Race teams have gathered in Connecticut to start a cross-country car race. One at a time, teams drive up to the starters’ stand, punch a time card to indicate their time of departure, then take off.
Among the teams:
JJ McClure, a famous racing driver and team owner (Reynolds), and Victor Prinzi, his chief mechanic and sometime co-driver (DeLuise), drive a Dodge Tradesman ambulance fitted with a NASCAR engine. (Hal Needham and Brock Yates used the same vehicle in the actual 1979 race.)
Former F1 icon (and Scotch-swilling) Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and his (gambling-obsessed) teammate Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis Jr.), dressed as Catholic priests, drive a red Ferrari 308 GTS 1979. (They are based on an entry in the real 1972 race, in which three men disguised as priests (“The Flying Fathers”) drove a Mercedes 280 SEL sedan, which they claimed to be “the Monsignor’s car” belonging to an ecumenical council of prelates in California.)
Jill Rivers (Tara Buckman) and Marcie Thatcher (Adrienne Barbeau), two attractive women who use their looks to their advantage, start the race in a black Lamborghini Countach.
Jackie Chan and Michael Hui race in a high-tech, computer-laden Subaru GL 4WD hatchback with a rocket booster engine.
A pair of good ol’ boys, played by Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis, drive a street-legal replica of Donnie Allison’s Hawaiian Tropic-sponsored NASCAR Winston Cup Series Chevrolet stock car owned by Hoss Ellington. (It starts off as ’75–76 Laguna. After they paint it, it somehow becomes a ’76–77 Monte Carlo.)
Roger Moore plays Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., “heir to the Goldfarb Girdles fortune”, who perpetually identifies himself as actor Roger Moore and signs into the race under that name. His character behaves similarly to James Bond and only once (by his mother) is called by his real name. He drives a silver Aston Martin DB5. (This film was released around the same time as Moore’s next bona fide James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.)
Jamie Farr portrays a wealthy oil-rich Middle-Eastern sheikh, driving a white Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.
At the starting line, observing from the shadows, is Mr. Arthur J. Foyt (a play on the name of racer A. J. Foyt), a representative of the “Safety Enforcement Unit”, who tries to stop the race because of its environmental effects and safety issues. In the car with Foyt (George Furth) is a photographer and tree lover, Pamela Glover (Fawcett).
Beyond the starting line, JJ and Victor (driving their ambulance) come across Foyt and Glover, who have been involved in a minor fender-bender. Glover implores JJ and Victor to help, but when they tell Foyt to enter the ambulance through the back door, they kidnap Glover and take off without Foyt.
As the race progresses, Victor occasionally turns into his alter ego, superhero “Captain Chaos”. The very spooky Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam) and his huge hypodermic needle are also in the ambulance to “help” keep Glover quiet during the race.
Various teams are shown either evading law enforcement, most of which deal with talking their way out of a possible ticket, or concocting crazy schemes to outmaneuver their opponents.
Jill and Marcie use sex appeal as their weapon, unzipping their race suits to display copious amounts of cleavage during traffic stops. (However, this fails to work on a busty female traffic officer played in a cameo appearance by actress Valerie Perrine.)
In New Jersey, the ambulance is pulled over by state troopers. Dr. Van Helsing drugs Glover, and JJ and Victor are able to convince the troopers that they’re rushing “the Senator’s wife” to UCLA for medical treatment (offering the theory, which to JJ and Victor’s happy surprise is Van Helsing’s idea, that her condition prevents them from flying, or from even driving through Denver).
The Subaru team is able to turn off their car’s headlights and use infrared sensors for racing at night.
Seymour Goldfarb is frequently shown evading police by using various James Bond-type gadgets, such as oil slicks, smoke screens, switchable license plates, all installed in his Aston Martin DB5.
Mr. Compton (Bert Convy) and “Super Chief” Finch (Warren Berlinger) disguise themselves as a newlywed couple on a motorcycle, but Finch’s extra weight forces the two to ride cross-country in a continuous wheelie.
The primary rivalry is between the ambulance and the Ferrari. In Ohio, Fenderbaum and Blake are able to convince Victor to stop the ambulance in order to bless the patient onboard. While Blake administers the blessing, Fenderbaum flattens one of the ambulance’s rear tires. JJ achieves revenge in Missouri by convincing a nearby police officer that the two men dressed as priests are actually Communists and sex perverts who are responsible for the flashing victim in the ambulance.
The leading teams find themselves stopped on a desert highway, waiting for construction workers to clear the road. A biker gang (led by Peter Fonda) arrives and harasses Compton and Finch. It quickly escalates into a melee. “Captain Chaos” emerges to fight the bikers. The Subaru team also joins the fight (affording Jackie Chan opportunity to display his martial arts skills). The construction crew announces that the road is open, so the teams sprint back to their cars to resume the race.
The ambulance falls behind the pack until Victor once again becomes Captain Chaos. The vehicles all arrive at the final destination at the same time, resulting in a foot race to the finish line. JJ hands his team’s time card to Victor, then ambushes the remaining racers, leaving only Victor and one of the Lamborghini women, Marcie. Just when it appears Victor will reach the time clock first, a spectator shouts that her “baby” has fallen into the water. Victor, still in his Captain Chaos persona, rushes to save the baby (later revealed to be the spectator’s dog), allowing Marcie to clock in first and win the race.
JJ is furious and never wants to see Captain Chaos again, but Victor replies that he does not care, becoming the persona he really wants to be, Captain USA. JJ laughs and hugs him. Foyt reappears and blames everyone for ruining the American highway. Seymour offers a cigar and tells Foyt to use the lighter in his car, which activates an ejection seat when pushed. Nothing happens at first, but when Seymour presses the button, he (Seymour) goes flying into the water.