Ron Howard: James Hunt and Niki Lauda (Photo: Rush Movie)
By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Two things have just happened that bear strongly on this sport.
Neither of them from out on the race track itself...
...where the action lately has been, too typically these days, rather boring and uneventful, though at times curiously, almost humorously, nefarious.
First, Ron Howard's long-awaited film Rush has been released: The poignant work about the sharp relationship between Formula 1 legends -- then 1970s stars -- Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
Second, Time Magazine's rather stark examination of the state of the sport of NASCAR racing: Struggling Nascar's Plan to Get Back in Gear
This all comes as the Michael Waltrip saga too sadly plays out here in stock car country, with multi-million-dollar sponsor NAPA angrily dropping out of the sport.
...And as Matt Kenseth's title charge -- the first such championship bid by that once heavily logoed Home Depot orange-clad team since Tony Stewart glory days -- against HD's arch-rival Lowe's Jimmie Johnson must have Home Depot execs second-guessing their decision to let Joe Gibbs change color-schemes and decals.
Or maybe Home Depot too is just moving on.
And oh-by-the-way, the NASCAR championship playoffs are well underway at the moment, if anyone much is paying attention.
Ron Howard (R) and Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ironically, just as Rush is being released, Time Magazine is coming out with a report that is oh, so damning:
Time points to this sport's 'Aging red-state fans,' and says NASCAR is like the Republican party, 'popular in red states but with a declining base that skews old, white, Southern and down-market.'
Time points to 'cars that have gotten too boring.'
The article questions 'whether it's too late to attract the younger, more diverse audience NASCAR needs to grow.'
Then it makes the claim that ESPN, when its NASCAR TV contract came up for renewal, didn't even make a bid to renew. Time says NASCAR 'has become a loser for networks as ratings fade, sponsors flee and ticket sales drop.'
That is more than just 'Ouch!'
Time Magazine, remember, is part of the Time in Time Warner, which is one of the world's biggest media/entertainment companies. Think HBO, Turner, CNN.
Certainly this Time report bears closer scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Rush, with nice, tense cinematography, is about the two world champions, archrivals in a time where two drivers a year, on average, could expect to die. Pick any F1 race in 1974, 1975, 1976, check the starting grid, and see how many are still alive today.
Back in the 1970s several Formula 1 drivers were frequently seen in NASCAR garages and out on the track in IROC races -- Emerson Fittipaldi, Clay Regazonni, Ronnie Peterson, Graham Hill, Jody Scheckter, Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx, Gunnar Nilsson, Alan Jones, and James Hunt himself for one race, at Michigan. The 'International' in International Race of Champions, thanks to Goodyear and its F1 contracts, and the timing of the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
Those of us covering NASCAR at the time may not have fully realized the historic importance of all this. Sometimes you never know what you've got till it's gone.
Meeting James Hunt that September at Michigan, he looked like just another racer. His personal turmoil: that desperate search for a new F1 ride (the Marlboro/McLaren deal which ultimately paid off in that dramatic 1976 championship)...and the death of Mark Donohue just a few weeks earlier at the Austrian Grand Prix...all that pretty much flew under the radar that weekend in the Irish Hills. Most of us were focusing more on David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.
Howard, the Oscar-winning director, has been in several stock car racing garages over the past year or so while working on the Rush project, and he has become friends with Jeff Gordon.
Naturally there is speculation NASCAR execs would like to persuade Howard, a prolific film maker (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Cocoon, Cinderella Man, Apollo 13), to take on a NASCAR project.
Most, if not all, NASCAR-themed films have been, well, pretty hokey, patronizing, or just juvenile, to be honest. Maybe Ron Howard could find a way to do cinematic justice to this sport.
Of course, with all today's big-dollar sponsors so prominent on the cars, and so lavishly bankrolling the drivers, it might be hard, if not impossible, to expect any Clint Eastwood 'anti-hero' or against-the-grain film to be okayed by Daytona or corporate.
Tom Wolfe's legendary gonzo journalism look at Junior Johnson and NASCAR racing, in 1965 (Photo: Esquire)
Perhaps then Howard, as with Rush, could look at other angles.
For example, Tom Wolfe's classic Esquire article The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson: Yes!, that wild-eyed look at stock car racing circa 1965, opening on a brilliant Sunday morning in a car on US 421, the real Thunder Road, and stuck in 'the biggest traffic jam in the history of the world' while on his way to North Wilkesboro Speedway to watch Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty challenge Junior Johnson, 'the hardest of all the hard chargers, one of the fastest automobile racing drivers in history,' in that famously flamboyant prose.
Not a bad screenplay to pick up on....
A remake of that 1972 film? Well Jeff Bridges has done a few remakes lately.
Rush naturally prompts comparisons to other racing movies, and of course personal lists of 'all-time bests.'
Fun stuff here for all.
Your favorite racing movies?
Ours, serious: Steve McQueen's Le Mans, James Garner's Grand Prix, James Taylor's Two-lane Blacktop, Kowalski's Vanishing Point (1971). And of course Senna, a thought-provoking documentary about a man who may have been the greatest driver ever... though some describe it as a hagiography.
Ours, humorous: William Neely's Stroker Ace (the book natch was better). When Neely came to Winston-Salem with his novel, on a 'secret' promo tour, we first skeptically dismissed it as too weird, though that Donnie Allison/Hoss Ellington car-dive into the motel swimming pool did seem oddly familiar....)
Or the campy Redline 7000.
Among the many to consider: Paul Newman's Winning, Jeff Bridges' Last American Hero, Tom Cruise' Days of Thunder, ESPN's Dale Earnhardt Story too perhaps, Al Pacino's Bobby Deerfield.
And then there's one of Barney Hall's tongue-in-cheek favorites, Death Race 2000 (the 1975 version). Okay, we're a tough bunch here in NASCAR country...
You really want to play for points?
Jeff Bridges' original 1972 take on Tom Wolfe's Esquire piece about Junior Johnson.