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Make-Believe Speed: The Most Iconic Racing Films You Can’t Miss
From heartfelt dramas to irreverent comedies and everything in between, these are the must-see movies for any true racing fan.
Some make you cry. Some make you laugh. Some are downright insane, while some feel like the warm embrace of your old “blankey” with the tattered corners. Yeah, that one. Unlike any other cinema category, racing films span a spectrum of visual storytelling more epic than most, thanks, in part to our collective affinity for cars. Let’s be real, it’s hard to ignore our intrinsic Need for Speed considering Vin Diesel’s smoldering Dominic Toretto has graced the silver screen nine times with no signs of slowing down. The reason that compels one to throw on 2005’s seminal film Herbie: Fully Loaded might befuddle 99 percent of the population, but that’s okay. There’s a slice of racing movie pie for everyone. But if you do feel the call to burn rubber, first put the keys down, then check out our list of the most iconic racing films ever.
Days of Thunder (1990)
Best Line: “Rubbin’, son, is racing.” – Harry Hogge
One of the late Tony Scott’s best offerings, "Days of Thunder" is a high-octane ode to rivalry and romance, featuring Tom Cruise trading paint with Michael Rooker on the track, and trading a tad more than that with Nicole Kidman off of it. Cruise plays the anti-hero Cole Trickle to a tee, equally brash as he is brilliant behind the wheel. It’s one of few stock car racing stories that captures the viscerally intense nature of being a NASCAR driver.
Logan Lucky (2017)
Best Line: “I am in-car-ce-ra-ted!” – Joe Bang
Renowned auteur Steven Soderbergh trades in the glamour of the "Oceans" franchise for the hollers of West Virginia as he examines a fictional, down-on-its-luck family with a penchant for crime and a need for speed. With an all-star cast led by Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and a zany, bleach-blonde Daniel Craig doing his best to channel a backwoods southern accent, "Logan Lucky" involves two bird-brained brothers doing their damnedest to reverse a family curse and execute an elaborate, albeit ill-conceived robbery during the legendary Coca-Cola 600 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The film flew mildly below the radar during its main theatrical run, but it has since grown to be a cult favorite.
Best Line: “The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel. It's a wonderful way to live. It's the only way to drive, as if each day is your last.” – James Hunt
"Thor" actor Chris Hemsworth leaves the cosmic plane of Asgard behind and hits the asphalt in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film "Rush." As the English playboy James Hunt, Hemsworth stars opposite Daniel Brühl, who plays Hunt’s perfection-hungry Austrian nemesis Niki Lauda. Together, the dynamic duo burns up the track, showcasing a riveting racing rivalry for the ages as they push their bodies and minds to the absolute brink of self-destruction. As the drivers risk life and limb every time they step on the track, Howard combines exhilarating visuals with a brilliant score from Hans Zimmer to create one of the director’s most memorable films since "Apollo 13," and one of the best racing films in cinema history.
Talladega Nights (2006)
Best Line: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly do what they do best as they channel North Carolina NASCAR Cup Series wheelmen. Somewhere, between his foul-mouthed kids, a cougar mauling, perplexing daddy issues, losing his trophy wife to his mustachioed comrade, and the sexual advances of Sacha Baron Cohen’s eccentric French Formula One champion Jean Girard, Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby triumphantly regains his ability to go fast in this riotous comedy from Adam McKay.
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
Best Line: “I am a baaaad man.” – Memphis Raines
Yes, this Dominic Sena film features memorable performances from Angelina Jolie, Delroy Lindo, Robert Duvall, Will Patton and, of course, Master P. But the main event is Nic Cage going full Nic Cage in a race against time as he attempts to steal 50 cars in one night to prevent a sadistic Scotsman from murdering his younger brother. Cage’s performance as the legendary car thief Memphis Raines is a must-see for anyone who likes fast cars or the legendary actor dialing up his signature brand of wackiness.
Best Line: “Focus. Speed. I am speed.” – Lightning McQueen
In a world of anthropomorphic cars capable of feeling lifelong regret and vulnerability, Larry the Cable Guy steals the show as the affable rust bucket Tow Mater, who miraculously knows exactly how to push Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen to reach his dreams. The animation around McQueen’s racing action is unreal, and coupled with Pixar’s signature humor and poignancy, this is one emotional ride for racing fans of all ages.
Best Line: “If I drive for you, you get your money. That’s a guarantee.” – Driver
Managing to say little and still deliver a powerhouse performance, Ryan Gosling shines as an intense, head-smashing yet introverted LA-based wheelman in this gritty, neo-noir thriller. The former Disney star may not portray an actual racer, but clearly, his decisive driving ability and calm under pressure could stand up to that of any stock car driver.
Last American Hero (1973)
Best Line: “So what? A little jail never hurt nobody.” – Elroy Jackson Jr.
Based on the true story of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, who is credited as the first driver to use the drafting technique in stock car racing, "Last American Hero" stars a pre-grizzled, golden-locked Jeff Bridges as the fast-talking but even faster-driving Elroy Jackson Jr. who’ll stop at nothing to provide for his family once his father, a lifelong moonshiner, is arrested and sentenced to prison. With impressive source material in the form of a Tom Wolfe essay, and memorable performances from Bridges and Gary Busey – yes, we said Gary Busey – this is one NASCAR film that hits the nail on the head when it comes to portraying the rough roads taken by some of the league’s earliest and most audacious stars.
The Fast & Furious (2001)
Best Line: “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” – Dominic Toretto
What’s a list of the best car racing films without the original, full-throttle fantasy "The Fast and the Furious." The franchise’s OG offering perfectly captures the tenacity of street racers and the larger-than-life personalities that accompany that world. While Paul Walker’s star was already shining brightly with "Varsity Blues" and "The Skulls," Vin Diesel, complete with his sleeveless tops and guttural growls, cemented himself as bonafide box office star and force to be reckoned with as Hollywood’s fearless bad boy.
Le Mans (1971)
Best Line: “Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.” – Michael Delaney
Before there was Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, before there was George Clooney or Ryan Gosling, there was Steve McQueen. Arguably the biggest movie star in cinema history, McQueen became obsessed with the idea of racing and made it both his on-screen and off-screen mission to bring the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans to the silver screen, no matter the cost, and he succeeded with flying colors. As a bit of an experimental film, 1971’s "Le Mans" may not feature a ton of storyline or dialogue, but what it lacks in traditional narrative elements, it counters with intense, hard-nosed action as a swagger-licious McQueen, oozing charisma out of every pore, faces down a haunting crash and a rival who’ll stop at nothing to keep him off the podium. If you prefer grounded stories without the CGI flash of fiery cars jumping from Dubai’s Burj Khalifa Towers, this film has your name all over it!