11 Great Racing Documentaries To Watch Before The New Year

Illustration for article titled 11 Great Racing Documentaries To Watch Before The New Year
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If you, like me, have been wondering what to do with your free time during this holiday season and cannot stomach one more episode of whatever show it is your kids (or other loved ones) are watching on repeat one, never fear. I’ve put together a list of my favorite racing documentaries. Commandeer that remote, turn on the surround sound, and tune out the rest of the world for a little while.

For the sake of brevity, I’m not including every single racing documentary that’s out there, because there are many, and they are very great. I’m going to err on the side of caution and assume you’ve seen Senna (and if you haven’t, stop reading and go watch it immediately). I’ll presume you’ve seen other classics, like Weekend of a Champion, which follows Jackie Stewart during a Monaco Grand Prix race weekend, or On Any Sunday, one of the first—and best—documentaries ever made about motorcycle racing.

I’m not including things like Yellow, Yellow, Yellow, since it’s a bit short, or Rapid Response, which I did not enjoy—but those are both solid IndyCar documentaries for anyone interested in the evolution of safety in American open-wheel racing. I won’t include Beyond Driven, Born Racer, or Drive to Survive because I wrote about those two extensively.

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And I’m sure I’m missing a lot of other really great films, which I’m sure you fine folks will remind me of in the comments (this is not a dig, I love you all). Share ‘em all. Let’s get a good list going. I want to see what you’ve got!

Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story

Man, what a hell of a documentary. Willy T. Ribbs is the first Black qualifier for the Indy 500, a Trans-Am hero, and an incredible personality. My only critique here is that the film is under two hours, and I could have listened to Ribbs tell his life story for as long as he saw fit to tell it.

Where to Watch: Netflix

Hurley

Hurley Haywood is a three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but this documentary is just as much about his racing successes as it is Haywood’s life. It’s the first time Haywood opens up about being gay on camera, which was something no one knew about him until after his career was well over. His perspective on defying the expectations in the macho 1970s is exceptional.

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Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

Williams

Man, this documentary was brutal. Following the Williams racing team and the family that founded it, it’s full of heartbreak. I think that largely comes down to Claire Williams, who grew up with her parents’ dysfunctionality as a result of racing and still determined to do her best with the team—which is saying something, because Frank Williams’ accident is tragic in and of itself.

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Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

McLaren

My pals and I won seats at the first screening of this film in the United States during the 2017 Indy 500 qualifying weekend, and there was not a dry eye in the theater when it wrapped up. It follows, obviously, the life of racer Bruce McLaren and his push to develop championship-winning race cars across disciplines. It ends where you would expect: with his death. A great movie for anyone interested in the origins of a classic race team.

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Where to Watch: Netflix

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Any race fan will know the name Juan Manuel Fangio, but A Life of Speed is actually only the first official documentary ever made about one of Formula One’s greatest competitors. Many of the interviews are conducted in Spanish, so be prepared to read subtitles—but it’s an exceptional film, worth it just for the old race footage.

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Where to Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime

The 24 Hour War

If you enjoyed Ford vs. Ferrari but want the real thing, this is the story for you. It’s a great documentary (although I would have loved it to have been a mini-series. It’s a compelling story of the level of competition going on in 1960s endurance racing.

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Where to Watch: Netflix

Shelby American

Along a similar line, Shelby American really dives into Carroll Shelby’s backstory and history, how he grew up as a farmer and evolved to become the legendary racer and manufacturer we remember him as. A great mix if you’ve gotten tired of the European-based docs on this list.

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Where to Watch: Netflix

Road

Narrated by Liam Neeson, Road tells the story of the Dunlop family, all of whom are addicted to speed on two wheels. It’s an incredible documentary, as exciting as it is poignant, and it’s a great one to watch if you want to explore what it is that compels riders to put their lives at risk.

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Where to Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime

TT3D: Closer to the Edge

This documentary follows the motorcycle riders competing in the 2010 edition of the Isle of Man TT race, one of the most dangerous sporting events in the world. It closely follows Guy Martin and Ian Hutchinson while also touching on the history of the race and the preparation that goes into competing.

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Where to Watch: YouTube

Ferrari: Race to Immortality

Name a race team more iconic than Ferrari. You can’t. Ferrari is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to marques dedicated to motorsport, and it’s a team that comes jam-packed with myth and meaning. This documentary follows the history of Ferrari through its ups and downs.

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Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

Dust to Glory

The Baja 1000 is a bucket list race for me, but for right now, Dust to Glory is as close as I’m going to get. This is one of the older documentaries on my list, but it still holds up with great action footage and interviews with the competitors taking on the harsh desert course.

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Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

1: Life on the Limit

Despite the content matter, this is one of my favorite “had a bad day and need something cozy to watch” documentaries. It discusses the danger of 1970s Formula One in depth, with a requisite amount of crash footage, amazing interviews, and heart-wrenching stories. It makes me sad, but I still love it because it was 1970s F1 that taught me how to love modern motorsport. 

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Where to Watch: Amazon, Google Play

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

brucesmith1
germancarsonly

Another good one is James Garner’s “The Racing Scene” from 1969. I worked for Jim that year as a member of his desert racing team. Garner was just a regular guy even though he wasn’t around the shop often.

On YouTube.