Why Are Racing Films Usually Bad?

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I am told that The Oscars aired last night. Well, I know they did because my wife likes to get on Facebook and critique the fashion on the Red Carpet, much to the chagrin of most of her male followers. But I didn’t watch them. I care nothing about the fashions in Hollywood and even less about The Oscars. It has now devolved into nothing but a chance for performers to spew their generally uninformed opinions regarding current events onto the masses, who are tuning in to be entertained and not lectured to. And occasionally you’ll get the desperate has-been, squinting through bad plastic surgery as they try to seem relevant. I can think of many better ways to spend my Sunday night.

Most of what comes out of Hollywood is bad. That’s not a new phenomenon, and this is from someone that enjoys watching movies. I have no idea how many movies Hollywood has churned out over the last century, but the duds far outnumber the hits. It’s that way every year. If you are in need of proof of that statement, scroll through your cable or On-Demand guide in the movie section; or if you’re a cord-cutter, scan through Netflix or Amazon Prime Video – you’ll be amazed at the endless titles you’ve never heard of. When you read the description of some of these movies, you wonder what ever prompted anyone to even attempt such a movie.

If you have read Robin Miller’s Mailbag on Racer.com over the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen readers inexplicably ask questions about the movie Driven. Back in 2012, I wrote a post about Driven, and I entitled it “The Worst Movie Ever Made”. If you’ll notice, I didn’t call it the worst racing movie ever made. That would be calling it worst in class. No, it is the worst movie – ever!

I saw it only once, and that was in the theater when it was first released back in 2000. My then-eleven year-old son and I went to see it when it first came out. It was on a Friday night, but there were only a handful of people in the theater when it started. By the end, he and I were the only two remaining. I started to watch it on Netflix a few weeks ago, but ten minutes into it – I just couldn’t bear it, and turned it off.

Its badness transcends all categories. I don’t use the word genres. That word is way too pretentious. I think people say it because they think it makes them sound sophisticated. In reality, it just makes you sound phony. Racing movies are generally bad anyway, but Driven is bad even for a racing movie. Its use of launched cars on ramps sent flying through the air set the bar for hokeyness that was only surpassed by the plot having a driver jump out of his car during a race to run into the lake to save a competitor. It was a shame no one made a sacrifice to help save the career of Kip Pardue from this bomb.

In last week’s Mailbag, Robin Miller had the line of the offseason when he said “CART thought Drivel (his slang for Driven) was going to put them on Broadway, but instead it made Days of Thunder look like Citizen Kane.”

But it brings to mind a bigger question…Why are racing movies so bad? It’s not that we racing fans find them bad for being so unrealistic, non-racing fans find them bad too, or at least they are not intrigued enough to even watch them.

I don’t need to be a fan of a sport or topic to enjoy a movie about it. I am not a boxing fan by any stretch of the imagination. As stale and predictable as the Rocky franchise became, I still find the original Rocky to be an excellent movie. I also really enjoyed Cinderella Man, about boxer Jimmy Braddock during the depression era.

Baseball-themed movies seem to do well with the public. The Natural, Field of Dreams, The Rookie, Bull Durham, Major League are just a few recent examples that have either been labeled critical successes or cult-classics. You have to go back a few decades for my personal favorite baseball movie; The Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper, which details the Hollywood version of the Lou Gehrig story. It may not be totally accurate, but that final scene at Yankee Stadium gets me every time.

I have not seen every racing movie ever made, but I’ve seen most of them. Contrary to what Robin Miller said in his sarcastic comparison, Days of Thunder was no masterpiece. It was essentially Top Gun on the ground on an oval, but not near as good. Still it ran circles around Driven.

IndyCar fans were worked up into a froth, when the movie Turbo was announced. The computer graphics were good and the cast providing voices to the animated film was impressive. But it was hard to get over the basic plot – a snail that won the Indianapolis 500. Enough said.

But racing’s run of bad movies isn’t limited to the last quarter-century. Hollywood has been in a drought of good racing flicks that goes for decades.

1977’s Bobby Deerfield is about an American F1 driver (Al Pacino) who falls in love with a beautiful but moody woman (Marthe Keller), who is facing a terminal illness. If that plot summary sounded the least bit intriguing – don’t be fooled. It was terrible and boring, with a script not even worthy of Falcon Crest. Pacino was just two years removed from playing Michael Corleone in Godfather, Part II. It’s a wonder his career didn’t swim with the fishes from that point on.

In 1970, Steve McQueen was the star and the backbone of the film Le Mans, which was released in 1971. It was filmed on location during the 1970 race. High on hype, the film was a disappointment as it seemed to have no script or direction. The filming was incredible, but that was about it. The 2015 documentary Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans detailed what a train wreck the whole project was, and was really much more interesting than the film itself.

Some may consider this heresy, but I was never crazy about 1969’s Winning. The cast was impressive enough, with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Robert Wagner. The racing footage from the 1968 race was great – and the winning car, Bobby Unser’s No. 3 Rislone Special was to be featured throughout the film as the car driven by Newman’s character, Frank Capua. But I thought the storyline was lame and the cast and footage could not save it.

About three years prior to Winning, James Garner and Eva Marie Saint starred in Grand Prix. This was a case where the weak storyline was saved by the incredible racing scenes – at least I thought so. We see Graham Hill, Jim Clark and many other Formula One drivers of the day throughout the film. Maybe I was impressed because I know less about Formula One than I do IndyCar, but It is one of the better overall racing films.

Going way back, 1950’s To Please A Lady was one of the better, if not the best, of the black & white racing films. It featured two of the biggest stars of the day in Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. It details a hero (Gable) from World War II, who is driving midgets before hitting the big-time at the Indianapolis 500. His nemesis, and later love interest, is a reporter (Stanwyck). It is fairly predictable, but it shows some good footage from the 1950 race – along with a famous cameo with recently retired driver Cliff Bergere playing a member of the Security Patrol outside of the Infield Care Center. Comparatively speaking, the plot was better than others. Overall, it’s not bad and I even own a copy on DVD.

It’s good that 1950 produced a good racing movie that focused on the Indianapolis 500, because 1949 produced one of the worst. One night when I was totally bored, I found The Big Wheel on You Tube and watched it on our den television. That was ninety-two minutes of my life I’ll never get back. The plot may rival Driven in absurdity. Mickey Rooney plays Billy “Cannonball” Coy, who goes through the usual struggles to finally make it to the 1949 Indianapolis 500. He drives the obligatory race of a lifetime, but gets caught up in Duke Nalon’s actual crash footage from that race. Our hero catches fire and burns on the final lap while leading. He jumps out just as the car explodes, badly burning Coy. Bill Holland goes on to win the race, as he did in real life, while Coy is credited with third. But Holland realizes that Coy deserved the win more than he did, and insists that Coy be given the Borg-Warner trophy. The officials hand Coy what looks like the Borg-Warner trophy, but it is given to him with one hand – as if it weighs only about three pounds. Only in Hollywood!

I’ve only seen clips and trailers of 1932’s The Crowd Roars, starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell. While the clips that I’ve seen look pretty bad, it should be pointed out that Donald Davidson really likes this one. That could be because of all of the cameos by actual drivers including 1930 winner Billy Arnold, 1932 winner Fred Frame, Wilbur Shaw before he became a three-time winner a few years later, Ralph Hepburn, Shorty Cantlon, Mel Keneally, Stubby Stubblefield, Harry Hartz, and 1931 winner Louis Schneider.

It’s worth mentioning that while it’s not a movie, there is also a famous documentary (or infomercial) that can be found on You Tube, called The Crucible of Speed, which was produced by Firestone. It’s a little corny by today’s standards, but features several legendary drivers including Wilbur Shaw and Ray Harroun.

So, I’ve been pretty negative and cynical while describing racing movies that are decent at best, to very bad. Do I like any racing movies out there? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Three come to mind, but two of them are considered documentaries and one is a feature film based on true accounts.

Senna chronicles the life of the legendary Ayrton Senna, the great Formula One driver who lost his life at Imola in 1994. It is very well done with no narration, just interviews or sound bites. Not only do we get insight into the driving talents of Senna and the inner politics of Formula One, but we also see the deeply introspective side of Senna.

Last fall, a wonderful IndyCar documentary on Scott Dixon was released entitled Born Racer. Unlike most racing documentaries, it does not shy away from the topic of death as a real possibility in racing. We see that there is a lot more to Dixon than his accomplishments in a race car. Much of the film focuses on his wife Emma Davies Dixon and their children and home life.

What is my favorite actual racing movie that features actors playing the roles of racers? That would be Rush, released in 2013. The film is directed by Ron Howard and focuses on the battle for the championship of the 1976 Formula One season, between James Hunt and Niki Lauda; played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl respectively. Both actors nailed their roles, not only in looks and voice, but also in personality. As usual for racing movies, the racing scenes were a little over-the-top; but still in the ballpark of realism. What makes this movie different is that the script and storyline were both good. In my opinion, Rush is the greatest racing film involving actors that has ever been made.

But all in all, racing films have a long history of being bad. Does Hollywood not get the sport at all? Do they think that the stereotypical race car driver is James Hunt, Cole Trickle, Joe Tanto or Jimmy Bly? Do they not do their research to understand that most crashes don’t feature cars flying over the wall and landing upside down in a lake? Is it not sensational enough to feature a likeable family man like Scott Dixon who is also a five-time series champion? Is it not believable to Hollywood suits that a driver can be super-talented on the track, yet soft-spoken and introspective like Ayrton Senna? It’s all too much. And yet, I feel certain that when it comes time to do a movie about AJ Foyt – they will cast Justin Bieber in the lead role. How do they get racing so wrong almost all the time?

So if there was an all-time Oscar category for racing films, what would be at the top of your list? I’m sure I’ve forgotten some that I’ve seen and omitted some I’ve never seen. But I think I’ve seen most of the ones that most of you have. Am I completely off base? Am I pretty much spot on? Now that I’ve written this, I think I may bust a couple of these out this week…but it won’t be Driven.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “Why Are Racing Films Usually Bad?”

  1. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    It always makes me wonder – racing has all these great events and stories, but moviemakers don’t consider them “sensational” enough, and ramp up the drama and crashes, sometimes to ludicrous levels. I assume they do a focus group and ask Joe Public what he thinks racing’s all about. Thus you get “Driven”.

    Me, I’ll write the script for “Uncle Bobby – The Bobby Unser Story”. A definite NC-17, though.

  2. Great piece, George. I saw Bobby Deerfield and thought it really boring. Hadn’t thought about the awful Big Wheel in a long time. Another racing movie that I liked when I was a kid was The Green Helmet. Not sure if I would still like it if I saw it today, but I was intrigued.

  3. BrandonW77 Says:

    Well, while I’ve never seen Driven I can assuredly say there are worse movies out there. Troll 2, Birdemic, and Manos: Hands of Fate are a few that come to mind. They would indeed make Driven look like Citizen Kane.

    I’m a bit of a racing/car movie junkie and have accumulated a decent collection over the years. To Please a Lady and The Crowd Roars have both popped on my radar recently so I’ll need to acquire those.
    While Senna and Born Racer were great I have a hard time considering them “movies”. They’re documentaries, totally different feel and goal than a “movie” in my book. I found Rush to be fairly disappointing, it looks great and had a good story but the racing seemed to be an afterthought, we got maybe 10 total minutes of racing footage in the entire movie?

    I enjoyed Winning. The story is very hokey, borderline insufferable, but all the fantastic racing/IMS footage is all worth it. There’s a documentary about Paul Newman called “Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman” that is absolutely fantastic, every racing fan should see it. It’s similar to the McQueen Le Mans documentary (also excellent).

    Le Mans, this is a movie only racing fans can love. But man, as a racing fan it is one of the very best. Very little dialogue or story, I think it goes something like 20 minutes before there’s any real dialogue and there’s very little throughout the film. It’s all about the racing and is full of GLORIOUS race footage. For me, that’s an apt way to tell the racing story; it’s not about all the talk, it’s about getting on track and dancing with danger.

    For me, Grand Prix is the very best racing movie and I can’t imagine it will ever be toppled from that perch. It’s a marathon of a movie at 4 hours long and is chock full and incredible racing footage. Perhaps the non-racing part of the story is a little cheesy but that’s part of what leads to that powerful final scene with Mr. Garner standing on the front straight at Monza, being haunted by the ghosts of races past and pondering the question “Why do we do it?”, a question that only a true racer knows the answer to.

    This has inspired me. Next weekend I’ll watch Le Mans and Grand Prix to get ready for the racing season.

  4. Jack In Virginia Says:

    As bad as “Driven” is, and it may be the worst auto racing film, it is NOT the worst racing film. That title is held by “The Tarnished Angels”, a Rock Hudson bomb about air racing, that had a 1934 Fairchild 22 racing against a number of other planes of that era. I’ve flown a Fairchild 22 – in fact I’ve flown the very airplane used in that movie. it has a top speed of 95 mph. In the racing scenes in the movie the film was sped up to make the planes appear faster. Instead they just appear ridiculous, whipping around the pylons. The plot was even more contrived than typical auto racing films, but just as predictable. If Hollywood doesn’t “get” auto racing, the “get” airplanes even less.

  5. For the first time ever I will admit to having worked on Driven.

    For 4 days I was a safety worker. They fed me, paid me, treated me like royalty and I was looking forward with pride to the screening……… and was appalled and embarrassed.

    I never met anyone on the set who thought they were making crap but life is full of such strange things.

  6. Bruce Waine Says:

    We have the viewers’ perspective.

    Comes to mind wondering from the driver’s perspective…..

    This season while at tracks, would be interesting, George, for you to conduct a follow-up survey of drivers choice of the best & the worst movies.

  7. Nice piece George. Not sure how long it took you to write this but it does reflect your effort. Grand Prix has to be the best to date , I am sure I feel that way having seen it as a 13 year old in a wide screen theatre made a huge impression . Real drivers,real tracks ,real cars,European background ,James Garner, amazing photography. Sure most of the story is hokey but relatable. LeMans good second. Rush good third ,better story than racing . I know I watched Drivel once but erased its memory.

  8. another excellent blog post
    I thank you, George.

  9. Simon Garfunkle Says:

    Justin Bieber as AJ Foyt? I spewed my coffee. Now, that’s GOLD!!!

  10. billytheskink Says:

    I still contend that Dorf Goes Auto Racing is worse than Driven, and I LIKE Eddie Deezen.

    There are a host of other worthwhile racing movies that I have not seen mentioned yet:

    I rather like Fireball 500, a classic mid-60s Frankie & Annette vehicle with a racing backdrop. Just as good is the follow up with Annette and Fabian, Thunder Alley.

    All 3 of the animated Cars films are at least competent and often compelling in their depiction of racing, though the 2nd film is an exercise in how much Larry the Cable Guy one can take.

    I find both Stroker Ace and Talladega Nights to be superior stock car films to Days of Thunder (which is an OK film). Kenny Rogers’ racing flick Six-Pack is fine too. There is some great stock car racing footage in Red Line 7000, but I don’t care for their use of AJ Foyt’s near-fatal Riverside wreck.

    I consider Munster, Go Home! to be both hilarious and a racing film.

  11. Since you mentioned documentaries, last month I watched “Williams” on Netflix. Very interesting film about the life of Frank Williams and the history of Williams F1 Racing.

  12. Talladega Nights is the best Will Ferrell movie

  13. “Grand Prix” is still my favorite. I had never seen it in a movie theater until this fall. The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood was celebrating its 55 anniversary. I took my brother and his best friend from junior high (both non-racing fans) to see the film as it was originally presented in the ‘ultra deluxe” Cinerama format. OMG! It was fabulous to see! I was on the edge of my seat and my companions were overwhelmed with the racing sequences. (Hands over faces).

    Is anyone familiar with “Roar of the Crowd” with Howard Duff? It was filmed in part at Ascot. Coastal 181 offers it in DVD and I have been toying with buying a copy since I grew up near Ascot.

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