I don’t know what was more surprised by at the Cars 3 press day: the NASCAR (an acronym for National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) history lesson or how various nods to it were incorporated in the latest entry in the franchise. Those were the subjects creative director Jay Ward, who is the point man for all things Cars across mediums, and the former crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports Ray Evernham talked about at length when Heroic Hollywood joined several other outlets at Sonoma Raceway in California for the event.
NASCAR’s roots are in the spirit of rebellion. It was founded by outlaws; the first racers were bootleggers and moonshiners during Prohibition. The races were used to compete for jobs, until the competition itself became an event, drawing more people and revenue than the business they were ostensibly racing for. The founder of NASCAR was Bill France (his grandson Brian is currently its CEO) and its first champion was the World War II veteran Red Byron. And after the war, when men returned from aboard looking to reintegrate, driving really fast for money sounded pretty good, Ward and Evernham agreed.
Ward said one thing that drew Pixar COO John Lasseter to the franchise was seeing these old jalopies and then learning they were the fastest cars of their day, such as the 1937-39 Ford or the series’ own Hudson Hornet aka “Doc” (the character voiced by the late, great Paul Newman gets an homage in the new film). The four older cars in the photo above to the right of Lightning McQueen are based on NASCAR pioneers Junior Johnson (Jeff Bridges played him in Last American Hero), Wendell Scott (the first African-American driver), Louise Smith (known as the first lady of racing), and Evernham’s personal mentor Henry “Smokey” Yunick.
“You can see this pattern and why we love these characters,” Ward said. “They overcame adversity. It’s inspiration for our characters in the film and its why they were so important to us.”
Evernham said the sport became professionalized in many ways in the 1960s and then commercialized in the early 1970s. Gone were the dirt tracks of the past and replaced by paved and curved tracks. It was in this time races got sponsorships and TV deals. By the 1980s (aka the “Days of Thunder”), NASCAR was truly national. In present day NASCAR, Evernham explained one recent shift has been, in the wake of video games, a trend towards younger drivers, with the average age falling from late 30s/early 40s to now early 20s to as young as 16. He added one such driver, Danny Suarez, first non-American to immigrate here and win a NASCAR championship, had a Cars poster above his bed as child.
Just as Cars sustained itself on the history of NASCAR, now the history of NASCAR is being sustained Cars. To quote another Disney film, it’s the circle of life.
Cars 3 races into theaters June 16. Check out the teaser trailer here!