50 Best Racing Movies Of All Time Ranked – Looper

50 Best Racing Movies Of All Time Ranked – Looper

It didn’t take long after the advent of moving pictures for someone to have the idea to put automobiles on screen. The first car chase is largely credited to 1903’s “Runaway Match“; by 1913’s “The Speed Kings,” Fatty Arbuckle was overseeing a thrilling hotrod race, and all sorts of imaginative scenes were being filmed as one emerging technology embraced another. 
The difference between “race” and “chase” in cinema history can sometimes feel like splitting hairs. But by 1968, Steve McQueen and “Bullitt” were defining the modern car chase, empowering folks like McQueen and Paul Newman to embrace their racing obsessions, and a few decades later, the “Fast and the Furious” franchise would become one of the most profitable series of its time. Now, more than a century later, car chases/races remain every bit as thrilling to film audiences.
From documentaries about real-life drivers to fictionalized accounts of famous races, films that are pure adrenaline-fueled fantasy on a racetrack and others about racing on two wheels, dirt, or some other way, the “racing” movie is a genre open to interpretation. Some films are genuinely great works of filmmaking, others the sort of movies made for light Saturday night viewing when you want to turn off you brain and just go along for the ride. 
Below is a breakdown of the absolute best racing movies of all time. While strict “car chase” classics have been saved for their own list elsewhere (sorry, “The French Connection“!), as have films depicting other sorts of races (our apologies, “Hidalgo“!), this list considers all genres — and serves as a reminder that as long as we have cars to take us places, we’re going to want to see who can get there the fastest.

Based on a popular racing video game franchise, this Aaron Paul/Michael Keaton-starring fast flick wasn’t able to break the purported video game movie curse. Nonetheless, there is a fair amount of mindless fun to be had, whether you’re a longtime fan of the games or only know the titular phrase as a line spoken in “Top Gun.”
Naturally for any racing film released in the 2010s, “Need for Speed” feels a lot like a “Fast and the Furious” clone, but falls well short of matching that franchise’s satisfying set pieces or delightfully goofy plotlines. But it’s still a fun movie for fans of that series and of car-based action movies in general, and is worth watching almost entirely to see Dominic Cooper having the time of his life playing the movie’s over-the-top antagonist. Seemingly designed to launch a potential franchise, perhaps “Need for Speed” could have become better as it developed across another sequel or two, but it seems like this vehicle wrecked too early to get a second lap.

Sometimes it’s hard to think of Burt Reynolds and not imagine him behind the wheel of an automobile — understandable, given his late ’70s/early ’80s run in “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Cannonball Run” movies. Lost, perhaps, in the gauzy haze of recollection is another Reynolds gem that deserves just as much love, 1983’s Hal Needham-directed “Stroker Ace.”
While not a hit with critics (or the box-office) at the time, “Ace” has since become something of a cult classic, particularly with real-life race car drivers. In fact, in 2021 — 38 years after the movie’s release — NASCAR driver Corey LaJoie repainted his car in tribute to the film.
“As a teenager in the 1980s, ‘Stroker Ace’ was always a favorite of mine,” LaJoie said of his embracing of the chicken-themed “Ace” look. “As one of my all-time favorite movies, it’s pretty cool Circle B Diecast has come up with a paint scheme to honor ‘Stroker Ace’ … this is a great opportunity to honor not just Ned [Beatty], but also Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds, Jim Neighbors, Loni Anderson and Bubba Smith.”
That collection of early-’80s stars makes “Ace” a lot of fun. Sure, it might not be anyone’s first, second, or even third-favorite Burt Reynolds car movie, but “Stroker Ace” is nevertheless an entertaining watch. 

While there is plenty to make fun of in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, there’s a good reason why you’ll see some of its films on this list. To paraphrase that old saying about Elvis Presley: $6 billion worth of ticket buyers at the box office can’t be wrong.
The special sauce flavoring every “Furious” film since the turn of the century is no secret: They know they are ridiculous, and they doesn’t care. Not only do they not care, but they lean into it in such a way that it makes the films easy to enjoy on a silly, mindless level.
The fourth installment of the “Fast & Furious” series — confusingly titled “Fast & Furious” — was the last to have a heavy focus on actual racing. The series has since ventured into an all-encompassing car-based espionage direction. With this film, the story was particularly blatant, utter nonsense (to the point that “Tokyo Drift” had to be retconned out of the series canon entirely just so the events of this one could make sense), with Brian O’Conner and Dominic Toretto finally back together again, teaming up to take down a heroin ring. But most significantly, it reunited the central duo of Paul Walker and Vin Diesel — unknowingly setting up the franchise for a heartbreaking farewell later when Walker would die in a tragic car accident. All these years later, fans are left with a film that excels where it counts: The racing and the car-based stunts. “Fast & Furious” still delivers, and is a treat to watch. 

In terms of critical reception, “Smokey and the Bandit” may have won out over “The Cannonball Run,” but for fans of racing — or, quite honestly, just the sight of actors who look like they’re having fun — this film, also directed by Reynolds friend/longtime stuntman Hal Needham, is hard to beat.
The movie’s all-star cast includes not only Reynolds and his pal Dom DeLuise, but also Dean Martin, Jackie Chan, Farrah Fawcett, Sammy Davis Jr., and even Roger Moore poking fun at James Bond right in the middle of his run playing the character. At times, this screwball comedy about a cross-country race feels like you’ve been invited to the most amazing early ’80s party you could ever want to attend. “Cannonball Run” managed to rank third in domestic gross for 1981 (beating such classics as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “For Your Eyes Only”), a reminder of just how popular of the movie was with audiences. A 1984 sequel would up the revelry, but fall woefully short by just about every other metric.

Arriving four years Tony Scott made Tom Cruise into a movie star, one could assume this film was sold as “‘Top Gun’ with cars,” and style over substance is once again the order of the day here, but that’s hardly a bad thing. A racing movie doesn’t always need to reinvent the wheel(s) in order to be entertaining, and “Days of Thunder” certainly is that. 
Cruise is firing on all cylinders in the fast-moving flick, with an impressive ensemble rounded out by his future wife Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Michael Rooker, a young John C. Reilly. Cruise plays a hot-shot (a description that could fit virtually every one of his ’80s roles) determined to dominate NASCAR and unconcerned with how he rubs other drivers the wrong way. 
Racing-savvy fans will enjoy cameos from a who’s who of the biggest names in racing at the time, both drivers and commentators. While “Days of Thunder” is very much a racing movie of its particular pop culture era, what an era it was. 

This was the movie during which the “Fast & Furious” franchise started really digging into the cops and robbers, double- and triple-cross-heavy lore that would weigh down later installments and sap some fun out of the franchise. But that is only lightly touched upon in “2 Fast 2 Furious,” the only installment that would be directed by John Singleton. It is also the only film not to feature so much as a cameo by Vin Diesel; Tyrese Gibson, his quasi-replacement, just isn’t the same.
Despite such shortcomings, “2 Fast 2 Furious” was more of the same in all the ways that mattered. With a studio emboldened by the unexpected success of the fairly modestly-budgeted original, they threw a lot more money at the sequel — and it showed in some impressive-looking race and stunt scenes. Some people missed the somewhat scrappy nature and smaller scope of the original, but those days were long gone as the series was only going to get, well … significantly faster and much more furious from this point on.

Another coast-to-coast race movie, “The Gumball Rally” had the advantage of being directed and based on a story by veteran stuntman Chuck Ball. This meant that he knew how to stage and film thrilling set pieces, and there were plenty of those in this underrated 1976 flick. Impressive, death-defying stunt driving powers some incredibly intricate white-knuckle moments, particularly refreshing for what is mostly a lighthearted farce.
This was one of four movies — the others being “Cannonball, “The Cannonball Run,” and “Speed Zone” — inspired by a real event: the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. “The Gumball Rally,” in turn, inspired two subsequent real-life races: The American Gumball Rally and Gumball 3000. Those events also owed a lot to “The Cannonball Run,” the more famous of the films based on the original race, but the fact that those subsequent races have “Gumball” and not “Cannonball” in their titles suggest that “The Gumball Rally” has a more important legacy in racing history than many realize. 

Plenty of race movies are adaptations of existing material, but 2003’s “Michel Vaillant” is unique in that it is a live action movie based on a series of French racing comic books from the late-1950s. The comics, which have continued to exist in various forms to this day, had previously been turned into both a live-action and an animated series in France, with the latter being brought to the U.S. in the early-’90s through a partnership with Mattel, rebranded as “Heroes On Hot Wheels.”
But the most ambitious use of the “Michel Vaillant” IP thus far is the film. Although it was not well-received by critics or audiences in its native France, and was deemed a failure in spite of an aggressive marketing campaign, with a script co-written by Luc Besson it is worth a look — if you can track it down. 
“Michael Vaillant” has never seen any sort of official release outside of France, but this stylish, fever-paced racing film benefits from its characters having a different vibe than those in typical American-made racing dramas, and it deserves to be seen in the States.

A quasi remake to Roger Corman’s classic “Death Race 2000,” this film inspired four ensuing sequels — but it’s the Jason Statham/Joan Allen/Tyrese Gibson reinvention that most deserves your attention.
This “Death Race” was written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (the “Resident Evil” movies), who at the very least can craft an interesting action scene, and that’s mostly what a “Death Race” movie needs to be successful. While “2000” is well-remembered for its humor and campiness, this film strips much of that away in favor of an overly serious movie about … cars with turrets mounted to them. Still, for anyone who gets a kick out of well-plotted racing set pieces that involve a lot of cars blowing up, “Death Race” delivers.

In a poll that asked “Fast & Furious” fans which installments they would get rid of if they could, the “winner” was “Tokyo Drift.” The third entry in the series, “Tokyo Drift” takes the “2 Fast 2 Furious” approach of shedding major characters to the extreme by introducing an almost entirely new ensemble. It was an odd, “Halloween III”-like gamble for a series that didn’t seem to be losing fans at that point. Was it meant to be the start of its own separate series to run concurrent with the “main” entries? Was the franchise going to take the “Final Fantasy” route and have each movie be its own thing with unique stories and characters? It’s tough to know what any long term plans would’ve looked like, because “Tokyo Drift” was seen as a disappointment upon release and the franchise soon got back on its original track — relegating “Tokyo Drift” to being a barely-recognized side story (except when it isn’t).
But the racing in “Tokyo Drift” is some of the most impressive in the series. The first thirty minutes makes for one of the most intense stretches of car-based action ever put to film, and the movie’s climactic downhill race might just leave you breathless. Overall, some may view the film as a disappointing “Fast & Furious” entry, but that doesn’t make it a bad racing movie. 

There are some movies that need time to pass before they are appreciated, and for some folks “Speed Racer” seems to be one of them. 
This colorfully offbeat live-action adaption of the classic anime series was viewed as a dud initially, and didn’t do very well at the box office. But its unique style (the Wachowskis cast anime-looking actors like wide-eyed Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon) and methods (full-focus cameras were employed, keeping equal attention on the foreground and background of scenes, like a cartoon) are well worth a second look.   
While garishly-colored computer environments are an acquired taste, a 130 minute runtime feels a bit bloated and it’s hard to not laugh every time Matthew Fox’s Racer X comes on screen, “Speed Racer” is as pure a love letter to its source material as any film adaptation. It’s also the most avant-garde (in a good way) racing movie that has ever been made, and in the minds of some it is a “misunderstood masterpiece.” 

It may have taken until 2014 for Norway to produce its “first real car movie,” but the Land of the Midnight Sun started strong, with a film successful enough to spawn two sequels over the ensuing six years. The local media were calling “Børning” a Norwegian reboot of “The Fast and the Furious,” showing that they had high hopes for the film’s potential. And while the plot of “Børning” is quite different than any of the “Fast & Furious” movies, the stylistic and spiritual similarities are definitely there — along with moments when it is worthy of mention alongside the United States’ all time most popular racing franchise.
Norway’s critics were a bit kinder to “Børning 2” on average, but the original serves as the ideal representation for the trilogy because — like the original “The Fast and the Furious” film — it has a smaller focus on a tighter core of characters and is forced to remain a more localized experience because of its smaller budget. Whereas things go much more into stunt territory in the second and third films, the original “Børning” is still primarily a race movie, and one that is worth the difficult task of finding a way to watch it outside of its native land. As of this writing, only the third movie is available digitally in the U.S. (currently on Netflix). 

The original “On Any Sunday” is a classic motorcycle documentary; while the fourth series installment “The Next Chapter” feels much more mainstream, polished, and corporate — a critic called the whole thing one big Red Bull commercial — it still carries on the documentary franchise’s tradition of looking at the current culture of motorcycle racing at the time of the movie’s release (in this case, the mid-2010s). 
While “The Next Chapter” won’t necessarily attract viewers with zero pre-existing interest in or passion for the sport like many of the best racing documentaries do, as a love letter to and current snapshot of the (then) culture, it absolutely nails it. The movie is directed by Dana Brown, son of original “On Any Sunday” filmmaker Bruce Brown, and it has the feel of trying to maintain a legacy while giving the material a younger, hipper spin. Only existing motocross fanatics need apply here, but what they’ll find is the sort of documentary that fans of its subject will pop in over and over again. 

Elvis Presley made a handful of movies that received a positive reception from critics — “Jailhouse Rock,” “King Creole,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and “Flaming Star” — but he released about four times as many that were largely panned. Somewhere between those well-reviewed films and the ones so bad even his biggest fans can’t defend them is “Speedway,” Presley’s 1968 race car romp. His romantic co-lead in the film is Nancy Sinatra, in what would be her last film role. Coincidence? It’s hard to say.
Presley’s “Speedway” character is Steve Grayson who, breaking with the tradition of the typical protagonist of a fictional NASCAR movie, is a really kind, sweet, and generous guy. His manager takes advantage of him by gambling away Steve’s winnings, which gets Nancy Sinatra’s IRS agent involved. Yeah … like most Elvis movies, it’s best not to get too bogged down in the details of the plot. Whenever things start to get too ridiculous, Presley will flash his 1,000-megawatt smile, swish his hips, and/or sing a song. And in the midst of all that, there even manages to be some halfway-decent racing action. It’s nowhere close to Presley’s best film, but miles away from his worst; “Speedway” is the sort of movie that’s fun to have on in the background of a breezy Sunday afternoon.

As impressive as it was that the “Speed Racer” movie so effectively translated over-the-top anime racing spectacle into (mostly) live action, there is something to be said for just letting a racing anime stay animated. With so many live-action racing movies — particularly in the past two decades — relying so heavily on computer animation anyways, is it really fair to discredit a racing movie that’s all the way animated and doesn’t try to disguise that fact?
Following on from an OVA series, “Ex-Driver: The Movie” takes place in a not-hard-to-picture and seemingly not terribly far away future where all cars are entirely AI-driven. Naturally, this leads to many cars having their on-board systems malfunctioning, resulting in a bunch of self-driving cars running amok. This is where the Ex-Drivers come in, a group of people who are among the few that still know how to manually drive cars and must find a way to stop the out of control AI vehicles. 
In addition, these Ex-Drivers also use their driving skills to participate in races, and that’s where the real meat of the movie comes in. The intrigue behind the races and the people trying to manipulate things falls flat for the most part, but the races and the driving scenes themselves are a sight to behold and are at least worth fast-forwarding past the mostly-skippable story beats to watch.

When people think of Richard Pryor movies, they tend to go straight to the absolute best or the absolute worst. The comedian made a lot of films during his career, with many that have been almost entirely forgotten — and in some cases, that’s probably for the best. But among Pryor’s lesser-known films that deserve more attention is the 1977 biopic “Greased Lightning” where he portrayed Wendell Scott, the first black NASCAR winner. 
To be fair, it’s the kind of movie that is perhaps a bit more important than it is a good movie, but that’s not to say it isn’t worth watching. In fact, beyond just bringing more attention to trailblazer Scott, Richard Pryor gets the rare opportunity in “Greased Lightning” to show that he truly can act beyond just being the bumbling funny guy, making the movie well worth checking out.
There aren’t any impressive racing scenes in “Greased Lightning,” with most of the action shown from inside the car. While that was likely done for budgetary reasons, it also allows the focus to be on Pryor rather than his racing, which is entirely the point. After all, not every “racing movie” needs to be jam-packed with racing any more than every movie about a football player needs to have extended scenes of on-the-field action. 

With all the money the “Fast & Furious” franchise has made, it’s not surprising that other studios have tried to muscle in on that success; this has resulted in a lot of really bad racing movies (remember “Biker Boyz“?), but also a few pleasant surprises. One example of the latter is 2011’s “Born to Race” (sometimes stylized as “Born 2 Race”), a movie that seems to have all the makings of a second-rate “Fast & Furious” knock off but actually ends up being a refreshingly solid racing movie.
Where “Born to Race” arguably trumps “Fast & Furious” is in the way it grounds itself in realism. You never see a car doing anything in this movie that a real person (read: not a professional Hollywood stunt driver) couldn’t pull off, and there are no computer-assisted fireworks going on here. A sequel followed in 2014, but it recast nearly the entire core cast, having the new actors play the same roles. Don’t bother with that one — but check out “Born to Race” for a great example of a movie being inspired by “Fast & Furious” rather than just settling for trying to be a shoddy clone of it.

Here it is: The movie that launched a billion-dollar franchise and countless memes about family. It’s hard to remember a time when a movie in the “Fast & Furious” franchise had what could be classified as a modest budget, but indeed, “The Fast and the Furious” was made for the relatively meager cost of $38 million. “2 Fast 2 Furious” nearly doubled that, and the budgets only continued to balloon with each subsequent entry. 
Besides needing all that extra cash to pay the salaries of the ever-expanding roster of stars, later “Fast & Furious” movies put those massive budgets to use on increasingly over-the-top set pieces that are exciting to watch but get further and further away from what made the franchise popular in the first place. The original movie was actually still mostly about street racing, and was content to thrill audiences with just having cars do cool things while racing other cars. In this way, it remains the best entry in the series in terms of pure racing action, and is likely still the favorite of those who just want to see a movie that celebrates cars and car culture.

Another Dana Brown-helmed documentary about the world of two-wheeled racing, “Dust to Glory” is more specialized in that it focuses on the Baja 1000. More specifically, it revolves around the 2003 iteration of that race, though it is still about the annual race as a whole and its then-36-year history (the race continues today and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017). Like “On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter,” Brown is mostly content to make a film for fellow racers here, but “Dust to Glory” does a better job than that movie of doubling as an entertaining informational piece for outsiders.
What makes “Dust to Glory” so compelling is that the Baja 1000 race is such a unique event. In fact, the event isn’t limited to motorcycles, as it also has cars, trucks, buggies, and even ATVs all competing at the same time for the same prize. It’s like something out of a video game, even more so when it is revealed that there are frequent reports of people sabotaging the track by digging holes, messing with the directional flags, and otherwise booby-trapping the course. The entire event is wild indeed, and “Dust to Glory” is a great place to start for those interesting in learning more.

Many American moviegoers were first introduced to international superstar Jackie Chan via his roles in “The Cannonball Run” and “Cannonball Run II.” In fact, it was the bloopers over the end credits in the sequel that inspired Jackie to start including bloopers at the end of his own films, a tradition he would maintain for decades. However, despite being associated with racing movies early in his American career, it would be awhile before he’d star in his own take on the genre. When he did, in 1995’s “Thunderbolt” (aka “Dead Heat”), he did so with a bang.
Up until very recently, Jackie Chan was known for doing all his own stunts — and that includes stunts that involve him being behind the wheel as well. So all of the very impressive (and very dangerous) driving and racing sequences in “Thunderbolt” are indeed being performed by Jackie himself, making them all the more captivating. And no CGI work here. 
Some have pointed out the similarities between “Thunderbolt” and “The Fast and the Furious,” even going so far as to say that Jackie’s car action romp directly inspired the latter. Either way, “Thunderbolt” doesn’t get as much love it should and was overshadowed by the release of “Rumble in the Bronx” that same year, but it definitely deserves a place among Chan’s best movies.

Known by its shorter and less ridiculous title “Monte Carlo or Bust!” in the rest of the world, “Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies” was considered an extravagantly-budgeted film for 1969 at $10 million. Adjusted for inflation, that price tag is closer to $63 million, which is nothing to sneeze it for a racing comedy from any era. The movie is about the early years of the still-active Monte Carlo rally, set sometime in the 1920s. 
Reviews at the time were largely positive, though this is a case where time has been unkind to a film rather than the other way around. As a thinly-veiled takedown of the British Empire, something far more trendy and relevant in the 1960s, modern audiences might not get a lot of its humor. That said, a movie doesn’t necessarily have to be timeless to be a classic, and there is something to be said for considering a film’s place in its original era rather than penalizing it for not holding up to modern standards. 
Featuring work by Tony Curtis and British comedy legends like Terry-Thomas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, anyone who has an affection for early-20th-century racing, as well as screwball comedies of the ’60s, should find plenty to be entertained by in “Jalopies.” 

Pixar was known for not making any bad movies for the first 15 years or so, an impressive run bookended by the first two “Toy Story” movies; then they released “Cars 2,” to this day the only Pixar movie with a “Rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes. But “Cars” is one of the company’s biggest franchises — especially in terms of profits — and they weren’t about to let it go out like that.
There was a lot riding on “Cars 3.” Not only did it need to make up for its disappointing predecessor, but it had to live up to Pixar’s previous “part 3,” the widely-beloved “Toy Story 3.” 
Although “Cars 3” isn’t in that neighborhood, it did save the franchise with a film that was at least as good as the original. It smartly brings the action back to the racetrack after the globe-spanning spy movie the second movie aspired to be, and the 11 years that had passed since the original film meant 11 years of technological advancement in the field of computer animation, allowing Pixar to deliver some of the most visually striking, almost photo-real animated racing action ever seen. 

Following “Bullitt” and the motorcycle chase in “The Great Escape,” McQueen seemed to have carte blanche to get his love for anything with a motor onto the screen. Combined with his longstanding rivalry with Newman, he seemed determined to assert himself as the first celebrity name the public thought of when it came to driving fast cars.
In his passion project “Le Mans,” the screen legend plays a driver named Michael Delaney, taking on a fictionalized version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race — though the movie uses footage of the then-recent 1970 installment of the event to great effect.
One of the things that makes “Le Mans” stand out from the pack is that it mostly lets the racing action speak for itself. There is very little in the way of plot or even dialogue, which didn’t win over audiences at the time but was appreciated by critics for how visceral and uncluttered it made the movie. However, for a film that is noted for having very little talking, it’s somewhat ironic that it is responsible for one of the most famous quotes in the history of the sport, the kind of line that people hang up in their garages and have tattooed on their arms: “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”

Even those who aren’t huge into anime have probably heard of “Initial D,” arguably the most famous racing anime franchise of all time that doesn’t feature the Mach 5 and a talking monkey. One might be tempted to check out the 2005 live-action film adaptation if they are curious about the franchise, but that would be a mistake. Not only is that film generally considered a disappointment, but it doesn’t do justice to the property and explain why it’s been popular for the better part of 30 years. 
In terms of “Initial D” in feature-length film form, the way to go is “New Initial D: The Movie,” a somewhat rebooted trilogy that was released across the mid-2010s. Honestly, all three movies tell one huge story and each one is more of a chapter in an extra-long film, and the entire thing is well worth the time investment. But the first installment, subtitled “Awakening,” is a good place to start and a thoroughly entertaining racing epic that could be enjoyed as a standalone movie if not for the obvious cliffhanger ending. Ultimately, there are all kinds of ways to experience the world of “Initial D,” from movies to series to video games and manga, and it’s a journey that any racing fan should take even if they are hesitant when it comes to anime. 

Young Jeff Bridges fit the mold of a NASCAR driver well in 1973’s “The Last American Hero,” playing a character based on real life NASCAR driver Junior Johnson (and inspired by a Tom Wolfe essay about Johnson); his similarly-named Junior Jackson is portrayed in the film, paying his dues in the world of destruction derbies to earn enough money to start a career as a stock car racer.
“The Last American Hero” was well-received by critics, including a glowing, extremely introspective write up by Pauline Kael, who said it “transcends its genre.” The film may have been lost to the ages, buried in a decade whose racing films became better known for fast-paced, funny stuff, but “The Last American Hero” deserves to be rediscovered. Also featuring Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty and Gary Busey, the flick is worthy of any discussion about all-time great racing dramas.

Originally titled “Veloce come il vento,” or “Fast As The Wind,” in its native Italy, “Italian Race” explores a racing family plagued by their own shortcomings and determined to rise above. 
The film focuses on a brother and sister, he a former racer past his prime, she an up-and-coming one with the potential to be a champion. Unfortunately, his drug use has taken a terrible toll on both his career and life, though he still has the mind of racer. She has all the tools needed to become an all-star, but is too green and uncertain of herself. It might be easy to spot what’s coming from a mile away  his grizzled experience, coupled with her young athleticism must work in tandem in order to achieve racing glory as a family.
While “Italian Race” covers a lot of familiar beats and doesn’t try to resist most of the underdog sports movie cliches, it still manages to rise about its formulaic trappings with strong performances, a fresh directorial eye, and miles and miles of heart. American audiences likely won’t know anyone in the entirely Italian cast, but it’s not hard to see why the film’s two main leads are both big stars in their home country. 

Ricky Bobby’s motto might be “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” but even if his isn’t the greatest racing movie of all time, he shouldn’t take it too badly. After all, it’s rare that a film can both parody but also pay tribute to something in equal measure, while being embraced by the people that the movie is satirizing. Nevertheless, “Talladega Nights” does exactly that, poking fun at the entire culture of racing in a way that’s hilarious and clearly from a place of affection and reverence. 
Yet another nearly perfect comedy from the sadly now-defunct writing team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, it can be debated all day where “Talladega” ranks next to “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers” — but there’s no denying that this movie is the product of a comedy writing partnership at the top of its game. Ferrell plays the titular driver as he goes from top of his sport to rock bottom, forced to face failure after spending his entire life viewing failure as an impossible notion. The movie showcases another dynamic duo at the height of their powers as well, as Ferrell and John C. Reilly have the kind of comedic chemistry that can’t be taught. 

In his first documentary feature, filmmaker Roman Polanski used the unique access he had from being friends with Formula One driver Jackie Stewart to craft one of the all time great racing documentaries. Named as such because it takes place over the course of an entire weekend of Stewart preparing for, competing in, and ultimately winning the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix, “Weekend of a Champion” premiered at the 22nd annual Berlin Film Festival in 1972 and was subsequently put into an archive and unseen for decades. 
Finally, in the early-2010s, someone working at the archive asked Polanski if they could dispose of it — so Polanski decided instead to restore it and do some minor tweaking, even adding a 15-minute prologue featuring himself and Stewart reminiscing about the race. It was re-released in 2013 and is now widely available on physical media and multiple streaming services.
Why it was shelved isn’t entirely clear, and it doesn’t come without significant baggage following Polanski fleeing from the United States to avoid jail time for the alleged sexual assault of a minor in the 1970s and the subsequent additional assault claims that have since been made against him. But there’s little denying the excellence of “Weekend of a Champion” and what an unprecedented snapshot it is of a very specific person, time, and place in racing history.

Sometimes referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of auto racing,” Willy T. Ribbs had a lot of hurdles to overcome in the racing world because of the color of his skin. While Robinson navigated baseball’s intolerance in the late 1940’s, Ribbs’ career was taking off in the 1980s, a time when a Black driver still had much adversity to face. Ribbs is responsible for multiple milestones, but most notably, he was the first Black man to compete in the Indy 500 — the main focus of this excellent, far too under-the-radar documentary.
Ribbs was expected to take over the family business (plumbing), but had other aspirations. He went to England to pay his racing dues, and was treated much the same as all of the white drivers over there. It wasn’t until he was ready to come back to the U.S. to start his career proper that Ribbs first started hitting roadblocks for no other reason than that he was Black. As such, “Uppity” can be infuriating to watch, but is ultimately an inspiring tale of someone overcoming hurdles with his head held high. 

When the first “Cars” hit theaters, a lot of reviewers were calling it Pixar’s first “dud.” Nevertheless, “Cars” was hugely successful at the box office, would become a major merchandising juggernaut, and continues to be one of Pixar’s biggest most popular movies with children. Viewed through the prism of “Cars 2” and some of the more lackluster Pixar efforts since, the debut Lightning McQueen adventure seems to be more highly regarded with each passing year.
While “Cars” isn’t in the same league as “Toy Story” or “The Incredibles,” it is a really fun movie, squarely aimed at kids. It’s also a solid racing film, and to fault a movie for being made for the younger crowd is unfair, as young race fans deserve good movies too. It might be a better “racing movie for kids” than it is a “Pixar film” — but to the generation that was at just the right age when it came out, it’s a beloved classic.

Currently boasting a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with an equally impressive 95% audience score, it’s clear that there is a lot of fondness for “TT3D: Closer to the Edge.” And there should be, as it features a thrilling look at the most dangerous motorcycle racing event in the world: the Tourist Trophy. There are a handful of great documentaries about the event, but “Closer to the Edge” captures it better than any of them, due in no small part to it being shot in 3D. Sure, 3D is seen as a gimmick to a lot of people — and the fact that it seems like it has died yet again is proof of that — but for something like this, it allows viewers the chance to get as close as possible to feeling what it’s like to be these riders without actually getting on a bike.
While a mainstream movie like this is not likely to show anyone’s death on screen, the fact of the matter is that people do die during this race. As one reviewer pointed out, “a mechanical glitch or tiny error of judgment might be the difference between life and death.” So the stakes are very real, and the film gives viewers a sense of anxiety that no fictional race movie could ever replicate. The 3D version is available on Blu-ray for those who have the equipment to watch it that way — and if you do, you definitely should.

Stay away from the 1997 made-for-TV sequel and the 2005 Lindsay Lohan reboot; the original 1968 “The Love Bug” is the only movie that successfully pulled off the story of an anthropomorphic VW bug that can beat much faster cars in races. The plot is absurd, of course, but it’s also a ton of fun for those who can suspend their disbelief and just go along for the ride. Audiences at the time certainly did, as this goofy racing adventure was the second highest-grossing movie of 1969, behind only “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Not only was “The Love Bug” charming in its day, but it has held up surprisingly well, perhaps because of the practical effects employed to make the car do all the crazy things we see on screen. The big race finale, which sees Herbie break in two and have his two halves finish in both first and third place, will put a smile on the face of even the grumpiest viewer. “The Love Bug” also has the distinction of being one of the last live-action movies to be in production before Walt Disney passed away in 1966, and feels like the perfect way for his creative legacy to push across the finish line. 

There are a fair amount of racing documentaries with titles that are simply the last name of their subject. And when your last name happens to be “McLaren,” a name that not only belongs to a person but also a famous racing team as well as a line of cars, such a title is all that is needed. Not many figures, in racing or otherwise, can pull off the hubris it takes to name so many things after yourself (perhaps only Walt Disney has come close), but Bruce McLaren definitely earned that right, as this documentary proves.
Though it also features some dramatizations where actor Dwayne Cameron plays Bruce McLaren, “McLaren” is mostly a documentary that tells the story of the iconic racing figure and businessman as he overcomes numerous challenges from his early life to become a familiar name to car enthusiasts. The dramatizations are a bit distracting and unnecessary — just having someone describe events that there is no archival footage for would’ve sufficed — but they do show a version of key moments in McLaren’s life and career in which there is some value. The main complaint about the film is that it might not connect with people who aren’t already “petrolheads,” but sometimes this sort of movie is most effective when not making concessions to appeal to a wider audience. 

Narrated by Brad Pitt, 2015’s “Hitting the Apex” was dismissed by one reviewer as only being for people who have an “interest in watching men lean over at high speed.” It’s a good line, but reducing the dangers of taking a motorcycle turn so low to the ground that you could kiss it as some frivolous pursuit is both silly and reductive. “Apex” does a terrific job showing just how difficult such a pursuit can be.
The film focuses on moto grind prix racing, which is basically the Formula One of two-wheeled racing. Documentaries about taking motorcycles off of high jumps and having them go careening through forests and across narrow mountainside paths might seem inherently more exciting, but that’s like saying watching cars “just” race on a racetrack is boring. Existing MotoGP fans will obviously find a lot to love in “Hitting the Apex,” but perhaps more importantly, it will remind others that there is a lot more to the sport.

The “original” motorcycle racing and culture documentary, helping repair the damage done to the perception of motorcycle riders as “bad guys” thanks to years of Hollywood films like “The Wild Angels,” “MotorPsycho” and “The Born Losers,”  To that end, “On Any Sunday” did a superb job of showing that motorcycle racing and riding aren’t the purview of any one type of person; rather, people from all walks of life have found careers and hobbies in riding around on two wheels.
Speaking of Hollywood, they rewarded “On Any Sunday” with an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 1972, which helped to legitimize not only motorcycle culture but racing documentaries as a whole. It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of people decided to go out and see if motorcycles were a good fit for them too after watching “On Any Sunday,” one sure sign of a great sport documentary.

Many documentaries come with the caveat that they are intended mostly for existing fans of their subject. In the case of “Road,” it might actually be quite the opposite. Racing history enthusiasts don’t need much introduction to or education about the equal parts influential and tragic Dunlop family of racers. Instead, the target audience for this film might be those who have little to no knowledge of the Dunlops and only associate that name with tires and “The Wire.”
Sometimes referred to as the first family of road racing and one of the sport’s true dynasties, the tale of the Dunlops — some killed by the sport, and the one who continues to race despite losing three relatives to it — is an emotional and compelling one. Liam Neeson’s narration adds an extra gravitas to the saga. For those who already know the story, the film is still worth taking for a spin; for the uninitiated, it’s a must-watch.

If you tend to enjoy narrative dramatizations, track down the 2013 Chris Hemsworth/Ron Howard film “Rush” for the story of the golden era of the Grand Prix; if you prefer your storytelling more unfiltered, this doc narrated by Michael Fassbender (and released the same year) might be more your speed.
While “Rush” is a fictionalized version of this movie’s biggest moments, the deft manner in which “1: Life On The Limit” covers the history of Formula One racing and the multiple fatalities that have occurred in the sport makes it an absolute must-watch for racing fans.
It might be difficult for some to comprehend why anyone would participate in a sport where people die — or even, why it is allowed to continue. But as one reviewer so succinctly put it, “1” is about “the trade-off between crowdpleasing speed and concern for driver survival.” Everyone is familiar with the thrill of danger, both in direct participation in it and in being an audience to it, but when is that danger taken too far? This is the question that “1” asks, and the movie utilizes incredible, often little-seen archival footage as it explores that complex topic.

Few filmmakers have had a more circuitous career than David Cronenberg. While he might be most famous for sci-fi body horror films like “The Fly” and “Scanners,” he has tackled numerous other genres — including racing. No, this isn’t the one about the people who get aroused by car accidents — that’s “Crash” (no, not that one… the other one). See? Strange and interesting.
Only a few years into his career, after initially establishing himself within the genres of sci-fi and horror, Cronenberg was already eager to show the world that he had great range as a writer/director. He first did so with this 1979 racing action movie, which he also co-wrote but didn’t come up with the initial concept for — a first for him. Indeed, “Fast Company” is a fairly straightforward racing film that doesn’t really bother with any of the psychological trappings or social commentary typically inherent in his work. It’s just a fun drag racing romp with a great B-movie vibe that exhibits a lot of the technical prowess of Cronenberg but without the weirdness or multiple layers of meaning. Cronenberg loves racing, and this is the only movie where he ever got to show that off; he planned to make a Formula 1 movie as well, but unfortunately for racing fans it never got off the ground.

The ’70s were a golden age for B-movies, when the genre had the perfect mix of earnestness and self-awareness. “Death Race 2000” is one of the best examples of that, a movie that frequently straddles the line between “so bad it’s good” and legitimately good. Produced by the legendary Roger Corman and helmed by Paul Bartel — director of several cult classic black comedies that include “Eating Raoul” and “Scenes from the Classic Struggle in Beverly Hills” — “Death Race 2000” is every bit as ridiculous as its title would suggest but also smarter. 
Among the first batch of films to predict with unfortunate accuracy a future where watching people do terrible things to each other would be turned into televised entertainment, “Death Race 2000” is about a combat race with no rules, in which murder literally results in bonus points. It’s gleefully violent in all the ways it should be, and can be enjoyed for its social commentary or just as a straight-up gory racing movie. The cast is rounded out by exactly the type of people to sell such a premise, including David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, and “Karate Kid”/“Cobra Kai” villain Martin Kove. It’s a bloody good time for those who can stomach it.

Not all racing is done directly against others. There is an entire subsection of the sport focused on setting and beating speed records, with the racers on the track alone and competing only against a clock. Land speed racing might not seem like it would make very compelling material for a film, but the biopic “The World’s Fastest Indian” disproves that assumption mightily. Starring Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, “Indian” is as much about a man’s journey to get to his big race as it is about the big race itself. Fitting, since the real Munro worked on his motorcycle for the better part of two decades before he used it to set his first speed record.
Munro was already in his fifties before he began setting and beating records, and much of the movie is about people telling him he’s too old and him refusing to do so — overcoming one obstacle after another, even though many would’ve made even the most ambitious person call it quits. There aren’t enough movies, racing or otherwise, about how it’s never too late; “The World’s Fastest Indian” is an argument for why the world needs more.

Though primarily known as an actor, Paul Newman had his hand in many pies, from philanthropy to a professional racing career which spanned four decades and eventually earned him a spot in the SCCA Hall of Fame. For people who recall his side career, as well as those with no clue about it, “Winning: The Racing Life Of Paul Newman” is a wonderful look at what became a surprisingly prolific chapter in the life of a legend.
While making his 1969 film “Winning,” Newman fell in love with racing and wasted little time giving it a serious go. He had his first race in 1973, and remained active in the sport throughout the ’70s and ’80s, taking one final spin in 2002 at age 77. He even did a complete 24 Hours of Le Mans run in 1979. This documentary is a loving tribute to a man who could’ve easily treated racing as a luxury hobby but instead gave it his all, winning multiple championships as both a racer and team owner, finding himself fully embraced by the racing community.

The Williams Racing team has been around since the 1970s and is one of the most well-known and successful in the world of F1 racing. The simply-titled “Williams” is a documentary not only about the team, but about its founder, Sir Frank Williams. The movie follows Williams’ life from his early years to running the successful team, and it isn’t always the most flattering portrayal. One reviewer even goes so far as to say that “Frank Williams has his legacy well and truly besmirched” by how he comes off through the course of the film. Others are a bit kinder, acknowledging it as a warts-and-all portrait but claiming it is still an overall affectionate look at the man and his legacy.
Either way, it’s clear that “Williams” is no puff piece, and there is something to be said for movies that don’t simply resort to blind worship of their subjects and instead take a more honest look — even if people come away from the movie with negative feelings about the person in question. Nobody ever said racing, particularly F1 racing, wasn’t a messy sport — and “Williams” is a surprisingly honest portrayal. 

Most NASCAR documentaries are about already-established drivers, but what about the up-and-comers? Not even the rookie NASCAR drivers, but the ones for whom their potential NASCAR success is still years away? That is the angle taken by the touching documentary “Racing Dreams,” which follows three teenagers who race in the World Karting Association with aspirations of one day parlaying their experience into a career with NASCAR.
It’s fascinating to see these stories as they are unfolding, instead of the usual “when I was a kid” recollections of adult drivers whose racing careers are largely in the rearview mirror. The emotion of the highs and lows are so much more raw in children than they are in adults, and it’s equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking to see these kids succeed as well as fail. “Racing Dreams” is perhaps the most non-racing-fan-friendly documentary ever made, but that’s not to say that racing fans — particular those who grew up with their own professional racing aspirations and either succeeded or failed in that aim — won’t be just as likely to fall in love with it. 

“Logan Lucky” sets its climactic heist at a speedway, and features multiple NASCAR drivers and commentators showing up in the film as themselves, making it both a car chase and race movie. It’s also just a really good film.
Maintaining the “Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen” heist vibe while moving the action from Las Vegas to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, director Steven Soderbergh unpacks one of his best mainstream Hollywood films, with a cast that includes Daniel Craig in his most delightfully outlandish performance this side of Benoit Blanc from “Knives Out.” Because it’s a Soderbergh film, there are A-list stars deep into the credits, and even the briefest feel well-conceived and never just mere cameos. Could this be his best heist movie, over any of the “Ocean’s” films? It’s not a difficult stance to defend. 

Set during the 1976 F1 racing season, Ron Howard’s “Rush” gives the proceedings the Hunt/Lauda story a Hollywood polish, but it does so in a way that still respects the real event and people involved. Howard, who made his directorial debut with the 1977 road comedy “Grand Theft Auto,” shows a true reverence for the subject matter in what some consider one of his better films. 
Chris Hemsworth, who was just beginning his decade-long journey playing Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plays McLaren team driver Hunt with all of the effortless charm and humor he brought to the God of Thunder — if not a bit more debauchery. Fellow MCU actor Daniel Brühl plays Hunt’s rival, Niki Lauda, while Olivia Wilde plays Hunt’s wife. Everyone is well cast, and Howard directs both the character scenes and racing action with equal finesse. In terms of accuracy, the real Niki Lauda praised the film: “There was no Hollywood changes or things changed a little bit Hollywood-like. It is very accurate.”

A documentary as effective as any narrative racing film, this film from Nate Adams and Adam Carolla (yes, that one) covers much of the same material from “Ford v Ferrari,” detailing the ’60s rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari that exploded onto the pavement of Le Mans.
Ford and Ferrari are to 1960s racing what the Lakers and Celtics were to 1980s basketball, two teams that took turns winning it all and leaving nobody else with even half a chance. Spurred on largely by bruised professional pride, the battle between Ford and Ferrari on the race track during this era was legendary, and “The 24 Hour War” is a masterpiece-level depiction. 

In one of only three acting roles where he doesn’t play some version of himself, singer/songwriter James Taylor starred in the Monte Hellman-directed 1971 cult classic street race movie “Two-Lane Blacktop.” The future “Fire and Rain” singer plays a character known simply as “The Driver,” co-starring with fellow musician Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys) as “The Mechanic.” The movie is heavy on metaphors — as the generic character names hint at (and would later influence films like the Ryan Gosling hit “Drive”) — and light on dialogue, with its existential messages largely conveyed through action. 
What makes “Two-Lane Blacktop” one of the best racing movies of all time is the way it captures the loneliness often inherent in racing, something that few racing films touch. It’s also a movie that perfectly conveys what it feels like to be on the road, how the mystery and desolation can be both exciting but fraught with anxiety. One critic perfectly summed up the film by calling it “unsettling and beautiful” while the “Village Voice” said it was “achingly eloquent,” words that are seldom used when describing a racing movie — but that’s exactly what makes “Two-Lane Blacktop” so special. 

One of the first fictional racing movies to feature cameos by real drivers, 1966’s “Grand Prix” starred James Garner, with appearances from F1 drivers like Phil Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Jim Clark. It’s also noteworthy in that it was the first American film to feature Toshiro Mifune, best known as a longtime collaborator of director Akira Kurosawa. The movie expertly blended filmed scenes with real footage of racing, something that was also novel for its time.
Beyond all the ways “Grand Prix” was a trailblazing film, however, it is also a genuinely great one. It was a true spectacle film in the best possible way, with impressive, heart-pounding set-pieces interspersed between moments of compelling character drama. The race scenes dazzled audiences at the time, and hold up better today than one might think, particularly in the high-def Blu-ray remaster released in 2011. “Grand Prix” won several technical Oscars and earned a nomination for director John Frankenheimer, and stars the always-charming James Garner.

The gold standard for fictional racing movies, “Ford v. Ferrari” not only succeeds because it portrays such an exciting era in racing history but because the movie is impeccably well-made. Everyone involved in this movie, both in front of and behind the camera, is firing in all cylinders and giving career-best (if not very close to it) work in their respective roles. Director James Mangold, whose varied career has included everything from two “X-Men” movies to a Johnny Cash biopic, proves extremely capable at filming both pulse-pounding racing scenes and intense human drama. The fact that the movie’s only Oscar nominations were in sound design is a crime, though the sound work is definitely stellar.
“Ford v. Ferrari” is a masterclass in not only how to do a racing movie right, but how to do a biopic. It respects its subjects while remaining honest about them, and while it does seem to pick a side in the rivalry at the heart of the film, it never feels biased or unbalanced. This movie’s place in the all-time winner’s circle of racing films is well-earned.

It’s too easy to look at all the deaths that have occurred in the history of Formula One racing as a footnote, tragedies in the moment turning into statistics for future generations. That’s what makes “Senna” such an important film — it puts a spotlight on one life tragically lost to the sport with the intention of making viewers consider whether F1 racing, or any form of entertainment for that matter, is worth anyone risking their lives.
Even though the movie is a posthumous look at its subject, the filmmakers were able to utilize copious amounts of existing footage of Ayrton Senna’s career and construct the events almost as if they were occurring in real time, bringing a sense of powerful urgency. As such, the film plays even better for those unfamiliar with Senna and his ultimate fate.
Ultimately, “Senna” is able to celebrate its subject’s life and accomplishments before depicting his death, which seems more respectful of his legacy. The film comes highly recommended to anyone, no matter their previous interest in Ayrton Senna or any form of competitive racing; anyone with a heart will have it filled — and, unfortunately, broken — while watching “Senna.”

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