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Why don’t racing movies rev up audiences?

One of the reasons is that age-old delicate balance challenge for any genre, where the filmmakers not only capture that specific world but do so with a riveting story.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Of the nearly 200 pictures using motor racing as a backdrop, only a handful are considered classics. Why is that?

One of the reasons is that age-old delicate balance challenge for any genre, where the filmmakers not only capture that specific world but do so with a riveting story. It is the same for motor racing cinema; some capture the speed and danger of the competition but the story is weak, while others provide compelling characters but their efforts on the track are the pits. 

Renny Harlin, director of the 2001 racing drama, “Driven,” points to a couple other reasons, such as financing and a surprisingly tight demographic that prevent more motor racing movies from getting made.

“I don’t think a race car movie is any more expensive to make than other action films, but so few of these movies have worked that studios are hesitant to make them. The audience is also so specific that you can’t count on the same kind of cross over popularity like with other sports movies like baseball or basketball,” notes the filmmaker, who adds, “The irony is that Formula One racing is the second biggest sport in the world, after soccer, but in the U.S. no one watches it. NASCAR, on the other hand, is virtually unknown in the rest of the world, hence financing is a problem.”

But what NASCAR does have is a huge and fanatical domestic following. So where are the motor sport films servicing that free-spending crowd?

Certainly there have been notable stock car films through the years that have provided a different glimpse of that world such as: “The Richard Petty Story,” “Days of Thunder” and “3-The Dale Earnhardt Story,” still nothing has approached classic status in that category of racing.

Adam McKay, who directed and co-wrote (with star Will Ferrell) the racing comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), says motor racing isn’t the only athletic endeavor that is difficult to capture on film.

“Sports, in general, are really hard because it is such a live event. It is all about the experience. The crowd and communal aspect is really difficult to get across in film.”

Fast forward to 2008.

Can special effects save motor racing movies?Hoping to join that elusive winner’s circle is “Speed Racer.”  Based on the 1960s Japanese early anime series, “Mahha GoGoGo,” teenager Gô Mifune aspires to be the world’s best race-car champion with the help of his friends, family and his father’s high-tech race car, the Mach 5.

The feature version stars Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) and is written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, who bring the full force of their special effects wizardry from “The Matrix” series into play here.

That just might be the formula motor racing cinema needs to get it in gear. Certainly the 2,000 plus special effects will dazzle the eye. The Mach 5 vehicle has unique features that would make Q from James Bond jealous, but it is the Mach 6 with its hybrid M-1 tank and Formula One dimensions that will thrill the senses. Whether that is enough to take box office laurels and critical acclaim remains to be seen. 

State-of-the-art technology is at the core of the sport and while Hollywood has recognized the appeal of this dangerous, glamorous, dramatic and comparatively high-tech sport, it has had a hard time capturing it successfully on film. Early on most of the films used inexpensive looks supplemented by stock footage amidst a run-of-the-mill love story. But as the sport’s grass-roots popularity grew in the ’50s and exploded in the ’60s, so too did Hollywood’s efforts.

Checkered flag effortThe world of motor racing entered its cinematic zenith coming from nowhere with John Frankenheimer’s epic, “Grand Prix” (1966), which starred James Garner as American Formula One driver Pete Aron.

While there have been several high-profile attempts at motor sport movies, none has matched “Grand Prix” for impact before or since. Less for the storyline, it was the amazing sights and sounds that made this picture the standard bearer. The innovative split-screen techniques, stunning in-car footage and absolutely spot-on audio make this movie a thrilling experience even five decades after its debut.

Close-ups of compressed suspension, whirring driveshafts, driver nerve and the roar of the powerful engines and excitable fans brought the cars to life in vivid, fearful detail, including the ominous reality of contemporary circuits, such as a rain-drenched Spa (Belgium) layout and the infamous banked track at Monza in Italy. “Grand Prix” deservedly won three Oscars for effects, editing and sound.

“‘Grand Prix’ is a beautifully directed and photographed movie with groundbreaking editing. It will always be a classic,” says Harlin.

That was followed by Paul Newman in “Winning” (1969) and Steve McQueen in “LeMans” (1971). Both proudly added to “Grand Prix” legacy, proving the sport’s compelling drama can translate to the silver screen.

Hollywood proved it could capture the inherent drama the sport offered; still, in each case, what was lagging behind was not the race action, but rather a story with emotional depth.

Can “Speed Racer” improve on those efforts with its effects over story formula? Perhaps not, but it’s a long race. Hollywood has been trading paint with the best of them, so with a few adjustments in the story department, it’s bound boost its horsepower and become a more consistent winner.