2012 - The United States economy collapses. Unemployment hits a record high. Crime rates spiral out of control. The prison system reaches breaking point. PRIVATE CORPORATIONS now run all correctional facilities for profit. TERMINAL ISLAND Penitentiary streams a series of Cage Fights live on the Internet. Prisoners fight to the Death, creating a ratings sensation. They are the new Gladiators and Terminal Island is their Coliseum. But like the mob of ancient Rome, the modern audience soon becomes bored. They demand more. . . DEATH RACE is born.
The story begins by showing a race near its end between Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) and a famous masked driver known as Frankenstein (David Carradine in a cameo appearance), who is accompanied by a female navigator. Frank's defensive systems fail, and Joe destroys Frank's car (his navigator ejects), presumably leaving Frankenstein critically wounded, or dead.
Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is finishing up his shift at a steel mill that is closing down.
Nasty Teller: Cash or check?
Jensen: Better make it cash.
Teller hands Jensen some money.
Jensen: Three hundred dollars? I've worked a hundred and twenty hours in the last two weeks.
Nasty Teller: Cash fee. Next!
Jensen: Cash fee?
Nasty Teller: You wanted cash, there's a fee. You want a check instead?
Jensen: Seeing as how the company's out of business, not exactly.
Jensen returns home to his wife, Suzy, and daughter, Piper.
Jensen [to daughter]: What does little Piper want? Do you want a story? You know you won't understand it.
Suzy hears the conversation over the baby monitor.
Suzy [to herself]: . . . but it'll be good practice for me.
Suddenly a masked intruder is in the face of Suzy and kills her. Jensen finds his wife's body and is incapacitated with mace by the intruder.
The masked intruder points a finger-gun at Ames as he leaves. The police arrive, finding the bloody knife planted in his hand. Jensen is framed for his wife's murder.
Six months later: Ames is sent to prison where he is scoured with a hose and beaten as the cruel guard, Ulrich, watches. Jensen is taken to his cell . . .
Ulrich: Happy holidays.
In his cell, he finds three large cell mates who quickly taunt him. There is the sound of a fight. Ulrich walks back to see Ames standing at the cell door with the bodies of his three cell mates on the floor.
Jensen: They slipped.
The next day, the sadistic prison warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen), strolls through the prison yard.
Grimm [as Hennessey walks by]: Good morning, ma'am.
Hennessey: Good morning.
Grimm [to prisoner]: There goes the baddest ass in the yard.
Prisoner: Sounds like you're in love, homie.
Grimm: I am.
In the prison cafeteria, Coach, Lists, and Gunner gather to eat their meal.
Hennessey: Man, what is this supposed to be?
Coach: Oatmeal... I think.
Hennessey: Man, how do you fuck up oatmeal?
Coach notices Jensen sitting down to eat.
Coach: Who's the new guy?
Lists: Jensen Ames.
Gunner: The driver?
Coach: Never heard of him.
Gunner: Oh yeah. I saw him race years ago. He was good. He did some time upstate. Killed his career.
Lists [reading from notebook]: Holder of the fastest laps at Willard, Union, and Butler.
Coach [seeing prisoners approach Jensen]: I hope he's as fast off the track as he is on it.
Machine Gun Joe watches as Pachenko and his Brotherhood circle around Jensen and taunt him to fight.
Joe: Never a dull day.