Star Wars: The Phantom Menace doesn't have a lot going for it. It's mostly standing in rooms talking, a lot of politics, and some vaguely racist characters. There is one bright spot though: the Boonta Eve Classic podrace.
George Lucas took a page out of Ben Hur's book and had a galactic chariot race decide the fate of Anakin. The results, though often ridiculed, brought Star Wars back to its speeder-chase-on-Endor roots. After that one epic scene, the dangerous competition mysteriously vanished from the core Star Wars story. So what happened to podracing? The answer lies in a recent Star Wars book, and it has everything to do with Emperor Palpatine.
Outside of canon, in what is now known as Star Wars: Legends, podracing was rarely alluded to. Most information comes from Endless Vigil, a Star Wars role-playing game, which claims podracing was banned after the establishment of the Galactic Empire. Of course, a crackdown by The Man isn't enough to stop an extreme sport like podracing, even if The Man is Sheev Palpatine. So it carried on as an underground sport alongside its legal counterpart, swoop racing (basically podracing, but less dangerous).
There was radio silence about the legality of podracing within canon all the way until last year with a passing mention in a novel. Galaxy's Edge: Black Spire by Delilah Dawson was written as part of a tie-in with the Galaxy's Edge attraction at Disney Parks, but it also brought underground podracing back into canon. The protagonist, Vi, is amazed when she's taken to a diner where meat is cooked over the engine of a podracer, and hears whispers of illegal races.
Podracing's illegality raises many questions. First of all, what was Palpatine's beef with the sport? It could have been emotional. After all, it was a podrace that allowed the Jedi to adopt Anakin in the first place. Palps might also be looking out for the citizens of his Empire by banning a dangerous pastime, but for the Emperor, the common folk of the Empire occupying themselves with a frivolous sport would surely be a bonus: a bread and circuses distraction like that would keep them from rebelling.
Throughout the Star Wars saga, the Empire has more manpower, money, and machinery than the scrappy Rebels. Palps may have regarded the leading powers of the Outer Rim criminal underworld — the Hutt Cartel, Black Sun, and Pike Syndicate — as potentially more serious threats to his power. Busting the podracing racket cuts off a potential avenue for these groups to earn money and influence.
It's unclear if podracing returned after Palpatine "died" at the end of Return of the Jedi, but with the Emperor definitively gone following The Rise of Skywalker, could we see podracing make a return in future Star Wars movies? A Fast & the Furious-style underground podracing movie would surely be a sensation, possibly even a franchise. (Taika Waititi could direct!)
After all, the most interesting people in the Star Wars universe have always been those working against those in charge. Why can't that apply to the galaxy's sporting scene too?
The demand is there too. Earlier this week, Nintendo released a trailer for Star Wars Racer for the Switch. Enough interest in that might prompt at least a mention in Star Wars's cinematic future, if not a scene, or even, dare to dream, a franchise. Hey, shoot for the Outer Rim, land in the Core Planets.