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The best auto racing movies to convert non-racing fans

by | Mar 23, 2023

There are two kinds of people in the world: race fans and people who haven’t watched these movies.

If you’re not a fan, auto racing may seem like sort of the Earth-borne equivalent of space exploration: an oddly unsatisfying venture hallmarked by astronomical costs for its participants, punctuated by seemingly repetitive events with outcomes of vague practical value.

If you are a fan, you embrace – make that celebrate – an adrenaline-pumping sport that values performance above all, unapologetically defines second place as first loser, and demands a unique combination of finesse, fearlessness, and financing. Motorsports have also driven the evolution of valuable passenger vehicle technology more than any space mission ever has, regardless of how boldly that mission went where no man has gone before. From lubricants to lightweight composites and from full-view mirrors to fuel-efficient turbos, auto racing has spawned countless innovations that eventually found their way into modern cars and trucks.

You may safely assume I’m in the latter category (I’m addicted to Formula One) and if you read this far, you’re probably a racing fan, too. But for those unfortunate folks who are missing out on the thrill of watching or participating in motorsports, short of putting their fanny in the seat of a racecar there’s no better conversion therapy than watching a great racing movie.

Based on no statistically valid sample whatsoever but rather strictly on the enthusiastic reactions of diverse family and friends of mine who wouldn’t know a flywheel from a Ferris wheel, here are my picks for the best auto racing movies from the last 50 years. Find ‘em on your favorite streaming service and stage a movie night intervention with a non-fan. If at least one of these flicks doesn’t inspire him or her to care about motorsports, check for a pulse.

Best Documentary

Senna – 2010

Why start a list of the best movies with a documentary? Because “Senna” is both, using a cinematic style akin to a major motion picture rather than the by-the-numbers presentation more typical of documentaries. The result is a film like no other about a Formula One driver that many fans feel had no equal then or now. Ayrton Senna won the F1 world championship three times over an incredibly successful decade-long career that ended in a horrific fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, in 1994. A few critics of this riveting, pulse-pounding, and poignant documentary claim that it’s one-sided in its evident affection for one of the greatest drivers in auto racing history. For most fans – and certainly for Senna’s fellow Brazilians who revere the driver – that’s a good thing.

Old-School Alternative: Check out “Weekend of a Champion (2013) for a rare, inside look at the legendary Jackie Stewart’s 1971 pursuit of a win at the most famous F1 race, the Monaco Grand Prix.

Best Stock Car Racing Movie

Days of Thunder – 1990

Fresh off the success of Top Gun in 1986, a young Tom Cruise went to the same plot well again with this blockbuster about the fictional exploits of a gifted driver who wins the NASCAR championship, learns the value of humility and mechanical engineering from a sensational Robert Duvall, gets some very mixed life lessons from an almost unrecognizable Burt Reynolds, and wins the love of Nicole Kidman. What’s not to like? Other than a few silly scenes that portray stock car racing as a very expensive demolition derby and even sillier scriptwriting (“…if he comes near me, I’m gonna put him in the wall!”), this movie’s bumper-to-bumper action and healthy dose of humor are the closest thing we have so far to a motion picture depicting the high-octane thrill of stock car racing.

Funniest Alternative: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), if you can handle an overdose of overbaked stereotypes and Will Ferrell’s brand of improvised humor is your thing, have at it. This buddy film, featuring the always-reliable John C. Reilly and always-odd Sacha Baron Cohen, grossed $163 million at the box office. Shake and bake, baby!

Best Open-Wheel Racing Movie

Rush – 2013

No fan loves modern racecar technology more than me, but in the 1970s, Formula One championships weren’t decided by engineering tech as much as by larger-than-life drivers like Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Their rivalry, and polar-opposite lifestyles and approaches to racing make for one of the most exciting, moving, and true-to-life (by Hollywood standards) accounts of two legendary F1 drivers who grew from on-track enemies to off-track friends.

So-Bad-It’s-Good Alternative: “Driven” (2001) Even Rocky couldn’t save this mishmash of a film that’s part soap opera, part CART league racing (I think—I’ve watched this movie three times and I’m still not sure) bogged down by a plot that’s as predictable as a Hallmark Christmas movie. Watch it for the same reason you might watch Ed Wood’s camp classic “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and to remind yourself that tomorrow, you need to find a real hobby.

Best Racing Movie to Date

Ford v Ferrari – 2019

Respect to director James Mangold and writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, who found the Holy Grail of motorsports movies with this terrific tale that hits the perfect apex on every turn of its true story: Memorable characters? Check. Success against all odds? You betcha. Incredible re-creations of the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans race? Nails it. Actors who embody the racing heroes they’re portraying? It doesn’t get any better than Matt Damon and Christian Bale, playing auto industry legend Carroll Shelby and driver/engineer extraordinaire Ken Miles, respectively. This is truly a movie for everyone, as evidenced by its $226 million dollar box office – the highest of any true life racing film, ever.

Best Alternative: There isn’t one. It’s that good.

Have I missed any of your favorites? Disagree with my choices? Let me know in the comments!

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