On Friday, Ron Howard’s “Rush” hits theaters in a few major cities. The next week, it will come to Lincoln. It’s one of the best auto racing movies ever, if not the top.
Here are my 10 favorite racing movies — the first two are competitors for the best ever racing film. Note, there are no animated pictures — sorry “Cars,’ “Turbo” and “Speed Racer” and the “Fast and the Furious” series may have some good racing scenes. But as movies, they hit the wall hard.
1. “Senna” — This 2010 documentary about Formula One champ Aryton Senna, a folk hero in his native Brazil who won three world titles before dying in a 1994 crash, is filled with great real race footage. Senna’s story could have easily been turned into a feature film, a la “Rush,” had the documentary, which inspired Howard’s film, not already been out.
2. “Two Lane Blacktop” — James Taylor, yes, that James Taylor, is “The Driver,” and the late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, “The Mechanic” who drag race across the country in a gray-primered 1955 Chevy “One Fifty” sedan in this 1971 picture that’s now on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It’s actually all three.
3. “Grand Prix” — This 1966 film won three technical Academy Awards for sound and editing, but what really set it apart was its innovative in-car cinematography that brought racing from the driver’s point-of-view to the screen. It’s also full of cameos from real drivers, including Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark. The plot followed four F-1 drivers through a season, including James Garner, who turned out to be a natural driver and took up racing after making the picture.
4. “Winning” — Speaking of actors-turned-racers, Paul Newman starred in this 1969 film about an Indianapolis 500 racer, co-starring with his wife, Joanne Woodward. Playing a driver triggered Newman’s interest in the sport. He raced sports cars himself and headed the Newman/Hass IndyCar team. Much of the film’s racing footage comes from the 1968 Indianapolis 500.
5. “The Last American Hero” — NASCAR makes its first appearance with this 1973 drama starring Jeff Bridges as “Junior Jackson,” who is really driver Junior Johnson, who drove moonshine in the 1950s before becoming one of the then-Southern circuits first stars. This one’s based on Tom Wolfe’s story of the same title. Find it, it’s really good.
6. “Le Mans” — For pure racing, there’s never been a better movie than “Le Mans,” a 1971 movie that is chock full of footage captured at 1970’s 24 Hours of LeMans. Nearly plot and dialogue free, the picture “stars” Steve McQueen as a driver for Porsche who is battling against Ferrari to take the distance race crown.
7. “Days of Thunder” — Some NASCAR fans hate 1990’s “Days of Thunder.” But this Tom Cruise picture — and it definitely is a Cruise formula film — is pretty entertaining and is modeled on real NASCAR folks — Cruise as the late driver Tim Richmond, Randy Quaid as team owner Rick Hendrick, Robert Duvall as car builder Harry Hyde and Michael Rooker as driver Dale Earnhardt. The real Hendrick Motor Sports supplied the cars — and the race scenes are dynamic.
8. “Viva Las Vegas,” “Spinout” and “Speedway” — From the well, maybe not sublime but definitely the ridiculous — are three Elvis Presley racing pictures for the price of one. In 1966’s “Spinout,” Elvis’s singer/race driver must choose between marrying Shelley Fabares or driving a car owned by her father in a big race. In 1968’s “Speedway,” Elvis’ racer has to win $145,000 to pay his taxes, under the threat of IRS agent Nancy Sinatra. Not exactly classics. But “Viva Las Vegas,” in which Elvis is a race driver who has to raise money to buy an engine for his car and works as a waiter where he hooks up with swim instructor Ann Margaret, is one of his best.
9. “The Love Bug” — This 1968 film, the last live-action movie with which Walt Disney was involved, stars Dean Jones as a down-on-his-luck driver who ends up driving a Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie, who has a heart and great speed. The movie’s funny, has a nice story and got plenty of participation from 1960s racing folks. Poor Herbie made a comeback in 2005 —- driven by Lindsay Lohan in “Herbie Fully Loaded.”
10. Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” — There are plenty of racing comedies, but none better than Will Ferrell’s hilarious 2006 take on NASCAR. Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby and his racing partner, Cal, played by John C. Reilley, finds themselves challenged by a French F-1 driver and their racing lives start to fall apart. “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” Ricky says — a take-off on Dale Earnhardt’s famous saying “Second place is just the first loser.”