With a week and change until NASCAR finally returns to the track after its Olympic break, racing fans might be looking for motorsports-related media to fill the gaps.
In between watching everyone from Alex Morgan to Kevin Durant compete for glory in Tokyo (albeit at incredibly weird times here in the U.S.), why not catch up on some of the best racing films to ever hit the big (or small) screens?
I finally hit the 50-racing-movie mark myself back in April (my first was in the early months of 2004, which we’ll get to later), so this list has been a long, long time in the making.
I’ll restrain myself from going overboard and stick with a couple here.
Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story (2020) comes from the directorial duo of Adam Carolla and Nate Adams, who worked together on Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman (2015), The 24 Hour War (2016) and Shelby American (2019). Arguably their best film of the quartet, it documents Willy T. Ribbs’ rise through the ranks of motorsports and prowess in Trans-Am racing, as well as the awful racism and discrimination he faced during that time.
The Last Race (2018) is a meditative documentary on Riverhead Raceway in New York, detailing the track’s owners’ fight to keep racing alive at the oval. It’s not just the story that’s compelling, though — it’s how it’s told and presented. Shots from inside the cars pepper the film, with four of the first eight minutes devoted to one static shot from a car’s back bumper as it battles amongst its competitors in an actual race.
Quite possibly the most striking portion of this film is a three-minute unmoving shot of driver Tom Pickerell as he competes in the closing laps of a race, his head (and helmet) in the center of the frame for the entire duration. The body of the car surrounds him, the window net behind him providing the audience with a sort of window into his surroundings, but his eyes are all we see for lap after lap.
When the checkered flag presumably waves, things slow down, Pickerell removes his helmet and we can see that he’s simply beaming. The cheers of the crowd filter in, Pickerell receives congratulations from unseen people outside of the car and he simply says to one of them, “That’s why we do this.”
If that sequence doesn’t sum up racing, I don’t know what does.
Let’s also give a quick shoutout to Logan Lucky (2017), the Steven Soderbergh project featuring stellar performances from Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig, which rides the line of actually being a racing film but succeeds nonetheless in incorporating the Coca-Cola 600 into the film’s central heist.
10. Grand Prix (1966)
Nearly three hours long and incorporating so much of the drama that goes into a racing season, this Formula 1-focused film was more or less the first big-budget racing film to hit movie screens. With James Garner as the lead and a host of solid supporting actors, the racing scenes are incredibly immersive, innovative and the on-board cameras place the viewer right into the action — especially at Monza, where the high banks end up in a climactic championship battle.
Director John Frankenheimer also cast the recently late Jessica Walter, as well as Yves Montand and the great Toshiro Mifune, in supporting roles. Drivers from the era like Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney make cameo appearances as well, but it’s the cinematography that’s the main draw here: those on-board shots, whether beside the wheel, on the nose of the car and facing back towards the driver, wherever — are incredibly immersive. Overhead shots, including one particularly gripping one that tracks along the coastline of Monaco’s Grand Prix circuit, alongside camera shots set up behind the driver, following them into the action, are a few other standouts here.
It’s the three-hour runtime that drops Grand Prix down the list, though: despite its racing scenes being some of the best ever put to film, it does feel a bit overindulgent and bloated. I certainly don’t mind long films (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, The Hateful Eight, The Godfather, Seven Samurai, The Irishman and Heat all come to mind) but when a movie really feels its length, that’s when it can suffer in the eye of the viewer.
9. NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience (2004)
Perhaps it’s the fact that this is the first racing movie I ever watched, and also the first movie I ever saw in theaters, that makes this one rank so high for me, but I gave it a re-watch earlier this year and it’s held up extremely well. There’s a good chunk of surface-level narration from Kiefer Sutherland and some very basic soundbites from a number of the era’s drivers, but it’s a great introductory documentary to racing and has some fantastic camerawork, where crews set up rigs in the middle of the track to capture cars as they flew by (not during an actual race, of course).
8. Cars (2006)
Already having had success with everything from sentient toys (Toy Story) to superhero families (The Incredibles), Pixar dove into motorsports with Cars in 2006. Along with #7 on this list, 2006 brought racing to the mainstream. Cars appealed to racing fans, sure, but also had star power (Owen Wilson, Paul Newman) and appealed to a younger audience with its animated presentation. This was just the first of two films that summer that brought racing to mainstream moviegoing audiences.
Let’s not forget, though, that it also featured cameos from a number of NASCAR stars and commentators, so it rode the line perfectly between a mainstream success and an eventually iconic movie in the racing subgenre.
7. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
This was the second installment of the aforementioned summer of 2006. While certainly a stereotypical view of NASCAR as a whole, Talladega Nights was a milestone in the same way Cars was: bringing racing to the masses. Will Ferrell’s appeal, on the heels of his Saturday Night Live success but before Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro and Step Brothers hit the big screen, drew in a decidedly more adult audience than Cars but likely some who wouldn’t have been interested in racing outside of the movie.
Add in an all-around stellar cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen in the same year he debuted on the big screen as Borat, as well as the great John C. Reilly, Michael Clarke Duncan, an early-career Amy Adams and a bunch of cameos. Also throw in some incredibly funny moments (the knife in the leg, “Help me, Tom Cruise!” and the “Long One”) and Ricky Bobby’s tumultuous season lands at No. 7 on the list.
6. Days of Thunder (1990)
Almost halfway between his 1986 film Top Gun and 1993 classic True Romance, Tony Scott made Top Gun…but on a NASCAR track with Days of Thunder. Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle, a hothead with a penchant for aggressive driving, ended up becoming an absolute staple in the racing community and still endures today; tributes to the film often dot the yearly Darlington throwback schemes.
Debated constantly, with a viciousness, against Talladega Nights as to which is the better racing film on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ve begun to lean towards Thunder more and more. The cinematography is gorgeous, the racing scenes are relatively solid (albeit with some chuckle-inducing inconsistencies at times) and Cruise is legitimately good as Trickle.
Cruise’s interest in racing was sparked by Paul Newman, so things kind of came full circle 16 years later with Newman’s appearance in Cars.
5. Blink of an Eye (2019)
The 2019 adaptation of Michael Waltrip‘s novel, despite telling a story we all know very well, managed to provide a somewhat new perspective to the 2001 Daytona 500. We see Waltrip’s introduction to racing, his success in the lower divisions and relationship with brother Darrell, all before Waltrip hits his 0-for-462 skid, never winning a race until the 2001 NASCAR Cup Series season opener.
Waltrip gets emotional at times, and the documentary explores deeper into his relationship with Dale Earnhardt — especially Earnhardt’s hand-picking of Waltrip to drive the No. 15 in 2001. Released as a one-night-only feature back in 2019 and, from when I talked with Waltrip in February about it, possibly in the works for a feature-length narrative film, the story has been told many times. But despite all those times, the video from the following summer of Dale Jr. winning at Daytona and he and Waltrip embracing in the infield grass never gets old.
4. Le Mans (1971)
Quite possibly the best pure racing film ever made, Steve McQueen essentially wanted to make Le Mans as an answer to Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, which he viewed as overindulgent (as an aside, McQueen was angry that Garner beat him to the racing-movie punch and, since he lived above Garner, would reportedly urinate in The Rockford Files‘ star’s plants).
With little dialogue spoken over the first 30 minutes and nearly the entire film taking place over the 24-hour race, it’s an immersive film that basically feels like a documentary. Adding to the realism are several violent crashes that the crew staged, which actually impact the course of the race in the movie rather than just being there for show.
The camerawork, including one shot that really makes the viewer feel the drivers’ blindness while driving towards the rising sun, is stellar. Rigged on bumpers, inside cockpits and facing back towards McQueen and other drivers, Le Mans has a realistic feel that few other films have. Maybe it’s how focused it is on McQueen’s character; while acknowledging and cutting to his competitors at times, it primarily stays with McQueen as he makes his way through the 24 hours.
Also recommended: the 2015 documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which delves into McQueen’s devotion to making the film and what he gave up and went through to do it.
3. Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Matt Damon and Christian Bale personify Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles to a T. A couple Oscars came the film’s way for editing; the Le Mans sequences might be some of the best racing scenes ever put to film, especially those in the rain, and the battle between Ford and Ferrari was one for the ages.
While a few things bothered us racing fans, like Auto Club’s trademark blue walls serving as “Daytona” and it being a little too noticeable, the chemistry the two lead actors was undeniable and the direction of James Mangold (Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) could’ve easily earned him an Oscar nomination.
And the “Go Like Hell” scene at Daytona that’s linked above? Chills. Every single time.
2. Senna (2010)
Asif Kapadia’s documentary, somehow never nominated for an Academy Award, profiles the legendary Ayrton Senna. It’s different than biopics on similar subjects in its presentation: there are no shots of people being interviewed. Every bit of audio is heard over a presentation consisting entirely of archival footage with some interview audio mixed in; some of the footage is gripping on-board video from various races. That’s not special in itself, but the pure quality and restoration of that on-board footage from decades past is impressive.
The film culminates in Senna’s death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, as well as the shockwaves it sent around the world. The F1 champion clearly meant so much to so many people, especially in his home country of Brazil, and his impact is evident in the biopic.
Kapadia later won the Documentary Feature award at the Oscars for Amy (2015). I still have yet to see that, but Senna may legitimately be the best documentary I’ve ever seen outside of The History of the Seattle Mariners (2020) and I would give it all the awards if I could.
1. Rush (2013)
If you read my pseudo-Oscars for the racing film subgenre a couple months back, you probably figured this would come in at No. 1. The performances of Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl and Olivia Wilde are the standouts, but Ron Howard’s direction of racing scenes is just as impressive, with some grungy, oversaturated cinematography reminiscent of how color televisions looked during that time period, Howard drops the viewer into a world where even the slightest mistake could send a driver to the hospital — or even worse, kill them.
The scenes in competition, in the words of Bill Hader’s character Stefon on SNL, have everything. The way they’re shot with that oversaturation. The details in the field, from the Ferraris and McLarens to the six-wheel Tyrrell and Mario Andretti’s John Player Special,
The dueling personalities of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, one an easygoing but troubled playboy and the other a calculated, cold racer, are the centerpiece here and are balanced perfectly. Lauda is essentially the focus, but Rush highlights the struggles of finding a seat for an upcoming season and the harsh reality of a driver being killed or injured, with the recovery process that follows. However, it also focuses on the mutual respect two completely different drivers like Hunt and Lauda had for each other: they raced hard, they raced clean (for the most part) and, when it came down to it, ended up locked in a championship battle for the ages.
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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