EMERYVILLE, Calif. — It is May 10, and Ray Evernham, still two weeks away from becoming NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham, looks over his glasses and raises his eyebrows to emphasize his seriousness. “We’ve known each other a long time, and I’m telling you, these people are all-in on NASCAR. They are really worried about getting the racing part right.”
Evernham isn’t sitting in the headquarters of an auto manufacturer or a potential team sponsor. He’s in the common area of Pixar Studios — part of the Walt Disney Company, as is ESPN — a massive space tucked into the Oakland side of the Bay Area, a building personally designed by Apple founder Steve Jobs. The front door is guarded by a sculpture of the Incredibles and a trophy case full of Oscars.
As Pixar tradition demands, the walls are covered in concept art for the studio’s upcoming big release. The current showcase is “Cars 3,” which hits theaters Friday. On one wall, a massive mural depicts the familiar red frame of Lightning McQueen racing down a beach that looks an awful lot like Daytona. On another, the Fabulous Hudson Hornet powerslides around a dirt track that looks an awful lot like the old Occoneechee Speedway.
The whole place looks an awful lot like NASCAR heaven.
“It reminds you of my other office, doesn’t it?” Evernham said, referring to the HQ of Hendrick Motorsports, some 2,700 miles east of where he currently sits. “Everyone here is the best at what they do, and everything they do every day is aimed at getting every little detail right. I’ve been blown away. And you know me, I’m a pain-in-the-butt perfectionist. I’m not impressed by a whole lot.”
The third installment of the “Cars” franchise tells the story of Lightning McQueen (once again voiced by Owen Wilson) as he struggles with the reality of having once been the young, brash game changer but now finding himself as the old guy in the Piston Cup garage. To combat the new generation of faster, sleeker racers (led by Armie Hammer’s uber-arrogant Jackson Storm), he looks for answers by returning to NASCAR’s roots, going back to the abandoned bullrings where mentor Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman) once raced and leaning on Doc’s old friends for advice. Ultimately, McQueen finds peace — and speed — by learning to embrace the sport’s past, present and, in a twist, its future.
It is a tremendously timely topic, as NASCAR itself is in the middle of a generational transition. In the past year alone, future Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who made a cameo in the original “Cars,” has announced he will be done at season’s end. Meanwhile, a slew of young racers has swept into the sport’s most legendary rides. Chase Elliott replaced Gordon. Daniel Suarez replaced Edwards, Ryan Blaney is now driving the legendary Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford and won Sunday at Pocono, and his best pal Bubba Wallace just made his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Richard Petty‘s No. 43 ride, known by “Cars” fans as simply “The King.”
Each of those 20-somethings grew up watching the original “Cars” film. Now they all have roles in “Cars 3.”
“This has all been one tremendously wonderful coincidence,” said director Brian Fee, who started working on the film five years ago, long before anyone could have foreseen stock car racing’s current timeline shift. “But I think it also speaks to a larger theme we all deal with. Even the greatest young superstar wakes up one day to find that they are the old veteran with the next young superstar on their bumper. That’s true no matter what your line of work. That’s true here at Pixar. So, how do you handle that when it happens?
“For Lightning, that means going back to his roots.”
“The hardest thing to animate is the mud and dirt.” Jude Brownhill, directing animator, somehow managed to smile and grimace at the same time as she answers the question. “And there is a lot of mud and dirt in this film. Oh, and sand, too. A lot.”
You can blame Ray Evernham for that. Early in the creative process Fee, and his team traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, notebooks and iPads in hand, looking for inspiration as they started the process of constructing a new “Cars” story.
More than a decade earlier, their boss, Pixar and Disney chief creative officer John Lasseter, made that same journey as the director of the original film. Unfortunately, NASCAR didn’t greet the man behind “Toy Story” with open arms. It informed him it was too busy working on a NASCAR film with Will Ferrell and that a kid’s film wasn’t really what it was going for, so, good luck.
Undeterred, Lasseter found a friend in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s then-president Humpy Wheeler, who drove the director across the street to Hendrick Motorsports, where Rick Hendrick all but gave Pixar a set of keys to all the race shops.
A decade later, Hendrick’s place was Fee’s first stop. Hendrick asked Evernham to give the Pixar folks a tour of the grounds.
“Then Ray did what Ray does, which is to do everything at 100 percent,” recalled Jay Ward, Pixar’s creative director for cars and self-professed car nerd. “He gave us the tour at Hendrick. And then the speedway. And then the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And then he took us to Junior Johnson‘s house. And then he took us to a bunch of tracks. Like, a bunch of tracks.
“He did so much, we ended up bringing him on as an official consultant on the movie.”
Evernham led them on a walk over the red clay at Lincoln Speedway, a track he used to own. They strolled the abandoned, weed-infested mud of Charlotte’s Metrolina Speedway, former playground of a young Dale Earnhardt.
They walked the cracked asphalt and decaying grandstands of North Wilkesboro Speedway, though they were a little bummed.
“The guy who takes care of the track was so proud of himself because he’d killed all the grass and weeds growing through the blacktop before we got there so it would look nice,” said Ward. “We were like, ‘Dang man, we’re artists. We kind of wanted to see it with the weeds.'”
Meanwhile, current NASCAR management apologized for their closed-minded predecessors and informed the filmmakers they could do whatever whenever wherever. That included pillaging and sifting through the vault at the Hall of Fame, as well as the perpetually locked archives of Daytona International Speedway, the ones hidden in an industrial park in the woods across the street from the track.
In the early 2000s, those who made their living in the NASCAR garage snickered at Lasseter and his “Cars” troops as they roamed Charlotte scribbling in sketchbooks and sticking microphones into the header pipes of race cars. This time around, Fee and his “Cars 3” crew have experienced the exact opposite.
The result is a film packed with classic NASCAR nods and accuracy. Animated newsreel films of Doc Hudson’s glory days racing on the beach are nearly frame-by-frame copied from Daytona Beach And Road Course footage found in the Hall of Fame archives, all the way down to the shaky airplane camera. Hudson’s career-ending crash is a replica of Junior Johnson’s famous 1956 Daytona Beach barrel roll.
Johnson himself has a speaking part in the film. His automobile avatar, Junior Moon, sits alongside similar tributes to Louise Smith, aka “The First Lady of Stock Car Racing,” Wendell Scott, the only African-American to win a NASCAR Cup Series event, and perhaps the greatest mechanic of them all, Smokey Yunick. It’s within the walls of Smokey’s Garage (“The Best Darn Garage in Town”) that McQueen begins his climb back to greatness, a trip that takes him through abandoned dirt tracks and a banzai run down the beach.
There’s even a mud-covered Figure Eight race, complete with a tricked-out school bus. If moviegoers keep their eyes open, they’ll spot a nod to Jocko Flocko, the monkey who rode along with NASCAR Hall of Famer Tim Flock in the 1950s.
“I think the access we were granted comes across in the film,” Fee giddily explained. “There were no limitations to work around, and as a result, the racing feels more real and the amazing history of the sport is portrayed the way it deserves.”
The director smiled. “Whenever I tell my boss about that, I think it makes him pretty jealous.”
Car guys before ‘Cars’ guys
The boss is sitting onstage in Pixar’s Presto Theater, following a screening of 45 minutes of the film. John Lasseter is wearing a button-down shirt covered in images of Doc Hudson racing through the desert of Radiator Springs. He is the modern Walt Disney, overseeing every frame of animation produced under the Disney and/or Pixar banners. But those around him will tell you that his passion for “Cars” always feels a bit different. It’s a bit more intense, and not merely because he directed the first two films.
“We’re gearheads here,” the six-time Oscar nominee confessed. “We’ve tried to manage a balance of making a film for families and, really, a general audience, people all over the world whether they’re into cars or not … but we want to get the details right, because we are gearheads.
“We just love cars.”
Lasseter grew up in Whittier, California, as the son of a parts manager at a Chevy dealership.
He spent his childhood “arguing with my friends who came from Ford families” and bopping down one of America’s greatest cruising streets, Whittier Boulevard. In a scene that could have been stolen from “American Graffiti,” he received his first ticket at the age of 16 for “unnecessary use of the horn.”
Long before he knew he’d be directing movies about racing, he could be found wandering the grandstands and paddock at nearby Sonoma Raceway during race weekends and car shows.
Same for Jay Ward, who spends nearly as much time strolling among the classic cars at Fantasy Junction, a high-end automobile dealer across the road from the Pixar, as he does at the studio.
“Sometimes I am over here taking notes, doing research, even recording sounds,” he said standing in the showroom, caressing a 1972 Ferrari Dino listed at $325,000. “But mostly I’m just over there drooling.”
Same for Jay Shuster, the production designer responsible for the digital creation of each character. Sporting a Detroit Tigers cap, Shuster tells of his father, who spent decades as a designer at General Motors.
The process his father’s team used to create automobiles in Motor City is strikingly similar to the way his son’s group births talking cars at Pixar.
“It all starts with an idea in the form of a sketch,” said the artist who also helped bring vehicles to life for the “Star Wars” prequels. “Then it goes across the hallway for modeling.”
That’s where Jerome Ranft pulls lumps of clay out of a 30-year-old convection oven he bought at a yard sale and hand-sculpts the drawings and notes collected in the field into a real-life, 3-D, clay model.
Those models are scrutinized, marked up, and re-sculpted until everyone is happy with the result. Then it returns to Shuster, who gets back to his General Motors DNA and uses what is essentially an engineering Computer Aided Design program to manufacture digital race cars, sent off a hard drive of an assembly line and into the garages of Pixar animators to be put to work.
Lightning McQueen, Jackson Storm and their counterparts all come complete with a working chassis — springs, shocks and all — that can be adjusted to make each car perform in different ways in different conditions. That performance is policed by animators using real-time telemetry to maintain accurate speeds and handling during racing scenes.
“I could drop my father into this process, and at several stages in the process, he’d be able to jump right in and go to work,” Shuster explains. “That’s how close it comes to how he and his coworkers designed real cars.”
“Well, there is one big difference,” deadpanned Ranft. “Here, let me show you … “
The sculptor grabs two small balls of clay, smacks them onto the windshield of the brown car he’s been working on. With a press and a twist, they become eyeballs. “They don’t do that in Detroit, do they?”
Drop the green
Lasseter’s phone is full of the phone numbers of racers, from Jeff Gordon to Lewis Hamilton. For more than a decade, he has worn those numbers out, asking questions about the future of racing. But somewhere along the way, while building forward-focused race cars and futuristic stadium speedways (just wait until you see the seaside Florida track in the film’s climactic scene), he found himself even more fascinated with where the sport has been.
His journey, and now the journey of Fee and his team, has ended up mirroring that of not only Lightning McQueen, but the sport of NASCAR itself: keeping its eyes pointed out over the horizon but making sure to keep checking in on the rear-view mirror.
“We don’t have to do that, but we do it,” Lasseter explained, pointing to Fee and justifying the insane amount of research he makes his staff endure. “We have to be as accurate as possible. ‘Ratatouille’ is still to this day the favorite movie of chefs around the world, right? Because we got the details right. Even though it’s a story about a rat who wants to be a chef in the number one restaurant in Paris. It’s the same with these movies.
“We really want the authenticity to be there.”
“In the end, we have talking cars doing crazy things on the racetrack that families and kids are hopefully going to love,” said Fee. “But I want the real race fans to love it, too. And I want the drivers to love it. And I want a crew chief to watch it and go, ‘Yep, that’s exactly what I would have done there.'”
There’s one crew chief who is already onboard. He just happens to be perhaps the greatest of all time.
“I would like to be able to take a crack at setting up Lighting McQueen and see what we might do at that big, fancy racetrack at the end of the movie,” Ray Evernham said, sitting in a Pixar conference room with schematics of McQueen thumbtacked to the walls behind him. “I think we might have something for ol’ Jackson Storm.
“He kind of reminds me of Earnhardt.”