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Reel Racing: The Best (& Worst) Movie Paint Schemes of the 1990s

I changed my mind!

At first, I intended to spend two articles this week combing through more than 75 movie-themed paint schemes that ran in the first decade of the new millennium. However, after realizing that next week is Thanksgiving and our readers’ attention will likely be elsewhere, along with me having extended hours at work with college basketball picking up, I figured I’d roll out the 1990s countdown now and jump forward to the 2010s in December.

The 1990s paint scheme landscape was pretty sparse when it came to film-themed cars; just 11 cars specifically promoting movies ran that decade, with just eight total movies between them (and none before 1995). So few ran that, essentially, this list encompasses every single scheme that ran and every single movie that was promoted in the ’90s.

While Jurassic Park-themed (and a solid scheme at that), Jeff Gordon‘s infamous Chevrolet doesn’t technically count since it was promoting Universal Studios’ theme park ride for the movie.

Additionally, even though the five cars raced in various races by Greg Sacks, Hut Stricklin, Tommy Ellis and Bobby Hamilton were used for shots in Days of Thunder and, in some sense, were promoting the film, some of them ran in 1989 as well, so I can’t entirely group them into one slot in the ranking. For what it’s worth, Sacks’ (or Cole Trickle’s, if you will) green-and-yellow City Chevrolet is one of my all-time favorite movie cars, period, and would be at the top spot of this list any other day of the week. All of the other schemes from the film (Mello Yello, Hardee’s, Superflo and Exxon) completed a roster of instant-classic screen stock cars.

Aside from the Thunder cars, 1995-99 were the only years that featured any movie cars at all. But from the moment Bill Elliott’s car promoting Batman Forever hit the track in late May 1995, it set a precedent — one that lasted 25 years — of at least one scheme hitting the track a year, usually multiple liveries each season. Unfortunately, 2020 marked the first trip around the sun since 1995 where a scheme promoting a film’s theatrical release failed to hit the track, and hopefully that will change in 2021.

Either way, this is a countdown of the top five — not 10 — movie schemes of the 1990s. The sheer limitation of schemes to choose from forced my hand and dropped this count down to five, but the rest of the schemes fill out the honorable mentions.

5. Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty and Johnny Benson, Toy Story 2 (1999)

From 1987 through 2000, Atlanta Motor Speedway was home to the final race of the season, and it ended up being a hotbed for these schemes to run. Three of the five entries on this ranking ran at the season finale in Georgia.

In 1995, Toy Story made the third-highest overall box office gross (behind Apollo 13 and Batman Forever, the latter of which we’ll get to later) and was on top of the weekly earnings for six consecutive weeks to end the year.

This, of course, led to a sequel, as well as a few promotional schemes that hit the track at Atlanta.

Elliott’s car alone was striking, themed for some of the side characters in the movie, with Buzz Lightyear making a cameo on the quarter panel. His normal sponsor, McDonald’s, played along, changing its occasional “Drive Thru” slogan to “Buzz Thru” on the Ford.

Petty and Benson had Toy Story’s flagship characters on board, Petty carrying Buzz and Benson carrying Woody.

Petty’s car sported Buzz on the hood and sides, though toward the front; on both door panels, Buzz was shooting a laser at either the No. 44 or the Hot Wheels logo toward the back of the car, while Benson’s scheme got a little more creative.

The No. 26 featured Woody and new character Jessie on the hood, while the door panels of the car placed its number inside a sheriff’s star and also threw in Woody’s horse on the quarter panels.

Elliott finished 22nd, Petty ended up 24th and Benson wound up 39th after a crash.

For what it’s worth, the sequel made almost $500 million, more than the first installment, and both sequels went on to cross the billion-dollar threshold. The fourth film didn’t get promoted via stock car, but Carl Edwards ran a Toy Story 3 car at Sonoma Raceway in 2010. Sporting only a hood design with the franchise’s lead characters Buzz and Woody — with the rest of the scheme simply Edwards’ standard Aflac livery — the car finished 29th.

4. Kyle Petty, Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)

In 1980, The Blues Brothers hit theaters and became an instant classic. Starring Saturday Night Live veterans Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and directed by John Landis, as well as featuring the likes of Carrie Fisher, James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, the film perfectly blended action, comedy and music into an endlessly rewatchable two hours.

Belushi died less than two years after the film’s release, but Aykroyd went on to star in a sequel almost two decades later. Even I’m not entirely sure why a sequel was made, but Blues Brothers 2000 (unsurprisingly) ended up being a critical and commercial failure.

Petty’s first sponsorship from a movie came in the form of the follow-up, almost two full years prior to the Toy Story 2 backing. With Aykroyd, John Goodman, Joe Morton and J. Evan Bonifant on the hood, Petty’s Hot Wheels scheme was turned into a black-and-white masterpiece for the 1998 Daytona 500.

The diecast versions of this scheme instead incorporate a white No. 44 on the door panels, which is a version that also apparently ran. After some quick Twitter research, it appears he ran the scheme throughout Speedweeks that year, and the black No. 44 ended up being the final version (and the best one). He finished 11th in the car.

I have not seen Blues Brothers 2000, in case that wasn’t already evident. Given how much I love the original film, it feels like heresy to even attempt a viewing. (Also, why is it called Blues Brothers 2000?! It was released in 1998! I have so many questions!)

3. Michael Waltrip, Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Michael Waltrip? Star Trek? Sure, why not?

The second of three Atlanta schemes in this list comes in the form of Waltrip’s 1996 car promoting the eighth overall Star Trek film and second in the Next Generation franchise. This was just one of two times Waltrip ran a movie scheme (the second being an Xfinity Series car for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003).

First Contact also marked the second and final time Wood Brothers Racing ran a Hollywood livery (the second one is coming in a bit). The scheme incorporated the movie’s rendition of the USS Enterprise, along with reflective gold numbers and a silver background to the entire design. Citgo’s normal logos were even changed to the reflective sheen, securing this as a can’t-miss-it-on-track scheme.

Like Petty and the Blues Brothers, Waltrip brought the car home 11th.

If only Waltrip had ended up cameoing in a later episode or movie of the franchise, that would’ve been the cherry on top. One can only imagine a rapport between Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard and whoever Waltrip’s character would’ve been.

2. Bill Elliott, Batman Forever (1995)

On some level, this car earns it spot simply by being the first-ever movie scheme to hit the track. At the same time, though, it’s an incredibly cool scheme that earns the spot by design alone.

The first of two Batman adaptations by director Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever starred Val Kilmer as the titular character alongside Nicole Kidman, as well as villainous turns by Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. It also received negative reviews, and Schumacher’s follow-up, Batman & Robin (which replaced Kilmer with George Clooney, fresh off the excellent 1996 Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn, in the title role) had an even more negative reception.

Elliott became the first driver to ever hit the track promoting a movie with the No. 94 Thunderbat scheme. The scheme, all black with lime green numbers and blue trim, ran at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway between May and June 1995.

This Ford even had the Thunderbat insignia in place of the normal Thunderbird on the front bumper and a Batman emblem below the door numerals.

Much like Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s scheme promoting The Dark Knight Rises 17 years later and in a relatively similar scheme, Elliott was also visited by one of the Caped Crusader’s iconic vehicles. Instead of the Tumbler (which hadn’t been conceptualized yet), Elliott got a visit from the movie’s Batmobile and someone dressed as Batman.

Elliott crashed the car at Charlotte in its debut, only completing 134 of the 400 laps. He rebounded, though, to give the scheme a sixth-place effort at Pocono two weeks later and a 14th at Michigan the next weekend.

1. Morgan Shepherd, Goldeneye (1995)

Taking the top spot by a country mile is Morgan Shepherd’s scheme that ran at (surprise!) Atlanta in 1995.

Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond comes in one of my favorite Bond films and the best of his stint as the British spy. The film also marked the entrance of Sean Bean as a villain, Judi Dench’s debut as M (a role she held for seven movies, through 2012’s Skyfall) and one of Desmond Llewelyn’s final appearances as Q. Llewelyn also appeared in Brosnan’s second and third Bond films but died in 1999 after appearing in 17 total installments of the franchise.

The Wood Brothers’ first movie scheme was the second to ever run in NASCAR, incorporating what was more or less the film’s color scheme (black and yellow, mostly) into its design and trim, with a black-yellow-and-gray gradient bordering the white door panels on both sides.

The black No. 21s with yellow outlines are the most prominent part of this car, and the Goldeneye logo with Bond’s signature 007 emblem beneath it on the door forms the centerpiece of the Ford.

This striking scheme ran one day before the film’s premiere in New York and five days prior to its wide release in the U.S., at the season finale of the 1995 schedule. Unfortunately, Shepherd ended up 22nd, six laps down.

For 2021, my fingers are crossed that Bond and the Wood Brothers team up yet again, in that we might see Matt DiBenedetto hop into a No Time to Die-themed No. 21 sometime during the season.

Honorable Mentions

– Bobby Labonte (NASCAR Cup Series) and Tony Stewart (NASCAR Xfinity Series), Small Soldiers (1998)

Prior to their seven-year pairing as Cup teammates for Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart were teammates on two different levels for a year in 1998. Labonte was running Cup Series full time, as he had been for several years already, and Stewart ran most of the Xfinity events that year in the team’s No. 44 to prepare for a jump to Cup competition in 1999.

Originally scheduled to run within weeks of each other, the schemes promoting Small Soldiers, a movie about action figures coming to life, ended up running months apart. Due to a wildfire outbreak in Florida, NASCAR elected to postpone the July race at Daytona International Speedway to mid-October.

Stewart’s car debuted in its only race just one day after the film opened in theaters, finishing 35th after crashing at Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Labonte’s scheme, meanwhile, had to wait until October, where it ran at both Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona.

It first ran at Talladega, exactly three months after the film’s United States release, and finished sixth. At Daytona the next week, Labonte qualified on the pole and finished second to Jeff Gordon. Despite making a bold three-wide pass on Mike Skinner and Jeremy Mayfield on the backstretch to vault into second, Labonte fell just short of being the first to win in a movie scheme.

As Cup teammates, Labonte and Stewart ran three promotional scheme pairings in the 2000s: for Jurassic Park III (2001), Shrek 2 (2004) and Madagascar (2005).

Only once, though, did they run in the same race. That was for Jurassic Park III, while Stewart ran the latter two movie cars in the 2004 and 2005 All-Star Races. Labonte, meanwhile, ran both of those schemes in points-paying events at Charlotte and Pocono, respectively.

– Jeff Gordon, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Star Wars franchise’s three prequel films are the only ones to receive advertising on stock cars, beginning with The Phantom Menace.

After a six-year hiatus and three Cup championships, Gordon returned to the then-Busch Series to run 11 races — six in 1999, five in 2000 — that would be his final appearances in the division for the remainder of his career.

Gordon carried Star Wars sponsorship for the Memorial Day Weekend Xfinity race in 1999, with main characters Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) on the hood and some space designs across the rest of the car. Pepsi’s promotion of the film was one of countless placements of the franchise, since the space opera series was back for the first time in 16 years (spoiler: it didn’t turn out that well until the third prequel).

Maybe the subpar prequel was bad luck for Gordon, though. The veteran suffered rear end issues and ended up 33rd, and that race became his only DNF of his six-race Xfinity effort that year.

– Jerry Nadeau, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)

Jerry Nadeau’s scheme for an animated Scooby-Doo movie is more or less the most overlooked of these ’90s liveries, but that’s not to say it’s forgettable. Normally sponsored by Cartoon Network, the No. 9 incorporated Scooby-Doo on the hood, alongside several of the other characters on the sides and (presumably) a zombie just behind the door number.

One of the nicest touches of this car is the moss (or something) designed to look like it’s hanging from ledges around the car, most prominently on the driver’s side window, where it’s positioned just below the window net, above the door number.

Next Up

I’ll take a hiatus next week due to Thanksgiving and Black Friday occupying my (and many others’) attention, but Reel Racing will return the first Thursday in December for a comprehensive look at and ranking of the 2000s in movie schemes.

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About Adam Cheek

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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 Entercom 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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