10 great motor racing films

Before Michael Mann’s Ferrari speeds into cinemas, we test drive 10 of its fiercest competitors.

14 December 2023

By Matthew Thrift

Ferrari (2023)

The motor racing movie is beginning to have something of a moment, the starting grid already populated with star vehicles ready to burn some rubber. If you wondered how director Joseph Kosinski was intending to follow up his megahit Top Gun: Maverick (2022), the answer lies in the forthcoming, Brad Pitt-led Formula One extravaganza, Apex. Meanwhile, Mattel is throwing a good chunk of its Barbie (2023) change at J.J. Abrams, in a bid to bring its Hot Wheels toys to big-screen life.

Neil Blomkamp’s adaptation of the PlayStation racing simulator Gran Turismo came and went earlier this year, but this month brings a much more exciting proposition in Michael Mann’s long-gestating biopic, Ferrari. Taking place over the course of a few months in 1957, Mann’s first film in eight years centres on Enzo Ferrari’s (Adam Driver) preparations for the ‘Mille Miglia’, a dangerous thousand-mile race across Italy. Like many of the films on our list, Ferrari finds the racetrack to be fertile metaphorical terrain, as it anatomises the psychological make-up of those willing to take their lives in their hands in pursuit of victory.

With the first automobile race organised in the late 19th century, motor racing is effectively a contemporary of cinema, and the two have been steady bedfellows for more than 100 years. Encompassing everything from comedies to melodramas, the racing film may be generically malleable but has proven consistent in its focus on, as Mann’s Ferrari puts it, “men with a brutal determination to win”.

Start your engines as we raise our chequered flag for 10 of the best.

Ferrari is in cinemas from 26 December.

It was the Surprise Film at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

The crowds that had converged on Venice, California on 11 January 1914 had no idea they were about to witness history in the making. They’d gathered to watch a children’s automobile race, with many of them glancing over at the newsreel teams, probably wondering whether they’d see themselves on the big screen later that week.

But someone kept stepping in front of the cameras: a diminutive man in a bowler hat, baggy trousers and a waistcoat two sizes too small. Was he drunk? He was certainly persistent. Barely dodging the one- and two-cylinder homemade cars that whizzed along the 10-mile course, this odd little chap was relentless in his pursuit of the camera’s gaze, twirling his cane as he obnoxiously eyeballed the newsreel director and pocketed the occasional kick up the backside. “The Limey is very funny,” said producer Mack Sennett when he saw director Henry Lehrman’s single reel of footage from his day at the races. He was talking, of course, about Charles Chaplin. The Venice crowds had a sneak preview, but when Kid Auto Races was released on 7 February, the rest of the world would meet the ‘Little Tramp’ for the very first time.

The Crowd Roars (1932)

Director: Howard Hawks

The Crowd Roars (1932)

Death hangs heavy over the adventure films of Howard Hawks, and never more so than in his racing films. The great American filmmaker made two of them: one early on, just after Scarface (1932), the other towards the end of his career. Like most of his post-Rio Bravo (1959) output, the later film (Red Line 7000, 1965) is a hangout movie, heavier on group dynamics than stakes. The Crowd Roars, however, is a tight little pre-Code number, in which James Cagney’s Speedway pro finds himself burning rubber on the same tracks as his callow kid brother.

Hawks’ enthusiasm for motorsports is writ large across the film’s intense race sequences, shot on location in Indianapolis; so intense, in fact, that reports emerged of opening-night audiences becoming hysterical when a driver is burned alive mid-race. For these men of action, such dangers come with the territory, and both films epitomise the eternal Hawksian maxim: you’re only as good as the job you do.

Grand Prix (1966)

Director: John Frankenheimer

Grand Prix (1966)

The daddy of all racing films, and a dad-movie par excellence, this Formula One epic from director John Frankenheimer epitomises the best and worst impulses of mid-1960s Hollywood filmmaking. Shot on the same Super Panavision 70mm cameras that Stanley Kubrick would use for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Grand Prix certainly doesn’t want for scale. Hopping between the iconic courses of Monaco, Clermont-Ferrand, Brands Hatch, Spa-Francorchamps, Zandvoort and Monza, Frankenheimer stages a race at each, as four international drivers compete for the title of world champion.

Each racer gets his own melodrama across the film’s three-hour runtime, and if the connective tissue between the big set pieces typifies the bloat of many a 60s super-production, all is forgiven when Frankenheimer takes to the track. The various split screens and optical effects (courtesy of title designer Saul Bass) may appear stylistically dated, but the driving scenes themselves are never short of breathtaking – unsurprising, perhaps, with 1961 F1 champion Phil Hill piloting the camera car. “When I look back, I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film,” said Frankenheimer. Piling technical innovation on top of technical innovation, Grand Prix’s race sequences have rarely been bettered.

Pit Stop (1969)

Director: Jack Hill

Pit Stop (1969)

“Figure of eight? You mean it’s got an intersection? You’d have to be crazy to drive in a race like that.” A hotheaded street racer is sprung from the joint by Brian Donlevy’s race promoter in this grindhouse masterwork from director Jack Hill. His freedom rests on testing his skills on a figure-8 track, a demolition derby in which drivers take their lives in their hands. With one eye on the competition, the other on the course champion’s wife (Ellen Burstyn, in a very early role), this ambitious punk sets his sights on victory at any cost.

Pit Stop would play like gangbusters as the nihilistic B-side to The Crowd Roars in a fantasy double bill. Not for nothing did Quentin Tarantino once describe Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking”. Attitude is everything to the film’s lost souls: the leather jackets, insistent walking-bass blues score and black-and-white photography point to a hangover of 50s cool. But beneath the surface pose lies a thirst for belonging. In the film’s richly detailed subculture, pride is as destructive a force as any on the track. Hill curdles the Hawksian ideal, suggesting that the only thing that gets in the way of community is the individual.

Le Mans (1971)

Directors: Lee H. Katzin, John Sturges

Le Mans (1971)

For Steve McQueen, driving was an obsession. He’d long angled to make the definitive motor racing film, and by the mid-1960s was almost ready to go. Then Grand Prix arrived, putting paid to his plans and instigating a long-running beef with that movie’s star James Garner, above whose apartment McQueen lived. “You pissed on my film,” shouted McQueen as he reportedly urinated from the edge of his balcony on to Garner’s gaff below, “now I piss on you.”

A few years later, a new project was up and running. Television stalwart Lee H. Katzin gets the director’s credit on Le Mans (1971), but there was little argument as to who was really in charge. Shot on location during the 1970 24-hour event, it’s the purest depiction of racing on this list, almost experimental in its pursuit of verisimilitude. For the first 40-odd minutes, barely a word is spoken, and McQueen has little time for melodramatic interludes. “I just wanted to get down on film what I thought it was all about,” the star said. He plays a man of few words in Le Mans, but you can bet he had a hand in writing the short monologue that speaks as much to his character as to the film itself: “Racing is important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after, it’s just waiting.”

Weekend of a Champion (1972)

Directors: Frank Simon, Roman Polanski

Weekend of a Champion (1972)

Steven Spielberg has often told a story about sitting next to David Lean at a revival screening of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), receiving a whispered, in-person director’s commentary as the film played. Racing fanatic Roman Polanski has a similar tale, captured on film in this terrific documentary portrait of Formula One legend Jackie Stewart; shot, as the title suggests, over a weekend at the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix. In one of the film’s best sequences, Stewart drives Polanski around the track in a little wicker-lined jalopy, narrating the necessary gear changes and braking times for each curve and straight of the iconic course.

This kind of procedural detail runs through the rest of the film too, often in service of furnishing Stewart’s reputation as a safety champion. “I wanted to do a movie about a friend,” notes producer Polanski in the 20-minute conversation tacked on to the end of its 2013 re-release, and much of the film consists of the two palling around in the run-up to the big race. With bad weather forecast, Stewart is a bundle of nerves, and we can see why as he runs practice laps in appalling conditions. One of the great films about motor racing, it mostly eschews glamour for local colour, not least in a story Stewart tells about a Monaco legend: the pensioner with dodgy knees who is in charge of the starting flag but can’t quite get out of the way in time.

The Last American Hero (1973)

Director: Lamont Johnson

The Last American Hero (1973)

“He is a ‘coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy who hard-charges stock cars at 175 mph. Mother dog! He is the lead-footed chicken farmer from Ronda, the true vision of the New South.” So began the introduction to a 1965 article for Esquire magazine titled ‘The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!’ by foremost New Journalism evangelist Tom Wolfe. In Lamont Johnson’s screen adaptation, Junior Johnson becomes Junior Jackson, a moonshine-running NASCAR pro played by Jeff Bridges, hot off his career-making turn in The Last Picture Show (1971).

An underseen New Hollywood gem, The Last American Hero hardly rewrites the rules of either the sports movie or the biopic but boasts a keen, empathetic eye for the subcultures of the south. Gary Busey, Ned Beatty and Ed Lauter headline a top-notch supporting cast of character players, while the driving scenes are distinguished by their variety, as Bridges graduates from Thunder Road-style booze-runner to speedway champ.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Director: Paul Bartel

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Playing like a cross between Battle Royale (2000) and a live-action take on Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races (1968 to 1969), Death Race 2000 is a prime slice of 70s exploitation from the Roger Corman stable. With the United States locked down under martial law, the president has instituted the Transcontinental Road Race as a new form of popular entertainment. The rules are simple: five driving teams race across America, collecting points for every pedestrian they mow down along the way. Teenagers are worth 40, toddlers 70, while the over-75s garner a cool 100.

From the glam presenters commentating on proceedings to the authoritarian leader and underground resistance movement, here’s where the seeds for the Hunger Games franchise were planted. Each racer is decked out in their own fancy dress, from the western-themed Calamity Jane to Sylvester Stallone’s Prohibition-era hoodlum, Machine Gun Joe. They’re all hot on the tail of David Carradine’s race champion Frankenstein, “who lost a leg in ’98, and arm in ’99. With half a face and half a chest and all the guts in the world, he’s back!” As cartoonish in its violence as it is broad with its satirical targets, there’s genuine B-movie invention to be found across the propulsive 80 minutes of this bona fide cult classic.

Greased Lightning (1977)

Director: Michael Schultz

Greased Lightning (1977)

A prolific television director best known for the high-school movie Cooley High (1975) and the Blaxploitation comedy Car Wash (1976), Michael Schultz gets terrific performances out of Richard Pryor and Pam Grier in this sports biopic co-written by Melvin Van Peebles. Pryor plays Wendell Scott, a former bootlegger, NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, and, in the film’s own words, “the first gentleman of colour to win any car race anywhere, anytime in this big wide wonderful world”.

Greased Lightning hews pretty close to the template set by The Last American Hero a few years earlier. It swaps North Carolina for Virginia but holds on to a Bridges in Jeff’s older brother, Beau. Facing a dime in the joint for running booze, Scott is promised his freedom if he agrees to race for a white promoter keen to access an untapped market with the first Black stock car driver. Quickly out-driving his good ol’ boy rivals, Scott moves up the chain, from demolition derbies to Grand National circuits. With a soundtrack provided by the great Richie Havens (who also co-stars), it may not be able to compete with the best racing sequences on our list, but, much like the irrepressible Wendell Scott, it certainly doesn’t want for heart.

Speed Racer (2008)

Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Speed Racer (2008)

Following up a pop-cultural behemoth like the Matrix trilogy can’t have been an easy task for the Wachowski sisters. Adapted from a Japanese manga by Tatsuo Yoshida, Speed Racer leaves the laws of gravity in the dust for a delirious CG extravaganza seemingly fuelled by sugar and rainbows. It’s hard to think of another film which has translated the aesthetics of anime to ‘live-action’ filmmaking so successfully.

The plot – a preternaturally gifted racer avenges his brother’s death on the track in a battle against monied corporate interests – is purely one-dimensional, the most slender of frames on which to hang the Wachowskis’ seizure-inducing flurry of digital plasticity. Staging their action set-pieces across multiple planes, one tour de force of primary-coloured spectacle follows another, with images cascading across the screen like the vertiginous courses along which the vehicles charge. For all the visual cacophony, the Wachowskis cement their reputation as masters of cinematic space – it’s a rare talent to be able to orchestrate such dynamic movement that’s so eminently coherent. It’s one of the great digital works of art of the 21st century. Now, where’s that 4K disc?

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