Among film critics, the Cars movies tend to be the least beloved of Pixar’s works. And admittedly, the Mater-centric spy drama of Cars 2 wasn’t a patch on the first film’s homage to the world of stock-car racing and a peculiar little town barely clinging to life in the American Southwest. But for those with a strong connection to cars and trucks and things that go, the sheer amount of detailed automotive nerdery makes for compelling viewing. Cars 3, which opens June 16, wisely returns to the series’ roots in stock-car competition, this time with hero Lightning McQueen (again voiced by Owen Wilson) staring down the end of his racing career. It has, after all, been 11 years since the first film.
To tell the story, penned by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich, the last of whom was responsible for Sean Connery’s exclamation of the dubious, immortal line, “You the man now, Dawg!” in 2000’s Finding Forrester, Pixar once again delved deep into a well of research, ably guided by creative director and longtime hot-rodder Jay Ward. For extra stock-car cred, Pixar brought in Ray Evernham, former NASCAR crew chief and team owner, as a consultant.
And if the end result looks effortless—and it does—it’s down to a whole lot of hard work. Ward notes, “The authenticity is super, super important to us, and the geeky details we put in, we put in because we love them ourselves. But also because we want the film to feel real and be real. You can make a lot of stuff up—and I watch a lot of films like that—but they also feel more like a fake film.”
Junior Johnson, Yes!
It doesn’t get much more authentic than Junior Johnson, and Evernham and Ward were clearly excited to pick the brain of the moonshine-runner-turned-racer, one of the last living links to stock-car racing’s hardscrabble origins. The 85-year-old NASCAR legend lends his voice to Junior “Midnight” Moon, a 1940 Ford based on one of Johnson’s early stock cars. Evernham told us a riotous story about Johnson from his own modified-racing youth that we agreed not to publish, but he did share this classic bon mot from Junior, dispensed while the old man was teaching Evernham how to pull a bootlegger’s turn in the ’40 Ford: “You gotta be ready and know that the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day.”
“Junior’s wisdom,” explains Evernham, “was a lot like Smokey [Yunick]’s. No formal education, but being raised around mechanical things and having to figure out how to make that work for you and survive in a world where there was a lot of stuff going on. I think one of the things Junior was really good at was keeping a secret for a really long time, because he came up in a world where you just had to keep your mouth shut and get the job done.”
Ward notes that Johnson made sure to lay out the circumstances of his 1956 moonshining bust: “I got arrested, but they never caught me.”
“He made it very clear,” the creative director explains. “ ‘They never caught me; they never pulled me over and caught me.’” The shine-running racer was arrested when his father sent him to go check on a still that law-enforcement had staked out. Johnson was later pardoned by none other than Ronald Wilson Reagan, because how could one possibly keep the Last American Hero from casting a vote?
Junior’s interest in aircraft parts also struck Ward, likely due to its parallels with postwar West Coast hot-rodding. Lakes racers would go out and pluck sturdy, lightweight parts from surplus military aircraft relegated to boneyards. Back east, Johnson was doing the same thing. “He was one of the first guys to put in a harness-style seatbelt, because he’d seen it in an airplane and thought, ‘Well, that’ll keep me from smackin’ my face into the dash.’ ” Ward said. “For a very simple country boy, he was very forward-thinking and applied a lot of that stuff to his cars, because the rulebook didn’t say he couldn’t do it.”
Johnson’s appearance arrives during McQueen’s postwreck journey of self-discovery, when he, his trusty transporter Mack (John Ratzenberger), and trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) wind up deep in the heart of historic stock-car country in search of Smokey (Chris Cooper), Doc Hudson’s old crew chief. The setup, with Mack trundling through beautifully rendered American landscapes, is enough to fill the heart of anyone who has undertaken a cross-country road trip just for the sake of doing it, while the payoff is enough to choke up anybody who cares one bit about the racers who tore up bullrings and beaches in the process of forging both motorsport legend and arcana. If you’ve ever made a pilgrimage to Le Mans, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Daytona, or Indianapolis just to be there—regardless of whether a motorsport event is happening—it feels like nearly unfair emotional manipulation.
Sometimes, hard reality requires a bit of creative license in pursuit of such payoffs. You may recall that a group of the villainous lemon cars in Cars 2 were badged as “Hugos” rather than Yugos. The fake out was born of necessity, as Pixar’s crew couldn’t track down who actually owned the trademark. Ward remembers conversations with Serbian contacts that went something like, “Was sold to this guy, who sold to this guy. Don’t know who owns!”
“Hudson,” he goes on to note, “was easy because it went to AMC, which went to Chrysler, which went to Mercedes. So we could follow that trail. We went to Mercedes-Benz and said, ‘We wanna make a film where we feature a Hudson Hornet,’ and they’re going, “Vat’s zis Hudson Hornet? Ve’ve nefer heard of zis?” The Germans relented, granting Paul Newman’s final feature-film role its visual form: Doc Hudson.
Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), however, wasn’t a character realized immediately. Initially, the Pixar crew went for the easy oldies-radio reference, drawing McQueen’s love interest as a Ford Mustang. “The problem” Ward points out, “is a Mustang has a big grille in the front and it looks like a mustache. People said, ‘Why’d you pick a 911?’ The engine’s in the back! There’s no grille in the front, so you’ve got this nice, smooth, round face, and that worked great for Sally.”
Some characters, however, wind up on the cutting-room floor entirely, despite the passions of those involved. Ward, though he’s too humble to admit it, was one of the leading lights of the 1990s traditional rodding movement, cofounding the famed low-budget, traditionally minded Billetproof rod-and-custom show and following that up by running the excellent Asphalt Invitational. A deuce three-window would naturally be right up his grease-spotted alley. And in the first film, one was proposed: Josephine. “She started out as a stock, fendered ’32 Ford,” Ward remembers, “and Ramone (Cheech Marin) pulls the fenders off and she turns into a highboy and races against McQueen in an early version of the film.” In the service of the story, however, Josephine was clipped from the picture. “I’d love,” he says, “to have Josephine come back.”
Storytelling as a Vehicle for Preservation
One of the more compelling things about both Cars and Cars 3 is that, despite their roots in the very American automotive cultures of stock-car racing and Route 66, the characters and automobiles included illustrate a love of global vehicular passion. Ward doesn’t dispute the star-spangled roots of Cars but points out that the exchange goes both ways: The movie engendered a love for classic Americana in people all over the world. “No other country in the world cares about Route 66 or NASCAR, you’d think.” He goes on, “And yet that film worked for everybody globally because at the end of the day, it’s a compelling story. If you connect with those characters, you’re going to connect with the film, regardless of what the backdrop is.
“Ironically, when we made the first Cars film, the only people going down Route 66 were Germans on Harleys. After that film, the businesses on Route 66 had been reinvigorated. These kids tell their parents, ‘I wanna go find Radiator Springs!’ I’ve been back down Route 66 and people have said, ‘Thank you for making this movie. You told people that we’re still here, we’re still alive.’
“I hope and pray the same thing happens for this film. If a guy like Junior Johnson says, ‘This kid asked for my autograph who otherwise would’ve never known who I was,’ then we did our job right.”