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by Tony Sakkis

During qualifying for the U.S. 500, a familiar black car sped around Michigan International Speedway with a huge camera mounted atop its rollover hoop. The car, a Newman-Haas Lola, had as its pilot Mario Andretti. And the camera was not just any camera, but an IMAX camera, made to produce a film that is much larger than the standard 35 millimeter film format.

Andretti, who of course is now retired, came back from his exile to produce what pundits are saying is some of the best footage ever made in a race car.

IMAX, If you haven't seen one before, is not just a film, but an experience. It is shown on an indoor movie screen the size of an eight- story building. The film stock itself is apparently huge, too. Thus the gigantic camera mounted on Mario's car.

The IMAX people felt a race fan really didn't get the experience of riding at 200-plus mph with ordinary in-car cameras. IMAX, we are to understand, is the one thing which can produce the required effect. Mario Andretti was picked because he is, according to the director, the world's greatest driver. The world's greatest driver with the world's biggest camera should make the world's best racing movie. Maybe.

So far, with very few exceptions, racing movies stink. The last one, Tom Cruise's "Days of Thunder," was perhaps a decent film, but it stunk as a racing movie. No, I take that back; it stunk as a film too.

It was big-budget and had all the makings of a good movie, except that the parts were as subtle as a locust infestation. It was far too overt. Racing is subtle. The difference between 10/10ths and average is just a tick. It is a driver whose front wheel twitches under braking and who fights the steering wheel with quick and sometimes violent, but usually almost imperceptible, movements.

What it isn't is a bunch of people smashing into each other at 200 miles per hour, spinning each other out and acting tough about it. Maybe parts of that happen, but never all at once. If it were only background, then yeah, maybe it would be satisfactory. But as a main plot, it didn't work.

"Days of Thunder," we had been told, was THE racing film. The biggest production, the best actors, the best stunt people, realistic cars (in fact all ex-Winston Cup cars). But in the end it wasn't any better than any other racing movie.

There are of course two exceptions: "Grand Prix" with James Garner, and "Le Mans," with Steve McQueen.

Of the two, "Le Mans" was better for racers. It is probably the best ever done or ever to be done. It had realistic shots, subtlety, speed, good crash sequences and showed what it was like to be a race car driver as well as a spectator at Le Mans, the world's oldest and toughest race. Unfortunately, the story sucked eggs. There was about three minutes of dialogue. That was okay for most of us, but the general public thought it was stupid. But what do they know?

Grand Prix was, in fact, good at both. It was a good racing film, had lots of action shots of GP racing in the mid-sixties, gave us scenes from different venues around the world, explained why these venues were spectacular and didn't lose either the hardcore racers or the neophytes. The story was great and the acing excellent. Two or three thumbs up. If they had thumbs back then.

So now we have Mario riding around in Michigan, about to give us some more of that kind of thing. So far there haven't been any smashing and crashing sequences. And as far as we know there is no script. Unless he can duplicate Grand Prix all on his own, we sure hope it remains a documentary. We'll reserve judgment until its out.