The Top 10 Racing Films… Ever

As we get ready to go back racing again, fever is starting to build around the imminent release of Ron Howard’s movie Rush. With a few weeks to go until the world gets to see what I and some of my colleagues have already been fortunate enough to have viewed, I thought I’d run down a list (a personal list) of what I reckon are the top 10 racing movies of all time. Well… at least, the ones that I’ve seen anyway.

Oh, and before we get started, I haven’t included Senna or TT3D Closer to the Edge, as I thought the list should stick to movies rather than documentaries… so here we go:

10. Cars

2006 – John Lasseter – Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt

cars

I’ve always been a huge fan of animation, and when Cars was released it combined two of my biggest loves. John Lasseter visited quite a few Grands Prix back in 2006 to promote the movie… not that he needed to. It was a huge smash. I don’t think we really need to explain the story of its success, the fact that Cars toys are still selling in huge numbers speaks volumes. Although based around NASCAR, Lasseter was smart enough to include voiceovers for important parts from famous racers in each territory so as to give it even more appeal. And when Cars 2 came out, the list of drivers wanting to take part in the film was huge. The best part of Cars 2 for me, however, was a cameo from my dear friend David Hobbscap.

9. Cannonball Run / Cannonball Run 2

1981 / 1984 – Hal Needham – Burt Reynolds + everyone cool

Cannonball_run

I’ve probably only included these as I was a huge fan as a kid. Actually it was probably because of Cannonball Run 2, which I watched religiously as a young lad… mostly because of Jill and Marcie, the Lambo girls. Wow. Anyway. Great fun, still a giggle 30 years later, and, of course, the spark that lit the fire of Gumball and all the other supercar road races that have sprung up in recent years. Classic fun and silliness.

8. Bobby Deerfield

1977 – Sydney Pollack – Al Pacino, Marthe Keller

600full-bobby-deerfield-poster

Almost universally derided as an artsey arsefest, Bobby Deerfield is actually something of a hidden gem for the racing fan owing to its tie in with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham F1 team in 1976. Al Pacino plays the hero, Bobby Deerfield, who for our purposes races for Brabham in Carlos Pace’s lid. The race footage is incredible, as is the behind the scenes look into the Brabham team. It’s a clear sign of Ecclestone’s business acumen that he should have allowed such brilliant access to Pollack’s crew. It’s a huge advert for Brabham and their sponsors. The story itself is a bit of an odd one. Reckless racer meets woman with mysterious and never fully explained illness. They fall in love, in the knowledge that ultimately both are facing death square in the face. It probably tries to be a little bit too profound, and as such misses the mark. It’s an uneasy watch, but at the same time bizarrely compelling. The racing footage is exquisite, though, and well worth a look.

7. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

2006 – Adam McKay – Will Ferrell, John C Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen.

will-ferrell

A wonderful sideways look at NASCAR, Talladega Nights became a cult classic in the racing community almost over night. It takes all the things that those within racing mock themselves for, and exploits them for all the world to see. The story follows the life of Ricky Bobby, a NASCAR boltie who one day takes over the wheel from his team’s arrogant, lazy driver and instantly becomes a success. He has to face his wife leaving him for his best friend and his greatest challenge – the arrival of a French Formula 1 driver, played brilliantly by Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Ali G).

Irreverent, hilarious… it’s a comedic masterpiece of absolute silliness. Shake and Bake baby, Shake and Bake.

6. Days of Thunder

1990 – Tony Scott – Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall

daysofthunder

OK. Let’s be honest. It’s basically Top Gun with cars. But Days of Thunder remains a fan favourite and, on reflection, not a bad movie at all. Yes it’s cheesy, yes it makes the ultimate Hollywood gaff of dropping down a gear to go for the pass, but it’s just so bloody brilliant. If you need proof that it has stood the test of time, just look up the livery that Kurt Busch ran at Daytona this year. Yep… the lime green and yellow made famous in the film. Every racer, no matter his age, no matter his discipline knows the line “Rubbin is racin…” And, it seems, the movie sparked something in Tom Cruise, who over the past two decades has become something of the petrolhead, even testing a Red Bull F1 car at Willow Springs.

5. The World’s Fastest Indian

2005 – Roger Donaldson – Anthony Hopkins, Iain Rea, Tessa Mitchell

film_poster_the_worlds_fastest_indian_roger_donaldson

OK, not strictly a “racing” film, but The World’s Fastest Indian deserves a high billing on this list. If you haven’t seen it, the movie is the real life story of Burt Monroe (Hopkins), a New Zealander who set the land speed record on a 1920 Indian motorbike in 1967 at Bonneville. Hopkins puts in an Oscar-worthy performance as Monroe, and it is surprising that the film didn’t gain more traction. It’s a great movie, and well worth pulling up on Netflix.

4. Winning

1969 – James Goldstone – Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Wagner

WINNING

Like Bobby Deerfield, it’s a racing film where the racing plays second fiddle to a personal story, and just like Bobby Deerfield the story doesn’t exactly draw you in. Paul Newman is masterful as our hero Frank Capua who, in his ambition to take on the Indy 500, risks losing his wife to his rival. The counterpoint to all of this is the role of his step-son, who seems wise to the fact that his Mum is a bit of a cow and his racing Stepdad is a bit of a dude. Again, and like Deerfield, the racing scenes are glorious and knowing what we do about Newman the racer, it has proper pedigree.

3. Le Mans

1971 – Lee H Katzin – Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen

lemansmar08

It’s a classic, but the plotline and script are horrific. Forget all of that, though… it’s one of the greatest racing movies ever made. Filmed beautifully, Le Mans gives over a phenomenal impression of the stress and emotion of racing at the highest levels. It’s also a snapshot in time of one of the greatest eras of Endurance racing. The film was a labor of love for McQueen, himself a tidy racer, and his love of the sport flows out of the screen. It’s not something you’re going to show your new squeeze if you want them to fall in love with the sport… or you. They’ll be asleep or out the door within the first 20 minutes. But if you have racing in your blood, you’ll already own a copy. On Blu Ray. And DVD. And VHS.

2. Grand Prix

1966 – John Frankenheimer – James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand

Grand-Prix-Movie

It’s funny how many people still slag this film off. Yes, it’s crushingly long and yes the story and script are a bit dodgy… but it was always, for me, the greatest racing film ever made. The racing footage is beyond compare. Considering when it was made, the on board scenes are astounding. The editing remains fresh and crisp 50 years on. And the sound… it gives you shivers. Few realise the film was a critical success too, picking up three Oscars (Best Sound Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.) No other racing movie can claim such an accomplishment. It has always been one of my favourite movies, and it always will be. And personally, I don’t even mind the storyline. Cameos from all the major drivers of the day, incredible race footage and racing around the Monza banking… it doesn’t get much better.

1. Rush

2013 – Ron Howard – Daniel Bruhl, Chris Hemsworth, Olivia Wilde

rush_ver4_xlg

Is it a cop out to put this at #1? Is it because I work for NBC which is owned by Universal, who are putting out the film? Is it because it is flavor of the month?

No.

Rush is, quite simply, the best racing movie ever made. I was blown away and, in its finale, moved to tears. It is the movie that racing fans have been waiting 50 years to see… possibly even longer. Hyperbole? Again, no. Rush is a masterpiece.

First the negatives… if you are a racing nut there are a few little elements that will annoy. There’s a bit of poetic license used in the season’s ebb and flow, and you may want to pull your hair out when Paul Ricard clearly isn’t Ricard, when Monza quite clearly isn’t Monza… but if these things annoy you then you’re missing the point. Look past your inner geek and simply enjoy the spectacle of what is an awesome movie.

I get the feeling most non-F1 fans will go to see Hemsworth. But they will leave remembering Bruhl. This may be pitched as focusing on James Hunt, but Rush is Niki’s tale. If Daniel Bruhl isn’t nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, I’ll be shocked. I don’t think I’ve seen an actor so become his subject since Tom Hardy’s breakthrough performance as Bronson. Bruhl doesn’t just play Niki Lauda… he IS Niki Lauda.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is perfect, the pace of the film is fast but allows sufficient breathing space, the script is nailed, the casting and performances are spot on… and it looks glorious.

Ron Howard has taken a story we all know and a sport we all love, and has produced a staggering work of beauty, brutality and brilliance.

I loved every minute of it… and I have a feeling you will too.

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39 thoughts on “The Top 10 Racing Films… Ever

  1. What about “Six-Pack”, great racing scenes even if we had to have Kenny Rogers pretending he was driving, a great feel-good movie with great NASCAR race scenes showing good dirt track footage as well!

  2. I can’t argue with much on this list. Unfortunately, the pool of good racing movies is quite shallow. If you are ‘singing for your supper’ with your review of “Rush”, it worked. I can’t wait to see it!

  3. I didn’t think I could want to watch Rush even more desperately than I already do, but this post gave me shivers.

    And Daniel Bruhl is such a brilliant actor, I’ve been following his career for a while and he always delivers pure talent in every movie. From the moment I knew he’d be the one to play Lauda in Rush, I was sure it was gonna be a blast.

    Will, the only thing unappreciated about this post was the classic statement about girls disliking racing movies (should I say racing stuff in general). Le Mans is a great movie, Steve McQueen is great in it and if a guy’s girlfriend isn’t into it at all he’d better just find a new one — girlfriend, not movie.

    I don’t know how many female readers you have in your blog, but I could bet they’re not so few, and they’re certainly not here only because of your lovely smile ;)

  4. That’s a Bummer! The list is great but none of us have even seen number 1! Of course like every one else I’m waiting impatiently and knowing Ron Howard, it will be great

  5. I think I might have switched Cannonball Run out with Gumball Rally as Raul Julia had one of the best lines in a movie ever when he climbs into a Ferrari (I think), rips out the rearview mirror and says, ‘What is behind us is of no importance.”

    Brilliant.

    BTW, Joana, if my mother was still alive, she’d already be lined up for this show …

  6. We will see with Rush… GrandPrix… its going to be hard to beat !! The Monte Carlo filming was done right before the race…that will be hard to beat..The open face mask…The Hi banks At Monza ….

  7. Will corrected me on twitter (rightly so) but I’ll repeat my response here. SENNA deserves to be on this list for one simple reason – a good to great movie is one you stop to watch when you’re changing channels and say “Hey, look, (insert name here) is on.” To put it another way, if there’s a favorable chance that you stop changing channels to enjoy seeing something, yet again – regardless of how many times you’ve seen it previously – that’s a good film to me. That’s my main qualification for a good to great film. All that being said, I agree CARS and LE MANS but the rest I have either not seen all the way through (Ricky Bobby, Days of Thunder) or have seen only once.

    On a list of good films, I’d also nominate the documentary “3”, STROKER ACE, and (honorable mention) the YOUTUBE video “I Was Seventh”.

    I would enjoy reading Will’s list of Best Movie Auto Chases (excluding Bond films, which would be a top ten list of it’s own). I nominate AKIRA, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, and BULLITT to that list… lol

  8. A great list and well done for missing out Driven. I wonder what a Driven 2 would have been like?

    I really can’t wait to see Rush and I am a big fan of the acting of Daniel Bruhl. Back when I was studying German at school, I was introduced to the film ‘Good Bye, Lenin’ which stars Bruhl and it is one of my favourite films of all time (I’d encourage EVERYONE to watch it). I just can’t wait for Rush to be released.

    I need to check out ‘Winning’ – it’s been on my potential watch list for a while.

    • George, you should watch “Lessons of a Dream” (“Der ganz große Traum”). Bruhl plays a school teacher who introduces football (an English novelty then) to his students in the 19th century Germany. His acting is simply superb. And it’s nice to see he’s no newbie to sports relating movies.

  9. It’s a shame you didn’t include documentaries. In my mind, Truth in 24 and Truth in 24 II (both of which are free to view on YouTube, perfectly legally) are two of the finest racing films ever. They document the drama and emotion of two of Audi’s greatest successes at Le Mans, in 2008 and 2011. For a racing fan they have everything you need – beautiful cars on a beautiful race track, and no Hollywood CGI.

    • Forgot to add that it is well regarded that if it hadn’t been for the success of Truth in 24, Senna would never have become reality.

  10. Iffin y’all include CB and CBII, Gumball Rally was FAR superior to dem, had a better cast, better driving, better cars and Yates!

  11. Great list, with a couple of films I have yet to see. I do however think it is a shame that the movie that kickstarted my love of cars and racing (while I was learning to walk and talk, granted) was missed out. How could you forget HERBIE?

    Seriously though, great job. :)

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  13. Adding to the nominations on documentary side and including two (and three) wheels:
    The Speed Merchants
    On Any Sunday (1 then 2)
    Take It To The Limit
    Speedway makes my list by the presence of Mario and family.

  14. Speaking of Bobby Deerfield and “The story itself is a bit of an odd one” – that’s a filming of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Heaven Has No Favorites (originally Borrowed Life), no wonder that a story seems odd :)
    And, actually, I was hoping that Bruhl wouldn’t be bad in Rush because I know him way better than Hemsworth. Daniel is very talented actor and if he is really that good, I probably will go to the cimena. I wanted to wait for the some shows with original sound, but your descriprion just pushes me to go and see the movie even with Russian dubbing.
    Thanks for an interesting post :)

  15. It’s short but doesn’t The Sound Of Speed belong on the list? It set the standard for in car filming and stands up today some 50 odd years later. Plus you get to visit one of the great lost circuits, Riverside Raceway.

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  18. Thank you for giving Grand Prix its due. Without a doubt, it’s my favorite racing movie of all time (but I won’t see Rush until tonight). When you watch it, all of your senses are engaged. Might have to watch it tonight after seeing Rush.

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