Racing at the Movies

Fans of action films love chase scenes, because they generally pack a ton of adrenaline and help make a movie more tense and exciting. Cars have also been used extensively in films as a status symbol. Other films show car racing instead of chases, with several having a plot that is centered on racing and nothing else.

The top-grossing film where racing is a central theme is “Cars,” which would spawn the sequel “Cars 2” because of its great success. The film stars the voices of Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy as Lightning McQueen and Mater, who suffer several setbacks on the way to California. They need to get to Los Angeles in order to race in the finals to win the coveted Piston Cup, but must escape the town of Radiator Springs, where they are stuck. The film also stars the voice of Paul Newman, in one of his final screen roles before his death.

In the non-animated category, “Days of Thunder” is arguably one of the most popular racing films. It was released in 1990 and starred Tom Cruise, who met his future wife Nicole Kidman on the film. The film was an emotional drama made at the height of Cruise’s popularity, so it was naturally a hit at the box office. Though there was talk of a sequel, Cruise’s busy schedule and impending wedding to Kidman made a second film impossible, since executives did not want to recast Cruise’s role.

In 2001, a small film called “The Fast and the Furious” was released without a ton of fanfare. It starred then-unknowns like Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, and Michelle Rodriguez in a story about a group of street racers who have a system for hijacking tractor trailers for money. They sell the goods for cash, which allows them to continue modifying their cars with expensive parts for racing. Walker plays an undercover cop who tries to infiltrate the ring and finds himself begrudgingly respecting the leader of the group and falling in love with his sister. It spawned the sequels “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” and “Fast and Furious.” All of these films rank in the top eleven all-time top-grossing films about racing.

When MTV started airing episodes of the cult Japanese anime hit “Speed Racer,” it introduced the series to a whole new audience. Those new fans demanded merchandise and were elated when the Wachowski brothers, the duo behind “The Matrix” trilogy, announced plans to make a live-action version of the series. Released in 2008, the film boasted an all-star cast that included Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Matthew Fox, who had just become famous due to the success of “Lost.”

The top racing films of all time are mostly dramatic, though a few, like “Cars,” are comedies as well. Few of the entries are outright comedies like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Starring Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby and comedy veteran John C. Reilly, it would become a box office smash hit that continued Ferrell’s reign as the king of movie comedies. The film is a send up of NASCAR and racing culture that is full of sight gags and physical comedy, which are both areas where Ferrell excels.

Another unabashed comedy is “The Cannonball Run,” which is the oldest of the top-grossing racing films, having been released in 1981. It starred Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrah Fawcett, and Jackie Chan in one of his earliest and smallest roles. The story is about an illegal car race that sends several groups of car drivers across the country in a bid to win. Along the way, the racers will go out of their way to sabotage their fellow competitors in order to gain an edge on the pack. It is irreverent fun that would launch “Cannonball Run II” three years later.

Occasionally, a racing film has no script because it is a documentary that focuses on real-life drivers and racers rather than fictional ones. Such is the case with “NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience,” which used the huge screens in IMAX theaters in order to really capture the pulse-pounding action on a real race track. The 3D technology only enhances the action, which could very well make this the most daring and thrilling of all the top racing films. It may not have a love story or a plot, but it is just as entertaining as any of the other top racing films of all time.