I had the pleasure of attending a media event for the newest Pixar movie Cars 3 last month. It was so cool to head out to California and check out the actual Pixar Studios and then head to the Sanoma Raceway while learning about the deep history of the Cars franchise. Cars 3 introduces us to the next generation of racing with all of their new characters and designs while bringing back old favorites that we love meanwhile teaching us the history of the Piston Cup Series.
Lightning McQueen is back on the big screen, but he’s not a rookie anymore. Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen finds himself suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. “He’s struggling with the kind of issues a lot of athletes face later in their careers,” says producer Kevin Reher. “Do you go out on top or fight till the end?”
According to director Brian Fee, while Lightning is still the same confident, determined and fun-loving race car audiences fell in love with more than a decade ago, his confidence is being tested by the new rookies on the track. “When we first met Lightning McQueen, he was a young rookie—a superhero,” says Fee. “He had his whole life ahead of him. And while he’s done well since we last saw him—really well—winning five Piston Cups, he’s not a young hotshot racer anymore.”
Filmmakers consulted NASCAR veterans, including four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, who served as Gordon’s crew chief for three of his championships. “We did a lot of research,” says Fee. “We looked at athletes in other sports, but really focused on NASCAR drivers. They start at such an early age and their lives are centered around driving. We even talked to a sports psychologist who explained that many of these drivers don’t know anything else. They can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Neither can Lightning McQueen. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician, Cruz Ramirez, with her own plan to win. Cruz is a talented trainer at the elite Rust-eze Racing Center. She’s all about technology and knows how to create winners on simulated racetracks. But Lightning is old-school, and realizes he might have to travel with Cruz on a different road to success.
Gordon proved to be a key resource. “He talked a lot about how young racers are full of energy,” says co-producer Andrea Warren. “They like to go fast and hard, while a more experienced driver knows he doesn’t have to do that. They get to know the game well enough that they can play it in a different way.”
Lightning decides to return to his roots – recalling the wisdom imparted on him by his beloved mentor, the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Ultimately, he turns to his coach’s coach—Smokey, who was there during Doc’s heyday—for guidance and inspiration, and eventually realizes the power of mentorship. While filmmakers looked to real-life coaches like Evernham—they also looked at their own lives. “If you’re really trying to share an idea with an audience as a filmmaker, you have to feel it,” says Fee. “So being a parent became my main resource to find and understand the emotion in the film.
“Like a lot of us, I struggled to find enough time to explore my passion projects—we all have responsibilities at work and at home that don’t leave enough spare time,” continues Fee. “Then one day, I spent a couple hours painting a simple picture to teach my daughters about art. Something changed after that. I found the experience so much more rewarding than I ever imagined. That’s what we’re trying to communicate in this movie with the relationship between Lightning McQueen and Doc.”
The nod to Doc and his impact on Lightning McQueen’s career is part of what brings audiences back to the feeling of the original “Cars.” “Audiences connected with the first “Cars” film in a very special way,” says Jay Ward, creative director for the “Cars” franchise. “They saw the heart in Radiator Springs; they felt the emotion in the relationships between the characters.
“‘Cars 2’ was a spy caper that was fun and exciting,” continues Ward, “but it was really more Mater’s story. In ‘Cars 3,’ we wanted to get back to Lightning McQueen and the warmth and depth that resonated with so many people in the first film.”
“Cars 3” features Owen Wilson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” upcoming “Wonder”) as the voice of Lightning McQueen. Cristela Alonzo (“The Angry Birds Movie”) voices Cruz Ramirez, and Armie Hammer (“Birth of a Nation”) lends his voice to next-gen racer Jackson Storm. Kerry Washington (ABC’s “Scandal,” HBO’s “Confirmation”) was called on to voice statistical analyst Natalie Certain, Nathan Fillion (ABC’s “Castle,” ABC’s “Modern Family”) provides the voice of brilliant businesscar Sterling, Lea DeLaria (Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”) lends her voice to formidable school bus Miss Fritter, and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton helps bring voice command assistant Hamilton to life.
“Cars 3” pays homage to NASCAR with four characters based on real-life stock car racing legends. Chris Cooper (“Adaptation,” “American Beauty”) voices Doc Hudson’s crew chief Smokey; team owner and NASCAR racing legend Junior Johnson lends his voice to Junior “Midnight” Moon; three-time Emmy® winner Margo Martindale (FX’s “The Americans,” FX’s “Justified,” Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete”) provides the voice of Louise “Barnstormer” Nash; and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (HBO’s “The Wire,” “Cedar Rapids,” HBO’s “Veep”) is the voice of River Scott. The film also features NASCAR drivers and the voices behind the sport, as well as a host of returning characters from Radiator Springs and the “Cars” racing world.
Directed by Fee (storyboard artist “Cars,” “Cars 2“), produced by Reher (“A Bug’s Life,” “La Luna” short) and co-produced by Andrea Warren (“LAVA” short), “Cars 3” is executive produced by John Lasseter, who directed the first two films in the franchise. Featuring a score by Oscar®-winning composer Randy Newman (“Toy Story 3,” “Cars”), Disney•Pixar’s “Cars 3” cruises into theaters on June 16, 2017.
I will have more details on the New characters of Cars 3 coming soon so stay tuned!