For all you fans of motor racing movies, there is hope. After years of failed projects and lame street racing films, a worthy offering has finally emerged. “Rush,” the new Ron Howard directed film, will satisfy enthusiasts and those with a casual interest in F1, the world’s top level of auto racing.
A sneak preview of “Rush” last week (courtesy of performance brake supplier Brembo) left this F1 racing aficionado both informed and entertained by the dramatization of a real life battle between two of the leading drivers in the 1970s.
In terms of high quality race series movies over the last 50 years, there have been very few candidates: “Le Mans,” the 1971 Steve McQueen film on the famous French 24-hour endurance race, and “Grand Prix” from 1966 with James Garner. Neither had much in the way of plots but their race footage was excellent.
Since then various celebrities have toyed with the idea of producing an F1 movie; Sylvester Stallone, for instance, was reportedly working on a project a few years ago. Given his acting ability, we can be thankful that it did not come to pass.
Back in 1990, a woefully ill-conceived film on NASCAR racing called “Days of Thunder,” starring Tom Cruise, was released. This film was so bad that even a partisan audience of Chevrolet employees at a special preview (Chevy was a major sponsor of the film) gave it only desultory applause when the lights came up.
Since then we have had a steady diet of execrable street racing movies such as the “Fast and Furious” series, which rank right up there with Stallone’s interminable “Rocky” films for low brow entertainment.
One notable exception recently was the 2010 film “Senna,” which pays homage to the legendary Brazilian F1 driver Aryton Senna, who died in a tragic racing accident in 1994. Produced in documentary style, but with dramatic flair and riveting ’80s and ’90s period race footage, “Senna” manages to combine the compelling personal story of a brilliant driver with a vivid depiction of the perils of his profession.
In the case of “Rush,” the plot refers back to an earlier, even more dangerous time in F1 history — the 1970s — when the cars and tracks were much less safety oriented than today and two or three drivers would die annually.
The story centers on two main protagonists, enemies on and off the track. One is the famed Austrian triple F1 world champion Niki Lauda and the other, Britain’s James Hunt, who won the world championship by a single point over Lauda in 1976. The true tale of their racing rivalry and dramatically different personalities is well told and presented by Howard. Similarly, the actors who play Lauda and Hunt do an excellent job of capturing the Austrian’s cold, analytical approach and the Brit’s laid back, playboy lifestyle.
I never met Lauda, who is alive and well, but I did encounter Hunt before he died, well before his time, at age 45. The circumstance was a Mercedes-Benz driving event for the 190E 2.3-16, an early 1980s high performance sedan. Both Hunt and John Watson (another experienced British F1 driver of the time) had been hired to give auto writers “hot shoe” rides in the cars at a race track.
Hunt was chatty and engaging as we circled the track and driving very fast but casually as only top drivers can. But things got interesting as we came along the straight and noticed Watson entering the track ahead of us. “There’s Wattie,” said Hunt, with school boy-like enthusiasm, “let’s get him.” And then we really started to move.
Auto racing breeds characters — or at least it used to — and that’s what Rush highlights so well. Let’s hope for more like it.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com