Racing to the Movies

I’m a big movie guy. Huge. Large. Enormous. I love seeing movies in the theater, and as an avowed nocturnal creature, I spend a lot of late nights watching a movie (or two) on one of the 100 or so movie channels I have at my fingertips.

For the record, my favorite movie of all time is The Martian, followed by the original Bourne trilogy. I don’t consider myself a Matt Damon fan per se — even though Ford v. Ferrari is on my list — but he’s just been in a lot of movies I’ve liked.

Racing movies have a spot in my heart too, and in honor of the 2001 CART-inspired movie Driven being released this week, I decided to throw down a few of my favorites.

Sadly, Driven is not on my list, but here are six that are. If you want to read the comprehensive oral history of that Sylvester Stallone masterpiece, check out Marshall Pruett’s brilliant prose here. Even if you aren’t all that interested, check it out anyway because Marshall gave up almost an entire day of his life to watch this movie and write 12,000 words about it. I don’t know if it’s was a labor of love, but I admire Marshall’s dedication. I would’ve given up by the “quarters on the track” scene…maybe earlier.

Here’s my list, in no uncertain order.

(Editor’s note: I originally wrote a movie column for my 15 Days in May blog back in March, 2012, which you can read here. As you can tell I’ve made a few revisions since then.)

Senna (2011). I know this is a documentary, but it’s still on my list. I’m especially keen to put this on the top because Friday marks 26 years since we lost Ayrton Senna at Imola. I wasn’t an F1 fan during Senna’s career, but YouTube and this documentary really opened my eyes to his greatness, both on and off the track, and now I consider him one of my all-time favorite drivers. You can read my 15DIM review of this movie here.

Ford v. Ferrari (2019). I think the key to this movie is you have to take it at face value. It’s been well-documented that Leo Beebe isn’t the a-hole he’s depicted as in the film, and using Auto Club Speedway as a substitute for Daytona in the 24 Hours of Daytona scene is almost unforgivable. Still, it tells a good story, has lots of talented actors, and shows a lot of the Southern California car culture of the 60s. I found the movie entertaining, and my review is here. I watched it again on Sunday night, and I wish one thing they had focused on more was the true talent of Ken Miles. He was a great driver in the SCCA, was well known on the west coast for his engineering skill and had a reputation as a quick, tough, but clean driver.

Rush (2013). Many consider this one of the best racing movies ever made. I think the strength of the movie is that it really capture the vibe of Formula 1 in the mid-70s, which I think is the height of what Formula 1 was all about at the time. The competitors drove hard, many of them partied hard and they all got lots of girls. Knowing that you had a 20 percent chance of dying every time you strapped into a car left the men who raced at the time living in the moment and not giving a crap about what was waiting around the corner. The comparison and contrast between Niki and James is what made this movie — and their rivalry — work. Niki was focused and measured in everything he did, while James never thought more than 30 seconds or so into the future. Somehow, it worked for both of them as they both became World Champions. Was 1976 the peak year of James Hunt’s life? Probably, but what a year it was.

Grand Prix (1966). James Garner is an American F1 driver who is fired from one ride after critically injuring a teammate and then joins another team, but not before he hooks up with his ex-teammate’s wife, who justifies what she is doing because she was going to leave him anyway. Yves Montand plays an aging driver who is facing the end of his career but wants one last triumph. The racing scenes are good and the ending has that kind of 1960s and early 70s vibe where the movie just…ends, usually not very happily. The racing scenes are excellent, and Garner gets props for doing his own driving. In fact, according to the website, the movie used Formula 3 cars and Garner held his own in pickup races between filming. It was also a reflection of the times as 10 of the 32 drivers in the movie, including Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren, were killed in racing-related accidents over the next decade.

Le Mans (1971). Steve McQueen starred in this one, and stayed true to himself, not saying much and staying in badass form the entire movie. (I say that with a lot of awe, by the way. McQueen didn’t need to say anything to totally take over the screen.) McQueen plays Michael Delaney, an American driver who the year before had been involved in a fatal accident that had killed a fellow driver, something he was still haunted by. There are several plotlines and twists, but the racing and the cars are the stars of this film. The movie relies heavily on footage shot from the 1970 race, and the depiction of the tense moments before the race starts and the frenzy in the first few minutes as the car take the track are awesome. The in-car footage is great. Again, according to, there is no dialog from the major characters in the first 37 minutes of the movie. They just filmed the cars and let them do the talking. Now that I’ve actually been to a 24-hour race, this movie just makes this movie even better.

Talladega Nights (2006). Come on, given my wicked sense of humor I had to put this in here. Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, who lives the “if you ain’t first, you’re last” credo in all areas of his life. Like Driven, the movie is utterly funny and ridiculous, but unlike it that’s because it was really written that way. Ricky ascends to superstardom in NASCAR with the help of his sidekick Cal Naughton Jr. (ever notice there are a lot of Juniors in stock car racing?). Like Days of Thunder, Ricky loses his ride and his confidence after a horrible crash, then comes home from the hospital to find out he has lost everything else as well (even his wife, who leaves him for Cal because as a racing wife “I…don’t…work). Living at home with his mother and delivering pizzas, Ricky hits the comback trail with the help of his long-lost father (played to the hilt by Gary Cole) and his tough love driving lessons, and teams up with his PR chick Susan to face his fears and former F1 driver Jean Girard in a really, really bizarre finale. But after watching this year’s Daytona 500, I actually could see it happening.

Nights is funny as hell and is chock full of movie quotes that I use on a regular basis. And who names their kids Walker and Texas Ranger? Brilliant. Still, one pet peeve bothers the heck out of me about this movie and a lot of other racing movies. Why when Ricky and Cal are going to pass cars, they downshift? That bugs me like you would never believe! Nobody does that, especially in a stock car where doing that at speed would put a piston through the hood of the car. I guess you need some sort of trigger for the audience when you are going into beast-mode, so that might be the explanation. Whatever.

The Rumble Strip. Did you guys know that I have a podcast? Well, I do! Check out this week’s episode where I have an awesome conversation with Conor Daly. You can find it here on iTunes.

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