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Five Movies About Race Car Drivers

As one of the only three real sports – the other two being bull fighting and mountaineering of course, at least according to Ernest Hemingway (or Ken Purdy or Barnaby Conrad, depending on whom you believe) – motor sports attracts some dynamic and colorful characters. But for some reason, there don’t seem to be any truly excellent movies about race car drivers.

Days of Thunder (1990) 

Just one look at the Days of Thunder poster and you a hint of what you’re in for. The purpose of the movie is not to tell a story but instead just Tom Cruise up on the screen (and get people into the theater). The title and even the fact that it’s about racing are purely incidental to the Cruise-ness of the movie. I suspect you could probably chop off the bottom 1/3 of the poster and it’d still sell as well, and still be just as accurate a depiction of what we’ll see in the theater.

Cole Trickle (Cruise) is a confident and fiery driver, but he’s got to grow to be able to race in the biggest races. Unfortunately, his character comes off as a two-dimensional placeholder, and even the great casting of Cary Elwes as Cole’s rival, and Michael Rooker as Cole’s best frenemy can’t help the movie for its lack of depth. As others have observed, it feels too much like Top Gun.


The problem with doing a rehash of the themes from Top Gun is that they feel stale here. At least in Top Gun there was plenty of up-close and dramatic footage of the fighter planes themselves, so even if you weren’t particularly impressed with the movie as a whole you could at least appreciate the rush of all the flying scenes. Here, the race footage is uninspired and uncreative. In fact, any televised NASCAR race is going to be more exciting.

Bobby Deerfield (1977) 

Bobby Deerfield is about a race car driver, but don’t expect to see car racing. The film starts with a race, but doesn’t do anything to make us feel like we’re actually there. Unfortunately, after this brief scene we won’t see the track again for another 80 minutes. Instead we follow Bobby as he gets involved with Lillian, an Italian woman he meets at heath care facility.

This is how I felt watching the movie, too.

The problem is; he’s boring and she’s annoying. I didn’t want to watch their courtship develop, and it was painful listening to their conversations, particularly when this is typical:

Lillian: “I heard you gargle.”

Bobby: “I always gargle.”

Lillian: “I bet you do.”

Ugh. Pacino is coasting through his performance, and his character always seems fatigued. If that’s what the director intended, then I wonder why he thinks I’d be interested in watching it.

I also have an issue with the DVD packaging, which seems to position the movie a bit differently than the original movie poster did:


Nothing even remotely approaching the DVD images ever happens in the movie.Walk away from Bobby Deerfield unless you’re a big Pacino fan or racing fan – in which case, run away from it.

Le Mans (1971) 

Le Mans takes a fresh approach, and it isn’t really like the other movies on the list. Most of the racing footage is from an actual race and there’s very little dialogue (and even less plot or characterization), so it feels like you’re watching a documentary. In a sporting context, it reminds me of the 1980 football game between the Jets and Dolphins that was televised without any announcers. I think I was one of the few people at the time who actually liked the format of that game, and I enjoyed watching Le Mans as well.


Instead of a story, we just watch the drivers. We watch them prepping for the race, while they’re in their cars, and between their shifts. The images confirm one of the few lines that Steve McQueen’s character says – that everything before and after racing is just waiting. Racing is loud and eye-opening and dangerous and exciting, and what happens off the track pales in comparison. Even the outcome of the race seems inconsequential and incidental to the racing itself.

Even though the racing scene is loud, we get our insights through our eyes. We don’t and can’t learn much about the drivers or their motivations by listening – they don’t say much. We just have to watch.

Grand Prix (1966) 

For a more traditional movie-watching experience about race car drivers, Grand Prix is the analogue to Le Mans. There’s still probably only about an hour’s worth of plot in the nearly three-hour movie, but the longer I watched the more it pulled me in. I admit that I was a bit bored throughout most of the non-driving scenes, but when it was time for the last race (almost a western-style shootout in tone), I was rather interested seeing what would happen, even though I wasn’t emotionally attached to any of the four main characters.


Although Grand Prix does a good job at showing us the different reasons that drivers race, focusing on one (or perhaps two) of the drivers would have made for a better movie. The visuals were there (the movie won several technical Oscars), and they hold up well today. There just isn’t as much substance as I would have liked in support of those visuals.

(P.S. Every time Jessica Walter’s character spoke, did anyone have a flashback to the episode of Archer near the end of its second season, where Malory Archer goes to Monaco for the Grand Prix??)

Winning (1969) 

Frank Capua (Paul Newman) is a charming and interesting man… at least when he gets drunk after winning a race. But then the booze and the glory of the win wear off and he’s back to normal self – a distant man who spends too much time in the garage, and not enough time tending to the rest of his life.


Winning shows us that our racing heroes are as human as we are, and face the same kinds of relationship problems that everyone else does. Perhaps it’s even tougher for a race car driver to deal with other people, given that the other people won’t behave the way a car will when you’re behind the wheel, nor can they ever give the same level of excitement as racing around the track.

There’s some good racing footage in the film, but I would have liked to see a little more of Newman on the track.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.