Speed, Sound and the Cinemascope

There have been a surprising number of successful movies made about motorsports. Many, like Rush (2015) and Cars (2006), raced to mainstream popularity. These films captivated a wide audience and pulled them into the colorful world of racing. On the flip side, there have been a great many of bad movies made about motorsports. Even though ‘bad’ itself is a relative term depending on the viewer’s preferences, most people can agree on a few rotten tomatoes. Here are some films that changed the game for the motorsports movie genre and what made them so significant.

Most Immersive: Grand Prix (1966)

Most Realistic: Le Mans (1971)

Starring James Garner as a believably angst-ridden American Formula1 driver named Pete Aaron, this film follows the glamorous lifestyle involved with international racing. A handful of drivers are featured in story lines that depict realistic issues of this lifestyle such as overcoming injury, loss of ride and women. Cheesy? Yes, but this film revolutionized the viewer experience of motorsports. Winning three Academy Awards in 1966 for Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Visual/Sound effects, the videography of this movie captured racing up close.  On a big screen Grand Prix was the most spectacular movie epic made to date. Look close enough and you will see historic drivers and cars featured in real Grand Prix racing of the time.

Based on the real events of the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring, Le Mans stars real life pro driver/ actor Steve McQueen as he takes on the toughest endurance race of all time: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This movie is for the racing purists that don’t want to fuss around with unnecessary storyline or dialogue. In fact, there is no audible conversation from any characters for the first 37 minutes. Also filmed meticulously, viewers are immersed in the race from the drop of the green flag.

Best Car Chase: Bullitt (1968)

Although not expressly a racing movie, Bullitt is another Steve McQueen feature film. This time playing a cop walking the fine line between good and evil, McQueen navigates the realm of crime and politics in an Everest green 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback. Though the movie and the story itself weren't exactly show stopping, the almost ten minute long car chase changed movie making history. Reaching speeds of 110mph while filming on the streets of San Francisco, it is easily one of the most influential and iconic sequences in action movies. Academy Award winner for editing in 1969, Bullitt is drenched with ‘cool factor.’

Best Documentary: 1 (2013)

Telling the complete story of Formula1, 1 has some of the best authentic racing footage, photos and interviews. Legends like Sir Jackie Stewart, Michael Schumacher, Mario Andretti and others weave their stories into the amazing history that is Formula1 racing. This might be the most educational documentary as a whole that I have come across, but there are many others that deserve mention. These include Roman Polansky’s Weekend of a Champion starring Sir Jackie Stewart (especially the anniversary edition with special reunion sit-down interview) and Asif Kapadia’s Senna that follows Brazilian racing sensation Ayrton Senna. The variety of characters and footage makes 1 stand out but all three of these Formula1 documentaries are wonderfully filmed and are worth the time to explore.

Best Worst Racing Movies: Thunder Alley (1967),  Fireball 500 (1966)

Technically two full feature films, this duo was obviously created for drive-in double-feature fanfare. Both star Annette Funicello and Fabian. Fireball 500 adds Frankie Avalon to the mix. One does not go without the other. Both star kicky musical numbers and inconsistent race scenes. What make these films so quirky and hilarious are the nuances. Watch closely and the racing surface will switch from asphalt to dirt and back again. There is even one bright satin jacket that makes an appearance in almost every scene of the movie, worn by different characters. Fist fights, love songs and cheesy lines galore! Do not expect an Oscar nomination, but these racing features are a party from beginning to end. 

The World of Speed is planning to show all of these films and many more related to cars and other motorsports on our big drive-in style movie screen. The first feature will be American Graffiti (1973)  aired for the admission paying public on September, 18th 2015. Sign up for our newsletter to hear about our movie series and other events we host here at the World of Speed. Tickets are on sale now!