Driven to Survive – What Motorsport’s Cinematic Reject Got Right

On April 27, 2001, the infamous motorsport movie Driven was released on the weekend of the cancelled Firestone Firehawk 600 at the Texas Motor Speedway. As is well-known by now, the movie was demolished by critics and a complete box office failure, resulting in a net loss of $40,000,000. It earned an amazing seven nominations at the 22nd Golden Raspberry Awards, though only won a single award, as surreal comedy Freddy Got Fingered was more (un)popular with voters.

On the internet, there is more than enough content rightfully ripping into the movie, but in the bold spirit of the Gravel Trap, the author wants to take a different look at the least successful Sylvester Stallone sports movie. Using the Eye of the Tiger, this Gravel Trap will look at what Driven got “right“. What parts of Driven are actually realistic? What shown in the movie has in some fashion actually happened in the world of sports either before or after the movie was made?

Obviously, this analysis will be full of spoilers, so if you wish to watch the movie unsullied, go do so. It is currently available on a number of legal streaming platforms and used copies can be purchased on BluRay and DVD.

The realistic parts are even included in the movie intro, when a statistic on the screen fades in. While “900 million spectators“ sounds unbelievable at first, it does match official statistics by Championship Auto Racing Teams: they reported 982 million cumulative viewers for the 1997 season. Even if the numbers must have been lower after the IRL started to become feasible post-split, it stands to reason that 900 million was still legitimate for the 2000 season.

In a more obvious realistic event, our protagonist and CART rookie Jimmy Bly jumps into championship contention. There is quite a noticeable list of successful first-year drivers in world championships, with names like Jacques Villeneuve and José María López just being two names worth mentioning. This plot-point in particular may have been inspired by at-the-time recent events in the sport. The story is a fictionalised depiction of the 2000 CART season: the previous champions in real-life had been respectively a rookie, a driver in his second and third season going back-to-back, Jimmy Vasser and a driver in his sophomore season.

In turn, however, the depiction of the massive stress such a rookie season puts on a young driver is also rather accurate. While young drivers had media experience in the minor series even in the 90s, it pales in comparison to the media attention the championship challengers in the major motorsport series experience. Sir Lewis Hamilton had trouble with tabloids like The Daily Mirror in 2007 and talked about the pressure such stories placed on him. With all of Lewisteria at the time, it is worthwhile to note that Hamilton himself was not spared in the media’s hunt for a headline. The media can and will create an image of a driver even in their rookie year, an image that is completely out of the driver’s control. This ties into the next scene, where the media and fan attention created by his early success overwhelms Bly. The media have turned him into a celebrity with all that entails. Bly is shown experiencing sexual harassment by a female fan. In a, especially for the time, admirable portrait, Bly is explicitly shown discomforted by this behaviour. Even nowadays, attitudes towards this topic are too often made with the belief that men cannot experience this kind of harassment, or at least not experience it as a negative event. Obviously, that is not the truth and that is all that needs to be said on this topic on GP Rejects.

Afterwards, the movie shows the dissolution of Beau Brandenburg’s relationship with his fiancée, which is also a very common thing in the world of sports. The divorce rate for pro athletes in the United States stands at around 70%, with anxiety and concern about performance being one of the issues affecting this rate – either because of the partner being worried about their financial future as the career of an athlete ends or is in decline, or, as seen in the movie, the concern of the athlete about their career negatively affecting the relationship.

Joe Tanto is being introduced as the retired veteran pulled in for one more job (a cliché usually found in crime movies). While that plot point is within the world of racing most likely inspired by Nigel Mansell’s return to Formula 1 in 1994, it became prophetic of events in the real world. Just like Felipe Massa’s planned retirement in 2016 ended when Williams called him back for one more season after Mercedes bought out Valtteri Bottas to help rookie Lance Stroll. Veterans serving to assist young drivers is also not an uncommon practice in motorsports. In Formula 1, this often takes the role of the young driver being brought in as a “number two” to learn from the veteran star, such as Hamilton’s first season or Leclerc’s 2019 season at Ferrari. More direct veteran mentor options have been considered, such as the rumour mill about moves by Ralf Schumacher and Takuma Sato to Toro Rosso for the 2008 and 2009 seasons respectively.

Tanto and the driver he replaced, Memo Moreno, are pretty much taken from the “love triangle” between Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Michael Schumacher and Corinna Betsch. It should be noted that unlike Tanto and Moreno, Frentzen and Schumacher’s relationship was never as friendly. Frentzen himself had described his relationship with Schumacher as “professional, but distant” in 2014.

The next scene has Bly argue with his agent and brother, stating his inability to handle the pressure of the sport. This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon thing. Current drivers have worked with psychologists to help them handle the stresses and adjust their mental processes, as Romain Grosjean described in early 2016, but that is a relatively modern concept. At the time Driven takes place, that was simply not a thing done by sportsmen. A prominent example of a competitor breaking under the mental pressure is German soccer player Sebastian Deisler, who struggled with depression leading (in combination with persisting knee issues) to his retirement in January 2007 at the age of 27.

Bly’s brother is unsympathetic to his plight and, as seen later, abandons him for Brandenburg. There are more than enough examples of family negatively affecting sportsmen either through negative influence or financial freeloading, though it should be noted this is (in terms of things that come to light, at least) less common in motorsports. One of the reasons could be that most competitors in motorsport come from well-off families, therefore there are simply fewer relatives who have the need to mooch off their financially-successful relatives. Of course, American open-wheel racing and Formula 1 drivers have agencies handling their commercial interests with family occasionally handling these positions as well. A famous example can be found in Sir Lewis Hamilton, who was represented by his father early in his career until he and Anthony Hamilton split ways in early 2010 (that decision, however, was made by the athlete, not the relative, unlike in the movie).

Tanto’s return is not warmly received by Beau Brandenburg, who is more than willing to remind him of an accident at the 1997 Detroit Grand Prix where Tanto “almost killed [him]”. Tanto’s claim to have changed is dismissed by Brandenburg who claims Tanto “will never change”. That attitude is quite similar to James Hunt in real life. He and other drivers never forgave Riccardo Patrese for (in their eyes) causing the accident that indirectly resulted in Ronnie Peterson’s death at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix.

We are then introduced to journalist Lucretia Jones, who does a report on the male-dominated nature of sports. That fact is widely known and still ringing true in 2022 despite great effort and progress in women’s sports. Furthermore, journalists accompanying teams is not uncommon, especially nowadays. The Netflix documentary series that the title of this column is a reference to being just the most prominent modern example. Of course, those journalists do not go on to have a romantic relationship with the drivers they interview, but that is neither here nor there. She later admits to wanting to specifically interview Tanto on account of his expansive life story making him more colourful than the average young driver. This complaint is also a common motorsport trope, where older drivers are seen as more insightful and generally more interesting than their younger counterparts.

At Tanto’s comeback race in Toronto, he is held in the pitlane by the team so he can throw a block against Brandenburg after leaving the pitlane. That move is ridiculous and would have gotten Bly’s team in major trouble even if he himself had been unaffected by any punishment. However, it should be noted that intentional blocking (or accusations thereof) is not too uncommon in the big picture of motorsport history. Infamously, Norberto Fontana claimed in 2006 that Sauber were ordered to hold up Jacques Villeneuve in the controversial 1997 title decider. Accusations of causing intentional yellow flags to block lap time improvements in three-stage qualifying have been thrown around ever since Michael Schumacher got placed at the back of the grid for doing so at the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix.

As Bly’s one-sided affection towards Brandenburg’s fiancée grows, his win in Canada is followed by a major crash in the final corner at the Twin Ring Motegi oval (examples of such last-corner incidents happening in real life are Paul Tracy taking out Sébastien Bourdais at the final corner of the 2006 Denver Grand Prix and J. R. Hildebrand losing the chance to take a rookie victory at the 2011 Indianapolis 500). 

Brandenburg, thanks to the wise words by Joe Tanto, is inspired to restore his relationship with his fiancée. This sends Bly over the edge, causing him to steal a CART prototype and aimlessly drive through the streets of Chicago. While that is of course ludicrous and unrealistic, the fact that it had little disciplinary consequence is not. First off, in the state of Illinois, Bly’s actions would be legally classified as reckless driving and joyriding – both Class A misdemeanours coming with a prison sentence of up to a year and/or a hefty fine, but with relatively low bail (especially when considering the wage of a top-series racing driver). Jimmy Bly’s age is not stated, but unless he is younger than 21, his conviction would not even cost him his driving licence. 

Disclaimer: this information is based on the author’s personal research. As he is not a lawyer, neither he nor GP Rejects will take any responsibility for misjudging the legal consequences of stealing a race car prototype and racing through the streets of Chicago.

The requirement for a Formula 1 driver to hold a valid driver licence did not exist until the introduction of the superlicence point system. Disciplinary measures for violating traffic laws outside of the race course were not applied in motorsports until the 2010s either. Therefore, it stands to reason that the actual ChampCar rulebook of the period likely had no fixed punishment for drivers for false conduct off the racetrack. Therefore, the fine of $25,000 probably was assessed on grounds of the ever-arbitrary “conduct detrimental to the sport” regulation all sports have and, given as Bly was a marketable championship contender, even in reality there probably would not have been a harsher punishment for him by the series organisers.

Tanto is informed by team boss Carl Henry, who is a very blunt copy of Sir Frank Williams, that Bly would lose his drive if Bly does not have a good race in Germany. This is in line with the driver management of the original – of the seven world drivers championships won in a Williams, only three drivers were still driving for the team in the season after the title victory. The weather report before the event shows realistic weather for Germany in October (when the second-to-last race of the fictional 2000 ChampCar season would logically take place), making it appear like the choice to have that race there was made quite deliberately by the script writers to enable the upcoming events. While series usually try to schedule their calendars to optimise the weather conditions, that sometimes is not possible for a number of reasons.

After another ridiculous crash, Jimmy Bly abandons his race to aid his teammate. He is shortly thereafter joined by Beau Brandenburg. Famously, drivers have stopped their cars before to help drivers in need. Ayrton Senna coming to the aid of Erik Comas in practice for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix and Sebastian Vettel checking in on Lando Norris after his major crash at the same venue in qualifying for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix are two examples, but in particular this movie scene seems inspired by the choice of Arturo Merzario to halt his Williams and join Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl in their endeavours to save Niki Lauda at the 1976 German Grand Prix.

Given recent events, the author feels tempted to call Brandenburg’s fake contract with Bly’s brother a realistic event. Obviously incidents like the Ganassi vs. Palou situation, Piastri’s implied contract with the McLaren Formula 1 team and Alonso suddenly jumping ship to Aston Martin are not meant as cruel jokes at the expense of the party believing they have a contract, but it still feels just as absurd. Should Piastri ever reveal that his choice to repel Alpine was mainly motivated by spite towards them, the author will retroactively award a realism point for Driven.

On to the final race of the season, the championship showdown in Detroit. Despite suffering an injury in Germany, Bly is permitted to race as he manages to deal with the pain and fulfil all safety requirements plus a team-required stress test. Drivers competing despite being ill or injured is, obviously, also something that real life has seen its fair share of. Justin Wilson nearly winning the 2006 Gran Premio Telmex presented by Banamex despite a wrist injury, David Coulthard finishing second in the 2000 Spanish Grand Prix despite being injured in a plane crash just before the start of the Grand Prix weekend and NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski masterfully winning the first Pocono race in 2011 despite a broken ankle are just a few examples to name.

Before we analyse the season finale, the author wants to express his admiration for the preparation scene for the final showdown, all drivers preparing for the last event of a long season with Era’s song “Mother” playing in the background. If this scene does not get you hyped for a season finale, well, you are entitled to your opinion but the author is entitled to inform you that we will never be friends.

Bly starts the Detroit race at the back of the grid and must finish ahead of Brandenburg to win the championship. He gains a number of places through various accidents ahead in the opening laps of the race. Those crashes are more or less ridiculous – and the author refuses to praise Driven’s realism in terms of the tyre flying into the stands, given as that was a clear reference to two such incidents at the 1998 U.S. 500 and the 1999 VisionAire 500K respectively that killed three spectators each. Therefore, this reference to real events is egregiously tasteless, especially for a movie released less than two years after the fact. Tanto is also involved in one of those incidents and joins Bly at the rear of the grid. Together they pass competitor after competitor to the tunes of quintessential turn-of-the-millenium song “Right Here, Right Now” on their way towards the business end of the order. This is very similar to the way the McLarens made their way to the lead of the 1983 Grand Prix of Long Beach after poor Michelin qualifying tyres left them P22 and P23 on the grid. Except obviously the music: the song was only released in 1999.

Eventually a caution period sees Brandenburg, Bly and Tanto all on fresh tyres, racing for the title towards the flag. Championship contenders being that close near the end of the season finale is rare, but not unrealistic at all. To name a handful of examples: the last race of the 1994 International Formula 3000 season at Magny-Cours, the 2006 IndyCar Series finale at Chicagoland Speedway and of course the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Jimmy Bly manages to take the lead of the race and therefore the provisional championship standings. Unfortunately, a driver error leaves Brandenburg able to retake the lead. On a meta level, this driver error earns Driven another point. Most of the action scenes of the movie’s climax were filmed at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The spot where Bly’s driver error was filmed is turn 6, where Sebastian Vettel made the error that cost him victory at the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix. Unfortunately, this praise can only be limited to the meta level as the finale is, as previously established, supposed to take place in Detroit.

Tanto, in a last-ditch effort to reclaim his old glory and help his young teammate, passes Brandenburg, picking up terminal suspension damage. Against all odds, he manages to take the car to the line. Obviously, a damaged suspension is a very miserable situation. However, Alain Prost managed to run over 40 laps at Spa-Francorchamps with a damaged suspension to take a valuable point in his run towards the 1986 world title, so clearly it can be done. Tanto only had to last a few corners in comparison, so that is a believable tale.

To give the movie a good ending, Bly beats Brandenburg literally to the line. Individual races, of course, have been decided by the slimmest of margins even on street circuits. Anthoine Hubert winning at Monaco in Formula 2 by 0.059 seconds is still the closest margin of victory in the history of Formula 1’s main feeder series. Still, it is a rather unrealistic ending for the last race of the season, but given that real life has produced even less believable endings to championship battles, like the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, it will at the very least not have marks taken off for being unrealistic. 

The movie concludes with Jimmy Bly’s championship celebration, Beau Brandenburg’s relationship being as good as it ever was and Joe Tanto celebrating a moral victory.

Over 2,800 words of realistic events and details in Driven. Is this movie an underrated gem that does a great job in representing the sport after all? 

Absolutely not. 

The most obvious issue are a lot of unrealistic CG-fueled crashes, some of which are edited so poorly that it is obvious that the car actually filmed did never reach speeds sufficient for the severe consequences the edited scene implies. Of course there is even more stuff like neither Bly or Tanto suffering hearing damage after driving the prototypes without a helmet. Mark Webber noticed how loud the V8 in his Red Bull was when driving his final Formula 1 cooldown lap without a helmet, so it is fairly obvious that driving without a helmet at top speed would be even louder – which would have made the emotional scene very awkward, especially with Stallone’s famous mumbling (“… but I guarantee you, you will know what Jimmy Bly is made of.” – “WHAT?”). However, the author has no intention of re-doing all the negative reviews written about this movie and will not bore anyone by repeating previously-made points.

The realism in Driven is mainly and merely a reminder that the real motorsport world can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

Sources: Andrew Nickel LLC, Autosport, crash.net, Driven, ESPN, HighNetWorthDivorces.com, Luisi Legal Group, motorsport.com, racefans.net, Rheinische Post, Speedweek

Image Sources: Smallman12q (licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped and resized), Warner Bros. Pictures

Author

  • Lennart Gottorf is an opinionated motorsport fan hailing from the Federal Republic of Germany. When he isn't working on the Gravel Trap, he is struggling with his cheese cube addiction and loves reading.