With “Rush” and “Snake & Mongoose,” each playing to rave reviews in theaters, we felt it was the right to offer readers the following excerpt from Bob Gates’ SPEED SPORT Magazine story on the history of racing movies that was published in September.
By Bob Gates
One only has to glimpse into “Tinsel Town’s” record book to understand why many had guarded expectations about the latest motorsports movies. We’ve seen such classics as Sylvester Stallone’s laughable “Driven” and Tom Cruise’s “Days of Thunder,” as well as a spate of other racing movies with plots as weak as Superman with kryptonite in his pocket.
In a hundred years of film making, and 200-plus racing movies, there have been very few gems. “The Last American Hero” (1973), loosely based on the life of Junior Johnson, might be one. Shirley Muldowney’s story, “Heart Like A Wheel” (1983), or “Greased Lighting” (1973) about Wendell Scott’s stock car efforts, also might qualify. Everyone has their own personal list of the best and worst racing movies. Unfortunately, with most such tallies the worst tend to outnumber the best.
It’s not that Hollywood hasn’t tried. From the beginning of the film industry, moviemakers have been captivated with auto racing. Back then automobiles were still new and exotic. The men who raced them at breakneck speeds were imagination-grabbing daredevils, whose fame exceeded that of many other celebrities. Their notoriety was such that they were often cast in movies to capitalize on their drawing power.
Typical of those early efforts was 1913’s silent movie “The Speed Kings.” “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff played a villainous racer and was joined by prominent drivers Earl Cooper and Barney Oldfield. Sensational starlet Mabel Normand, a fanatical racing fan, was the heroine. A young, unknown Fatty Arbuckle played a track official.
Like Normand, heartthrob Wallace Reid was enamored with auto racing, leading him to star in a half-dozen racing movies, including “The Roaring Road” (1919) and 1920’s “Excuse My Dust.” Reid went beyond just playing a driver. He raced often and in 1922 received an AAA competition license with intentions of driving in the Indianapolis 500.
As the film industry matured its interest in racing movies intensified. During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, studios used some of their biggest stars in an effort to sell racing films at the box office.
In 1936’s “Speed,” acting icon Jimmy Stewart played an automotive engineer who proves his revolutionary, new carburetor at Indianapolis and Bonneville. James Cagney starred in “The Crowd Roars” (1932). The man’s man, Clark Gable, enthusiastically did “To Please a Lady” (1950), while Mickey Rooney was the lead in “The Big Wheel” (1949).
The 1950s and ’60s produced a group of stars who not only portrayed race car drivers, but developed a passion for the sport as well. James Garner raced and owned a team of Corvettes. He played driver Pete Aron in one movie that’s still revered among race fans — “Grand Prix” (1966).
Steve McQueen was a famously determined racer and parlayed that love into the controversial 1971 film “Le Mans.” While by design it contains little acting and a thin plot, the fantastic visuals capture the spirit of the French classic.
McQueen not only starred in, but produced “Le Mans,” going through two directors and coming in millions of dollars over budget. Yet despite enraged outcries from studio management, he used his star power to force his dream project through to completion.
Paul Newman was, perhaps, the best known of the racing actors, once describing himself as a racer who acted, not an actor who raced. He became enamored with racing while filming the 1969 Indianapolis 500 classic “Winning” and pursued the sport as a driver and an Indy car team owner until his death.
However, even with A-list actors passionate about the sport, most racing films have experienced little appeal beyond that of loyal fans of racing. Even with the fans, the attraction was more about seeing racing stars in cameo appearances than about a well-made movie.
What Hollywood has struggled with is telling stories with the emotional depth that racing is so abundantly enriched with — stories of heroism, perseverance and accomplishment.