In 2012, private corporations own and manage the prison systems. Getaway driver Carl "Luke" Lucas (Luke Goss) is arrested after a robbery for his crime boss Markus Kane (Sean Bean) goes wrong. As his accomplices are robbing the bank, two officers casually enter the building. Luke tells them to abort, but they refuse; Luke intervenes, but it results in the death of one of the three accomplices. Luke shoots and kills one of the officers and dumps off his accomplices in order to fulfill Markus's wishes. In doing so, Luke is eventually captured by the police following a high-speed chase and sentenced in prison. Six months later, Luke is transferred to Terminal Island.
Terminal Island is a prison under the control of The Weyland Corporation, which hosts Death Match, a televised pay-per-view competition where two dangerous convicts are chosen and then forced to fight to the death or submission. The prisoners are given access to weapons or defense items to use during the fight by stepping on a marked plate in the arena. Luke meets the men who eventually become his pit crew in the Death Race: Lists (Frederick Koehler), who annoys him by over-analyzing everything, Goldberg (Danny Trejo), and Rocco (Joe Vaz). The host of Death Match is September Jones (Lauren Cohan), a former Miss Universe who lost her crown due to allegations of having a sexual relationship with all of its judges. She now works for The Weyland Corporation to create profit from the pay per view subscribers of Death Match. When a convict tries to stab Lists (because of his nature and weakness, as he was convicted only of swindling), Luke takes it upon himself to defend him.
Luke is later approached in the showers by September, who proposes that he fight. When he refuses, she makes sexual advances towards him, which he pretends to go for before refusing. In retaliation, September chooses Lists to fight with in a Death Match with the convict Big Bill who tried to stab him earlier. Luke confronts her while Lists is running for his life during the event, pleading to let him fight in place of Lists. She refuses to help and he jumps over a barbed fence to fight for Lists. He is joined by Katrina Banks (Tanit Phoenix), a woman convict who is serving as a ring girl with other female convicts. She hits the convict with a round number sign made of metal. A riot breaks out during the fight between Luke and the convict because of racial tension, sparked because Luke is white and the other convict is black. The convicts break down the fence to get in, and some of the rapists attack and attempt to rape female convicts. Katrina defends herself and helps other women, who are then evacuated. When the riot control guards come, Luke surrenders. Markus, worried that Luke will trade info on his crimes for immunity, discovers his location at Terminal Island while watching Death Match. Afterward, Luke is well-received when he sees Katrina and inquires about her well-being after the fight. Markus puts a bounty of $1 million on Luke's head and convinces some of the prisoners to kill him. Meanwhile, September comes up with a plan to boost their profits by converting the Death Match into a "Death Race", where the contestants will have to race over days to win each match. The person who manages to win five matches will be released from prison. Luke joins the race, during which other prisoners try to kill him to earn Markus's bounty. On the second race, Luke's car crashes after being fired a missile by Big Bill (who is later killed by his navigator when he killed his pit crew), Luke's pit crew arrives including Katrina try to save him but it's too late and everybody is led to believe that Luke is dead. In reality, he survives with extensive scarring to his face. He joins the race as the new character "Frankenstein" with a mask to hide his identity from others. As the third race begins, Luke's new Triad friends manage to kill Marcus in revenge, Lists kills Luke's pit crew member Rocco who set up on Luke's car and Luke kills September by running her over with his car, before he races with the other competitors