“Cars are an outlet for people to get over things and pass the time,” one participant in the new Netflix series “Fastest Car” says as he drives around his neighborhood. That quote is certainly true for some of his fellow drivers, the individuals who make up the talent pool for this new quasi-competition series, but the show is more interested in cutting against some of those kinds of generalizations. From the cars that people drive to the circumstances that each of these racers come from, these are episodes that aren’t just made from interchangeable parts.
Each episode does follow the same basic format: tracking four cars from their individual garages to an episode-closing quarter-mile race. The catch is that one of the four is an internationally recognized supercar (a Lamborghini Aventador, a Ford GT40), while the others are “sleepers,” souped-up versions of cars that would normally barely make it to the parking lot of a racetrack, much less be the main event (an ‘87 Monte Carlo or an ‘84 Chevy Pickup — even a minivan pops up in the first episode).
Kicking off with the supercar sometimes, other episodes withhold that piece of the puzzle until all of the challengers have been introduced first. All these sleepers are trying to bring down the slick, obvious beast, but the rest of the people involved rarely break down to simple types. It’s impossible for “Fastest Car” to not have some element of an “us vs. them” dynamic, but the show doesn’t depend on that for all of the drama.
In fact, “Fastest Car” doesn’t even have a host. It doesn’t need one. If anything, it’s a series that shows how these vehicles are the extensions of the people who put their life into making them the best they can be. They’re like the mechanical version of the pets that start to look more and more like the owner the longer they live together. You could conceivably tell the story just through the way these cars approach the starting line at the end of each episode. What makes “Fastest Car” that much more enjoyable is that it finds the tiny parts of these racers’ lives outside the garage, filling out their backstories in ways that go beyond feeling like sappy, reductive audition tapes.
This is certainly a set of stories shepherded by people with an appreciation and love of cars. But instead of being a simple glorification of every kind of street-legal car imaginable, there’s some serious attention paid to the danger that comes with massive vehicles hurtling at twice the speed limit, even if it’s in a sanctioned event. Outside of the archival footage of deadly drag race swerve-outs, different episodes also have segments that show the public outcry over the safety concerns of the Ford Pinto and the driving death of Paul Walker. It’s not maudlin in how it handles these ideas, but it does acknowledge that this isn’t a hobby free of consequences.
Some fans of competition series may be disappointed by the lack of a villain in “Fastest Car,” but it makes the storytelling on the show stronger by avoiding the need to force one in. A few of the supercar racers sure seem like difficult personalities to deal with, but none of them are painted as explicitly bad or unlikable people. Episodes do gloss over how some of these individuals got to a financial position to race a vehicle that costs four times as much as the median American house, but it doesn’t demonize them for being in a position to do so.
Instead, whether it’s the drivers of the sleepers or the supercars, “Fastest Car” finds a common thread in each racer that their vehicle comes as a product of work. Some of that labor is hands-on constructing, diligently working at all hours after a full-time job to modify an engine to get into racing shape. Sometimes it’s someone who has managed to find a lucrative gig in the world of finance or divorce law.
Most of the supercar drivers, though, miss out on the pre-race elements that make the show most compelling. “Fastest Car” lovingly dwells on the artistry that goes into crafting one of these engines without making that appreciation seem too artificial. The slo-mo shots and drone aerials are kept to a minimum. Instead, the show presents people talking about horsepower, transmissions, injectors, and a litany of other engine parts with a radiating excitement that’s almost palpable. There’s no magical cash prize waiting at the end of this competition. It’s validation.
As a result, “Fastest Car” is a rare underdog story where, when it comes to the final showdown, it doesn’t seem preordained whether or not the unlikeliest competitors will come out on top. Even for races that don’t end in dramatic fashion, their lead-up gives each participant a legitimate argument for why they could conceivably win. And whether by accident or by a careful seeding process, the big finale that ends the season ends up as a mix of supercars and sleepers — this isn’t a show meant to guarantee that an enterprising, blood-sweat-and-motor-oil spirit will triumph over people who lay down a half-million dollar check for their part of the race.
There’s enough care and attention paid not just to the individuals behind the wheel, but the teams whose work goes into making each car. With so much of the focus on people, the final outcome almost doesn’t matter. That’s not a fault of the show, that’s a feature. This is closer to a documentary of a subculture and a more honest look at the motivations behind everyone participating that the reality competition-adjacent side never feels like the most important thing. If there’s any large pressure or great attention paid to how the race turns out, it’s through the psyches of the people who put a month or a year or a whole life’s worth of validation on that outcome.
The usual unscripted/competition series fingerprints are better hidden here than you might expect. When teams find out about their competitors, it doesn’t feel like a moment staged by field producers. The on-camera interviews don’t feel like a confessional booth, filmed after the fact to help guide the episode’s narrative. There are no manufactured pauses or exaggerated shouting matches between contestants because there’s a natural drama in this premise and the intense, obsessive preparation that goes into each car before it even gets to the track.
And these drivers are not a homogenized group. Without exploiting everyone’s differences, it gives each competitor the chance to acknowledge what each of them brings to this activity that none of their peers do. Sometimes it’s a different ability, sometimes it’s a family tradition, sometimes it’s a class difference. The father-daughter relationships in multiple episodes also offer a nice counterbalance to the usual testosterone fests that car-themed shows can quickly devolve into.
As another antidote to some other popular car shows, “Fastest Car” drops the perspective of using cars as a kind of status tourism. When the supercar drivers are only taking their treasures out on a racetrack for the first time, they’re taken to task for it. If there’s a premium on anything in “Fastest Car,” it’s on the time spent creating something rather than lusting after something that can be obtained wholesale for the highest bidder. Rarity has always had a certain amount of allure in the luxury high-end car world, but these individual sleeper car drivers take pride in knowing that they’re racing something with a true global quantity of one.
Comparing “Fastest Car” to other car shows doesn’t even feel like the most appropriate comparison. In story and approach, “Fastest Car” is closer to “Moneyball,” with three Billy Beanes per episode, each trying to figure out their particular “unfair advantage.” With precise calculations, an analytical approach, and the love of what they do, it’s a way for undervalued competitors to manufacture their own shots at upending expectations and coming out on top.
The 2001 Oakland As didn’t win the World Series, but in hindsight that almost doesn’t matter. In the same way, “Fastest Car” is much more a look at what people are willing to sacrifice and to commit to in order to put their individual stamp on this culture. In the process, it’s immensely satisfying to see what drives them as they drive the fruits of their work.
“Fastest Car” is now available to stream on Netflix.