Drive Off the Beaten Track with Great Motor Racing Films


The dramatic, exciting sport of motor racing is understandably featured quite often in movies. The Fast and the Furious and its sequels, the Wachowski brothers’ update of Speed Racer, and Driven, which contained actual racing stars in small parts, seem to exemplify the current crop of racing films. These films all have something to redeem them (okay, perhaps this is less true of Driven), but can feel extremely formulaic. Even Speed Racer, despite its eye-popping, almost garish visuals, manages to feel like a retread of a movie you can’t quite manage to name. It is a cliché of something that has not even become the norm yet. Some of these films are well-known classics may have gotten somewhat buried in the deluge of loud new releases. Others might be obscure films that you will have fun discovering. Here, in no particular order, are some racing-related films that go a bit beyond the norm set by the latest crop of motor racing movies.

Le Mans, dir. Lee H. Katzin. This film starred Steve McQueen as a racing driver, and McQueen brought his customary iconic cool to the role. This is a widely acknowledged classic that displays the drama of racing without sensationalizing it. Katzin’s film is also famous for utilizing actual footage from the previous year’s Le Mans 24 Hour race. The film does not have much of a plot, but rather concentrates on showing people what a “real” Le Mans race is like, and thus has a very documentary-like atmosphere.

The Great Race, dir. Blake Edwards. This piece of 1960’s star-studded comedy concerned a round-the-world motor race that circumnavigated the world. It was based on a real race that occurred in the early part of the 20th century, but the plot of the film is wildly fictional, making room for slapstick jokes and fantastical plot twists. The cast includes such Old Hollywood greats as Jack Lemmon as a bumbling villain, Tony Curtis as a swashbuckling competitor, and Natalie Wood as a feminist reporter. This movie shows that besides being a great dramatic actress, Natalie Wood was also a talented comedienne.

Grand Prix, dir. John Frankenheimer. James Garner and the forever elegant Eva Marie Saint star. The film also won several technical Academy Awards. The film is about four fictional Formula One drivers, and how they get through a single racing season. Both the cast and the story itself are “international.” Not only were the actors from different countries, but each of the four core drivers represents a different nationality: one Frenchman, one Scotsman, one Italian, and one American. The production itself was rather a challenge, since Frankenheimer and his cast and crew were trying to get Grand Prix into theaters before a rival production called Day of the Champion.

The Cannonball Run, dir. Hal Needham. Unlike the other movies on this list, this one is from the early 1980’s, rather than the 1960’s. It is a comedy based on an actual illegal cross-country car race, and features an ambulance used as a racing vehicle.