This weekend Pixar will continue the legacy of Lightning McQueen with the release of “Car 3”, bringing the series back to its roots as a pure racing film. As a HUGE motorsports fan myself I decided it was the perfect time to explore racing in cinema and countdown my top ten auto racing films of all time. These are the films that exemplify the fun, drama, excitement, and dangers of what motorsports is all about.
For this list I took a look at any film where auto racing and motorsports plays a major role in the plot. Drama, action, comedy, it didn’t matter as long as the film has a racing theme. The films also did not have to include a professional racing sports, like Indy or NASCAR, and could include a more grassroots racing atmosphere as long as car racing is the theme or backdrop of the movie. Any film where racing a car plays only a minor role in the film, such as the race at the end of the theatrical “Dukes of Hazard” film or “Grease”, were not considered for this list because the movies were not about racing in particular but just happened to feature a race in their story. That being said, no car chases here either. The films had to be about racing, not outrunning a pursuing vehicle to escape. Also my blog does not cover or focus on documentaries so the celebrated documentary “Senna”, while a racing-themed movie definitely worth your time, will not be on this list.
Also these movies are not graded base on critical success alone, considering there are a few here who were less than successful at garnering critical praise, but rather their embracing of racing culture and their ability to incorporate motorsports into their larger narrative effectively as well as their impact on pop culture. Special consideration was given to more iconic titles due to their ability to achieve memorability and longevity in pop culture.
It goes without saying, a SPOILER ALERT is in play here. Be sure to check out “Cars 3” this weekend if you want some more racing action to help kick your summer into high gear.
10. “The Fast and the Furious”
While more recent entries in this celebrated and seemingly unstoppable franchise are geared more towards heists and non-stop action, the first film in the series was a racing film as Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner enters the world of street racing to win over Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and infiltrate a group of hijackers. Street racing was essential to the plot as O’Conner had to test hit abilities against Toretto to earn his respect and a spot on his team. The film features some amazingly entertaining racing through Los Angeles as O’Conner and Toretto show their stuff, trying to best each other for personal pride as well as to prove their skills, creating a friendly rivalry that survived and thrived right up to O’Conner’s final appearance in “Furious 7”. While not as focused on the racing as other movies on this list might be, “The Fast and the Furious” got its name for a reason and while it may be a rather dated movie today, its racing sequences are still memorable and are often called back to in the newer films in the franchise including an entertaining street race through Cuba that kicked off the eighth film in the series earlier this year.
9. “Death Race” (2008)
Some call it a remake, others call it a prequel, but either way the 2008 version of “Death Race” remains a popular action thriller that takes racing to a whole new level. Starring Jason Statham as a new incarnation of the famed driver Frankenstein, the film follows a prison race where inmates weaponize their vehicles in hopes of making it to the finish line first in a 3-part event broadcast on television for the entertainment of the masses. Filled with great side-by-side racing combined with action and suspense as racers try to take each other out and survive the carnage, “Death Race” was considered a true assault on the senses and while some still argue that it’s predecessor, “Death Race 2000”, is worthy of its own recognition it was this film that brought the concept to a new audience and perfected its theme, truly embracing the auto racing format in a tasteful, but unapologetically violent action epic. The film spawned several prequels and today is still a guilty pleasure for anyone looking for a more violent cinematic racing experience.
Not Pixar’s most celebrated film, but one worth watching all the same, “Cars” was an animated classic about a world of living motor vehicles where the biggest celebrities are the ones on the race track. Embracing a NASCAR-like theme to the racing aspects of the film, the story follows rookie sensation Lightning McQueen who ends up in a tie-breaking championship race with hothead Chick Hicks and the “King” Strip Weathers as his competition. Considering himself a “one man show” McQueen finds himself lost in the town of Radiator Springs on his way to the big race, spending a week getting to know the people of the small town and learning that there’s more to life than winning. While many criticize the film as pure kid-friendly fun with less substance than Pixar’s other works, “Cars” is a much deeper film with its premise presenting lessons about identity, humility, and teamwork as McQueen approaches the biggest race of his life with a new perspective. The film also featured noted race fan and former driver Paul Newman as the legendary racer Doc Hudson Hornet. Newman also starred in another racing feature called “Winning” which barely missed being included on this list.
7. “Snake & Mongoose”
One of the newest films on this list, this 2013 underrated film stared Jesse Williams and Richard Blake as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen respectively who formed a legendary rivalry that would help popularize the sport of drag racing. The film drew attention to the legacy of the sport as the two drivers take each other on in numerous match ups on the track while coming together to create a legendary partnership with Mattel during the dawn of Hot Wheels that would put their sport on the map. Today drag racing is one of the most popular motorsports around with a dedicated fan base and a grassroots history. This highly praised film explored two of its most legendary figures and one of the most celebrated rivalries in all of motorsports that led to a revolutionary marketing sponsorship that today still holds strong. It’s one of those untold true stories worth telling and it’s worth checking out for anyone interested in the history of motorsports in general.
6. “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”
In 2006 NASCAR was still very much in its prime and so was Will Ferrell who helped lead this comedy film parodying America’s most popular motorsport. Featuring numerous cameos from NASCAR drivers and broadcasters and not-so-subtle jabs at NASCAR clichés, including the over-dependence on sponsorship and a foreign driver coming over from F1 to challenge the established norm, “Talladega Nights” was an enjoyable self-referential experience that took it’s comedy over the top in all the best ways. Deep within it’s ridiculous comedy however is a story about a hot shot who finds that winning isn’t everything, even in a sport where winning is the name of the game. It’s a fun and ridiculous comedic experience that any NASCAR fan with a sense of humor should have no problem appreciating.
5. “The Cannonball Run”
One of the most popular racing films of all time, “The Cannonball Run” featured an all-star cast of characters who set off on a cross-country car race using everything at their disposal to get an edge on the competition. Filled with hilarious gags and mishaps as well as a band of characters so memorable each have become iconic over the years in their own ways, the film was so ridiculous and fun it became one of the year’s biggest box office hits. Incorporating everything from NASCAR (one team drives a Donnie Allison replica), to F1 (one team drives a Ferrari), and cinematic car clichés (including a spy-like vehicle drive by Roger Moore) this race included everything any motorsports or car fan could ever want from a cross-country event. “The Cannonball Run” was more than just a racing film, it became a cinematic legend that today still stands the test of time as must-see entertainment for anyone who enjoys great racing and hilarious comedy.
4. “Le Mans”
While this 1971 film about the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a box office failure, “Le Mans” has proven to have staying power and over the years has gone from cult classic to celebrated motorsports film due to its accurate interpretation of the racing of its time. With Steve McQueen in the starring role, the film utilized actual footage captured during the legendary long-distance auto race during the 1970 event and shows the drama, suspense, and intensity of the 24-hour spectacle that today is still a marquis event for any aspiring motorsports great. Famously trading in plot and dialogue for a more focused look at the racing that takes place on the track “Le Mans” has slowly cemented itself as a great among all motorsports films and might have landed higher on this list had it not been for its massive financial failure at the time of its initial release. Still it holds up today as one of the most realistic depictions of any motorsport ever put to film.
3. “Days of Thunder”
In the 1990s NASCAR was THE motorsport, continuing its success from a surge of popularity in the 70s and 80s. In 1990 a NASCAR themed film was released called “Days of Thunder” with a still young Tom Cruise at the helm as hot-headed crossover driver Cole Trickle trying to make his name on the NASCAR circuit. While not the most critically praised film on this list, “Days of Thunder” went on to take in over $157 million at the box office, but that’s not why it’s at #3. It reaches this spot on the list because not only was “Days of Thunder” filled with actual footage from real NASCAR races, it depicted the real dangers and rivalries of the sport and today lives on as one of the most referenced films in real life NASCAR culture. Phrases like “rubbin’ is racing” have become synonymous with the sport it paid tribute to and even one of the characters, Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns, has been adapted into a nickname for current NASCAR driver Kyle “Rowdy” Busch due to the two driver’s similar driving styles and attitudes. The film also touched on the conflict that arises when multiple drivers perform for the same owner and introduced audiences to the physics and terminology of a NASCAR vehicle. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that “Days of Thunder” is partially responsible for NASCAR continuing its relevance well into the 20th and 21st centuries simply because it serves as a great introduction to what NASCAR is all about.
2. “Grand Prix”
The term “grand prix” means “grand prize”, and while the film “Grand Prix” didn’t take the grand prize on this list it’s very deserving of its silver cup on the podium. This 1966 motorsports film was one of the first popular films in this subgenre and was heavily complimented for its, at the time, revolutionary approach to filming race footage to be used in the final product. “Grand Prix” follows Formula 1 driver Pete Aron, played by James Garner, and an ensemble international cast as the fate of four drivers in F1 are explored including their family lives, careers, rivalries, and more. The film tackles everything from infidelity to living in the shadow of one’s mentor, and even the possibility of death at the track in a no-holds-barred examination of a racer’s life that audiences embraced so well it became one of 1966’s most successful films. It also won numerous Academy Awards due to the technical achievements associated with the cinematography of the film and its ability to capture the action and spirit of racing on the track.
“Rush” isn’t the most action packed film. It’s not the most unpredictable, or the most spectacular, or even the most accurate film on this list. But there are many reasons why “Rush” is, in my opinion, the greatest motorsports film of all time to date. This 2013 biographical drama was directed by Ron Howard and chronicles one of F1’s most famous rivalries between the carefree and wild James Hunt and the by-the-books professional Niki Lauda, both champions of the F1 circuit during their time. With Chris Hemsworth on hand to portray Hunt and Daniel Bruhl portraying Lauda “Rush” examines how the two met and how Lauda proved to be an effective champion while Hunt struggled with equipment failure and his own ego in their early years. As the 1976 season begins Hunt becomes more hungry for a title as his personal life takes a hit and at the German Grand Prix, despite Lauda’s urging of cancellation of the race due to weather, Lauda’s own competitive drive leads to one of the sport’s most spectacular and devastating crashes, putting Lauda out of the race car due to burns to his body before he returns for one more race of the season in the final event where he and Hunt battle it out for a trophy. It’s a film that shows the true dangers of the sport and the emotions that drive these racers to the edge. While not everything in this movie is historically accurate, the film proves to be an inspiring and gut wrenching tale of two men, polar opposites, who both hate and respect each other and the extremes they are prepared to go on and off the track to achieve their destinies as champions in a sport they love and that defined their lives as competitors.