Los Angeles Times
BUCKLE UP FOR A BUMPY RIDE IN MOST RACING FILMS
Could ‘Ford v Ferrari’ be the exception to the mostly abysmal crop of films that don’t do car racing justice?
The first race car I ever saw was upside-down at Riverside International Raceway and Paul Newman was upside-down inside it. The car was a gold and white Ford Fairlane with a red No. 56 plastered all over it. When it was righted, Newman climbed out wearing a silver racing suit, blue and white helmet and dark sunglasses as he swatted away hands reaching out to help him.
That Technicolor moment appears in the 1969 movie “Winning,” which I watched being filmed from an inconspicuous distance because it was also the first movie set I was ever on and I didn’t want t to get in the way.
There would be many more cars, movie sets and encounters with Newman who went on to a successful second career as a professional racer while I went on to spend 30 years writing about movies for this newspaper and others.
But before I did that, I spent six years handling marketing and publicity for Riverside Raceway, a chunk of life in my deep past that surfaced when I learned of James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” a movie about people I knew back then.
“Ford v,” which opens Friday, focuses on the relationship between visionary car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they worked to develop the Ford GT-40 sports car that finished 1-2-3 in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Ford sweep ended Ferrari’s stranglehold on that oldest and most prestigious road race.
I met Carroll Shelby at Riverside and got to know him better while staying at his ranch in Texas researching a story on his involvement in a cow breeding enterprise that involved impregnating Clarabelle with the sperm of $60,000 Brazilian bulls to produce bigger, leaner cattle. Carroll believed he could design anything.
I didn’t know Miles. He died two months after the Le Mans triumph when he crashed a test car into a wall at Riverside’s Turn 9, not far from where those scenes for “Winning” were shot.
Disney is showing a lot of confidence in “Ford v” to open it in the sweet spot of the Oscar season with a heavy campaign planned for it and its stars — especially considering that no movie about the sport of auto racing has ever been nominated for best picture, no actor has been nominated for portraying a racer, and less than a handful of race movies have found a large audience.
Wikipedia lists more than 200 movies about auto racing, but the list includes street racing pictures such as the popular “Fast and Furious” franchise; good ol’ boy comedies starring Burt Reynolds and Will Ferrell; star vehicles for pop throbs Elvis and Fabian; or those colorful little cuties in Pixar’s “Cars.” Fewer than 50 movies have had stories built around sanctioned motor sports.
The abysmal record of the genre can be chalked up to the fact that most of those movies have been abysmal.
As far back as the 1913 one-reeler “The Speed Kings,” in which Mabel Normand is held up by her father as a bridal trophy for the winner of a two-man race, filmmakers have used actual racing footage as background spectacle for foreground melodramas.
“Winning,” which co-starred Joanne Woodward as the prize and Robert Wagner as Newman’s rival on and off the track, was so predictable Roger Ebert led his review saying, “Well, of course, he wins the race and gets the girl.”
John Frankenheimer’s 1966 “Grand Prix” is regarded by many as the granddaddy of race movies, but two of the three Formula One drivers central to it are fighting over one’s wife and the third is cheating on his wife with a journalist. Talk about fake news.
I have asked friends from my Raceway days if they think movies have done justice to auto racing and the common answer has been “No, but ...” as in “No, but I don’t expect them to.”
“If you want to see great movies about racing, go the documentary aisle,” said Ken Squier, a veteran racing broadcaster for CBS.
“An inside-out look is difficult to interpret when reaching a broad audience,” said Bob Thomas, a former Times auto writer who was good friends with Shelby and Miles. “And then the purist will be the most difficult of all to reach.”
That’s part of it. People drawn to those movies by their casts may be bored by the racing footage and racing fans may find the stories too far-fetched. For certain, Hollywood has had trouble striking a balance. The dynamics of auto racing are almost too big for the movies. As anyone who’s been to a major race knows, it’s nearly impossible for a film to re-create the sense of speed, power and danger you feel when those machines are actually flying past you.
The 1971 “Le Mans” is the most exhaustively authentic road racing movie, but even its star, Steve McQueen, who had a racing background, adds to the myth of the racer when asked by a race widow what’s so important about going faster than anyone else. “To a racer, it’s life,” he says. “Everything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
That’s a glib variation of James Garner’s explanation to a priest in “Grand Prix” that he races because being close to death makes him feel more alive. That line is echoed by Chris Hemsworth, playing a British playboy Formula One driver in Ron Howard’s 2013 “Rush,” with the ludicrous addendum: “It’s the only way to live; it’s the only way to drive.”
Most race movies are filled with so much existential dread they’re punishing to watch. Al Pacino, fresh off four Oscar nominations, gives a performance in “Bobby Deerfield” so gloomy it makes Michael Corleone look like a “contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”
When they aren’t creating myths around drivers, the movies create myths around fans. After a crash occurs in “Grand Prix,” a racer’s wife asks the cynical question, “That’s what they come for, isn’t it, to see somebody get killed?”
Whenever I was asked about crowd motivation I said that while accidents are exciting, what everybody wants is to see is the drivers walk away from the wreck and wave to them. Sometimes they don’t walk away, and nobody feels good about that.
At their worst, racing movies have been framed as bacchanals, chariot races by day, drunken orgies by night. They’re about men who aren’t afraid to die and women who are dying to meet them. That last sentence is an ad line I made up, but if you think I’m exaggerating, try these:
“A little death each day, a lot of love every night,” read the poster for Roger Corman’s 1963 “The Young Racers.”
I don’t deny the presence of women who liked to get close to drivers. I was in NASCAR champion Bobby Allison’s house in Hueytown, Ala., when the late country star Tammy Wynette called. When he hung up, his wife said, “What did she want?” He said she just likes drivers. Howard Hawks’ 1967 “Red Line 7000” advertised the appeal of racing to drivers as “Overnight fame, overnight fortune and anynight girls.”
There may be drivers who agree that everything before and after a race is just waiting, but I never met one. Drivers race for a lot of reasons — prize money, championships, pride, legacy — but mostly, they race for the competition and to challenge themselves. It is also addictive.
Newman got addicted, as did James Garner who took up racing after “Grand Prix.” Tom Cruise briefly took up racing but is said to have been so bad at it he was nicknamed “See Cruise Crash.”
Newman and Cruise are among several actors who went through Bob Bondurant’s School of High Performance Driving at the old Ontario Motor Speedway. My boss at Riverside, Les Richter, sent me through the school so he’d feel better about my giving Raceway guests and sponsors hot laps in our pace cars.
Bob Thomas, who was doing PR work for Bob Sharp’s Nissan racing team that Newman drove for, brought me into their inner circle at race weekends in Watkins Glen in New York and Brainerd, Minn., where the four of us shared a condo. I spent a lot of time talking racing and movies with Newman that weekend and even learned how to make Newman’s own popcorn before there was “Newman’s Own Popcorn.”
He’d read a lot of scripts that weekend and was bemoaning their quality when he hit on one he liked. He brought it out from his room after dinner, holding it in his hand and said to me “I think I found one.” I asked what it was and he said “The Color of Money.” A year later, it was a movie by Martin Scorsese, and a few months after that, he had his first Oscar, for lead actor, after six previous nods.
I asked him that weekend in Minnesota if he saw any parallels between racing and acting and he said simply, “One has to do with physical grace and one has to do with artistic grace.”