The Top 10 Gearhead Documentaries of All Time

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Last summer, we compiled a list of 25 movies that should be required viewing for car buffs. We hopeyou’vebeen able to watch at least some of the movies we named since then, because we’re about to tell you about 10 more movies you’ll want to put on your “must watch” list.

You see, we pointed out in the intro of last year’s article that we were excluding documentary and non-fiction works. We did that for two reasons: One, to leave more room for fiction movies and two, to avoid being accused of favoring one genre over another. Now, the documentaries finally get their turn in the spotlight. However, since there’s one motorcycle-centric flick on the following list, we’re calling them gearhead (as opposed to car nut) documentaries. Here they are.

Love the Beast

Love the Beast poster

Lots of us love our cars, but very, very few of us have the wherewithal to make a feature length documentary dedicated to it. Australian actor Eric Bana, however, does have the wherewithal and resources to make a movie centered on his car, and in 2009 he chose to make the subject of his film his first car, a 1974 Ford XB Falcon Coupe nicknamed “The Beast.” The first part of Love the Beast chronicles Bana and his friends readying it for the Targa Tasmania road rally, but after he crashes it during the event, the antipodean thespian is left contemplating the bond between a man and his wheels. Jay Leno, Jeremy Clarkson and *ahem* Dr. Phil help him explore this dynamic.


Senna poster

When ranking Formula 1 drivers through history on the basis of raw talent and speed, a great many people are of the opinion that there is Ayrton Senna and there is everyone else. But the critically acclaimed Senna goes into far more depth than just the late Brazilian’s on track exploits. It also looks at things like his disdain for politics and skullduggery in racing, his spirituality, and his patriotism. Is it largely one-sided? Yes, but with so much amazing archival footage, an amazing soundtrack from Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto, and soundbites from those who knew the man best, youaren’ttoo likely to notice.

The Speed Merchants

The Speed Merchants cover

The early 1970s was definitely one of sports car racing’s golden eras. Factory-campaigned prototypes from Porsche, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Matra (along with privateer Lolas, Chevrons and a whole herd of GT cars) hop-scotched their way across the globe in the World Sportscar Championship. This was the setting for Michael Keyser’s The Speed Merchants, chronicling the 1972 season and released the same year. And rather than get some big-name actor or professional voiceover artist to handle narration duties, Keyser drafted two of the guys who were part of the story: Mario Andretti (who drove for Ferrari) and Vic Elford (who was with Alfa Romeo).

On Any Sunday

On Any Sunday poster

If you have even a little knowledge of surfing, the name Bruce Brown should ring a bell. However, not all of his films have been about riding the waves; one was about riding motorcycles. On Any Sunday, released in 1971, covered a variety of two-wheeled racing disciplines, from desert racing, to Grand National speedway racing, to the early days of motocross. And considering the fact he provided much of the financing through his production company (Solar Productions), is it any surprise actor/petrolhead/cool dude extraordinaire Steve McQueen gets more than a little screen time?

Funny Car Summer

Funny Car Summer poster

If ever you’ve wondered how the sport of drag racing looked before the advent of gigabuck sponsors, technical homogenization and a clearly defined national championship trail, Funny Car Summer (released in 1974) is right up your alley. No, you won’t marvel at the bulk of the editing, cinematography or music, but it’s an interesting look at how nitro funny car driver/co-owner Jim Dunn (who still fields a fuel funny car in the NHRA) balanced racing with his day job as a fireman and his family life. And the footage of Jim’s son Mike (who went on to be a successful drag racer in his own right and is now the color commentator for ESPN’s NHRA coverage) and his peers drag racing bicycles is amusing, to put it mildly.

Super Speedway

Super Speedway poster

Call us biased, but we think the movie that has made best use of the IMAX format is Super Speedway. This film, released in 1997, features spectacular onboard footage from CART Indycars driven by Mario and Michael Andretti, as well as the restoration of a 1964 roadster-style Indycar that was formerly driven by the elder Andretti. As for the narrator, that was Paul Newman, who was co-owner of the Newman-Haas team for whom Michael and, prior to his 1994 retirement, Mario drove.


Dale poster

Another documentary narrated by Mr. Newman is Dale. This fond look back at the life and achievements of NASCAR deity Dale Earnhardt is entertaining on many fronts. It shows the human side of “The Intimidator,” from his interactions with his kids, to his raucous, mischievous sense of humor, to his philosophies on racing and life. Great viewing material, even if youaren’ta NASCAR fan.

Urban Outlaw

Urban Outlaw still

This recently released docu may be on the short side (just over 32 minutes in length, so it won’t take long for you to watch it), but it covers a lot of ground. Urban Outlaw offers a look into the world of Magnus Walker, a British immigrant who lives in Downtown Los Angeles and has holdings in clothing manufacturing, real estate, and early Porsche 911s. But he doesn’t just collect early 911s, he also restores and modifies them to his own tastes which, in the eyes of Porschephiles who obsess over things like the orientation of screw heads or typefaces on spark plug wires, makes him an “outlaw.” We say if the way Mr. Walker builds his Porsches is wrong, we don’t want him to be right.

Dust to Glory

Dust to Glory poster

Taking a page – specifically the one with On Any Sunday on it –from his dad’s playbook, Dana Brown packed up his cameras and headed into the desert to chronicle adventurers in pursuit of speed. When all the shooting (which took place in 2003) and editing was done in 2005, Brown and company had Dust to Glory, a behind-the-scenes look at a handful of teams’ Baja 1000. It does an exceptional job of conveying the excitement, physical and mental demand, and sheer scale of the legendary event, and makes you wonder why itdoesn’thave a larger following than it does.

Can-Am: The Speed Odyssey

Can-Am: The Speed Odyssey cover

Arguably no racing series past or present has combined world class driving talent, incredible engineering creativity and thrilling on track action quite like the original SCCA Can-Am Championship. And arguably no better movie has captured what the series was all about like Can-Am: The Speed Odyssey. This straight-to-DVD piece, narrated by former driver turned author, architect and TV talking head Sam Posey and Chaparral Cars co-founder, technical director and driver Jim Hall, is bursting at the seams with archival racing footage and interviews with the stars of the day, as well as in-depth looks at some of the series’ more successful cars from the likes of Chaparral, McLaren and Porsche. Be forewarned, though: You’ll find yourself wishing a series that was as awesome (and had as thin a rulebook) as Can-Am existed today.

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