Last week, Michael Loftus shared an announcement about the new Kevin James Netflix comedy series, The Crew. I had to check this one out, not because of our “bossman’s” involvement in the series, but because it is about NASCAR.
The story of a racing team’s struggle with the evolution of the sport and the not-so-smooth transition the changing of a boss brings in enough great characters and conflict that even non-racing fans will enjoy it. When you grew up in a car-crazy household like I did, you also want some faithfulness to the spirit of the sport.
After the initial episodes, I couldn’t help thinking this would have been one of those series we could have watched with my dad, who passed away last year at age 81. He was not only a life-long racing enthusiast, he did a little car and motorcycle racing himself in his younger years. This means my childhood and adult life was filled with watching plenty of car-loving movies and shows together with him, from Top Gear to Stroker Ace, as well as season after season of NASCAR racing. My parents loved the sport so much, they would park at a favorite tourist information area overlook to watch the big, clear-sided, car-hauling semis make their way down I-10 between races. When we watched a car movie or show, my dad would love pointing out everything Hollywood “gets wrong” in racing movies. I think he would have both loved and appreciated The Crew.
Here are three reasons why.
The Vintage Racing Footage: NASCAR didn’t start out as a sleek organized corporate sport, but rather the result of moonshine runners showing off their driving talents. It evolved into the highly visible professional well-regulated (a little over-regulated for many long-time fans like me) event watched around the world today. Back in its early years, it wasn’t as tidy. Yes, there is still plenty of crashing and smashing going on in the current sport, but it isn’t as down and dirty as in the past. These cool snippets of old race footage played in the intro or between scene transitions that feature cars flipping over the walls and spinning all over the tracks help remind us just how wild and crazy NASCAR has always been, and why we all love it so much.
The “Realistic” Product Placement: Normally, when we watch a show or movie, my entire family loves to point out blatant product placement, or distracting “not really a brand” sodas and beers. The Crew utilized plenty of “fictional brands” deliberately for plot points, but it didn’t flood the show with generic “Hollywood style” product brands. NASCAR is a sponsor-heavy sport (love it or hate it). There are certainly some sponsors that lend themselves to NASCAR and others you can’t figure out why they even want to be part of these shenanigans, but brand names are everywhere. You can ignore it, you can dislike it, but you can’t escape it. If they tried to tone down this corporate overload, something just wouldn’t look right.
It Has NASCAR’s Mark of Approval: If racing fans are wondering what official NASCAR itself thinks of the show, they are all in. This is the first show actually based on NASCAR, not just racing in general, both its ups and downs, proud history and future potential. As expected, there are cameos from familiar NASCAR names like Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillan, but there are also some big NASCAR names behind the cameras helping to keep it accurate. There is a diverse cast, which is a good thing, but it also shows the sometimes well-intended effects of propelling the sport too fast into the realms of political correctness will backfire. As absurd and exaggerated as the plotlines of sitcoms need to be in order to smash a storyline and plenty of one-liners into a half-hour slot, it still kept things real without overt politics creeping in. Hopefully, the show maintains that balance in the next season.
James and the cast even took a few “virtual laps” on NASCAR Heat 5 to get people excited about the show.
In case you sped through the first season, here are three race-inspired movies I was lucky enough to watch with my dad (sorry, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby and all 500 of those Fast and Furious movies are not part of this list).
Ford vs. Ferrari (2019): One of the coolest stories in racing is the birth of the Ford GT, that came about when hot-head Henry Ford II and fellow hot-head Enzo Ferrari got into it over whether an American car like a Ford could beat the ever-reining Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It took larger-than-life Texan-born car designer Caroll Shelby and fearless British driver Ken Miles to do this in 1966 with the Ford GT 40. This was not only a great movie for car lovers, but also a fantastically acted, beautifully shot film for movie lovers in general. There were some big historical inaccuracies, but one of the pleasures of old car aficionados is being able to point out these discrepancies as an excuse to share their own knowledge on the subject. This was my dad’s perfect excuse to talk car history (more specifically, Ford racing history) with his granddaughters. “You know, Shelby wasn’t even in the same town when Miles was killed…” or, “This was the actual year the first Mustang was released…”). That kind of nitpicking potential was as welcome as the well-made, fast-paced story itself.
Cars (2006). I was reluctant to include this one at first, because pretty much everything that comes from Disney and Pixar gets overplayed, overhyped, overexposed, and in the case of the Cars franchise, “over-sequeled.” However, the original Cars is not only a masterpiece in computer animation, it perfectly captures the spirit of racing and the American roadside nostalgia. Even today, it is hard not to appreciate the voice inclusions of racing legend Richard Petty to Car Talk hosts, “Click and Clack” (Tom and Louis Magliozzi) in this film, as well as the attention to detail on the racing sequences. The vibration of the “camera” in low angle shots, and the lens flare effect can make you momentarily forget you weren’t actually watching a live action race.
Logan Lucky (2017): This heist film (dubbed “Ocean’s 7-11” by some fans) set at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, is more about a twisty robbery than it is about racing, but it is a hilarious story that can poke friendly fun of the NASCAR crowd and “blue collars” without being flat-out insulting to everyone who lives in flyover states. It also reminded big city types never to underestimate the intelligence and innovation of “regular folk.” For NASCAR fans, it is filled with appearances by several NASCAR familiars, not always as themselves. My favorite cameos were of longtime track rivals Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch as partner State Troopers. The movie isn’t trying to be anything more than it is, which is a highly entertaining action comedy with racing stripes.
I’m sorry I didn’t get to watch this latest venture into racing-themed storytelling with our family’s own “crew chief” but I recommend The Crew for anyone else who wants to enjoy a solid sitcom that doesn’t pander to, preach at, or patronize any faction of its viewership.
Season One of The Crew is currently available on Netflix.