In June, amid quarantine and with more time on my hands, I decided to undertake a project that could possibly the magnum opus of this “Reel Racing” column series.
Over the course of several weeks, I researched every single movie-themed NASCAR paint scheme that ever hit the track, regardless of if it actually raced or ended up failing to qualify, and I was blown away by the sheer amount. I can’t express enough thanks to all of the things that helped make the list – my own memory, the Fronstretch Slack channel, my good friend Austin (who helped with some of the more obscure cars) and the Internet itself. It got to the point where my eyes shot open at around 4 a.m. when I remembered a car I hadn’t made a note of yet (Chris Cook’s 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes scheme at Sonoma, for the record).
The full list (with notes on drivers, tracks and more) can be found here on Letterboxd.
By my count, exactly 100 movies have been promoted or thrown back to via NASCAR paint schemes as of August 2020. Granted, Days of Thunder and Stroker Ace have had recent throwback schemes, while past movies have had schemes to promote a re-release or for other reasons – E.T. the Extraterrestrial, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion King among them – but I’ll count them anyway.
There have been movie promotions that make a lot of sense (Star Wars, DC Comics adaptations, The Fast and the Furious franchise) and others that aren’t such obvious choices (The Passion of the Christ, Mirrors, No Escape), so the movie paint scheme subcategory tends to be a fascinating one. The schemes trend on the good side, with a lot of creativity clearly going into many of them.
We’ll get into the best, worst, rankings and more at a later date, but this article sub-series will kick off with an overview of the history of movie paint schemes and a look at the lucky few that visited victory lane.
One Small Step for Movies, One Giant Leap for Scheme-Kind
Days of Thunder is technically the first movie to have paint schemes appear in a race, but those cars were used in actual races to capture them in action for the movie.
If we ignore that borderline example, my research indicates that 1995 was the first year to feature promotional schemes for films. The first to pilot one of these liveries was none other than Bill Elliott, who drove the No. 94 “Thunderbat” Ford in place of his normal red-and-yellow McDonald’s scheme.
The play on Ford’s Thunderbird moniker was to promote the release of Batman Forever, the Val Kilmer vehicle and the third live-action Batman movie to be released. Joel Schumacher’s debut with the DC Comics hero wasn’t received very well.
Either way, the car ran from late May into mid-June at Charlotte, Pocono and Michigan, crashing in its debut at the Coca-Cola 600. Elliott went on to finish in the top 10 at Pocono but ended up 14th at Michigan. Regardless, the “Thunderbat” remains a classic scheme.
1995’s other promotional scheme comes courtesy of the Wood Brothers and then-driver Morgan Shepherd, as well as one of my favorite movies of the 1990s (and of its franchise). Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the iconic James Bond role came in Goldeneye, which backed the team for the season finale at Atlanta. The Wood Brothers’ standard Citgo design was largely the same, but was streaked with black and yellow highlights and emblazoned with both the movie title and the 007 logo on the sides. It’s been 25 years since that Bond film rode alongside Shepherd, so this year’s release of No Time to Die would be a fitting conclusion – plus, it would end up being Brosnan’s first and Daniel Craig’s last on a scheme, 25 years apart.(Maybe at the season finale at Phoenix, anyone?)
The years leading up to the new millennium were pockmarked with a few film-themed liveries here and there, and the Wood Brothers were the next to feature a film on their car – again at Atlanta – with Star Trek: First Contact in 1996.
Zero movie schemes appeared in 1997 (unless you count Jeff Gordon’s Jurassic Park car), and that season is the only one since 1995 to not feature a single movie car. Just around the corner, though, were bigger things for Hollywood sponsorships: 1998 featured a two-car deal for the film Small Soldiers, spanning two series with Tony Stewart in Busch and Bobby Labonte in Cup.
The 1999 season finale at Atlanta (what is it with that track and movie schemes, anyway?) had the first single-race, multi-car sponsorship deal from a movie. Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty and Johnny Benson all drove paint schemes inspired by the release of Toy Story 2, even though all three competed for different teams. None of the cars finished inside the top 20, but these single-race, multi-car deals became a trend, occurring 11 times over almost 20 years.
If we count the Days of Thunder cars, it took about 15 years for a promotional scheme to roll into Victory Lane, and only seven others have won races in the 15 years since.
The much-anticipated 2005 release of Star Wars’ third prequel, Revenge of the Sith, ended up on four cars that year between April and May. The initial two schemes appeared on the Yates Fords of Elliott Sadler and Dale Jarrett, who were backed by M&M’s and ran at Phoenix in April. The fourth scheme was driven by Kyle Busch to a fourth-place finish at Richmond in mid-May.
However, the May 1 race at Talladega Superspeedway was where movie schemes finally got their due. Jeff Gordon started second in a blue-and-white sunburst-style car, with normal sponsors Pepsi and DuPont taking a backseat to the Star Wars sequel and a ready-for-action Yoda on the hood, lightsaber drawn.
Gordon cleared polesitter Kevin Harvick to lead the first lap and never looked back, leading 139 of the 194 circuits. Appropriately enough, the third Episode III scheme ended up in victory lane, and the win also came just a few days before “May the 4th,” though that holiday would not exist until 2011. Also fitting was that Sadler and Jarrett, who had driven Revenge of the Sith cars a few weeks before, both finished in the top 10. Busch’s day ended on lap 132 after a crash.
It was a little over a year later, but a movie car revisited the winner’s circle in 2006, this time at Michigan. Adam Sandler’s 2006 feature Click appeared on Kasey Kahne’s Evernham Motorsports Dodge with a stunning blue livery and yellow numbers.
Kahne started on the pole and won the race despite leading just 19 laps. Click, meanwhile, ended up nearly tripling its budget at the box office despite subpar reviews.
The 2000s’ last race-winning movie car came at Darlington, where Kyle Busch piloted an adventure-themed M&M’s Toyota to promote the upcoming fourth installment of the classic series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Personally one of my all-time favorite movie schemes (and a diecast that’s eluded me for a decade), Busch started sixth and led almost half the race en route to a victory. It was the last movie scheme to win a race for a little more than four years. When another won in 2012, two movie themed liveries won in the span of less than three weeks.
Jimmie Johnson continued his Dover success by winning in a Madagascar 3-sponsored Chevrolet, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed up at Michigan two races later – coincidentally, it had also been roughly four years since Earnhardt had won a race.
Ahead of the race, the team and sponsor – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in his Batman trilogy – held a fan vote to pick which scheme the No. 88 would run. The choices encompassed four variations, but the winner was (arguably) the best – a simple black scheme with ghosted Mountain Dew markings, accompanied by the movie logo on the hood, as well as the likenesses of Christian Bale’s Batman and Tom Hardy’s Bane on the sides. Earnhardt also took part in a promotion at the track earlier in the week, where he drove alongside a replica of the Batmobile on Michigan’s frontstretch banking.
Despite ranking fifth in laps led, Earnhardt managed to win his first race in four years.
Just three movie-themed cars have won since – Ryan Newman kissed the bricks at Indianapolis in 2013, driving a Quicken Loans car promoting The Smurfs 2, but that win was followed by a nearly three-year drought until Jimmie Johnson won at Fontana. Johnson and Earnhardt drove dual Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice schemes (Johnson’s car painted in the style of Superman’s suit, Earnhardt Batman’s), and it was Johnson who ended up in Victory Lane.
The last and most recent to win was Kyle Larson in 2017 when he piloted a promotional scheme for Cars 3 to victory at Michigan. Clint Bowyer and Chris Buescher also drove similar schemes that year, all three designed to be evocative of main character Lightning McQueen’s car, but Larson was the only one to visit the winner’s circle.
NASCAR (Doesn’t) Go Hollywood… Sometimes
Bizarrely enough, there are a number of racing-themed movies that never made it onto a paint scheme.
Recently, the documentary Blink of an Eye – chronicling the 2001 Daytona 500 and Michael Waltrip’s story – was released in Sept. 2019. Despite the clear involvement from NASCAR and then-series sponsor Monster Energy with the production, the movie’s logo never even appeared on a car. Waltrip’s book by a similar name did, though, on his Toyota for the 2011 Daytona 500.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2017 heist comedy Logan Lucky, despite filming a number of scenes at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the main heist itself taking place during the Coca-Cola 600, never made its way onto a car or had a special paint scheme. Putting aside a stellar cast that included Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig and Riley Keough, it’s more surprising it wasn’t featured given that nine NASCAR personalities appeared in the movie. Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and Mike Joy all appeared as themselves in the broadcasting booth, while six drivers – Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano – made cameos as well. Logan Lucky had been out for about a month and a half by the time NASCAR returned to Charlotte for its playoff race, so it’s likely it was still in theaters by that time.
Other surprises include the 2004 documentary NASCAR: The IMAX Experience and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Talladega Nights actually did have a promotional scheme, but the likeness of Will Ferrell in character as Ricky Bobby and Bobby’s Wonder Bread scheme appeared on Bill Lester’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series machine. It’s not surprising that one of the biggest racing movies of all time had a promotional scheme, but it is odd that no Cup Series car – especially given that the film’s characters are Cup drivers – ended up with the logo or a dedicated paint scheme.
DC Comics’ Extended Universe films have certainly had their share of NASCAR promotion: Man of Steel in 2013, Batman v. Superman in 2016, Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017 and Shazam! in 2019, but a few outliers exist there as well. Suicide Squad, also released in 2016, debuted in theaters in the heart of the summer NASCAR stretch – if the poster and advertising art is any indication, there could’ve been some killer schemes designed for NASCAR. Granted, it also could’ve been the movie title that ended up steering it clear of sponsorship.
On the note of DC adaptations, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy kicked off in 2005 with Batman Begins, which was featured on Mark Martin’s Roush Ford at Michigan. The final film of the trilogy was, of course, featured on Earnhardt’s No. 88 at Michigan in 2012, but oddly enough the middle film – The Dark Knight – was not. Widely considered the best film of the three and a pinnacle of the comic book movie genre, it’s one of the biggest outliers that was never featured on a stock car.
The Dark Knight did see some on-track action, though, albeit all the way across the Atlantic in Formula 1. At the 2008 British Grand Prix, Panasonic Toyota Racing drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock raced with the Dark Knight insignia on both the tub (in the driver’s door area) and on the sides of the rear wing.
Shazam! or (The Unexpected Virtue of Recent Schemes)
Aric Almirola’s Shazam! scheme that ran at Martinsville and Bristol in spring 2019 is the most recent to hit the track, becoming the fifth DC Extended Universe movie promotion since 2013 and featuring the 100th movie to appear on a NASCAR. Korbin Forrister was the only other driver to have a movie emblazoned on his car in 2019, with Run the Race on board his No. 7 truck, which failed to qualify at Daytona.
Run the Race is just one of four movies to ever make it onto a Truck Series entry, along with God Bless the Broken Road (Cody Coughlin, 2018); Navy Seals vs. Zombies (Stanton Barrett, 2015); and Lester’s Talladega Nights truck.
The 2018 season had four films make it onto paint schemes – Coughlin’s God Bless the Broken Road truck, Bumblebee on Christopher Bell’s Toyota at Homestead, Mile 22 on Bubba Wallace’s Chevrolet at Pocono (best remembered for flying into Turn 1 and violently slamming the wall) and The Hurricane Heist on Matt DiBenedetto’s car for the Daytona 500.
As for 2020, no schemes have featured a film as of yet, but there hasn’t been many big-name releases (except for Birds of Prey, which was disappointing to not see on a car). It’s almost been a year and a half since Almirola’s car hit the track.
While it’s been quite a while since a movie-themed car has hit the track, I’m holding out hope that we’ll see some of the rest of this year’s bigger movies – Bill & Ted Face the Music, Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, No Time to Die – featured on a car. Even just one would be enough to keep the streak alive, one that’s stretched for almost 25 years. Don’t let it die.