DreamWorks latest release, Turbo, confirmed a trend that has become more evident in the film industry in recent years: an increasing fascination for racing.
However, car racing has inspired film makers and script writers from the very beginning of the film industry, with UK sports drama Grand Prix released back in 1934. Since then cinema-goers have been delighted by sporadic bursts of films set in the racing world or centred on the troubled life of professional drivers.
The first big wave of film directors’ interest in racing occurred in the late 60s, with four Hollywood films focussing on all the most important series in US and Europe: Formula 1 (Grand Prix, 1966), Indianapolis 500 (Winning, 1969), Le Mans 24 Hours (Le Mans, 1971) and NASCAR (The Last American Hero, 1973).
From the late ‘70s to the early 2000s occasional box office successes followed, such as Days of Thunder (1990), the history of a driver finding his way to victory in the Daytona 500. With the Fast and the Furious franchise a winning union between street racing and crime was cemented, and as the seventh instalment will hit cinemas next year this is clearly still a lucrative formula.
In 2006 thirteen racing movies hit theatres worldwide, collecting a total of around $1.2 billion in box office revenue. However, these were probably not directly inspired by real life races, especially as two of the top three successes in this niche were animated films (Pixar’s Cars and Cars 2). This put a significant question mark on cinema’s fascination with filming races.
It had often been taken for granted that racing stories attracted filmmakers due to speed, and the thrill of narrating a chase shot at 300km/h. However, reading reviews of Cars or, more the recent pictures Rush and Turbo, the astonishingly common feature attracting audiences to watch a race movie appears to be the human story behind the helmet.
Rush has been appreciated for its psychological exploration of the main characters, and Cars and Turbo were praised for their stories which encourage growth, belief in dreams and humility. The speed and chases at the limit of physics were there, but the real challenge for protagonists was not on the track but in real life (albeit fictional ‘real’ life in Cars and Turbo). It is this that excited both audiences and critics.
Does this mean that these movies would have been just as successful if they centred on other sports, as long as they were telling a touching and meaningful story? Perhaps yes, but it seems likely that the extreme limit-pushing nature of racing allows audiences to reach worlds and thrills impossible to experience in everyday life, bringing a visual kick (and likely a box-office boost) to a director’s crafting of an insightful story.