Today marks the long-anticipated full release of Ron Howard's 1970s-era F1 thriller “Rush.” In the decade ahead, we may look back on this day as the beginning of road racing's return to prominence in North America.
Last weekend's limited screenings of “Rush” opened with solid box office numbers and to the resounding acclaim of film critics and racing fans alike. So, let's pause to ponder the implications of what impact this new film might have on Formula 1's and American road racing's appeal and place in popular culture.
Can a movie help a niche sport find new audience and new energy after decades buried deep in the shadows of NASCAR's unrelenting marketing blitzkrieg? The spirit and purist passion of the protagonists in “Rush” are decidedly un-NASCAR-spokesdriver-like and the film is also supremely engaging, so it will hopefully be irresistible to those unfamiliar with Formula 1 or road racing.
Howard artfully conveys the primal allure of a complex and beautiful sport in a powerful fashion, so “Rush” may become a major box office hit and a cultural phenomenon in North America. If so, it holds the potential to redefine what racing is to the 250 million people who don't follow NASCAR. It should also give hope and renewed enthusiasm to the millions of downtrodden F1 and road racing fans in the USA who are just not that into “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity.”
“Rush” builds on the deep emotional foundation laid in 2010 by the profoundly moving documentary, “SENNA.” Asif Kapadia's haunting masterpiece introduced global racing's most revered fallen hero to new audiences who had no prior interest in the sport. In doing so, “SENNA” delivered the spiritual essence that makes F1 and road racing so compelling and likely opened the door to “Rush” being made.
Road racing is as much about transcending your own emotional and physical limitations as it is about beating the competition and this has inspired others to explore its mysteries. “Rush” debuts on the heels of the Velocity Network's excellent four-part documentary series, “Patrick Dempsey Racing Le Mans,” that exposed the real-world business, technical and personal struggles of tackling the most important 24 hours in motorsports. Dempsey is an A-list global celebrity, but he honestly lays bare his inexperience, his vulnerability and his commitment to challenging and proving himself to himself and against the best. Again, the passion of Patrick and his small team is infectious. Dempsey also drives home the point you only live once and, as he profoundly says, racing is “a measure of how well you show up in your own life.”
While NASCAR is primarily about personality-driven entertainment and consumer marketing, road racing has long been about creating authentic meaning, personal challenge and technical creativity. Why you race matters more than who you entertain. It is therefore somewhat ironic but certainly not surprising that this is ultimately a more entertaining premise for a renowned filmmaker of Ron Howard's caliber.
For many, the unexpected early buzz surrounding “Rush” is a revelation – but for some who love road racing and Formula 1, it represents a validation of sorts and perhaps even the potential salvation of road racing in North America. For once, American audiences may again understand and care about a sport that until recently seemed incomprehensible, arrogant and aloof. There is now real hope they will “get it.”
If those who lead America's road racing series and those who are bringing F1 to America fully embrace that this may be road racing's long-awaited golden moment of cultural resonance and relevance on this continent, they will learn from Ron Howard, who told RACER's Adam Cooper, “It's not an American movie. It's sexier because the world is sexier.” There is great opportunity in an age where we all share the experience and expectation of traveling anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. We know that there is more to life than something predictable, safe and familiar.
My hope is that road racing's leaders show the courage that Howard and his intrepid crew did to bring sexy back to the sport by understanding that pure racing is about finding the courage to push past the divide between what we know and what we fear. By doing this, by going beyond what we believe is possible, we embrace the truth about who we are and what we stand for.
• The September issue of RACER magazine, on sale now, focuses on racing in the movies, past and present, including a behind-scenes looks at the making of "Rush," "Grand Prix," "Le Mans" and more. To subscribe now, click here, or to learn where to buy RACER in your area, click here. You can also purchase single copies directly at RacerMerch.com.