10 racing movies that put stars behind the wheel
They are speed
With Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s Ford v Ferrari coming up fast (it hits theaters Nov. 15), Hollywood is once again putting some of its favorite leading men behind the wheel. It's a storied tradition going back decades, so we here at EW thought we'd round up some of the most memorable racing films that saw stars speeding around the track (or down the street, as the case may be).
Okay, so it may not be car racing, but William Wyler's sword-and-sandal epic features one of the best racing sequences ever committed to film. Ben-Hur’s famous chariot race retains its jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing power 60 years on, rivaling even modern action films for sheer scale. (The glorious widescreen photography lets you bask in the majesty of that set.) And it still thrills — just look at the moment where Charlton Heston, as the title character, clambers back into his chariot after a jump nearly sends him flying.
It's not exactly a high point of the King's filmography, but Speedway has Nancy Sinatra, Elvis as a NASCAR driver, and both of them singing on the soundtrack to its credit. The film also boasts cameos from such NASCAR legends as Cale Yarborough and the other King, Richard Petty. If nothing else, Speedway would be good to include in your Elvis film binge before Baz Luhrmann's biopic arrives.
Le Mans (1971)
Steve McQueen's most famous turn behind the wheel is probably Bullitt’s iconic car chase, but 1971's Le Mans is a must-watch for racing fans. A passion project for racecar enthusiast McQueen, the film was partially shot at the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans race (Ford v Ferrari, incidentally, dramatizes the 1966 edition). And that authenticity shows on screen, with a bounty of classic cars and thrilling racing sequences.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Produced by cult-movie legend Roger Corman, the unrepentantly violent and goofy Death Race 2000 is a triumph of B-movie filmmaking. (Archetypal Corman output, in other words.) In a dystopian future, costumed drivers compete in a deadly cross-country road race, earning points by mowing down innocent pedestrians. Featuring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, the film stabs at political satire but is best enjoyed for its visceral campy pleasures. Call it The Hunger Games of racing movies, except less deadly serious... and more just deadly.
The Cannonball Run (1981)
The great Burt Reynolds had quite the screen career behind the wheel: The Cannonball Run was part of a run of car-themed action comedies from Reynolds and director Hal Needham, which kicked off with 1977's Smokey and the Bandit. This film follows J.J. McClure (Reynolds) and his trusty mechanic (Dom DeLuise) on an illegal cross-country race in a souped-up ambulance, with a bountiful supporting cast along for the ride (Farrah Fawcett! Roger Moore! Jackie Chan!). Like many of Reynolds' films, Cannonball Run was savaged by critics, but it roared to financial success, continuing the actor's box office winning streak... before 1983's Stroker Ace, another racing film directed by Needham, torpedoed it.
Days of Thunder (1990)
Days of Thunder, starring Tom Cruise as a rookie NASCAR driver, is often dismissed as an inferior Top Gun rehash, and we won't try to convince you it's a cinematic classic. (Just look at those character names: Cole Trickle! Rowdy Burns! Harlem Hoogerhyde!) But director Tony Scott makes the most of the racing sequences, up-close bursts of speed and fury that put you right in the thick of the action. In hindsight, though, Days of Thunder may be more notable as a historical document than a movie: The film was the first pairing of Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who met on the set and married shortly thereafter.
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
While the Fast and Furious films have largely left racing in the dust in favor of ever-grander car-based stunts (not a complaint, mind you), the franchise's first installment is decidedly a racing movie (with a side of car-based heisting that foreshadows the later entries). The film's often-CGI-fueled action hasn't all aged well, but Paul Walker and Vin Diesel’s climactic drag race remains thrilling, and packs an even greater emotional wallop after Walker's untimely death.
Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in this film, which also features Burt Reynolds (not behind the wheel, sadly) and cameos from several international racing figures. It also stands out for focusing on open-wheel car racing rather than NASCAR. (Stallone had originally wanted to set the film in the world of Formula One racing, but that plan fell through.)
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s satirical riff on the world of NASCAR is packed with hilarious touches: the superb comedic team of Ferrell and John C. Reilly (paired for the first time here), absurd sponsors (the sight of that Wonder Bread car never gets old), and kids named Walker and Texas Ranger, for starters. Ferrell's Ricky Bobby also serves as a pitch-perfect parody of the ego-driven, preening male protagonists of many a racing film. (We sense Ferrell and McKay watched Stroker Ace so you don't have to.)
At last, some Formula One! Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (The Crown) reteamed after their Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon to tell the tale of the real-life rivalry between drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). With heart-poundingly intense races, two great, nuanced lead performances, and visual style to spare, Rush is a full meal. That it didn't earn a single Oscar nod is a conundrum greater than out-racing a Ferrari.