Reel Racing is back after a return to normal (for the most part, at least) for films in 2021, with audiences flocking back to theaters to see worth-the-wait blockbusters like Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Suicide Squad and the breathtaking Dune, as well as James Bond’s 25th film in No Time To Die, which Daniel Craig was on hand to promote at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in the fall.
Big screens also featured awards contenders like Licorice Pizza, spectacular performances like the now-Oscar-nominated Kristen Stewart in Spencer and even some oddities, including Ridley Scott’s phenomenal The Last Duel that somehow flopped. It’s worth noting that unlike last year, where nine of my top 10 ended up being at-home watches, my 2021 list features just three (ESPN’s four-part Once Upon a Time in Queens, SB Nation’s The History of the Atlanta Falcons and the 2021-Oscars-eligible Judas and the Black Messiah).
Sports documentaries also abounded. These were mostly at home, including Queens and the Falcons miniseries, while a number of racing movies filtered in as well (no, the ridiculously fun F9 doesn’t count here).
None of those made it to theaters, but there were plenty to go around.
Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt
The first of two E:60 ESPN features on motorsports in 2021, Intimidator aired just hours prior to the Daytona 500 on Valentine’s Day 2021.
With the season-opening race marking 20 years since Dale Earnhardt’s death in the final corner of the 2001 running, Ryan McGee crafted a documentary that chronicled the warning signs leading up to Earnhardt’s crash, including the tragedies of Kenny Irwin Jr., Adam Petty and Tony Roper, adding in interviews with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mike Helton and others.
The hour-long special also spotlighted Ryan Newman’s horrific crash in the 2020 event and the safety improvements that saved the No. 6 driver’s life. Not since Earnhardt 19 years before had NASCAR held its collective breath, not even in 2015 at Daytona International Speedway, when Austin Dillon emerged minutes after flying into the catch fence. It was hours before any information was learned about Newman.
Interest in the history of NASCAR safety was more than renewed in the wake of Newman’s wreck, and the biggest changes, in turn, came in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s. Consisting of footage of crash testing and an emotional interview with Newman, Intimidator‘s narrative deftly spans 20 years and was a solid way to kick off the year in motorsports movies.
While excellent, there’s something about being a sub-hour-long production that feels like it leaves something to be desired.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Trackhouse: Get Ready
Recording a top five and four top-10 finishes in its debut season might’ve been enough for Trackhouse Racing Team, but the Chevrolet stable built on that even further by acquiring Chip Ganassi Racing’s assets and expanding to two cars in 2022.
Daniel Suárez was its lone driver in 2021, however, and early March featured a 48-minute documentary on the creation of Trackhouse by former driver Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull. It dives into the creation of the team, Suárez and company prepping for the Daytona 500 and interviews with Suarez, Marks and Pitbull, all while counting down to the season opener.
Intimate moments like team meetings and at-home clips of Suárez and girlfriend Julia Piquet (daughter of three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet and sister of three-time winner and former NASCAR driver Nelson Piquet Jr.) pepper the documentary, capped off with a segment of the No. 99 stable visiting Pitbull’s SLAM! School in Miami. The preparation and running of the Daytona 500 makes up a huge portion of the runtime, with the Bluegreen Vacations Duel and 500 segment feeling like its own “Radioactive” on Race Hub.
Though Suárez’s effort in the 500 came to an end 13 laps in, when he mostly escaped contact in the Big One but lost control and ripped the front bumper off in the Daytona grass, the documentary also highlights the next two weeks. Suárez led a pair of laps at the Daytona road course and scored a 16th-place finish, and the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway finished 15th. The No. 99 ended up finishing in the top 20 in more than half of the races in 2021, Suárez ending the year 25th in the standings.
There’s not but so much in the documentary, from the genesis of the team to the third race of the year, but in fairness to the production team there wasn’t but so much to work with with only a few races completed. On the plus side, it ends up being a laser-focused narrative and that tight time span helps it zero in on the people involved.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Chase debuted on NBC’s streaming service Peacock in late August, a look back at the early life of Chase Elliott and his 2020 Cup Series championship season.
Oddly, it’s very similar to the Fernando Tatís Jr. documentary that MLB Network aired a little more than a month prior, Tatís: The Rise of El Niño. Both spotlight an athlete in his early-to-mid 20s who’s quickly risen as a star in their respective sports, though there’s a slight disconnect due to both subjects’ youth.
Elliott and Tatís are both the sons of fathers who made their own marks in racing and baseball, respectively: Bill Elliott, of course, won the 1988 Cup championship and was a 16-time Most Popular Driver winner, while Tatís Sr. remains the only Major League Baseball player to hit two grand slams in a single inning.
Unfortunately, that early success doesn’t translate into the most gripping of documentaries — it simply feels too early in both subjects’ careers to make a lengthy documentary about them, which is probably why both of them clock in at less than an hour.
Rating: 3/5 stars
Renegades: The Bad Boys of NASCAR
Narrated by star-of-pretty-much-everything Scoot McNairy (from Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave to HBO Max’s Anna Kendrick vehicle Love Life), Renegades was an overview of the bad boys throughout NASCAR’s storied history.
Spanning decades, from the days of racing on the sand and eventual fighting in the infield after the 1979 Daytona 500 to more recent rivalries, which include Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, the documentary features interviews with current drivers, media personalities like Frontstretch‘s own Steve Waid and actor Michael Rooker (Rowdy Burns in 1990’s Days of Thunder).
It’s a well-crafted 60-minute special, if a little obvious, in that it’s stories we all pretty much know already and clips we’ve seen before.
I saw Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead at the theater later on the same day, so it was an afternoon full of renegades, I suppose.
Rating: 3/5 stars
He was a seven-time Formula 1 champion, 91-race winner and a total perfectionist at his craft.
Michael Schumacher’s journey took him from Jordan to Benetton to Ferrari during his initial journey in the sport, most of his success coming with the latter, and a later, subsequent campaign with Mercedes prior to the team’s acquisition of Lewis Hamilton.
Schumacher won five straight championships from 2000-2004 and he was the essential cog of Ferrari’s revival, the team having fallen from its former glory.
There was also plenty of controversy surrounding Schumacher, most of it a result of his obsessive perfectionism — one such moment includes him twitching his car when another driver attempted to pass, resulting in a crash. Schumacher was furious, and only simmered down once he was shown the incident on video and realized he was at fault.
Though we don’t get the insight we’d all love to have into Schumacher’s current condition after his skiing accident, which has been kept within the family for years, it’s a phenomenal portrait of one of F1’s greatest drivers. On some level, it differs from many racing docs in that it chronicles a driver considered such a perfectionist and one who had so much controversy swirling around him, but feels like it doesn’t quite reach the uniqueness of entries like Uppity and Senna.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Fistful of Steel: The Rise of Bubba Wallace
E:60 racing documentaries bookended the year in motorsports films, with Fistful of Steel debuting in mid-December.
The biggest plus of the doc is that it doesn’t shy away from the racism and adversity Bubba Wallace has dealt with during his career. Sure, it delves into his early career and rise through the ranks of NASCAR, but with Wallace the only Black driver in NASCAR’s premier series and in the spotlight in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the subsequent protests, as well as the Talladega Superspeedway incident, his status in the sport was even more pronounced.
McGee’s documentary follows the E:60 on Earnhardt, marking 2021 as a year in which he and ESPN profiled two drivers with two of the biggest profiles in the sport in their respective eras.
The best scene: when Wallace wins at Martinsville Speedway in 2014 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Wendell Scott’s family on hand, celebrating the first Black driver to win in NASCAR history.
Again, like Intimidator, the shorter runtime makes anything feel like it’s missing something, but a strong documentary nonetheless.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Outlook for 2022
We’ve got RACE: Bubba Wallace, which premieres on Netflix on Feb. 22, to look forward to, while NASCAR has also revived plans for a docuseries with NBC. It’ll reportedly focus on the 2022 season and release later on in the year.
Hopefully it’s not just the two series on the docket for 2022. We’ll see!
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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