The Last American Hero (1973)
Green flag: Tom Wolfe’s seminal 1965 Esquire article “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” serves as the thinly veiled inspiration for the story of a hardscrabble bootlegger turned hellbent racer (here named Junior Jackson), portrayed with pluck and stubborn pride by an impossibly young Jeff Bridges.
Points and pits: For a fifty-year-old movie, the on-track action is surprisingly compelling, the off-track plot nuanced. But was throwback NASCAR really populated solely by swindling city slickers?
Racing line: “There’s one thing that money can’t buy. And that’s a better driver.”
Greased Lightning (1977)
Green flag: Richard Pryor plays a mostly dramatic role to loosely spin the story of Wendell Scott, the Virginia moonshine runner who overcame institutional and overt racism to become the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Grand National Series race in 1963.
Points and pits: Scott’s struggles and achievements surely deserve a full-fledged biopic. Unfortunately, this effort’s limited production values and repetitive narrative lessen the impact.
Racing line: “I know every side road, back road, front road, and cow pasture in this county!”
Stroker Ace (1983)
Green flag: Burt “the Bandit” Reynolds and fast cars go together like, well, Burt and buxom women, so why not crash them all together in a silly romp about an egotistical driver conniving to break his humiliating sponsorship deal with Clyde Torkel’s Chicken Pit.
Points and pits: It’s a gas watching Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Kyle Petty race room-service carts through a hotel, and nobody plays a bloviating chicken mogul like Ned Beatty. Unfortunately, Burt’s trademark charm too often veers sharply into smarm.
Racing line: “You wreck your race car! You wreck your rental car! You wreck your hotel room!”
Days of Thunder (1990)
Green flag: Remake blockbuster Top Gun, complete with the same star and director, but swap fighter-pilot school for the largely Southern milieu of NASCAR. Tom Cruise is once again a hothead with a need for speed who has to overcome trauma to win the day—and the brainy girl.
Points and pits: Real racing footage was captured during the 1990 Daytona 500, and top drivers Neil Bonnett, Richard Petty, and Rusty Wallace make cameos. But no, not even three decades ago did NASCAR stock cars still get built in old barns and drivers hustle their own sponsors.
Racing line: “If you’re from California, you’re not really a Yankee. You’re not really anything.”
Green flag: Pixar brings its blend of humor and emotion to a world of anthropomorphized cars, where the Owen Wilson–voiced racer Lightning McQueen has to learn humility while stranded in a podunk town.
Points and pits: Top voice talent, including Paul Newman, Michael Keaton, and Richard Petty, lend the animated proceedings some prestige. As long as you can handle endless automotive puns.
Racing line: “Bob, my oil pressure’s through the roof right now. If this thing gets any more exciting, they’re gonna have to tow me out of the booth!”
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Green flag: Will Ferrell’s overconfident man-child persona redlines at two hundred belly laughs per hour as his brilliantly named character is humiliated by a Perrier-sponsored French driver and reduced to delivering pizzas via bicycle while regaining his checkered-flag swagger.
Points and pits: Manages to give a big high-five to modern NASCAR culture and mercilessly satirize its corporate logo–slathered excesses. Laughing Clown Malt Liquor, anyone?
Racing line: “I’m just a big, hairy, American winning machine. If you’re not first, you’re last.”