This last weekend, Ron Howard’s Rush made its way to HBO GO, which meant it was the perfect opportunity to check out the 2013 biopic based on the true story of Formula One racing rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda. While watching, I began to think of my favorite race car films; to be specific, racing films where the race is on the track and not a cross-country race, because otherwise Death Race 2000 and Cannonball Run would be on this list.
And with the wave of the flag, away we go!
During the 1976 Formula One racing season, all eyes were on James Hunt and Niki Lauda (above) – two formidable racers who were rivals both on and off the track. Lauda’s life was changed forever during the infamous accident at the German Grand Prix’s notorious Nurburgring track where a broken brake suspension arm nearly cost Lauda his life, leaving the racer permanently disfigured after his car caught fire on impact (he sustained third-degree burns to head and face as well as internal burns on his lungs). During his six-week recovery time, Lauda used his irritation of watching Hunt win races to make his recovery time go by and returned to race his rival at the Italian Grand Prix. Throughout the film, I learned why Lauda is how he is and in the end (just like his rival James Hunt) leave the film with a new and profound respect for both drivers.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) turn in amazing performances as Hunt and Lauda. When Howard had a private screening for Formula One racers, they responded with a standing ovation at the film’s end, which to me is a seal of approval toward Howard’s understanding and research. Rush is a film I’d encourage all racing (and non-racing fans) to watch.
Stroker Ace (1983)
What happens when you’re a racer with a swelled head who finds himself without a sponsor (after dumping a load of concrete on the last one)? You end up taking any sponsor you can get…and usually you’re gonna get it, alright; that’s precisely what happens to Stroker Ace. When Ace (Burt Reynolds) signs with Clyde Torkel (Ned Beatty) to represent his chain of Chicken Pit restaurants, Ace signs on the dotted line before reading the fine print, which includes stipulations like having the phrase “The Fastest Chicken in the South” painted on his car, making personal appearances, and doing a commercial in a full chicken suit.
Armed with his pit mechanic, crew chief, and best friend Lugs (played by Jim Nabors), Ace is also joined by CP’s director of marketing and PR Pembrook Feeny (Loni Anderson), who soon realizes Torkel is a pig and decides to team up with Ace and Lugs to get him out of his contract any way possible. During all this, Ace also tries to romance the buxom blonde who just happens to be a Sunday school teaching virgin who has more in common with the gentle Lugs, much to the conceited Ace’s dismay…but it doesn’t stop him from trying again and again. Compile all that on top of his rivalry with young, handsome, blonde upstart Aubrey James (played by Parker Stevenson, known to most fans at that time as Frank Hardy from the TV hit series “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries”), and you’ve got some fun hijinks on and off the track.
While this film didn’t do well in theaters – and in a way, kind of put a huge hiccup in Reynolds’ career (he turned down the role in Terms Of Endearment that went to Jack Nicholson, who won an Oscar for his effort) – most racing fans turn to this as a fan favorite, thanks to the many NASCAR drivers who appeared as themselves in the film. We’re talking LEGENDARY racers like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Harry Gant, Terry Labonte, Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, and Cale Yarbrough as well as official announcers Ken Squier, David Hobbs and Chris Economaki. Shooting at iconic racetracks Charlotte Motor Speedway, Talladega Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway and with a theme song by Charlie Daniels, Stroker Ace is a film I’ll always recommend.
Heart Like A Wheel (1983)
Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney is known as the “First Lady of Drag Racing” for a very good reason: she was the first woman to receive a license from the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) to drive a Top Fuel dragster and she won the NHRA Top Fuel championship a record three times – in 1977, 1980, 1982 – becoming the first person to win two and three Top Fuel titles. Over the course of her career, she won a record 18 NHRA national events.
For those of you not in the know, a Top Fuel dragster, when driven by the right person, can reach speeds of up to 330 miles an hour and only takes 3.7 seconds to race 1000 feet or travel a quarter mile in 4.4 seconds. To put it in modern day terms, this car goes hella fast. And the first woman to get licensed to drive one was a bored housewife and mother with one thing on her mind – to “race up and down the streets in a hot rod.” She began her rise to glory at the age of 18, racing on dragstrips before getting said license at age 25.
This has always been an important film not only to me but for women everywhere: if not for Muldowney, women like Danica Patrick or NHRA racers (and sisters) Ashley Force Hood, Courtney Force, and Brittany Force may have had an even harder time breaking into the “old boys club.”
While Muldowney herself was not a fan of actress Bonnie Bedelia (even going as far as calling her a “brat”), Heart Like A Wheel is a great piece of storytelling.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006)
I know you didn’t think I was going to do a racing list and not include this hilarious comedy about two dimwitted best friends who just happen to be the number one and two ranked racers on the NASCAR circuit. Racer Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) has it all: top driver on the circuit, super hot trophy wife, and childhood friend (and number two ranked driver) Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly) on his Dennit Racing team. Only problem is that Bobby doesn’t really like sharing the spotlight or coming in second place, which is why that honor always goes to Cal – whether he wants it or not.
Bobby’s life is turned on its ear when Formula One racer Jean Girard (brilliantly played by Sacha Baron Cohen) decides to enter the NASCAR circuit and, to Bobby’s dismay, becomes the top driver for Dennit, inspiring Bobby to go a little TOO fast during a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, rolling his car and basically losing his mind in the process. In one of the film’s more ridiculous scenes, he emerges from the overturned car, strips down to his underwear (still wearing his helmet) and yells he is on fire (when he isn’t), also screaming, “Help me, Oprah! Help me, Tom Cruise!”
It’s here that Bobby’s fear causes him to lose everything: best friend Cal becomes top dog, his trophy wife dumps him to marry Cal and kicks him out of his own house…reducing Bobby and his two sons (“Walker” and “Texas Ranger”) to moving back in with his mom and becoming a pizza delivery man. I’d share even more but where’s the fun in THAT?
Like Stroker Ace, Talladega Nights features (and for a couple, the last on-screen appearances) the next generation of NASCAR legends like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray as well as broadcasting teams (and former racers) Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip from “NASCAR on Fox” and Bill Weber, Wally Dallenback Jr. and Benny Parsons from “NASCAR on NBC.”
This also may be the only time you’ll see Elvis Costello and Mos Def in a racing film.
Days Of Thunder (1990)
Back in the 90s, some actors decided racing was a good thing to do during their off-time and I’m pretty sure the reason was because action star and heartthrob Tom Cruise decided to do it first with this film about Cole Trickle, an open-wheel champion with a dream of winning the brass ring – the Indianapolis 500. Like any good racing film worth its salt, it shows Trickle having a hard time adjusting as well as finding his official nemesis (and soon to be BFF) Rowdy Burns, played by the one and only Michael Rooker.
This also marks the first time Tom Cruise and his soon-to-be wife Nicole Kidman met, where as Daytona Memorial Hospital’s neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Lewicki, she treated both Trickle and Burns after their horrendous crash during Daytona’s Firecracker 500, which is also where we see the lifelong friendship between the two rivals blossom.
The all-star cast includes Robert Duvall, Cary Elwes, Randy Quaid, Fred Thompson, and John C. Reilly – who plays Trickle’s crew chief – and some of them are based on actual drivers, mechanics, and even the president of NASCAR. My favorite character is Rowdy Burns (above) who was based on Dale Earnhardt; my father is a huge NASCAR fan, and I grew up watching the late, great Earnhardt race on TV as a kid, so I recognized the mannerisms as soon as Burns opened his mouth for the first time.
While it is a sort of “Top Gun on wheels,” it’s still a film worth watching and contains some serious high-octane fun.
Now before you start rolling your eyes at me, Turbo is on this list because it’s about the most unlikely and possibly slowest thing on the PLANET, who – much like Ricky Bobby – just wants “to go fast.” With the voice talents of Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph and more, Turbo tells the story of Theo, a snail with dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500 (yes, THAT Indy 500) who finds himself that much closer to his dream when after being accidentally sucked into a drag racer’s supercharger, fusing his DNA with nitrous oxide. Theo becomes Turbo: a supercharged snail who also takes on some characteristics of an actual race car.
The other standout in this animated gem is Bill Hader – who plays the arrogant French (and 5-time Indy 500 champ) Guy Gagne, a jerk reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen’s BRILLIANT character Jean Girard in Talladega Nights but unlike Girard, Gagne starts and ends the same way – a big, buttfaced jerk.
Who doesn’t like a underdog story? If you just raised your hand, I swear…it’s like I don’t even know you anymore.
Also Snoop Dogg as a SNAIL, dudes. A SNAIL.
And there you have it – some of my fave racing films. I know there are TONS that I’ve omitted, but you have to remember these are merely my choices. I’d LOVE to see some of yours in the comments below!
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