Racing Legends Play a Role in ‘Cars 3’

Earlier this spring, on a warm and sunny California day, I found myself at Sonoma Raceway for a media event to learn about Disney/Pixar’s upcoming release Cars 3. I knew I would find out about the making of the movie, but as the sound of engines roared in the background, I also got a fresh perspective on the sport of racing and the history behind it.

As part of the event, we spent some time on the track and we were shown about a third of the upcoming movie. The art is stunning and the tone appears to have a much stronger connection to the original film than the second. Cars 3 is a coming home, seasons of life sort of thing; where that home is Radiator Springs, and the season is, always, racing. It is, according to writer Mike Rich (Secretariat, The Rookie), the classic tale of the aging athlete:

“If you look at Cars 3, it’s actually the third act of the Cars story. When McQueen was young, he was just that, he was young. He was brash. He was cocky. And his respect for the sport of racing was really limited to what was two feet in front of him right now. We wanted to tap into that, because he has become a different character, an older character.”

They searched, according to story supervisor Scott Morse, for the “universal truth” about the stage in an athlete’s career when one may feel “obsolete, like they can’t go on” and the paths that such a story can take. McQueen needed a dilemma, and this was it.

Added producer Kevin Reher, “Cars 1 always felt to me, despite the fact that they were talking cars . . . it’s one of the more realistic movies that we’ve ever done at Pixar. It’s the real world. They are real people with problems. There was a weight to the air. That was something important for us to capture here [in Cars 3].”

However, it wasn’t just the gripping story being told against impossibly photorealistic backgrounds that challenged my preconceptions on racing, nor was it the palpable passion of the team behind the film—all of which were exactly what one would hope for from Pixar—rather it was a meeting with Ray Evernham, a racing superstar and true ambassador of the sport, and Jay Ward, Pixar’s knowledgeable Cars legacy guardian (best job title ever?).

They spoke of racing’s history, how it was born from running moonshine, and that the breaking of gender and racial barriers in NASCAR actually happened at the very beginning of the sport before reemerging in the modern era. They shared old stories about racing pioneers and the new characters in Cars 3 that they inspired. They called them “The Legends.”

The Legends (above from left to right)

River Scott aka Wendell Scott: Wendell Scott was the first African-American driver in NASCAR, as well as the first African-American to win in the Grand National Series. Richard Pryor’s film Greased Lightning was based loosely upon Scott’s biography. Isiah Whitlock Jr. voices the character.

Junior “Midnight” Moon aka Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson: Johnson went straight from driving moonshine (he received a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan) in North Carolina into racing, winning 50 races in the 1950s and 1960s. He was the subject of an article by Tom Wolfe that inspired the movie The Last American Hero, in which he was portrayed by Jeff Bridges. Johnson voices his own character.
Smokey aka Henry “Smokey” Yunick: Smokey, the man, worked in the early days of NASCAR as a racer and a designer, but cemented his legend status as a mechanic, builder and crew chief. His teams won 57 NASCAR Cup Series Races, and he was twice named NASCAR’s Mechanic of the Year. Yunick also had a number of auto-related inventions and U.S. patents. Smokey, the character, is voiced by Chris Cooper.

Louise “Barnstormer” Nash aka Louise Smith: Smith, known as “the first lady of racing,” won 38 races, and was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. She attended her first NASCAR race as a spectator, but was so inspired by the event that she entered it, subsequently rolling her family’s brand new Ford. Margot Martindales provides the voice.

Fun fact, in addition to “The Legends” above, the Cars franchise is full of nods, tributes and actual voices from the racing and automotive worlds, respectively. Chase Elliot, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suárez, Bubba Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty, Kyle Petty, Cal Weathers, Ray Evernham, Darrell Waltrip, Shannon Sparks, Humpy Wheeler, Mike Joy, Bob Costas, the late Paul Newman, Ray Magliozzi, and his late brother Tom Magliozzi, all voice characters, many based upon themselves. Even, Mater, everyone’s favorite tow truck, was inspired by the real-life Doug “Mater” Keever.

The attention to detail, respect for history, and depth of emotion, are all here in Cars 3, and in true racing form, Pixar is leaving everything on the track.

Cars 3 opens June 16, 2017 and is not yet rated.