Pedley: Hollywood Has Had Star-Crossed Affair With Racing
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Hanging from the walls in the third-floor break room of the media center at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a collection of the most marvelous old photographs. The are blown-up copies of black-and-white stills from the 1950s and ‘60s which feature celebrities from those eras mugging it up at the speedway.
There is one of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis with Lewis sitting in a race car wearing one of those trademark goofy looks which for some reason, drives French film critics gaga. There is one of a young Johnny Carson with a young Mario Andretti. There is Clark Gable, who starred in the racing movie “To Please a Lady” in the early ‘50s.
Every time I have attended a race at Indy since the new media center was built – be it for the 500, the Brickyard or the Formula One race – I’ve found myself staring at those old photos.
I find them fascinating as a film-lover and I find them fascinating as a lover of racing history.
The photos are warming reminders of a time when Hollywood was fascinated with auto racing – if not always with historical accuracy.
As with Churchill Downs on Derby Day or Madison Square Garden on fight night, Indy on Memorial Day used to be a place to be seen for celebrities. It connected them and a place which was glamourous and also a bit dangerous.
Hollywood still cranks out the odd racing movie these days, but for the most part, they don’t sell.
The fact seems to be that racing movies tend to be hard to make and almost impossible to make interesting. Even big-budget jobs like “Days of Thunder” produce more unintentional laughs than gripping moments.
What a pity.
For some of us race fans, however, racing movies do not have to be high art to be entertaining. And when it comes to entertainment, there are some racing movies that are watchable, though not always for the reasons director and producers intended.
In honor of the best weekend of the year for racing – it is the weekend of the 500, the 600 and Monaco – what follows is a list of my five favorite racing movies and the reasons for which they get views about every time they come across the cable.
In no particular order, and valid only for today (my favorites tend to be based upon current mood) they are:
“Grand Prix” – It stars James Garner and features some of the real-life driving stars of the 1960s in cameos. The sight of Graham Hill and that damn pencil-thin mustache and slicked-back hair is worth a view on its own. But the star of the movie is the racing footage. Director John Frankenheimer and his crew were given unprecedented access in filming actual races at superstar tracks. The only things missing were plot, dialogue and acting ability.
“Le Mans” – It is a classic for much the same reason as “Grand Prix”. Wonderful racing footage though the French countryside at The Circuit. And the cars. Dude. The Porsche 917s still stand, for me, as the greats race cars of all time. Then there is Steve McQueen in a role based less on dialogue than the man’s furrowed-brow looks of concern. Again, beautiful.
“Elvis Movies” – You kind of have to put an umbrella up over these as they are all pretty similar in plot, look and feel. Elvis races cars (or boats), smirks at chicks, fights with boorish drunks at bars, wins the race he has to win. “Viva Las Vegas” and “Spinout” and “Speedway” could all be spliced together as “Viva Spinouts at the Speedway”. But, you got to love ‘em as a guilty pleasure; equally.
“To Please A Lady _ Gable and Barbara Stanwyk romance their way to the Indianapolis 500. But it is the scenes of the midget racing early in the movie that are most captivating. The movie actually has a plot and moral and you can even forgive the scenes of Gable and other drivers racing in stationary cars being rocked back and forth by off-camera production people as they sit in front of movies of real racing. Special effects had not quite reached an appealing level of sophistication in 1950.
“Cars” – Yep, the recent animated movie. David Poole – the late, great racing beat writer for the Charlotte newspaper – and I were talking about racing movies not long before David’s death. Asked his favorite, he hesitated not one second before saying “Cars”. It hits all bases with a good story line about the death of Route 66, and wonderful computer animation. But it also was put together by people who obviously love racing. There are a lot of subtle racing nuances in the movie that make it enjoyable for people who wished they would have raced when they were younger, and fans who want to race when they get older.
Special Comment – Best line in a racing movie: It comes from the movie “The Green Helmet”. At a party, attended by mostly racing folk, two characters get drunk, climb into go-karts and begin blasting around the yard.
One loses it on a turn and runs his kart into the swimming pool. He is fished out by other drunks at the party, spits out some water and proclaims, “Hey, just like Ascari!” The reference, of course, is to the time the great Alberto Ascari came out of the tunnel at Monaco and crashed his Lancia into the harbor. For a few seconds, everybody held their breath. But then, up popped Ascari.
That’s racing. It’s so good, not even Hollywood can improve upon it.
Staff picks for their favorite racing movies:
John Sturbin: “Le Mans”. My introduction to the 24 Hours of Le Mans came courtesy of Ford Motor Company’s all-out factory assault on Enzo Ferrari in the mid-1960s. That was real-time drama, as broadcast during Saturday afternoon snippets on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” Nearly 40 years after its release on June 23, 1971, Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans” remains a time capsule of the epic battles waged between the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512…at a time when my idea of an exotic car was my 1968 Chevy Camaro street machine. I do remember tacking a McQueen/Le Mans movie poster onto my apartment wall – a promotional giveaway from a local Gulf station touting the Gulf Porsche. And I do remember Ronald Leigh-Hunt, as Porsche team manager David Townsend, calmly informing McQueen’s Michael Delaney character in the closing stages of the race: “Michael, I want you to drive flat-out. I want Porsche to win Le Mans.”
Rick Minter: “Cars”. I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Herb Thomas, whose story is similar to the Paul Newman character in the movie. And I think the movie does a good job of addressing issues in the sport, such as loyalty and respect for the veteran drivers and issues in life such as old towns getting bypassed by interstates. As far as a racing movie that makes a statement or statements, there’s none yet that top “Cars” in my opinion.
Jonathan Ingram: “Thunder in Carolina”. It’s pretty pathetic when you have to do some research to figure out your favorite racing movie…bBt hey! I was a kid when I saw this one. My all-time favorite racing movie is one I have trouble remembering. But the first exposure I ever had to racing I had was a movie I went to see with my older brothers called Thunder In Carolina. Since it was released in 1960 I couldn’t have been more than nine years old when I saw it. But the ’57 Chevy driven – and wrecked – by Rory Calhoun and his rival’s wife in hot-shorts pretty much sold me on the excitment of stock car racing. Oh yes. There was some great footage from the Southern 500 at Darlington, too.
Larry Woody: “Thunder Road”. I liked Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum. It was basic and original, and the fact that it was filmed in black and white helped capture the mood of the period. And – for Hollywood – it was amazingly factual, almost more of a documentary than a movie.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org