Tag Archives: cars

Real-Life Days of Thunder Racing Rivalry Plays Out in RUSH

RUSH


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(4/5)

Pros: Awesome racing sequences; nice attention to detail and historical accuracy; compelling drama


Cons: Ending was a bit on the soft side; selection of popular music on the soundtrack could have been better

Having been a fan of Formula 1 for decades, it’s always struck me as surprising and unfortunate that this form of auto racing, easily the most popular in the world, has never quite caught on in the United States for one reason or another. While NASCAR drivers typically circle around painfully similar tracks week in and week out, F1 travels to some of the most challenging and varied courses the world has to offer, with most every race playing out as high drama – particularly for those familiar with the intricacies of the sport. With the construction of the America’s first purposely built F1 circuit (Austin, TX’s Circuit of the Americas, which opened in 2012), Formula 1 appears to have finally gotten some sort of foothold in the United States, and over the past couple of years there have been a handful of films dealing with the sport.

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A sampling of Ferrari’s Formula 1 machines from over the years, from clunky bombs to jet planes on wheels.

Ron Howard’s 2013 feature Rush operates in roughly the same manner as the excellent 2010 straight documentary (which chronicled the man perhaps rightfully regarded as the best F1 driver in history) in that it focuses its attention on Formula 1’s past and plays like a biography dealing with two of the most legendary names in the sport. The film opens by introducing two young and hungry race drivers working their ways up through the ranks of Formula 3 in Europe. Almost immediately, there’s a sharp contrast between a carefree British driver named and perfectionist Austrian named : the two clash instantly on the track and a rivalry which eventually stretched across the globe was born. Flash forward several years and the pair of drivers have made their way into Formula 1, the most prestigious, high-tech, and outright dangerous form of auto racing in the world. Lauda has landed on F1’s biggest and most famous team Ferrari, while Hunt has struggled in driving for smaller and more cash-strapped organizations. Going into 1976, Hunt lands a spot on the McLaren team, arguably the “best of the rest” in the world of F1, and this sets up an epic and extremely dramatic fight for the points championship with Lauda. The main body of Rush documents this season and the ramifications it had for all parties concerned.

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Real life Hunt (left) and Lauda.


Howard’s film plays a bit like Days of Thunder if it was more realistic and based on actual historical events, with the brash, playboy James Hunt serving as the “Cole Trickle” type character while the wily and calculating Lauda seems like the grizzled veteran “Rowdy Burns.” Written by Peter Morgan, Rush emphasizes the differences between its main characters throughout, and details the frequently tense on-and off-track interactions that defined the relationship between Lauda and Hunt and the men themselves. A viewer really gets the idea that these guys may not at all have liked each other (at least initially), but they had to respect one another when both were piloting what amounted to a bomb on wheels that was traveling some 150 miles per hour around twisting and turning racetracks while only being inches apart. Acting from Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) is outstanding: the two actors not only have a wonderfully compelling rapport with one another, but really seem to have identified and accentuated the true nature of their characters. It’s interesting to note that Morgan’s script and Howard’s direction seem most often to take the standpoint of Lauda, the character who comes across as the “villain” at the onset of the film. Though Hunt appears to be living the life that every male race fan would dream of, it seems like part of the goal of the film is to suggest that Lauda’s story is actually the more heroic, uplifting, and ultimately triumphant.

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The pair as depicted in the film: Chris Hemsworth (left) as Hunt, and Daniel Brühl as Lauda.

Even if F1 is the most high-tech racing found in the world, in the 1970s, it was incredibly dangerous. The film drives home this point right from the beginning with the declaration that “twenty-five drivers start every year in Formula 1 and each year, two of them die,” and that statement is absolute fact. The racing scenes in Rush capture the “shake, rattle, and roll” – and overwhelming noise – of auto racing in a gritty and absolutely mesmerizing manner, and never quite allow the viewer to forget that these drivers are often quite literally teetering on the brink of life and death. The film visualizes several extremely nasty accidents (the moment early in the film where driver Francois Cevert is decapitated at Watkins Glen, though somewhat low-key in how it’s presented, really reinforces the dangers of the sport) and eventually, there are some incredibly harrowing scenes here. Midway through 1976, Lauda is horrifically burned in an accident at the German Grand Prix while leading the points standings, and the scenes relating to his medical treatments are excruciating to watch. His eventual return to the sport in just a few weeks later stands as the story’s almost obligatory “overcoming the odds” angle, but the script also takes time to point out that there are things more important than winning.


Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring. Warning: Graphic.

To an extent, Rush is more effective as a dramatic film than as a pure action picture, but the action scenes that are here are absolutely fantastic. Editing throughout the piece is very crisp and purposeful, seeming to alternate between focusing on the humans in the midst of the action and on the mechanical beasts that they are attempting to wrangle. Camera angles during the picture frequently place the viewer right among the race participants, and we often seem to be on the verge of banging wheels with either Lauda or Hunt ourselves. I noticed a few times when the digital effects looked a bit jerky (especially during one key racing sequence), but I really appreciated the attention to historical accuracy in terms of depicting the race cars and courses of the 1970s. It was really cool for me, as a fan of F1, to see these vintage cars in action around tracks that haven’t been used in years – the epitome of which is the immense and unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring. The occasional use of on-screen graphics does a fine job of establishing the basic facts relating to this story, and the film’s sense of pacing is excellent since it seems to focus just the right amount of time on the home lives of the characters without becoming sappy or boring. Hans Zimmer provides a typically pulse-pounding and rousing music score for the story to play out in front of, and even if I thought the selection of popular music was a bit on the cheesy side, these tunes solidify the setting in which the story takes place very well.

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Like most sports dramas, Rush has plenty of triumph and tragedy.


Though the film takes a few liberties with its telling of the story and seems to add intensity to the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that may not have actually existed, to me Rush seemed fairly accurate which is commendable in itself. Considering how compelling this film is both for its technical aspects and for its dramatic storyline, I’d have to call it one of the honestly better films I’ve seen in a while and a return to form for director Howard, whose career has been up-and-down in recent years. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed this film more than most simply due to the fact that I recognized the names, places, cars, and circumstances being discussed, but I think most viewers would get caught up in this intriguing story if they gave this film a chance. Despite the fact that it operates in a generally similar manner to just about every other sports biography or drama that’s out there, I’d have to call this simply outstanding cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

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Widescreen Blu-ray from Universal includes a selection of deleted scenes, a piece focusing on director Ron Howard’s approach to the film, a multi-part “making of” feature, and a trio of documentary segments dealing with the real life story behind the film. A very nice video package overall.



6/10 : Shows the dangerous side of auto racing without flinching; some of the scenes dealing with Lauda’s medical treatments are very disturbing and graphic.


7/10 : A healthy dose of profanity, featuring many f-bombs and occasional crude remarks.


5/10 : Sexual situations pop up several times during the film and occasionally include brief glimpses of topless nudity.



5/10 : Though this would be a must for fans of F1, it comes across as a fairly typical, if more hard-hitting than usual, sports movie.


“Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose…”

Trailer:

Brother Against Brother on the Race Track : INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY

INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY

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See it or ! 

(1/5)

Pros: Ann Sheridan and her smartass remarks

Cons: Just about everything

Featuring a climax that takes place during the famed Indianapolis 500 mile auto race that occurs each Memorial Day weekend, 1939’s Indianapolis Speedway plays like a scene-for-scene remake of 1932’s The Crowd Roars directed by Howard Hawks. Considering that Hawks’s film, which featured James Cagney and Joan Blondell in leading roles, was none-too-great to begin with, one has to wonder just what exactly Warner Brothers was thinking in green-lighting a remake only seven years later, especially given that the pool of talent assembled for Indianapolis Speedway pales in comparison to those who worked on the original film. I’d have to suspect that one of the main reasons why Speedway got the green flag was the fact that the same racing sequences seen in the original film could be inserted as-is into the remake, thus saving quite a bit of money and effort. These were, after all, the “action sequences” of the story, and most of the remaining footage could be thrown together quickly, cheaply, and without too much effort. Ultimately, the lack of imagination is what sinks the remake: Indianapolis Speedway is a complete waste of time, a piece cranked out rapidly in order to make a few bucks at the box office.

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Ah, the good ol’ days of motorsports…

It’s pretty shocking that the script for Indianapolis Speedway is credited to Sid Herzig and Wally Kline, based on a story by Howard Hawks. To say that this film is an original work stretches the notion of authorship beyond the breaking point: essentially, it’s a shot-by-shot recreation of The Crowd Roars, featuring the same set of characters and an identical scenario. The story starts off by introducing Joe Greer, a champion race car driver, visiting his younger brother Eddie for the first time in several years. Viewing his kid brother as the “brains” of the family, Joe’s been using his race winnings to send Eddie money to pay for his college tuition. Turns out though that Eddie’s been spending the money on other things, namely the construction of his own race car, and he’s been having moderate success on the local circuit. Initially reluctant to see his brother enter the dangerous world of auto racing, Joe agrees to tutor him in the “rules of the road” after he witnesses Eddie’s determination to succeed. The brothers’s racing career hits a major hurdle however when Eddie falls for a sharp-tongued young woman named Frankie who Joe believes would provide a bad influence in the young and naïve man’s life. This leads to inevitable hostilities between the two brothers that only intensify when they’re racing together, and following a tragic accident that occurs as a result of aggressive driving, it seems that Joe’s racing career is all but over. Do you suppose that the rivalry between family members can settle down long enough for the duo to claim victory in the world’s biggest automotive race?

To be frank, director Lloyd Bacon’s Indianapolis Speedway is just a clunker of a movie, even (perhaps especially) when compared to the strictly mediocre film that served as its blueprint. By any stretch, The Crowd Roars wasn’t a great flick, but to its credit, it did have a legitimate talent in Howard Hawks calling the shots from behind the camera. The entire feel of the film seemed to have been flavored by the types of crime thrillers that Cagney is best known for, and indeed one of the most interesting aspects of this talky and mostly tedious film was that one could see the actor in a role outside of his typical “tough guy” characterization. Bacon’s Indianapolis Speedway plays in a much different manner, operating during its opening third as light slapstick, emphasizing goofy humor and witty dialogue spat out very quickly by its cast of actors. This comedic tone is simply forgotten at some point in the film in favor of a more dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t willing to buy into this abrupt and rather jarring transition. The “tear-jerker” moments that exist later in the film are more ludicrous than heart-wrenching, and the blame for this situation falls on a cast that simply can’t hold their own with the given material.

Pat O’Brien as Joe Greer comes across as a jerk from the opening moments of the film. Mind you, Cagney’s Greer wasn’t much better, but at least Cagney could act. O’Brien seems incapable of presenting any genuine emotions when he’s called on to do it: it’s pretty amusing to watch scenes in which he gets that far-away look in his eyes when he attempts to reconcile his feelings of worthlessness and failure. A scene in which he starts out whining to his on-again-off-again girlfriend only to break down weeping is nearly too much to bear, perhaps one of most jaw-dropping examples of “overdoing it” I’ve seen in quite a long time. John Payne portrays Eddie as a sort of go-lucky everyman, but why is it that he (easily the more appealing of the brothers) permanently plays second banana to the womanizing, boozing, and rather despicable Joe? The most satisfying thing in the film is watching Joe hit rock bottom and mope about it – this guy doesn’t in any way, shape, or form deserve any better. That we have to later witness his character’s miraculous redemption actually ruins the film since it details precisely what I didn’t want to happen under any circumstance.

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Can’t. Keep. Eyes. Off. Ann. Sheridan.

Given that Joe is a scumbag, his would-be girlfriend Lee (played by Gale Page) is perfectly forgettable, and Eddie clearly isn’t the main focus of the story, it’s really no surprise that Ann Sheridan all but steals this movie playing Eddie’s spunky ladyfriend Frankie. Sheridan (at one point strutting around in GASP! a revealing outfit that exposes her bare midriff) has all the best lines (listen for the scene in which she – rightfully- admonishes Lee for hanging around with Joe), and gives this film the spark it oh-so-desperately needs. Problem is that the writers and director don’t seem to latch onto the fact that Sheridan is easily the best character here – right when it seems like we’re finally going to have a character who can potentially make this film watchable, Frankie is all but eliminated from the narrative, playing only a very minor role throughout the last half of the film. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost declare that those responsible for making this picture purposely sabotaged the production by focusing the narrative on characters a viewer doesn’t give a damn about while downplaying and/or eliminating the film’s best aspects.

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Yep. They’re really racing…

As mentioned earlier, all the racing scenes in this film were lifted straight out of The Crowd Roars, and while they played OK in the film they were designed for, these sequences look like the “stock footage” that they are in Indianapolis Speedway. Cut-ins featuring O’Brien and Payne sitting in cockpit mock-ups with dirt being thrown at them while rear-projection race cars speed around in the background aren’t at all convincing, and in the end, the very race scenes that should be the highpoint of this film wind up being bland, positively tiresome and lackadaisical. Even if a film like the much-maligned Days of Thunder careened off course, becoming a full-on romantic drama at some point, the thrilling race sequences ensured that a viewer didn’t completely lose faith in the production. Yes, the film was super cheesy (not to mention dumb), but it delivered what a viewer expected he would get out of it. Indianapolis Speedway, on the other hand, not only focuses too heavily on domestic issues, but lacks any tension or suspense as it builds up to a sputtering, unexciting climax. Poorly acted and lazily directed, this unoriginal and corny film stands as a horrific remake of a film that in no way shape or form ever needed to be remade. Skip it: the real deal Indy 500 has truckloads more action and drama.


It’s available on a DVD-R paired with the highway scare film The Bottle and the Throttle (which sounds like it would be more fun that the feature). I caught this on TCM, and personally, wouldn’t recommend shelling out any cash for it.


3/10 : Realistic portrayal of the dangers of racing, including a fatal accident. Minimal blood; some disturbing themes.


1/10 : Some threatening language; nothing major


2/10 : Ann Sheridan oozes sex appeal, but alas, we get nothing more than a few glimpses of bare skin


0/10 : Tame and lame


“You’ve taken that guy’s exhaust for so long you’ve got monoxide poisoning…”

A Definitive but Imperfect Spectacle Picture: GRAND PRIX

GRAND PRIX

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Sound; editing, racing sequences

Cons: Acting; story

Focusing on a sport that still may be the most expensive and most outright dangerous in the world, director John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix, which follows the Formula One world championship as it (literally) circles around Europe, is regarded by many as the finest auto racing movie ever made. I can see why this would be the case, since the racing sequences themselves are incredibly exhilarating and technically marvelous considering the time in which the film was made. Unfortunately, this nearly three hours long film plays too often in the manner of a soap opera, dealing mainly with the romantic exploits of a group of generally unlikable characters. Throughout much of the picture, I was unsure who exactly I was even supposed to be rooting for or viewing as the main character since the narrative jumps around quite a lot and rarely seems to settle in long enough to provide a satisfying depiction of any individual figure. Ultimately then, Grand Prix is a film of contrasts: one that will undoubtedly captivate the viewer for the half of its running time that chronicles the racing itself but will put him to sleep during the remaining duration that follows off-track activity.

During the biggest Formula One race of the year taking place in Monaco, teammates Pete Aron (played by rather surly James Garner) and Scott Stoddard (a lackadaisical performance from Brian Bedford) are having a fierce battle on-track when a mechanical failure causes Aron’s transmission to seize. Stoddard, with nowhere to go, plows into the rear of Aron’s car and is seriously injured in the ensuing crash. Furious at the mishap which he believes is Aron’s fault, the team owner fires Aron, leading him to seek a racing drive elsewhere. An opportunity arises in the form of an up-and-coming team owned by Japanese businessman Izo Yamura (the great Toshiro Mifune, whose voice is dubbed by the same guy who did the voice of Dr. Hu in King Kong EscapesWTF??!?), and Aron jumps at the chance to get back in a race car. As the rivalry between Stoddard and Aron heats up, one is also brewing at the Ferrari team between veteran French driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (French actor Yves Montand) and his cocky and young Italian teammate Nino Barlini (a lively Antonio Sabato). Meanwhile, soap opera shenanigans taking place off-track pop up when Aron tries to shack up with Stoddard’s flirty, suddenly-estranged wife (played by none other than Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter), while Sarti puts the moves on a plucky, older American woman (Eva Marie Saint) doing a story on the racing scene and Barlini charms any female in sight (including French singer/actress Françoise Hardy). As the championship battle comes down to the wire at the season’s final race in Italy, these interpersonal relationships begin to either spiral out of control or get real, and not everyone is going to walk away from this racing season unscathed…

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On the high banks at Monza

As one might expect considering that this is the work of a director coming off a number of tightly-constructed thrillers including The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds, Grand Prix is a technical marvel even if it in ways comes across as a bit of a mess. On one hand, the film definitely does a fine job of capturing the glitz and glamor of Formula One racing and the high society folks that inevitably are drawn to the sport. The picture also is phenomenal from a cinematic standpoint, with split-screen work and rapid-fire editing (designed by legendary graphic artist Saul Bass) that does a remarkable job of relating the tense atmosphere surrounding the races themselves. This film was photographed in 70mm and it shows, playing as a sort of test run at the types of techniques that would be used in the landmark music/concert film Woodstock. The editing and split-screen work flawlessly convey the idea of concurrent events taking place and give the viewer a seemingly authentic portrait of a “live” event as it happens. Additionally, Grand Prix boasts amazingly colorful photography by Lionel Lindon which not only captures breathtaking international locations, but also makes it seem like a viewer is right in the driver’s seat much of the time. I can easily see how this film influenced television coverage of auto racing since it includes aerial shots taken from helicopter which provides a “bigger picture” view of what’s happening in the race as well as in-car views that show how intense the competition is on the ground. Obviously, this film was made well-before in-car-cameras became widely used, so all this technology had to be developed exclusively for this film. The results of all this work are stunning to look at.

Problems begin to creep into the picture anytime cars aren’t barreling around on various racing circuits though: the script by Robert Alan Aurthur gets increasingly lame and tiresome as it goes along. Any sort of relationship issue one can imagine might turn up in the film, actually does – I was waiting for one of the women to declare that she’s pregnant at any moment. It’s rather disheartening that Aurthur appears to use various cliché story devices simply to elicit a gut response in a viewer rather than develop anything any aspect of these characters, and the barrage of sappy story material left me more nauseated by than legitimately concerned about them. I also thought the ending of the film was downright ineffective: I can understand that the film didn’t want to end on an entirely sour note in its depiction of Formula One, but the cop-out final scene with Garner walking the grid at Monza lessened the impact of the hard-hitting moment that featured at the climax of the picture. Given that one of the minor themes of the film deals with the racing audience’s need for accidents, blood, and potentially death, it’s strange that Frankenheimer and Aurthur didn’t go for the jugular here when they very easily could have. The conclusion of the film, in my mind then, simply drops the ball.

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Early in-car camera…yikes!

As much as I could say that the acting performances in this film are par for the course in a film of this nature from this time period, I also could point out that the actors don’t entirely impress. Generally, it seems as though most of the attention here is on Yves Montand as the honorable, veteran French competitor who’s beginning to see that his days racing are numbered. Considering that the Montand story comes across as schmaltzy despite the actor turning in arguably the best performance in the picture, it seems a ridiculous notion to focus a large amount screentime on an even less interesting storyline involving James Garner and his relationship with the wife of his main rival. It’s also pretty astonishing that a universally appealing and likable actor as Garner comes across like a prick in the film: I just couldn’t in any way shape or form like this guy no matter how much charm Garner as an actor has. To be frank, Jessica Walter seems like a total bimbo as she flip-flops from one guy to another while “living it up” in the racing scene, and Eva Marie Saint simply gets too hysterical down the stretch after doing a nice job in her early scenes. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the hilariously awful scene in which Sabato and Hardy engage in a war of words late in the going – listening to these two attempt the English language will just make your jaw hit the floor.

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Formula 1 Racing in the 1960s was DANGEROUS!

While the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, it should go without saying that Grand Prix would be an absolute must for fans of Formula racing since it shows the cars, tracks, and drivers that actually were competing in the sport in the mid 1960s. Being a fan of F-1 since I was a lad, the history on display was amazing to see, and it was also fascinating to me that this film seemed to capture the exact moment when the “old time” racing drivers were starting to find themselves challenged by “hotshot” younger talent – a situation that is even more prevalent today. I also loved how the climactic race took place (and was filmed) at the classic combined Monza circuit replete with high-speed, high-banked turns – this made the whole finale all the more exciting for me. Finally, it was pretty remarkable to see how much safety regulations have changed since the mid 1960s. I was shocked to see these cars speeding around the (full and lengthy) Spa-Francorchamps course in Belgium considering that this course uses public roads, runs within feet of actual residences, and has no guardrails of any sort over much of its length. Though the film doesn’t shy away from depicting how dangerous the sport is/was, it may actually downplay the outright brutality of Formula One racing in this era: in the era from 1966-1975, fourteen drivers – including Jochen Rindt, Jo Schlesser, Jo Siffert, and Lorenzo Bandini who all appeared in the film – lost their lives due to injuries sustained in crashes.

Despite its (many) shortcomings, it’s safe to say that Grand Prix is decidedly more interesting to watch than big-budget, star-studded melodramatic trash of the Airport variety – as much as I did get frustrated with all of Grand Prix’s stale off-track debacles, it never reaches the ultra-cheesy lows of a piece like the aforementioned 1970 disaster opus. A viewer can endlessly wish Frankenheimer’s amazingly ambitious film would have been more consistent, had better story material, and gotten better mileage out of a talented ensemble cast, but I’d have no problem saying that the images and sound alone make it worth watching. The roar of automobile engines have rarely been captured this well (the film won well-deserved Oscars for Best Sound, Sound Effects, and Editing), and Maurice Jarre’s music perfectly captures the ups and downs of competitive racing, with the opening overture in particular superbly mimicking the sound of race cars whizzing by. This film seems to be exactly what modern television producers are trying to achieve in their coverage of racing events, and imperfect though it is, Grand Prix is, quite simply, spectacular viewing.


A nice home video package – a gorgeous widescreen print of the film is supplemented with a half-hour “making-of,” a featurette about Saul Bass’s editing schemes and the sound design, a short tour of the famous Brands Hatch raceway, and a vintage behind-the-scenes program. Most interesting (to me anyway) was a short featurette dealing with F-1 racing in the 1960s that included interviews with various drivers and some cool archival footage.


3/10 : A few gnarly racing accidents showing the expected blood and carnage. If anything though, this film actually tones down the brutality of classic Formula One racing.


2/10 : Some adult-oriented discussions, a few uses of the word “damn;” pretty sanitary overall.


3/10 : These drivers get lucky on and off the track, though this film is mostly all saucy talk.


4/10 : Race fans will dig the hell out of the action sequences – and be bored beyond belief in between them


“I used to think nothing could be better than motorbike racing. Three times I am a World Champion on my motorbike. I am happy. Then I go into one of these, these cars: you sit in a box, a coffin, gasoline all around you. It is like being inside a bomb! Crazy, but of course the cars are faster, and that is the most important thing. ”