I’ve been watching a little bit — OK, a lotta bit — of “Buddy Thunderstruck” on Netflix lately. The stop-motion animation series tells the tale of a cocky race-truck-driving dog, Buddy Thunderstruck, and his albino ferret co-driver, Darnell Fetzervalve.
They win every race and they never get a speeding ticket. Think of Smokey and the Bandit smashed together with Wallace and Gromit, and you’ve got a good idea of what Buddy Thunderstruck is all about.
The show got me thinking about all the cool racecar cartoons I watched when I was a kid, which eventually led me down a YouTube rabbit hole as I stayed late at Roadshow HQ, the boss telling me, “It’s Friday night. Go home.”
No thanks. I was filling up on nostalgia. Hopefully, this list of some of the greatest racing cartoons from my childhood will do the same for you.
By far, the most well-known race cartoon franchise on this list is the Japanese series, “Speed Racer.” The show came to the US in 1967, featuring Speed and his technologically advanced Mach 5 car. Buttons on the steering wheel deployed cool gadgets like a crash-proof deflector for the cockpit, or front rotary saws to cut through obstacles. The car even had a Frogger mode for underwater adventures. The Mach 5 had 5,000 horsepower, because cartoons.
There have been plenty of “Speed Racer” reboots, but perhaps the most disappointing was the 2008 movie, directed by the Wachowski Brothers. The movie bombed at the box office, but over the years, it’s gained cult-film status among gearheads.
In 1967, the world was introduced to boy-next-door racer Tom Slick. Tom piloted the Thunderbolt Grease-Slapper, which could transform into a plane, boat or whatever Tom wanted, as he battled for domination over the best-named villain ever: Baron Otto Matic.
“Tom Slick” aired as part of a segment of “George of the Jungle” and only 17 animated shorts were produced. Tom’s catchphrase, “There’s no such word as ‘failure’ in auto racing, Marigold.” has definitely stuck in my brain as I attempt my own Tom Slick-ian feats of greatness.
“Wacky Races” was the racing series I wanted to run when I was a kid. Eleven race cars, rallying around the country, all trying to win the coveted title of World’s Wackiest Racer. My favorite was always Sergeant Blast in his Army Surplus Special, because the tank-like rig had a steamroller attached to the front and could pretty much go anywhere. Penelope Pitstop, in her sleek little roadster, came in a close second.
The racers were all fair competitors, except for Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley. Their Mean Machine was rocket-powered and the thing could fly, so it’s not like he needed to cheat, but every episode found him setting traps to thwart the Wacky Racers. Fortunately, Dastardly always lost, providing the teachable moment of cheaters never prospering to kids at home.
The Perils of Penelope Pitstop
Penelope eventually earned her own spinoff from “Wacky Racers” in the late 1960s called “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.” The Glamour Girl of the Gas Pedal spent each episode escaping sure death at the hands of the Hooded Claw, who wanted to steal her vast inheritance. Little did she know that the Claw was actually her guardian, Sylvester Sneekly.
Also from “Wacky Races,” Clyde and the Ant Hill Mob often swooped in to save Penelope while driving the 1920s-era Chugga Boom. But more often than not, Penelope had to rescue them, as their antics put them in peril, too.
Yes, Penelope’s pink car with its automatic lipstick applier was super stereotypical, and I’m not sure how she ever raced in those high-heeled go-go boots. However, the cartoon showed Penelope outsmarting the Claw in every episode and taking on challenges like a boss. You can’t expect much from a pre-Equal Rights Amendment kids’ show, so I suggest you just enjoy it for what it is.
Proving that air-cooled Volkswagens could win races, Speed Buggy had it all: staggered wheels, stinger exhaust and that sweet fiberglass Meyers Manx body. I grew up around dune buggies, so “Speed Buggy” was always a part of my Saturday morning ritual. Speedy could, of course, talk and fly. His exhaust sounded more fart-like than air-cooled, which delighted me as a kid.
Debuting in 1973, the cast of “Speed Buggy” bore more than a passing resemblance to the characters on “Scooby-Doo.” Teens Debbie and Mark played the classic Fred and Daphne roles while mechanic Tinker was a ringer for Shaggy. Velma, apparently, didn’t make the cut.
The teens traveled about, racing little Speedy Buggy. Their further adventures included thwarting the bad guys, naturally. Speedy Buggy could be operated by remote control, making him my favorite R/C car until I convinced my mom to buy me a remote-controlled Barbie Corvette.
Saturday morning cartoons got a little weirder in 1984 with “Turbo Teen.” Protagonist Brett Matthews actually turned into a car thanks to an unfortunate run-in with a molecular transfer ray at a super-secret government laboratory. When exposed to extreme heat, young Mr. Matthews morphed into a red targa-topped sports car, complete with manual transmission and turbocharger. When subjected to cold, Brett just changed back into an everyday teenager again.
Instead of using his newfound powers to get racing sponsorship, which would’ve been the first thing I would’ve done, Brett and his pals endeavored to fight crime and have high-speed adventures together.
Do you remember any cool racing or car-themed cartoon from childhood? Let us know in the comments. Roadshow loves a good nostalgia trip.