Only a handful of films have been able to capture the adrenaline rush and adventurous spirit of motorsports but those that have are nothing short of a thrilling, high-octane time at the cinema. Movies centered around cars date back a hundred years, to the 1920s, right as America was coming into its own as a car-filled nation. Car racing, itself, was already an established pastime though NASCAR wouldn’t be founded until 1948.
Major Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise, Steve McQueen, Chris Hemsworth, and Matt Damon have headlined racing films, as the drama of that world is so unique, creating a “sports film” unlike all the rest. The stakes can be personal glory, scientific innovation, or—you know—busting nefarious criminal syndicates, making car racing flicks a truly captivating sub-genre.
We’ve scoured the past century for the best racing movies of all time, and the 10 finalists here represent a diversely entertaining collection of character dramas and contests of will.
The 10 Best Racing Movies
The Fast and Furious (2001)
Where to Watch: Sling, or rentable on most platforms.
Considering where the Fast and Furious saga went, nine films and one spinoff later, it’s easy to forget it all started with street racing. Considering things eventually became the A-Team with cars, then James Bond with cars, and now…Star Wars with cars?…it’s fun to look back at the original, which was, er, Point Break with cars. An undercover cop (the late Paul Walker) becomes part of a heist crew (led by Vin Diesel) in order to take down their hijacking ring. It’s weird to call this solid action film a “humble” beginning, but things just get nuttier from here.
See our guide on how to watch the Fast and Furious movies in order.
Ford v. Ferrari (2019)
Where to Watch: Hulu, Fubo, or rentable on most platforms.
James Mangold (Logan, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) crafted this Oscar-nominated story about a team of American and British engineers hired by Ford to build a race car that could defeat the famed Italian racing team in ’60s. Matt Damon and Christian Bale were at the top of the bill for this one, supported by a great ensemble that includes The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal, Outlander’s Caitríona Balfe, and Josh Lucas. It’s a gripping tale, blending history, design, and character.
Read our review of Ford v. Ferrari.
Days of Thunder (1990)
Where to Watch: Rentable on Amazon and most other platforms.
Tom Cruise reunited with Top Gun director Tony Scott for this effective, pulse-pounding early “Tom Cruise movie” (i.e. Tom Cruise starts aloof and cocky, gets humbled and learns to not be an a-hole). Days of Thunder also was big for Nicole Kidman, breaking her in big with American audiences in this flashy, fast-paced story of racing rivals, Cruise and Michael Rooker, who find friendship and redemption after a big accident. Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, and Cary Elwes also star.
Speed Racer (2008)
Where to Watch: HBO Max, or rentable on most platforms.
The Wachowskis’ gonzo, hyper-color big screen adaptation of 1960s anime Speed Racer lights up like lightning, delivering a boisterous special effects extravaganza. Emile Hirsch stars as Speed Racer, a young man whose life and love has always been racing. Born into the business, at the helm of his Mach 5, Speed Racer turns down an offer from the head of Royalton Industries, he inadvertently uncovers a corporate plot to fix races. With Christina Ricci as Trixie and Matthew Fox as Racer X, this fantastical cartoon-o-lama is Formula One family fun.
Read our review of Speed Racer.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
A road movie and racing film in one, starring music star James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, Two-Lane Blacktop now celebrates cult status decades-later. This funny, poignant trek follows a mechanic and a driver, who race and maintain their 1955 Chevy, traveling across America with no particular destination in mind. In the years since its release its also become notable as a time capsule for U.S. Route 66 during the pre-interstate highway era.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Where to Watch: HBO Max, or rentable on most platforms.
A lot of laughs can also be found on the racetrack, as demonstrated by Adam McKay’s Talladega Nights, one of comedian Will Ferrell’s magnificent, quotable “heyday” films. Ferrell stars as numbskull NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby – a simple, successful idiot who falls from grace after he finds defeat at the hands of a French Formula One champion (Sacha Baron Cohen). The film’s all-star ensemble includes John C. Reilly, Gary Cole, Michael Clarke Duncan, Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch, and Amy Adams,
Where to Watch: Netflix, or rentable on most platforms.
The MCU’s Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl star in this finely-tuned sports drama from Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, about the famed rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. Strong performances and exciting, exhilarating racing scenes help push Rush past the finish line, so if you’re looking for a more recent movie, and you’ve already caught the Oscar-favored Ford v. Ferrari, check out Rush on Netflix as it flew (er, drove?) under most folks’ radar.
Read our review of Rush or check out more Chris Hemsworth movies.
Grand Prix (1966)
Winner of three Academy Awards, and directed by The Manchurian Candidate’s John Frankenheimer, Grand Prix includes real-life racing footage within its reels, adding to the authenticity of the story. Following four Formula One drivers — with an international cast including James Garner, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, and Antonio Sabàto — Grand Prix takes viewers through a fictionalized version of the 1966 Formula One season. A visually vibrant film, Grand Prix presented racing on the screen in a way that had never been done before.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Where to Watch: Tubi (w/ ads), Popcornflix (w/ ads), or rentable on most platforms.
From pioneering authenticity of Grand Prix to a good ol’ brainless time at the movies with Death Race 2000. David Carradine stars in this glorious Roger Corman spectacle of schlock about a dystopian future society where a casualty-filled Transcontinental Road Race entertains the masses, becoming our new national pastime. Maligned at first, Death Race 2000, which also stars Sylvester Stallone and The Karate Kid’s Martin Kove, is now considered a cult classic.
Le Mans (1971)
Where to Watch: Rentable on some platforms.
You’ve seen that much of this list focuses on the ’60s and ’70s racing scene, with even Speed Racer being based on a racing anime from that era. Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen, is like Grand Prix in that it contains real life racing footage amidst a fictionalized story, though Le Mans also comes with supplemental viewing, in the form of the 2015 doc Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, about the actor’s drive (heh) to make a movie about his passion: race-car driving. Le Mans itself, too, is a must-watch for race fans.
Looking for more movies that define their genre? Take a look at our picks for the best Spy movies and the best thriller movies of all time.
Matt Fowler is a freelance entertainment writer/critic, covering TV news, reviews, interviews and features on IGN for 13+ years.