Ron Howard’s Rush

Jaap Buitendijk / Universal Pictures

The director on how he learned to appreciate Formula 1, with a little help from George Lucas.

Selling American moviegoers on 1970s Formula 1 racing is a bit like selling the French on Damn Yankees. But that didn’t discourage Ron Howard from directing Rush (out September 20), about the epic Grand Prix rivalry between Britain’s James Hunt and Austria’s Niki Lauda. After all, 500 million fans around the world can’t be wrong. Here, the Oscar winner discusses why sports were more glamorous in the 1970s, how he relied on the kindness of vintage-racecar collectors and why it’s easier to helm a Hollywood megaproduction than it is to steer an F1 car in a straight line.

Q: Did you follow the Hunt/Lauda saga when it was taking place?

A: No. Formula 1 has never been huge in the States, and I’m not really a motorsports fan. But I do love the drama of sports, and occasionally, a film built around sports has a chance to do more than just depict the drama of the game. I felt this had to deal with the individualism that was emerging in sports in the 1970s. And, by the way, in all entertainment at that time—I can remember; I was a part of that.

Q: What do you think was behind that cultural shift?

A: There was an interesting explosion in the media in the ’70s. Clark Gable never gave an interview that was particularly candid in the ’40s or ’50s, but check out a Jack Nicholson Rolling Stone article in the ’70s and you can see there was nobody from the studio press department telling him what to say. It had to do with a kind of freewheeling lifestyle coming out of the ’60s, embraced first and foremost by rock-and-roll artists, followed by actors. And then finally you began to see the sports figures kind of rebelling and saying, “I can still have the will to win and yet live the way I want to live.” Both Niki Lauda and James Hunt were refreshingly blunt. Lauda still is. He’s a commentator, and he says what he’s gonna say. And now he’s a part owner of the Mercedes team and a big part of its comeback.

Q: Things have certainly changed. I don’t imagine it would be possible these days to put a camera car in an actual race, like they did in 1971’s Le Mans, with Steve McQueen.

A: No, but we did go out and re-create some of the historic ’70s races. And one of the things I discovered is that people—and they have to be pretty wealthy people—own cars from that period that are the cars. We have James Hunt’s car in our movie. We have Niki Lauda’s car. These wealthy owners, they can’t insure them, but they race them. They’re the unsung heroes of the whole enterprise. They put these precious vehicles at risk. None of them would let our stunt-precision drivers race their cars.

Q: Did you get to drive any F1 cars yourself?

A: I did! Not in the movie, but I did a little driving just to get a feel for it, out at Silverstone. Tricky! I spun out trying to shift the gears. Hard to control, because even on the straightaways, a powerful rear-engine vehicle like that requires constant driving. With every little variance, it wants to rocket into that direction. I don’t think I ever topped 100 miles an hour.

Q: We saw George Lucas at the Monaco Grand Prix last year and learned that he was a diehard fan. Did you consult with him in the making of the film?

A: George introduced [my wife] Cheryl and me to our first F1 race some years ago at Monaco. He’s been a Formula 1 fan as long as I’ve known him. I asked him to read the script for authenticity as well as his creative ideas. He gave Peter Morgan’s script high marks all around but also warned me that it would be one of the tough directorial challenges of my life. He was right.

F1 or NASCAR?

As Austin, Texas, geared up to host its first Formula 1 race at the brand-new Circuit of the Americas last fall, the local press featured stories like “How to Watch an F1 Race If You’re a Clueless American.” For the past 30 years, Formula 1 has competed with little success in Long Beach, California; Detroit; Dallas; Phoenix; Indianapolis; even Las Vegas, while nascar, with its good-ol’-boy mentality, dominates American motorsports. And though we were told a third of the nearly sold-out crowd of 117,000 at Austin were Mexicans who crossed the border to cheer on driver Sergio Pérez, those Americans who did descend on the city—many paying $1,500 for round-trip helicopter transports to the track—did so with gusto. We spotted three men sporting giant red cowboy hats, handlebar mustaches and Ferrari-inspired driver’s suits. The luxury destination club Exclusive Resorts (exclusiveresorts.com) created a special itinerary with police-escorted transfers to its trackside suite. When it advertised the event to its 3,500 members, it had no trouble filling the 20 spots available. “I’ve seen all circuits…and F1 is the best,” said member Susie Morgan of Arkansas. “It’s got the world’s top racers.” Another member from Iowa said he’s not into motorsports, “but I like F1 for the atmosphere and chic people.” Chic, indeed. We wonder if that pickup truck we saw flying nascar flags in protest will be returning this November when the U.S. Grand Prix is back for its sophomore run. —Deborah Frank