When it comes to NASCAR movies, realism rules

Updated: August 21, 2006, 3:14 PM ET
By K. Lee Davis | ESPN.com

"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" hits theaters Friday, making it the latest in a pantheon of great NASCAR movies.

Well, there's really only one great NASCAR movie, but there are nine others worthy of a rental (if you can find them), so Ricky Bobby has to go a long way to make this race.

Sports movies in general are a minefield of clichés, bad scripts, inaccurate playing dynamics and near-constant waist-up nudity. That is when they are at their best. At their worst, you end up with "The Babe."

But some films transcend sports-movie insipidity to become more than a waste of two hours. Hockey still has the best movie behind it with "Slap Shot." Baseball has "Pride of the Yankees" and "61*." Even golf scores, with "Follow the Sun" and "Caddyshack." Football? If the best you've got is "The Program," stay out of serious film conversations. Hey, Hollywood, you want a great movie? Tackle the Tim Richmond story.

"Talladega Nights" might entertain. Or, as with most Will Ferrell movies, you saw the best three bits in the movie trailer and it will be an hour and 44 minutes of sheer stupidity and one minute of, "Oh, I guess I laughed hard enough to get my nine bucks' worth."

No, we didn't get invited to the Hollywood premiere. Why do you ask?

So here's ESPN.com's Semi-Official Top 11 NASCAR movies:

10B. "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story"

What it lacks in an original title (see entry No. 2) it makes up for in sheer earnestness. Man, is this flick earnest. Barry Pepper is good in just about anything, and we won't hold "Battlefield Earth" against him. He seems to capture about two-thirds of what made Earnhardt "The Intimidator." What's missing? The glint in Earnhardt's eye. Friends of E always talk about his impish side, and that's just not in here. And it is, of course, very difficult to make a great movie when everyone knows the outcome, unless you can persuade teenage girls to see it five times because some smooth-faced pretty boy lights up the screen. Pepper ain't that kind of attraction. Yeah, we know it was made by this network, but you find 11 better NASCAR movies and we'll give it the boot. Can't? Didn't think so.

ESPN.com's rating: Three Chevy Monte Carlos

10A. "Cars"

I expect more from Pixar (now a division of the Walt Disney Co., aka the people who give me a paycheck), but this movie didn't do it for me. Kind of funny, kind of touching, kind of cool. Measured against NASCAR movies, it's great. Measured against Pixar movies? It's well below "A Bug's Life."

ESPN.com's rating: Two Hot Wheels and a Tonka truck

9. "Six Pack"

How can you go wrong with Kenny Rogers (the singer) and Diane Lane? Well, for one thing, Diane Lane was only 17 at the time and none of us had any idea she would be Diane Lane! Anthony Michael Hall is also in this one, and the movie's worth a watch just to see all the actors you know. The title is also a suggestion of what you should drink before you hit "play."

ESPN.com's rating: Three tow trucks, plus a Corvette for Lane

8. "Greased Lightning"

Richard Pryor in a movie in which he isn't asked to be funny? The story of Wendell Scott, the first black driver in NASCAR history, is told straight and with some decent racing scenes.

ESPN.com's rating: Four '65 Ford Galaxies and a nod for getting the story out

7. "Days of Thunder"

So bad it's good; racing purists cringe at the utterance of its title. You can make a solid argument that this movie helped boost NASCAR into the stratosphere -- and that this was Tom Cruise being cool instead of weird. Never could figure out why Wesley from the "The Princess Bride" was cast as the smooth, handsome bad guy. Just hire Jeff Gordon.

ESPN.com's rating: One Monte Carlo and any three cars Nicole Kidman wants

6. "Stroker Ace"

Burt Reynolds when he was still sort of big (and a NASCAR owner), plus Loni Anderson, who was, ahem, big. And Jim Nabors as … Jim Nabors, reprising the role he plays in every movie or TV show. Actually, Nabors is the crew chief. Yep, the crew chief. Dale Earnhardt, Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant show up. What this movie really needs, though, is Dom DeLuise.

ESPN.com's rating: Four Ford Pintos

5. "Red Line 7000"

Good luck finding this one. Some of the worst driving scenes ever shot. Why does it rate No. 5? Me and a buddy played a game to this one. Take a shot every time a driver does something that would bring out a black flag. You'll be out after the second racing scene, guaranteed. James Caan can't help this dog from 1965, and what the heck is George (Mr. Sulu) Takei doing in this? He was young and needed the money?

ESPN.com's rating: One Ford Mustang II

4. "Viva Las Vegas"

Is it really a NASCAR movie? Who cares, it has Elvis! Elvis has himself a hand-built car ready to enter the Las Vegas Grand Prix, but the rig needs an engine. I know! They'll gamble their way to enough money to get the engine, sing some dopey songs, dance like it's 1959 (it's 1964) and woo Ann-Margret. Hey, I'm still with him on the Ann-Margret part. Now, Elvis made a real NASCAR movie called "Speedway," but it co-stars Nancy Sinatra. We're sticking with the redhead.

ESPN.com's rating: A Thunderbird, two Pantera kit cars and a Lamborghini for Ann-Margret

3. "The Last American Hero"

This movie has six things I like more than a little: Jeff Bridges, writer Tom Wolfe, Ned Beatty, a Ford Mustang fastback, Gary Busey and moonshine. This film came on at least 15 times a week on local television when I was growing up, generally well past my bedtime. I watched it every chance I got, and it's probably what instilled a love for NASCAR in me. Bridges plays Junior Jackson, based on a magazine article written by Wolfe about Junior Johnson. It's a good movie, it's solid entertainment and it's true to life.

ESPN.com's rating: Four Mustang Shelby Cobras

2. "43: The Richard Petty Story"

So that's where the Earnhardt movie gets its name. Petty plays himself; the dad from "A Christmas Story" (Darren McGavin) plays Lee Petty. What it lacked in script and acting, it made up for with real NASCAR action from throughout Petty's career.

ESPN.com's rating: Five Plymouth Barracudas

1. "NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience"

Go see this. Some viewers left theaters feeling nauseated, the racing action was so up-close. It's the nearest most of us will ever come to going 185 mph fender-to-fender with the best.

ESPN.com's rating: Three Monte Carlos, two Ford Tauruses and a Dodge Intrepid

K. Lee Davis is the motorsports editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him at kevin.davis@espn3.com