The Celluloid Oval

Watch somebody else drive fast for a change.

Movies are meant to move. And nothing puts more zip in the typical action picture than a great car chase. From The Bank Dick to Bullitt to The French Connection to Speed, vehicles in motion have lent a great deal of luster to the flickering images on the silver screen. Sadly, however, moviemakers have been far less successful in capturing the drama, excitement, thrills and competition of motor racing.

Because cars and the movies grew along roughly parallel paths, motion pictures have, from the beginning, done stories about racing. And though some have come closer than others to delivering the real experience with some degree of accuracy and believability, they have, all in all, pretty much missed the mark. Still, for those who love driving, a racing movie, however flawed, can still provide a great deal of pleasure. If the romantic sub-plots are laughable and the racing action sometimes gets hilariously out there, well, all that’s part of the fun.

So, without further ado, pop up some corn, settle into your easy chair and get ready to re-live some of the most notable racing movies of all time.

The Big Wheel (1949)

Can you picture Mickey Rooney as a race car driver? Well, it’s not so ludicrous as it might at first sound. Mickey is a young kid whose father died at Indianapolis. Now he wants his chance at the wheel in the Indy 500, but first he has to convince Red, played by legendary character actor Thomas Mitchell, that he’s ready for the big one. Spring Byington, known to older Baby Boomers for her role in the long-running TV series December Bride, has a featured role. The racing footage includes several genuine Indy car racers including George Lynch, whose crash into the wall is memorialized on film.

Spinout (1966)

Can’t picture Mickey Rooney as a race driver? How about Elvis Presley? In this typical E-Man vehicle, Presley is cast as a race car driver who’s haunted by his tendency to — you guessed it — spin out. Shelley Fabares of The Donna Reed Show and Coach plays the love interest. Between races Elvis croons such unmemorable tunes as Beach Shack, Adam and Evil, and Smorgasbord. As its advertising tagline claimed: "It’s Elvis with his foot on the gas and no brakes on the fun!!!" Need we say more?

Grand Prix (1966)

Director John Frankenheimer, who’s perhaps best known for The Manchurian Candidate, took a distinctly more serious view of racing than did Norman Taurog in Spinout. James Garner plays Formula One driver Pete Aron, who gets involved in a shunt that injures British teammate Scott Stoddard (portrayed by Brian Bedford) and is booted from the team. If that ain’t bad enough, Aron then gets involved with Stoddard’s wife, while getting a ride with the up-and-coming Yamura team. Jessica Walter, perhaps most remembered as the obsessive fan in Play Misty for Me, is the two-timing wife. Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato add European color, while Eva Marie Saint plays an American journalist with amour on her mind. Frankenheimer went to unusual lengths to get realistic racing footage and, 30 years later, it’s still as good as any ever put on film.

Speedway (1968)

Elvis was such a hotshoe in Spinout that his handlers decided to follow it up two years later with another racing flick, Speedway. This time around he’s a successful driver who gets into trouble with the IRS thanks to his conniving manager, portrayed by Bill Bixby of My Favorite Martian fame. Nancy Sinatra is the quote-unquote love interest in the piece, playing an IRS tax auditor. (These boots were made for auditing.) Also featured is Gale Gordon of The Lucy Show. Real-life racers Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough lend some authenticity to the proceedings, but the racing action is ridiculous anyway.


The real-life married couple of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman play a pair whose marriage is threatened by an insatiable desire to win. Newman is Frank Capua, a rising star on the Indy car circuit. Robert Wagner is Luther Erding, his chief rival, not only on the track, but also for his wife’s affections. Richard Thomas, who would later gain attention in The Waltons, plays Capua’s stepson, who is upset by his stepfather’s single-minded pursuit of fame. Bobby Unser and Tony Hulman (of Indianapolis 500 fame) portray themselves in the film that whetted Newman’s appetite for racing. In future years Newman would go on to become an accomplished driver and racing team owner.

Bobby Deerfield (1977)

Lately director Sydney Pollack has graced the screen in a featured performance in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman starrer Eyes Wide Shut. But Pollack directed this lukewarm piece about a self-absorbed American race car driver, played by Al Pacino, who falls in love with a somewhat aloof European woman, Marthe Keller. The only trouble is, she’s about to drop dead. Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, penned the novel on which this film is based, while Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay. Racing is almost an afterthought in the turgid drama, which offers about as many laughs as a funeral procession. The tagline said: "He had to meet her to find himself." The question: why bother?

Days of Thunder (1990)

This Tom Cruise vehicle is essentially Top Gun but with cars, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, the team that brought us not only Top Gun but also Flashdance. Cruise, sporting a serious amount of attitude, plays Cole Trickle, an Indy car driver who lost his ride and decided to slum in NASCAR. But Trickle is haunted by a serious crash. Does he have what it takes to overcome his fear? Cruise’s wife, Nicole Kidman, is cast as Dr. Claire Lewicki, who’s around to help Trickle with his physical therapy, if you get our drift. Randy Quaid has the thankless role of team owner Tim Daland, and Robert Duvall goes way over the top in portraying legendary crew chief Harry Hogge. Directed by Tony Scott from a screenplay credited to Cruise and famous screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) this ain’t exactly Shakespeare, but it does give Cruise fans a lot of what they want to see. As the tagline said, "You can’t stop the thunder.">

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad is currently working on screenplay based on his recent Avon true crime book, Fatal Photographs.