Motorsport may be thrilling to watch on the track, but it can be just as good up on the big screen — and these exceptional motorsport films highlight just how great those movies can be.
It can be difficult to truly quantify what makes something great, but the films on this list made it here for a variety of reasons. Some told compelling stories based on historical fact; others are animated pictures that are designed for younger audiences.
All of the following movies, however, have done well to capture the essence of what makes racing so great: the human angles, the racing action, and the impact on the audience. These 10 make for the perfect watches for this festive season!
Days of Thunder (1990)
Days of Thunder, featuring Tom Cruise and produced by the dynamic duo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, is the last big send-off for bombastic 1980s-style films that featured over-the-top action, high-powered soundtracks, and big-budget undertakings. It isn’t necessarily a great racing movie, but it’s still one of the most enjoyable to watch.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Talladega Nights isn’t the most serious or complimentary portrayal of the NASCAR community, nor is it even all that accurate, but it earns a slot on this list nonetheless because it isn’t trying to be any of those things. It’s trying to be a silly, overblown comedy about a NASCAR racer trying to overcome his snooty Formula 1 competitor, and it’s a whole heap of fun.
Where Formula 1 had Grand Prix, American open-wheel had Winning, a film starring Paul Newman as a driver dreaming of competing in the Indianapolis 500. As many films did at the time, it also includes the ever-important romance angle, where Newman’s wife was prepared to leave him for his rival. It’s also a great encapsulation of its era.
The Last American Hero (1973)
Based on the story of NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, The Last American Hero follows one of the most iconic racers of his era. A moonshiner, Johnson honed his driving skills running from the police, then made a career on the oval tracks of the past.
An animated film about a snail does seem like an odd choice as one of the greatest racing films, but Turbo is one of those well-written feel-good films that just hits the right audience. While it does obviously take its inspiration from the Cars franchise, it’s hard not to love a speed-obsessed snail trying to win the Indianapolis 500.
And speaking of Cars, the Lightning McQueen-led franchise absolutely had to make it on this list. Again, this is an animated film that’s not really describing any one specific race, but something has to be said for just how inspiring this film has been for a generation of kids who may not have grown up with motorsport.
Ford v. Ferrari (2019) (also known as Le Mans 66)
In the late 1960s, Ferrari had long reigned at the 24 Hours of Le Mans but were about to be challenged by the might of the Ford Motor Company. While there are plenty of fascinating angles to that saga, Ford v Ferrari primarily centers on Ken Miles, who became a driver for Carroll Shelby’s race team. It’s a powerful story accompanied by some racing shots.
While the crash scenes in Michael Mann’s Ferrari are so overdone as to cast a pall on some elements of the movie, the rest of the film is absolutely fantastic. It accurately portrays Enzo Ferrari’s oddest quirks and habits while also telling the painful story of the 1957 Mille Miglia. It encapsulates both the work drama and the domestic disputes that accompany running a family business, and it’s sure to become a favorite among motorsport fans around the world.
The 1976 World Championship battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda remains one of the most iconic duels in F1 history, and Rush did a compelling job capturing the death, drama, despair, and joy of that tense battle. Replete with tense racing scenes and great acting from some of Hollywood’s finest, Rush helped set a modern standard for what motorsport movies could become.
Grand Prix (1966)
You know a movie is good when it sets the standard for everything that came after, and 1966’s Grand Prix was just such a movie. Set in the high-flying Formula 1 universe, Grand Prix features some of the most exceptional racing footage ever shot on film, and the script exhibits a deep understanding of the nature of the sport. It sets a high standard and still holds up, even decades later.