'The Art of Racing in the Rain' opens: Here's what the author of the book (and past SCCA champion) thinks

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” debuts nationwide on August 9.

Film critic Teo Bugbee, self-described as a “freelance culture writer and full-time union organizer,” reviewed the film “The Art of Racing in the Rain” for The New York Times in three paragraphs so clueless you have to hope, for her sake, that she is a damn good union organizer.

The fact is, film critics who are not car people or dog people or presumably even actual movie people don’t get “Racing in the Rain,” but that isn’t surprising: It’s different.

It’s based on the 2008 novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” written by Garth Stein. Which was also different. As Autoweek readers likely know, it is the story of up-and-coming race car driver Denny Swift, who is fast approaching his sell-by date if he is ever going to become a top competitor. The narrative is presented by Denny’s dog, Enzo, who watches Denny struggle for a good ride, get married, have a daughter, fight with his rich in-laws and eventually advance his career.

The movie, starring a moderately colorless Milo Ventimiglia (TV’s “This Is Us”) as Denny, is commendably faithful to the book. Enzo’s thoughts are ably announced by a surprisingly gravely Kevin Costner, who hits just the right note, handling Enzo’s non sequitur-ish thoughts about Denny, like, “I could smell the day on him. Motor oil and gas. And roast chicken.”

But what you want to know about the movie, which opens in general release today, is the car stuff. Good news: It’s remarkably spot-on, likely due to the behind-the-scenes presence of producer/racer Patrick Dempsey, second unit director and Porsche racer Jeff Zwart and, of course, the book, as author Stein is a stickler for motorsports authenticity.

Readers of the novel already know that: The title essentially comes from Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna’s almost spiritual ability to drive on wet pavement, a skill that Denny tries to emulate. Even the name of the dog, Enzo, is, of course, taken from Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the car company. 

“I raced with the SCCA for six years or so, in the Spec Miata class,” Stein told Autoweek. “I actually won the points championship in my class in 2004, but that’s because I showed up to all the races.  Although when they handed me the trophy, they did say, ‘If you don’t show up, you can’t win,’ so…

“I did do more research, of course, especially into the life of Ayrton Senna and the history of racing, and I borrowed the track notes on Thunderhill from a racer friend of mine because I’ve never driven Thunderhill,” the SCCA-owned track near Willows, California. “But knowing the world and the sense of community among club racers — and the customs and ethics of the racetrack — definitely helped me depict the racing world in an accurate way.”

Zwart was in charge of filming the racing scenes, and the only problem is that there aren’t enough of them – maybe five minutes total of on-track action as Denny progresses, beginning with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Continental Tire Challenge series, in the real-life Turner Motorsports BMW. From there, it’s the real-life Wright Motorsports GT Daytona Porsche, then to the Penske DPi Acura at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The list of race and stunt drivers used in the film is a long one, headed by professional drifter, rallycross racer and TV personality Tanner Foust. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie has Denny drifting a new red Ferrari around his home track – that was Foust, as was the heavy-rain racing in the Turner BMW.

“I’d read the book and enjoyed it,” Foust said, and when he heard that Dempsey and Zwart were involved, he wanted in. Dempsey had optioned the book and worked for years to make it happen. “He was one of the most gracious guys on the set you can imagine. He personally brought water to the stunt drivers all day long.” And Foust had raced with Zwart and worked with him on multiple automobile TV commercials. “It was a genuine pleasure to work on that project.” Foust, incidentally, also did some of the driving on the upcoming “Ford vs. Ferrari” film.

Foust said he didn’t get a chance to meet Stein, “but I did get to pet the dog a couple of times.”

As for Stein, seeing your words turned into pictures was “pretty crazy. I mean, the book has been around for 10 years, and now it’s getting a new life,” including re-entering The New York Times best-seller list. “But it’s fun to see the racing sequences, especially, on the big screen. Jeff Zwart did a great job with the on-track filming – very exciting and dramatic, and no crashes!  I love seeing motorsports at its best.”

Stein is more than pleased with the film. “They had to make some changes, of course – it’s a 360-page book, distilled to 90 minutes on screen. Choices had to be made. But I think they got the heart of the story right, and that’s what makes me happy.”

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