Hollywood Goes Racing


Since at least the 1930s, Hollywood has used auto racing as the main theme of motion pictures featuring big-name stars. Those films have all had several common elements:

  • A fierce rivalry between the main star and another race driver (or drivers).
  • A love interest who usually doesn't understand the fascination with the sport.
  • A fiery crash that leaves someone dead or seriously injured and results in the main star questioning his motives for racing.
  • A turning point that puts the main star back on the road to victory.
  • And, lots of racing action.

As a big auto racing fan since I was at least 12 years old, Hollywood's racing films have always been among my favorite reasons for going to the movies. So, here's a quick look at some of the most important auto racing films that have come out of Hollywood.

The Auto Racing Films

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The Crowd Roars
Warner Brothers (1932 - BW/70 min.)

Plot: Exciting racing driver tale with Cagney in typically cocky role, familiar plot devices, but well done. -- Leonard Maltin, 1998 Movie & Video Guide.

  • James Cagney
  • Joan Blondell
  • Ann Dvorak
  • Eric Linden
  • Guy Kibbee
  • Frank McHugh
  • Directed by Howard Hawk

Comments: I've never seen this one, but it's the earliest racing film to which I can find reference. It was remade a few years later as Indianapolis Speedway with Pat O'Brien in the starring role.

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Indianapolis Speedway
Warner Brothers (1939 - BW/82 min.) **

Plot: National racing champion Joe Greer (Pat O'Brien) comes home to find that his younger brother Eddie (John Payne) is beginning to build a racing career for himself. But Joe wants his brother to make a better life for himself by going to college. When Eddie continues his racing, Joe becomes more aggressive in his attempts to make Eddie stop, resulting in the fiery death of a long-time family friend and fellow driver Spud O'Connor (Frank McHugh). After giving up racing for a time, Joe comes back to help Eddie win the Indianapolis 500.

  • Pat O'Brien as "Joe Greer"
  • John Payne as "Eddie Greer"
  • Frank McHugh as "Spud O'Connor"
  • Ann Sheridan as Joe's lady friend "Frankie"
  • Gale Page as Eddie's lady friend "Lee"
  • Directed by Lloyd Bacon

Comments: The film starts out with the Greer brothers competing in dirt track races on the West Coast and eventually focuses in on the Indianapolis 500. Considering the movie-making technology of the time, the racing scenes are good -- though unspectacular by today's standards. The standouts are the scenes taken from an actual 1930s Indianapolis race. A big portion of the film is taken up with the personal relationship between the two brothers and with their respective lady friends. Note that Frank McHugh also appeared in the 1932 original The Crowd Roars

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The Big Wheel
United Artists (1949 - BW/92 min.) **

Plot: Billy Coy (Mickey Rooney) comes to California to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was killed during an Indianapolis 500 race. The elder Coy's former team mate and friend (Thomas Mitchell) takes Bill under his wing and soon has him winning sprint car races along the West Coast. But when Billy is blamed for the accidental death of his racing team mate and is rejected by the other local drivers, he takes off for the Mid-West, where he eventually finds himself in contention to win the Indianapolis 500.

  • Mickey Rooney as "Billy Coy"
  • Thomas Mitchell as Billy's mentor "Arthur"
  • Steve Brodie as Billy's team mate
  • Spring Byington as Billy's mother "Mary"
  • Hattie McDaniel as Billy's lady friend
  • Directed by Edward Ludwig

Comments: The racing scenes are better produced than in the 1939 Indianapolis Speedway. The sprint races aren't a blur of blown dust (as in the previous film), giving a better view of the action, but the Indianapolis 500 footage is again the highlight. The plot has a few twists from the two earlier films, but the basic plot elements are all there. Again, the interpersonal relationships take up the major portion of the film.

To Please A Lady
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1950 - BW/91 min.) ***

Plot: Mike Brannan (Clark Gable) is a former Indy 500 driver and World War Two hero who is trying to rebuild his interrupted racing career on the tough northeastern midget circuit. Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck) is an aggressive and successful national newspaper columnist who becomes interested in Brannan because the former war hero's rough driving has made him into a dirt track villain. Forbes' attack on Brannan results in his being blacklisted from midget racing and forces him to take a job as a stunt driver in Joie Chitwood's Thrill Show. But, Forbes' fascination with Brannan turns to love and she attempts to reform him when he switches to racing "Big Cars". The finale takes place at the 1950 Indy 500.

  • Clark Gable as "Mike Brannan"
  • Barbara Stanwyck as "Regina Forbes"
  • Adolph Menjou as Regina's assistant
  • Will Geer as Mike's Indy crew chief
  • Directed by Clarence Brown

Comments: Clark Gable loved auto racing so much that he later said that he would have done this film for free! His enthusiasm shows in the racing scenes which were shot at Carroll Speedway in Los Angeles (Midgets), on the one mile fairgrounds dirt track at Del Mar, California ("Big Cars") and during the running of the 1950 Indy 500. The finale at Indy features a terrific battle between Brannan and three-time Indy 500 champion Mauri Rose (played by himself). Racing scenes and special effects are very good for the era. Gable and Stanwyck really sizzle in this surprisingly contemporary story about love and ethics. To Please A Lady is available on video through MGM/UA Home Video, 2500 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA 90404-3061. [Contributed by Robby McHenry]

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The Racers
20th Century Fox (1955 - Color/112 min.) ***

Plot: Gino Borgesa (Kirk Douglas) is a driver for a small independent team that's trying to make it in the big-time European race circuit. When he gets a break and the chance to drive for an established team, his agressiveness soon results in his winning the world driving championship, but also lands in him trouble with both of is team mates (Gilbert Roland and Cesar Romero) and his lady friend (Bella Darvi). But when Dell'Oro (Roland) suffers a serious accident, Gino stops while leading a big race to help his friend.

  • Kirk Douglas as "Gino Borgesa"
  • Gilbert Roland as Gino's team mate "Dell'Oro"
  • Cesar Romera as Gino's team mate "Carlos"
  • Lee J. Cobb as Gino's team manager "Mario"
  • Bella Darvi as Gino's lady friend "Nickie"
  • Directed by Henry Hathaway

Comments: Color comes to auto racing films in a big way. Despite the age of this film, it has great action sequences of both sports car and grand prix races in such exotic racing locales as Monaco (Monte Carlo), Nurburgring (Germany), Spa (Belgium), Reims (France), and the Mille Miglia (Italy). The in-cockpit closeups of the drivers are obviously superimposed on projected background images, but the photography of the cars on the track is excellent and an interesting study of European road racing during the 1950s. The interpersonal relationships are there, of course, but they don't overwhelm the racing action.

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Grand Prix
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1966 - Color/171 min.) ****

Plot: Pete Aron (James Garner) is an American grand prix driver with a reputation for hard luck and causing accidents. When his team mate (Brian Bedford) is critically injured in an accident involving Pete, he's fired from the team. However, Pete soon finds himself driving and winning for a new Japanese team that's trying to make it in the grand prix scene. Along the way, Pete has a fling with his former team mate's wife (Jessica Walters), and another driver (Yves Montand), who's ready to retire and settle down with his lover (Eva Marie Saint), doesn't survive his last race.

  • James Garner as "Pete Aron"
  • Brian Bedford as "Scott Stoddard"
  • Yves Montand as "Jean-Piere Sarte"
  • Antonio Sabato as "Nino Barlini"
  • Toshira Mifuno as "Izo Yamura"
  • Eva Marie Saint as Sarte's lover "Louise"
  • Jessica Walters as Stoddard's wife "Pat"
  • Francoise Hardy as Barlini's lady friend "Lisa"
  • Antonio Celi as "Il Commendatore"
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Academy Awards for "Film Editing" and "Sound"

Comments: Grand Prix set a new standard that all future racing films would have to live up to. Although the interpersonal relationships take up an unnecessarily large portion of the film (in my view), the racing action is superb. Action sequences from actual grand prix races in such places as Monaco (Monte Carlo), Spa (Belgium), Zandvoort (Netherlands), Brands Hatch (United Kingdom), and Monza (Italy) are seamlessly matched to staged sequences at those same locations in which many of the actual race drivers -- and James Garner himself -- did the driving. The "driver's view" scenes were filmed by a camera mounted to the nose of a Ford GT-40 sports race car for added realism. By the way, race fans will recognize that the helmet colors worn by the four main characters are the colors actually worn by: (Chris Amon aka Pete Aron, John Surtees aka Jean-Pierre Sarte, Jackie Stewart aka Scott Stoddard, and Lorenzo Bandini aka Nino Barlini). Other grand prix drivers of the time, including Dan Gurney and his Eagle, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Richie Ginther, Bob Bondurant, Jochen Rindt, Jo Bonnier, Mike Spence, and Jim Clark (in cockpit only) also make cameo appearances. Grand Prix was originally filmed in Cinerama (a superwide screen format) and must have been spectacular to see on the BIG screen (unfortunately I never had that opportunity). However, even on video on a 25" TV screen its a sight to see. True racing fans will fast forward through the "interludes" between races to get to the good stuff!

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Universal (1969 - Color/123 min.) ***

Plot: After winning a Can-Am sports car race, Frank Capua (Paul Newman) meets and soon marries a young woman (Joanne Woodward), and begins to develop family ties with her and her teenaged son (Richard Thomas). But when Frank's wife has an affair with racing rival Lou Erding (Robert Wagner), the rivalry takes on a more personal note that carries into their attempts to win the Indianapolis 500.

  • Paul Newman as "Frank Capua"
  • Robert Wagner as "Lou Erding"
  • Joanne Woodward as Frank's wife "Elora"
  • Richard Thomas as Elora's son "Charley"
  • David Scheiner as team owner "Crawford"
  • Directed by James Goldstone

Comments: Almost half the film is gone before we see the main racing event, the Indy 500. Before that, there are a few short scenes of the opening Can-Am race and two stock car road races (at Riverside and Elkhart Lake). Although the Indianapolis footage has a few discrepancies (like intercutting scenes from the 1966, 1967, and 1968 races) it's a special treat for me because the cars driven by Paul Newman and Robert Wagner are Dan Gurney Eagles. In fact the red No. 3 driven by Paul Newman's character was the one actually driven by Bobby Unser to an Indianapolis 500 victory in 1968 and the blue No. 42 driven by Robert Wagner's character was actually driven by Jerry Grant and Dennis Hulme (in different years). Incidentally, Paul Newman, soon after the making of this film, began a second career as a very successful race driver, winning several national sports car championships. He later became involved in Indy Car racing as part owner of the team for which Indy Car legends Mario and Michael Andretti drove for many years.

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Le Mans
Cinema Center Films (1971 - Color/106 min.) *****

Plot: Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) returns to the 24-hour sports car endurance race at Le Mans, France after being involved in an accident the prior year that killed racing rival Belgetti. Delaney meets Belgetti's widow, Lisa (Elga Andersen), and (it is implied) begins to develop a relationship with her. Meanwhile, the 24-hour race turns into a fierce battle between the Gulf Porsche and Ferrari teams.

  • Steve McQueen as "Michael Delaney"
  • Siegfried Rauch as "Eric Stahler"
  • Fred Haltiner as "Johan Ritter"
  • Luc Merenda as "Claude Auroc"
  • Christopher Waite as "Larry Wilson"
  • Angello Infanti as "Lugo Abratte"
  • Ronald Leigh-Hunt as "David Townsend"
  • Elga Andersen as "Lisa Belgetti"
  • Louise Edlind as "Ana Ritter"
  • Directed by Lee H. Katzin

Comments: Without question, for the race fan, Le Mans is the unquestioned King! Steve McQueen, who before his death had a personal passion for auto racing, was painstakingly detailed in overseeing the production of this film -- and it shows. Less than 15 minutes of the film takes place off the race track, and the photography is exquisite in its detail and realism. Watching Le Mans is as close as you'll get to being at a Le Mans race without flying to France in mid-June! The "driver's view" sequences in the driving rain give you a clear understanding of the courage (or stupidity, some might say) of the drivers who do this for a living. Another highlight is McQueen's Porsche 917 tearing itself apart against the guard rails in excruciatingly detailed slow motion. Some of the real-life drivers who participated in the making of Le Mans included past winners of the 24-Hours of Le Mans, such as Derek Bell, Jackie Ickx, and Masten Gregory. If you're a racing fan and want just one racing film for your collection, this is it!

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Heart Like a Wheel
20th Century Fox (1983 - Color/113 min.) ****

Plot: True biographical story of Shirley Muldowney's struggle to break into the "man's only" world of professional drag racing. Muldowney (played by Bonnie Bedelia) ran her first professional race in 1966, and by 1977 had become the first woman to win the NHRA World Championship in the Top Fuel class (the premiere drag racing category). She won a second World Championship in 1980 and followed with a third in 1982. Muldowney's rise to fame wasn't without its setbacks, however, including a stormy romance with fellow drag racer Connie Kalitta (played by Beau Bridges) and a fiery engine explosion in 1973 that almost ended her career. In 1998, Shirley Muldowney was still a competitor and winner in Top Fuel drag racing.

  • Bonnie Bedelia as "Shirley Muldowney"
  • Beau Bridges as "Connie Kalitta"
  • Bill McKinney as "'Big Daddy' Don Garlits"
  • Hoyt Axton as "Tex Roque"
  • Leo Rossi as Shirley's husband "Jack Muldowney"
  • Anthony Edwards as Shirley's son "John Muldowney"
  • Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Comments: Unlike all of the other racing films discussed here, this is the only one that's based on the real-life story of a race driver. Despite a lot of non-racing scenes, Shirley Muldowney's rise through the ranks of drag racing's elite is an interesting and emotional one, and the well done, if short, racing sequences add to the realism and drama.

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Days of Thunder
Paramount (1990 - Color/107 min.) **

Plot: NASCAR stock car racing team owner Tim Deland (Randy Quaid) convinces Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of retirement to manage his new team. Hogge takes the hot shot sprint car driver Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) under his wing and teaches him the ropes in NASCAR racing. But when Cole tangles with super aggressive competitor Rowdy Burks (Michael Rooker), the results are a lot of twisted race cars and a violent crash that puts both Cole and Rowdy in the hospital. There, Cole meets and begins to fall for the pretty Doctor Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) and begins physical therapy that eventually returns him to the race track. Rowdy isn't so lucky, however, and Cole has trouble getting the guilt for Rowdy's injuries from his mind. Of course, he eventually does and goes on to win the Daytona 500.

  • Tom Cruise as "Cole Trickle"
  • Robert Duvall as "Harry Hogge"
  • Randy Quaid as "Tim Deland"
  • Michael Rooker as "Rowdy Burks"
  • Cary Edwes as "Russ Wheeler"
  • Nicole Kidman as "Dr. Claire Lewicki"
  • Directed by Tony Scott

Comments: Despite the big-name actors and fast-paced stock car racing sequences, I found this film to be the most disappointing of the ones discussed here. The main reason is that Days of Thunder comes off as "Top Gun on Wheels," with little realism in the overly aggressive and downright dangerous antics of the featured drivers and the complete lack of disciplinary sanctions being imposed by NASCAR. Although NASCAR racing is known and loved for it's fender-to-fender and bumper-to-bumper close racing, what this film presents verges on "science fiction" in my opinion. The main characters -- Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burks, and Russ Wheeler -- would all have been either dead or permanently banned from NASCAR (and perhaps all) racing if real life stock car racing was this wild. I would have preferred a more realistic portrayal of NASCAR racing without all the "slam bang" goings on.

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Warner Brothers (2001 - Color/127 min.) ***

Plot: Basically an "open wheel" version of Days of Thunder, this film is based on a hot rivalry in the CART Champ Car series, where team manager Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) brings back retired racer Joe Tanto (Sylvester Stallone) to mentor young driver Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue), who's losing his nerve on the race circuit. A hot rivalry ensues between Bly and German racer Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) both on and off the track as a love interest gets involved. The near fatal crash of fellow driver Mimo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente) gets the rivals to thinking about what's really important in life, and things end up pretty well for all concerned.

  • Sylvester Stallone as "Joe Tanto"
  • Kip Pardue as "Jimmy Bly"
  • Til Scheiger as "Beau Brandenburg"
  • Cristian de la Fuente as "Mimo Moreno"
  • Burt Reynolds as "Carl Henry"
  • Estelle Warren as "Sophia"
  • Gina Gershon as "Cathy"
  • Stacey Edwards as "Luc"
  • Robert Sean Leonard as "deMille Bly"
  • Directed by Renny Harlin

Comments: For all the criticism it received in the press, this film is actually more believable than Days of Thunder. Yes, there are spectacular (special effects enhanced) crashes, but here they're just part of the racing action, not outright caused by the over-agressive and reckless antics of the drivers. I do have some quibbles about the racing action because it detracts from its authenticity. First, no where is CART mentioned in the film. For non-racing fans, this could just have been part of the World Formula One Championship. In fact, the over-emphasis on the European element strengthens that belief. Second, as fancy as the special effect crashes were, they were clearly fake. In comparison, the crashes in both Grand Prix and Le Mans were much more believable and realistic. In this case, less computerized special effects would have made for an overall better movie.

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Disney/Pixar (2006 - Color/114 min.) *****

Talladega Nights
Columbia Pictures (2006 - Color/110 min.) ***

Plot: Two NASCAR-based movies were released in 2006, and two films based on the same form of auto racing couldn't be more different from each other. Cars, a computer-animated movie starring Owen Wilson as the voice of rookie stock car Lightning McQueen is a rush of excitement and nostalgia as we follow Lightning's journey of discovery from the high-banked tracks of "Piston Cup" racing to a sleepy little town lost on the old Route 66 trail. The story-telling geniuses at Pixar Studio give us an entertaining tale about what cars might feel if they were alive, and they remind us that the trip is often more important than the destination. No less an automotive authority than Autoweek magazine called Cars perhaps the best movie about cars ever made.

On the other hand, there's Talladega Nights starring Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, a winning NASCAR driver who loses it completely after an end-over-end crash and struggles to regain his confidence as he battles an egocentric French Formula One driver who has come to America to conquer stock car racing. I know I'll probably get a lot of negative emails about this, but I'm just not a Will Ferrell fan. Maybe I'm just part of the wrong generation, but I didn't find him funny on Saturday Night Live and I don't find him funny in this film. The racing footage is great, but I wish there was a lot more of that and less of Will Ferrell's crazy antics. As for a blockbuster, realistic movie about NASCAR racing, I'm still waiting for the stock car equivalent of open-wheel racing's Grand Prix and sports car racing's Le Mans.

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Exclusive Media/Universal Pictures (2013 - Color/123 min.) ****

Plot: Based on the true life stories of Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1976 championship season, "Rush" presents the bitter rivalry between these two drivers and how, after a near-fatal crash during the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring, Lauda came back from terrible burns to challenge Hunt for the championship. The behind-the-scenes rivalry and personal lives of the drivers are also portrayed in the film.

  • Chris Hemsworth as "James Hunt"
  • Daniel Brühl as "Niki Lauda"
  • Olivia Wilde as "Suzy Miller"
  • Natalie Dormer as "Gemma"
  • Alexandra Maria Lara as "Marlene Knaus"
  • Pierfrancesco Favino as "Clay Regazzoni"
  • Christian McKay as "Alexander Hesketh"
  • Sean Edwards as "Guy Edwards"
  • Martin J Smith as "Jody Scheckter"
  • Rob Austin as "Brett Lunger"
  • Directed by Ron Howard

Short Synopses

Here's a list of additional racing films, as contributed by Michael Keyser.

  • The Crowd Roars (1932) - James Cagney, John Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh. Entertaining early talkie with a great cast-- especially Cagney in his typical outspoken energetic style. Also known as Indianapolis Speedway.

  • Speed (1936) - James Stewart, Wendy Barrie, Una Merkel, Ted Healy, Weldon Heyburn, Ralph Morgan, Patricia Wilder. The racing scenes are dull but Stewart is not. He plays a driver-mechanic who develops a high-speed carburetor. Good cast too.

  • Indianapolis Speedway (1939) - Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, John Payne, Gale Page, Frank McHugh, John Ridgely, Regis Toomey. The story of two brothers and their rivalry on and off the track with a solid cast-- especially Sheridan. Decent remake of The Crowd Roars but we prefer the original.

  • The Big Wheel (1949) - Mickey Rooney, Thomas Mitchell, Spring Byington, Mary Hatcher, Allen Jenkins, Michael O'Shea. Rooney, like Cagney, is a natural for the never-say-die race car driver role. Here he plays a young driver out to clear his deceased father's name on and off the track.

  • To Please a Lady (1950) - Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Roland Winters, Will Geer, Emory Parnell, Frank Jenks. Gable's the driver, Stanwyck's the reporter. Nothing special here.

  • Genevieve (1953) - Dinah Sheridan, John Gregson, Kay Kendall, Kenneth More, Geoffrey Keen, Joyce Grenfell, Michael Medwin. British comedy about two rivals in a cross-country race. This was voted the best film in Great Britain that year but only if you like British humor.

  • Race for Life (1954) - Richard Conti, Mari Aldon, George Coulouris. Formula British quickie put together in hopes of cashing in on Genevieve success. This ones about stock car racing in Europe.

  • Drive a Crooked Road (1954) - Mickey Rooney, Dianne Foster, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Kelly, Harry Landers. This time Rooney is a mechanic with dreams of becoming famous race car driver. Unfortunately, he falls in with gangsters. All of Rooney's movies are worth seeing.

  • The Racers (1955) - Kirk Douglas, Bella Darvi, Gilbert Roland, Lee J. Cobb, Cesar Romero, Katy Jurado. Douglas lifts average yarn about stock car racing in Europe shot on location. Worth a look.

  • Dragstrip Girl (1957) - Fay Spain, Steve Terrell, John Ashley, Frank Gorshin, Russ Bender, Tommy Ivo. Low budget AIP quickie generally lumped into the teen exploitation category. Lots of cars and girls but is better than most of the junk of that genre. A few crime scenes were thrown in for good measure.

  • The Devil's Hairpin (1957) - Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace, Mary Astor. Reckless sports car champion learns fair play on the track, above average racing scenes.

  • Speed Crazy (1959) - Brett Halsey, Yvonne Lime, Charles Wilcox, Slick Slavin, Jackie Joseph. Allied Artists exploitation camp that boasts, "From juke joint to drag strip… it's the livin' end!" Comic singer Slavin croons Ghost Town Rock and the title tune. This was B-movie queen Lime's last role.

  • Thunder in Carolina (1960) - Rory Calhoun, Alan Hale, Jr., Connie Hines. Script by Alexander Richards, directed by Paul Helmick. Contains remarkable 1959-vintage stock car race footage. Filmed at a number of small dirt ovals in the South, the script is based around the Southern 500 NASCAR race in Darlington, South Carolina. All filming was done in 1959 with much of the footage taken during the actual event. A film car was entered to capture on-track sequences and Rory Calhoun actually ran some laps during the race. Calhoun drives a 1957 Chevrolet while his friend-turned-competitor "Les York" is in a 1959 Oldsmobile. (Source: wikipedia.org)

  • Green Helmet (1961) - British-made film about a Mille Miglia-style racing event.

  • The Young Racers (1963) - Mark Damon, William Campbell, Patrick Magee, Luana Landers, Robert Campbell. Roger Corman quickie about ex-driver writing an expose on the sport.

  • Viva Las Vegas! (1964) - Elvis Presley, Ann-Margaret, Cesare Danova, William Demerest, Jack Carter. The two stars make this film worth while along with the energetic title tune. Elvis is Lucky Jackson who romances the luscious Rusty Martin (just like in real life with her). [Elvis holds the final note of the title tune as long as he did on My Way-- both a stunning tribute to the King's great (and sometimes underrated) voice.]

  • The Lively Set (1964) - James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Doug McClure, Joanie Sommers, Marilyn Maxwell, Charles Drake, Greg Morris. So-so story of college kid dropping out to become racecar driver. The Surfaris sing Boss Baracuda and Sommers also sings. Bobby Darin and Randy Newman handled the arrangements.

  • The Great Race (1965) - Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn, Larry Storch, Dorothy Provine, Arthur O'Connell, Vivian Vance, Ross Martin, George Macready. Blake Edward's comedy about a cross-country race tries hard to be funny but often falls short. We'd rather watch It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, mad World. However, the impressive color photography, soundtrack and excellent editing all won Oscar nominations.

  • Red Line 7000 (1965) - James Caan, Laura Devon, Gail Hire, Charlene Holt. Average story about three Daytona stock car drivers and their problems on and off the track. Cann and director Howard Hawkes try their best but the so-so cast and script are too much to overcome. [Elvis Presley turned down this script.]

  • Fireball 500 (1966) - Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Fabian, Chill Wills, Harvey Lembeck, Julie Parrish. The beach party crowd on wheels. Forget it.

  • Grand Prix (1966) - James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter, Francoise Hardy. Average story of the lives and loves of racecar drivers is enhanced by international cast and innovative editing techniques (that won an Oscar). Director John Frankenheimer said he employed some of the same techniques that television employed during their coverage of the previous year's World Series.

  • Spinout (1966) - Elvis Presley, Shelly Fabares, Diane McBain, Deborah Walley, Cecil Kellaway, Una Merkel, Warren Beringer, Carl Betz, Will Hutchins. Elvis plays Mike McCoy, a race car driver who chases girls on the side. [Fabares, long a staple of teen movies and TV sitcoms, co-starred in three Elvis movies. Betz also played her father on The Donna Reed Show.]

  • Hot Rod Hullabaloo (1966) - John Arnold, Arlen Dean Snyder, Kendra Kerr, Marsha Mason. Silly teen flick by Allied Artists features hot rod races and demolition derbies.

  • Thunder Alley (1967) - Annette Funicello, Fabian, Diane McBain, Warren Belinger, Jan Murray, Maureen Arthur. Low budget quickie about stockcar racer Fabian and his troubles on and off the track.

  • Speedway (1968) - Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, Bill Bixby, Gale Gordon, William Schallert. Stock car racer Steve Grayson romances tax accountant Susan Jacks. The title tune is a decent rocker with revving motors heard on the fadeout. [Elvis and Nancy were long-time "friends." She met him at the airport upon his release from the army in 1960.]

  • The Wild Racers (1968) - Fabian, Mimsy Farmer, Judy Cornwall, David Landers. Strictly a vehicle to get the fading Fabian's career back on track. It didn't work.

  • Tracks of Thunder (1968) - Tom Kirk, Ray Stricklynd. Low budget story of a couple of small-time stock car rivals.

  • Winning (1969) - Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Richard Thomas, Robert Wagner. Newman plays a driver who feels that winning is the most important thing in his life. Another winner from husband and wife team. Newman has a passion for racing his own cars in real life.

  • Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) - Tony Curtis, Susan Hampshire, Terry-Thomas, Eric Sykes, Dudley Moore. British comedy about 1920 cross-country car race. Average and still not Genevieve.

  • Le Mans (1971) - Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Anderson, Ronald Leigh-Hunt. Grand Prix auto racing with good camera work and fine acting from McQueen. But how many picked up the fact that director Lee H. Katzin criticized the profession and the public for it's perverse thrill of the crash.

  • Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) - James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson, David Drake, Richard Ruth. A 1955 Chevy and a brand new GTO race across the great Southwest in this intense film that has become a cult favorite.

  • The Last American Hero (1973) - Jeff Bridges, Valerie Perrine, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Art Lund, Gary Busey, Ed Lauter, Ned Beatty. The entertaining though sometimes cynical story of Junior Jackson, the backwoods, radical racecar driver caught up in a dog-eat-dog world. Also known as Hard Driver.

  • Death Race 2000 (1975) - David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Louisa Moritz, Mary Woronov, Don Steele, Joyce Jameson. Comedy-farce about a future society whose chief sport is the death race. Running down any living thing that crosses your path-- including people-- scores points and wins the contest. Kind of a Rollerball with high performance engines.

  • The Gumball Rally (1976) - Michael Sarrazin, Tim McIntyre, Raul Julia, Normann Burton, Gary Busey. The best of the American made cross-country race movies. All were inspired by the real life event.

  • Cannonball (1976) - David Carradine, Veronica Hamel, Bill McKinney, Gerrit Graham, Robert Carradine, Belinda Balaski, Judy Canova, Carl Gottlieb. Sequel to Gumball Rally is not as good but way better than the Cannonball bombs. Cameos by Sylvester Stallone, Roger Corman, Martin Scorsese and many others.

  • Greased Lightning (1977) - Richard Pryor, Beau Bridges, Pam Greer, Cleavon Little, Vincent Gardenia, Richie Havens, Julian Bond. The story of Wendell Scott, the first black racecar driver, suffers from a poor script. Good cast is wasted here.

  • Bobby Deerfield (1977) - Al Pacino, Marthe Keller, Anny Duperey, Walter McGinn. Grand Prix race car driver romances high class woman and bores us to death. What a waste of Pacino and director Sydney Pollacks' talents.

  • Deathsport (1978) - Allan Arkush, David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, David McLean, Jesse Flint. Sequel to Death Race 2000 only with motorcycles this time.

  • Hot Rod (1979) - Gregg Henry, Robert Culp, Pernell Roberts, Robin Mattson, Grant Goodeye. Average TV-movie featuring lots of loud engines, drag strips and fixed races.

  • Six Pack (1982) - Kenny Rogers, Diane Lane, Erin Gray, Barry Corbin, Terry Kiser, Bob Hannah. Rogers' movie debut has him as a stock car racer who somehow manages to inherit six orphans.

  • Heart Like a Wheel (1983) - Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges, Leo Rossi, Hoyt Axton, Bill McKinney, Anthony Edwards, Dean Paul Martin. The true story of female drag racer Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to win the Winston world championship. Bedelia gives a solid performance battling sexism and marriage problems all through the movie. The real Muldowney served as movie consultant.

  • Stroker Ace (1983) - Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jim Nabors, Loni Anderson, Perker Stevenson, Bubba Smith, John Byner. Good old boy racer Burt in a not so good old movie. This one along with his Cannonball Run cross-country race films are big fat duds.

  • Grandview, U.S.A. (1984) - Jamie Lee Curtis, C.Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ramon Bieri, Carole Cook, troy Donahue, William Windom, John Cusack, Joan Cusack. The best film we've found about the demolition derby.

  • Born to Race (1988) - Joseph Bottoms, Marc Singer, George Kennedy, Marla Heasley. Female driver brings a revolutionary engine to the North Carolina stock car races and gets kidnapped. Pretty boring.

  • Speed Zone (1989) - John Candy, Donna Dixon. Lame comedy about a cross-country race.

  • Days of Thunder (1990)… Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Nicole Kidman. Cliched rehash of race car driver out to win the disinterested woman he loves. Brought to you by the makers of Top Gun.

  • Born to Run (1993) - Richard Grieco, Jay Acovone, Joe Cortese. The story of a Brooklyn drag racer who is threatened by the mob when he tries to save his brother from their clutches.

  • Ride With the Wind (1994) - Craig T. Nelson, Helen Shaver, Bradley Pierce. TV-movie about a boy and his mother who inspire a washed-up motorcycle racer to compete again.

  • Red Line (1996) - Chad McQueen, Michael Madsen, Corey Feldman. A broke ex-race car driver is forced into a life of petty crime.

  • The Fast and the Furious (2001) - An undercover cop joins a racing team to investigate a burglary and finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes street racing culture.

For More Information

The Racers, Grand Prix, Winning, Le Mans, and Days of Thunder are all available on video from:

Classic Motorbooks
P.O. Box 1
Osceola, WI 54020-0001
Telephone: 800-826-6600

The other films air from time to time shown on various cable TV networks, including American Movie Classics, Turner Classic Movies, and TNT Network, among others.

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Last Updated: November 5, 2013