Cinema’s Greatest Races

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The new James Hunt biopic, Rush, is coming soon and with Empire heading down to the circuit to watch Ron Howard bring it together in the new issue, we’ve cast our mind over some of the other great racing flicks down the years. So which movie races are guaranteed to deliver a jolt of adrenaline and a waft of gasoline and burnt rubber to your nostrils? Here’s ten that get our checkered flag.

Movie: The Great Race (1965)
Vehicle: The Leslie Special
Driver: The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis)

This film is famous for boasting “the greatest pie fight ever” – a claim you can’t make about Senna – and The Great Race also lays claim to possibly the daftest car race ever to chug across the big screen. The course itself is from New York to Paris – no, not that way – and takes in a perilous crossing of the Bering Straits and the devilish attentions of Jack Lemmon’s villain, Professor Fate (the inspiration for Dick Dastardly, no less), and his sinister Hannibal Twin-8.

Movie: Le Mans (1971)
Vehicle: Porsche 917
Driver: Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen)

Any motor race that takes a day is, in our humble opinion, a bit long. Le Mans, however, is part of racing lore and you do at least get to share the driving. Back in 1971 Steve McQueen tackled the almost-endless kilometres of track all on his own as rubber-burning automaton Michael Delaney in Le Mans. His car – a badass Porsche 917 – glided sleekly across the screen like a missile designed by Barbarella. Unfortunately, the plot gets a puncture early on and spends the rest of the film idling in the pit lane – but you can’t quibble with the driving.

Movie: Days Of Thunder (1990)
Vehicle: 1990 Chevrolet Lumina
Driver: Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise)

The fast, thunderous Daytona 500 is the home of the Simpson/Bruckheimer ‘Top-Gun-on-wheels’ racer. Tom Cruise’s NASCAR champ, Cole Trickle, is cocky, reckless and bold behind the wheel, coping with exasperated pit-lane types with the perma-grin of a man who knew that one day he’d have more lawyers than them. On the track, a 2-and-a-bit-mile circuit completed 200 times, await rivals Cary Elwes and Michael Rooker and real NASCAR drivers like Rusty Wallace and Harry Gant. Surely Tom can’t out-cruise all of them? Youbetchya’ass.

Movie: Death Race (2008)
Vehicle: Frankenstein's Monster (2006 Ford Mustang GT)
Driver: Jensen Ames (Jason Statham)

The deadliest race requires the most badass driver. Step forward, then, Jason Statham as ex-NASCAR driver and full-time hardman Jensen Ames. Stuck in prison and coerced into the titular tussle by a corrupt warden (Joan Allen) who wants him to pass as the now-dead Frankenstein, Ames has to negotiate a lethal industrial course in a beat-up Ford Mustang. Luckily, it’s got 2 M134s, on-board napalm dispenser, an oil slick and smokescreen fitted as standard. They should try this in Formula 1.

Movie: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Vehicle: 1955 Chevy "One-Fifty"
Drivers: The Driver (James Taylor), The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson)

Arguably, Monte Hellman’s influential indie is more of a road movie in the spirit of Easy Rider than a pedal-to-the-metal racer, but it burns plenty enough rubber to warrant a spot on the list. Getting their kicks on Route 66, Warren Oates and James Taylor’s nameless drivers burn down the road in a souped-up ’55 Chevy picking up girls, dropping them off again and generally ignoring the heck out of speed limit. Hellman’s low-budget film planted the seed of an idea that would later turn into the Cannonball Run, after the pair of petrol-pushing dragsters challenging Warren Oates’ Pontiac driving nomad to a drag race. Don’t ask who wins; it’s not that kind of film.

Movie: Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Vehicle: Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu
Driver: Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell)

The Talladega Superspeedway plays high-speed home to NASCAR’s finest, Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), in his #26 Wonder Bread wheels in Adam McKay’s comedy. The real race is now called the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 - the 500 standing for the number of miles the course covers – and although we don’t see Bobby covering all of them (this isn’t Le Mans), we do get the crunch moment when only he and French nemesis Jean Giraud (Sacha Baron Cohen) are down to the final lap and on foot. Think Days Of Blunder.

Movie: Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977)
Vehicle: VW Beetle
Driver: The car mostly

It’s the vehicle that keeps Father Ted’s pal Father Dougal awake at night (“C’mon Ted, a Volkswagon with a mind of its own, running around all over the place and goin’ mad. If that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is”). When it’s not scaring Irish priests, Herbie is a battle-hardened veteran of some of Europe’s toughest circuits. The fictional Trans-France race takes him/it from Paris to Monte Carlo with Dean Jones and Don Knotts on board. The Herbie Derby – spoiler warning! – ends in triumph, but only after the Love Bug saves the life of a rival driver and sees off the attentions of the nefarious Bruno von Stickle. He can drive upside down, of course, which definitely helps.

Movie: Cars (2006)
Vehicle: Lightning McQueen

Pixar’s grand prix takes in 200 laps of the Los Angeles International Speedway in front of a crowd of 200,000 cars. It’s essentially Days Of Thunder for ‘toons and calls for Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) greatest ever drive. Unfortunately his bitter old nemesis, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), has other ideas. These involve causing retiring champion Strip “The King” Weathers (Richart Petty) to smash. Luckily, there’s nobility in defeat as Lightning, ahead of Hicks in the final straight, screeches to a halt just short of the line and drives back to nudge his battered but respected rival – who has never failed to finish a race – across the finish line. Hicks may win, strictly speaking, but the moral and emotional victory is very much McQueen’s.

Movie: Speed Racer (2006)
Vehicle: Mach 6
Driver: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch)

Speed Racer may fall at the bizarro end of the racing movie spectrum – it’s what Top Gear might look like if you were in the middle of a heavy peyote bender and watching a cartoon about monkeys at the same time – but as a centrepiece, the kaleidoscopic Casa Cristo 500 takes some beating. So for that matter, does Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) himself when he enters the race. The baddies line up to take potshots at him as he careers around the intercontinental course in his white Mach 6, dodging catapults, hooks, oil slicks, ice caves, glaciers and miscellaneous perils along the way, but they just can’t match those skills.

Movie: Cannonball Run (1981)
Vehicle: Dodge Tradesman ambulance
Drivers: J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) and Victor Prinzi (Dom DeLuise)

This one is based on a real-life event, ‘the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash’ to give it its full title, which ran during the ‘70s from New York to LA. The film version sees Burt Reynolds (defending champion) and sidekick Dom DeLuise (comic relief) do battle with the likes of Roger Moore, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Jackie Chan, pratfalling their way across Ohio, Missouri and the like in a converted Dodge ambulance. More lighthearted than most here, it’s still amusing just because the whale of a time the cast appeared to be having on set still somehow communicates itself from the screen.