furniture Row Racing), video chat, use of simulators, much safer vehicles, and that the field would include a more diverse group of racers (Megan “Spitfire” Fassler, Carlos “Stunts” Rey and Steve “Flyer” Sharp were precursors to Danica Patrick, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr).

Things the show didn’t get right: No off-road races or Speed Racer-style cars, no wings or ejector seats, a lack of androids in the pits.

Mark “Charger” McCutcheon’s quest to follow in his father’s footsteps is familiar to today as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott seek to live up to their fathers’ legacies. Lyle “The Collector” Owens was one of the show’s main antagonists in a Dale Earnhardt way, and his habit of taking wrecked parts doesn’t seem as strange today with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s “Racecar Graveyard.”

This show was fantastical and unbelievable, but it was fun.

Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005)

Cast includes: Lindsay Lohan, Michael Keaton, Matt Dillon

Disclaimer: This is one of the few Love Bug movies I haven’t seen. But like the others, it follows the antics of an anthropomorphic VW Beetle who repeatedly defies the laws of physics to allow its (his?) driver to win races. The driver this time is Lindsay Lohan, and she infiltrates NASCAR to save her family’s race team. To capitalize on the popularity of the early Fast and Furious movies, there’s a lot of street racing involved, too.

VW Beetles do race now, though in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, and Bass Pro Shops sponsorship is a familiar sight by now in NASCAR. The antagonist’s car is sponsored by Cheetos, which has never been involved in NASCAR that I know of, but it fits (Cheetos are nasty).

It’s a silly children’s movie, but there’s an important place for that genre as they inspire the imagination (the Mighty Ducks trilogy, The Big Green, Air Bud), and maybe it inspired girls to try getting behind the wheel of a racecar.

Cars (2006)

Cast includes: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Richard Petty, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Michael Keaton, Bonnie Hunt

This franchise gets a bad rap among Pixar movies, but they’re underrated masterpieces. Lightning McQueen is a brash young rookie who becomes a better person after getting lost in a sleepy New Mexico town, mentored by the local judge, former racing legend Doc Hudson. Significant minor roles are played by Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Bob Costas, and cameos include Dale Earnhardt Jr, race promoter Humpy Wheeler, the Car Talk guys, and car enthusiast Jay Leno.

This movie was a good introduction to car culture and the legend and history of Route 66, and the level of independent racing research by Pixar that went into it was amazing (down to the marbles sailing out of the asphalt when cars drive by). This movie came out shortly after I started following the sport seriously, which made for an interesting extra layer as I eagerly tracked the connections between the real stories and their fictionalized interpretations. The soundtrack is great, too, featuring Chuck Berry, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, James Taylor and Hank Williams, with an instrumental score composed by Randy Newman.

I’m not certain, but it sure looks like Leavine Family Racing is using Lightning’s number font on Kasey Kahne‘s No. 95, and Kyle Larson has won in McQueen’s paint scheme.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Cast includes: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams

In this spoof, Will Ferrell plays NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, who’s always wanted to go fast (and also impress his father). His loyal sidekick is John C. Reilly, always content to finish second. Cameos include Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jamie McMurray and broadcasters Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds. Ricky overcomes a huge crash and the collapse of his personal life to defeat his rival in a footrace at Talladega Superspeedway.

As expected from a Will Ferrell movie, the humor and tone is irreverent and (mostly) entertaining, though it hasn’t aged well (Ricky’s rival is European and gay, both of which are incessantly marveled at). NASCAR’s cooperation toward Hollywood went toward this movie, thus why Pixar’s research for Cars had to be done on its own.  Ricky’s win-races-and-who-cares-about-the-championship attitude comes across as kind of dated, too, in this era of playoffs and stages.

While driving a mostly-unsponsored car for Phoenix Racing in 2012, Kurt Busch drove a “ME” themed scheme at Talladega.

Cars 3 (2017)

Cast includes: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Nathan Filion, Cristina Alonzo

Time marches on, and even veterans aren’t invincible forever. Lightning McQueen is near retirement now, and a new generation of racers are leaving him in the dust. In a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate his career, he goes on a journey to rediscover Doc’s wisdom while mentoring a young female racer, who turns in a solid performance in the equivalent of the Daytona 500.

Back as broadcasters are Darrell Waltrip and Bob Costas, and cameos include Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Petty, Richard Petty, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr. Minor characters were based on Wendell Scott, Smokey Yunick and Louise Nash, and the early racing heritage of the sport’s pioneers was incorporated into the storyline, including moonshining trails and dirt tracks.

It doesn’t stray far from the usual sports cliches and is formulaic in a Rocky V or Bull Durham way, the veteran teaching the new kid the keys to success, but it’s a formula that works really well.

That a real-life passing of the torch between generations was taking place, this film felt even more appropriate and fitting, as the drivers like Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and others were being replaced about this time by the younger guys. This trilogy will also be special because of when I grew up, so that’s a part of it, but a lot changes between 13 and 24 (or a career in pro sports), and it was nice that this film recognized that, and that seasons change and time goes on.

There are probably some that I forgot about, but these seemed to be the highlights when it came to NASCAR on the silver screen.

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About Wesley Coburn

Wesley Coburn
Wesley has been with Fronstretch since October 2017. He loves well-told stories in whatever format he finds them. Aside from NASCAR, he enjoys reading, country music and OKC Thunder basketball. He has a BA in Liberal Arts/English and currently lives in eastern Oklahoma, where he works as a freelance writer/editor.

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6 comments

  1. Avatar

    anyone remember REDLINE 7000

    • Avatar

      Kino Lorber Classics released it on DVD & Blu Ray last year, check their website or Amazon for it. My wife got it for me for Xmas.

  2. Avatar

    “Rowdy”!!!!!!!!! is Rowdy Yates! Right, Clint?

  3. Avatar

    How in the heck could you write an article about NASCAR on the silver screen without mentioning Redline 7000, Speedway, The Last American Hero, Greased Lightning, Six Pack, or Stroker Ace?

    Damned kids! Don’t know nuthin’! lol

    • Avatar

      kids history only goes back 20 years. how about thunder in carolina with fred lorenzon

      • Avatar

        Fred Lorenzen wasn’t in Thunder In Carolina, the 1st NASCAR film made, as it was filmed in 1959 & released in 1960. Though having ran a few NASCAR races prior to 1959,for 58 & 59, he was the USAC Stock Car Champion.

        Fred was “featured” in the low budget drive in exploitation flick The Speed Lovers in 67/68, & a likeness of his car is driven by fictional driver “Mike Marsh”, played by James Caan in Redline 7000. Rory Calhoun & Alan Hale Jr were in Thunder In Carolina.

        Seems it’s not just the kids who have a problem with history……