The world is shutting down, one public venue at a time. Motorsports are postponed for the foreseeable future. You have so much time on your hands that you don’t even know what to do with yourself. Now is the time to finally pick up all those books you’ve been putting off, and maybe get some others you didn’t even know were must-reads.
The world of motorsports books is actually pretty incredible, but it’s one that often gets pushed to the wayside in favor of feature films and documentaries. Now that you have all this free time on your hands while you’re being responsible and socially distancing yourself from all sorts of humans, though, I’ve compiled a list of 20 great books about racing to tide you over while we wait for cars to come back and life to kinda-sorta go back to normal.
And an added bonus: all of these books are available for you to purchase online.
I’ve split up the reading list into a few different categories, since I know not everyone is going to have the same interests. Drop your personal recommendations in the comments, and let’s get a collaborative list going.
Biographies: For when you want to know about specific people and/or teams.
Guthrie’s autobiography remains my favorite motorsport book of all time. It can be a little difficult to acquire if you want a book delivered in two days or less, but it’s worth the investment.
Guthrie’s prose is gorgeous, and the story of her becoming one of the first women to compete in the Indy 500 and in NASCAR is one of the most critical looks at the gender dynamics within motorsports that I’ve ever read.
Yet another of my personal favorites. Miranda Seymour tracks down the story of 1920s female racer Hellé Nice, a former cabaret dancer, ballerina, and nude model. It’s a great piece of investigative journalism, as Nice’s story was largely erased from history after her rumored collaboration with the Nazis during the Parisian occupation in World War II.
People don’t like to admit it, but the 1960s and ‘70s in racing were still the Wild West days. Regulation books were basically just brochures with a few rules in them, and rules were defined on the basis of whatever crazy shit a team brought to the track.
In The Unfair Advantage, Mark Donohue lays out the magic of his early days with Roger Penske where the duo kicked ass, took names, and came up with all sorts of crazy shit that everyone had to legislate out of the rules.
Before he was a US motorsport-based commentator, Steve Matchett was a pit lane mechanic for the likes of Ferrari, BMW, and Benetton. While he’s definitely writing from a different era—Matchett gets into motorsport with no experience simply by writing a letter asking for a job—there’s a wealth of insight into the era’s popular figures (Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, and Michael Schumacher) that’s a lot of fun to read.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired from active NASCAR competition, we all knew an autobiography was coming, but I don’t think this is what fans expected. In this book, Earnhardt Jr. discusses the concussions that ultimately resulted in him stepping down from motorsport. It’s a great read, one that puts a health-heavy spin on the impact of racing.
Grid girls are one of the more contentious issues of our current era, but Linda Vaughn wasn’t quite what we’d expect. The first woman to make it big serving as a promotional personality (it’s said she attended upwards of 100 events a year during her peak), Vaughn has plenty of incredible stories to share in this photo-heavy book.
Tim Richmond rose brilliantly and fell hard during his NASCAR career, the epitome of a fast driver who lived an even faster lifestyle. While this book doesn’t dive into the darker parts of his life after he contracted AIDS, it does a great job representing one of motorsport’s most flamboyant personalities and incredible drivers.
Dario Franchitti, Jeff Gordon, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart. These are some of the most formidable legends in motorsport history, the kind of people whose accomplishments are celebrated year after year. But in this book, Will Buxton asks 20 of these iconic figures about their most difficult moments, the dark side of the sport we all know and love. It can be a tough read at times, but it’s worth every difficult moment.
I’ll tell you one of my biggest gripes about the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans coverage: it’s the lack of Holman-Moody in all the books, documentaries, and movies. This gorgeous coffee table book is great for anyone who likes a higher ratio of photos to words (there’s no shame in that) as you explore the factory team that produced everything from stock cars to drag cars to race boats.
Events: For when you need your history fix.
If you’ve seen Ford vs. Ferrari and haven’t read Go Like Hell yet, you are missing out on an incredible feat of professional journalism by former Drive editor A.J. Baime. He draws together all of the complicated threads that bound Ford and Ferrari together as they approached the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans in a way that no film can do justice.
This one is a tough read, but the way Garner handles the death of two promising Indy 500 drivers—Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald—remains one of the most beautiful tributes to lost life. Black Noon illustrates the fact that, many times, it takes tragedy to finally force a sanctioning body to take action and make the sport safer.
The Split is arguably the most controversial event in all of motorsport history, a happening so detrimental to American open-wheel racing that we’re still suffering the consequences to this day. This book is the best for really figuring out all of the complex political machinations that resulted in disaster.
Racing has always been a little controversial, but never more so than in 1909, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came to fruition. Leerhsen takes readers through the buildup to opening the iconic, deadly track and highlights a fact that many fans have forgotten: we still don’t really know who won the Speedway’s first 500-mile race.
Many NASCAR fans today know that the sport’s origins lie in bootlegging, but Thompson really immerses you in the socioeconomic situation that encouraged bootlegging in the first place—all while taking you through the impact of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II on future motorsport heroes.
Technology: For when you need to know the dirty details of the behind-the-scenes action.
Beast centers around the 1994 Indy 500, but its breakdown of Penske’s groundbreaking Ilmor engine is more highly the focus than the race itself. Gurss outlines the variations in IndyCar’s engine regulations, really highlighting how truly wild the Penske-Ilmor duo was.
While this is definitely a Newey-heavy book, I’m still including it in the technology section because of its easily digestible tech breakdowns. If you’ve ever been curious about the development of Williams’s and Red Bull Racing’s cars over the past few decades, look no further than How to Build a Car.
Olvey has followed the IndyCar series as its top medical professional for decades. While this book follows his own life, there’s a ton of information here about the evolution of medical technology within motorsport. The most fascinating part is the collaboration of IndyCar, NASCAR, and the FIA when it comes to developing safety standards.
This one is for those of you a little more science-minded, but this book is a collection of scientific studies about motorsport. It includes anything from the ideal diet and workout to concussions to the importance of monitoring heart rate. A great read for anyone looking to get a little more in-depth.
For the Kids: For when you want to get your offspring into your passion. Or you just need some goddamn peace and quiet.
Looking for a race car picture book for your little kiddos? This one is great. The illustrations are adorable, and it blends entertainment with the more educational bits of racing as it follows IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden through a race weekend at Road America.
If you recognize that last name, it’s because Christopher Hinchcliffe is IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe’s brother. Chasing Checkers is a cute young adult novel about a young driver pushing his way up through the Canadian motorsport ranks. I enjoyed it as an adult, but hand this over to your teens and encourage them to leave you the hell alone. The best part is, there’s even a sequel.
Bonus: New Release!
Considering that this book came out on March 17, I have yet to read it myself—but it’s currently en route to my house. And if that title doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will.
Elizabeth Blackstock is a motorsports writer and graduate student whose work has appeared in many places. Catch her at a track near you when the actual racing starts up again.